Reading: Arlie Hochschild “Strangers in Their Own Land”

It took me a while, but I finally found the time to read Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land.  The book addresses burning questions: How came the USA to be so politically divided? How does the other side relative to Hochschild, that is the right-wing tea-party, see the divide? How do emotions influence the political allegiances?

But being a philosopher I want to discuss the methodology and underlying theory of the book instead of those juicy topics. I hope that this discussion is at least as interesting. In fact, the philosophical aspect might be of more lasting interest. The political landscape of the US will shift sooner or later, while the insights for sociological theory might stay with us for a long time. And at the end of this post, politics creeps in after all.

Hochschild, a sociology professor at Berkley, engaged in qualitative research on right-wing politics. She went to Louisiana and spent time with members of the tea party movement. She conducted interviews, participated in various events, and attended political rallies. She built emotional relationships with her research subjects. Her easy-going writing style might hide her efforts, but they are considerable.

In Appendix A Hochschild clarifies that her “book is based on a kind of research sociologists describe as ‘exploratory’ and ‘hypothesis generating'” (p. 247). She does not want to judge the frequency but rather wants to uncover what characterises “the emotional draw of right-wing politics” (ibid.). Many sociologists accept the move of separating characterising what there is from the judgements about frequency. The move suggests a division of labour: First the qualitative researcher determines the nature of a social phenomenon. She generates hypotheses. Then the quantitatve researchers comes in and measures frequency and correlation.

This picture is way too simplistic. If I had to make a guess, its pull mainly stems from offering a peaceful arrangement between qualitative and quantitative research. But how could Hochschild know that she really uncovered the emotional draw of right-wing rather than an emotional draw in Louisiana? Not without quantitative data and Hochschild is aware of this. Back in Berkley and with help of her two research assistants Hochschild looked through relevant surveys and “paid special attention to the degree to which [her] respondents seemed to reflect, exaggerate, or
buck national patterns” (p. 249).

But of course even if statistics show certain similarities between your research subjects and the population of interest – in particular concerning views on pollution and voting intentions – these similarities do not prove that the populations resemble each other in further aspects. Inferring from one similarity to another is especially questionable because Hochschild focusses on the personal emotional draw of right-wing politics. I am certain that Hochschild would insist that while emotions are personal they are also social and appear in patterns. I would agree, but nonetheless one might fear that these patterns diverge from  the correlations found in opinion polls. In any case, we should remain sceptical about whether Hochschild has uncovered the emotional draw of right-wing politics.

The book’s focus on feelings, however difficult it makes to establish the conclusions, does not comes as a surprise since Hochschild’s earlier work already emphasised the emotional aspect of social phenomena. Her work, including Strangers in Their Own Land, contributes to the sociology of emotions. However, I have my difficulties with the approach to emotions.

One of the book’s main theoretical proposals, the idea of a deep story, hinges on emotions.  Hochschild describes a deep story as follows:

A deep story is a feels-as-if story—it’s the story feelings tell, in the language of symbols. It removes judgment. It removes fact. It tells us how things feel. Such a story permits those on both sides of the political spectrum to stand back and explore the subjective prism through which the party on the other side sees the world. And I don’t believe we understand anyone’s politics, right or left, without it. For we all have a deep story.

I wish she had introduced the notion in a more technical manner. Consider the quote as a piece of sociological theory rather than literature. First Hochschild claims that our feelings tell us the deep story, and then she claims that the deep story tells us how things feel. How does this go together? What comes first, the feelings or the story? Is there a loop? What does it mean that the feelings tell us the story “in the language of symbols”? I understand that the deep stories have a metaphorical element to them, but that does not mean that Hochschild can replace a clear introduction of her analytical tool with hand-waving and metaphors.

I also doubt that deep stories remove judgements. We judge based on our deep stories, or otherwise I do not see how Hochschild could put deeps stories to the use she does. As far as I am concerned Hochschild’s explicit deep story provides a reconstruction of how her research subjects implicitly model social structure. The model guides how the subjects interpret new information. The interpretation includes judgements and emotional responses rather than just one or the other.

In her discussion of the deep story Hochschild touches upon the connection between the emotional and the cognitive without the means to make sense of the connection.  [Disclaimer: I don’t have a developed theory of the connection either.] Given that emotions and political judgements lie at the heart of the book, the lack of an adequate theory of how the cognitive and the emotional relate raises worries, but the research can nonetheless provide important insights. While the underlying sociological theory appears confused, the interviews and the information from the field more generally remain valuable.

The focus on emotions also has its costs when it comes to the political side of Hochschild’s book. She worries about the deepening political divide and her engagement with the emotional force of the right-wing was a step towards addressing the divide, not just a sociological research project. I would guess, but now I enter the speculative, that she also hoped her research could lay the foundation for winning votes back for the Democratic Party. The Washington Post review of the book suspects a similar motive:

“Strangers in Their Own Land,” then, is not an academic’s impartial effort to understand conservatives but rather a means to an end — an end toward which the writer regards conservatives as obstacles to overcome.

Hochschild willingly climbs an empathy wall as she calls it, but I doubt that she as willingly questions her central political tenets. She accepts that one can feel in a different way, but her core political judgements remain static. Turning politics emotional threatens to do away with reasoned political debate, instead we express our deep stories to each other in the hope of understanding each others’ feelings. Hochschild relegates the data speaking against the tea party deep story to Appendix C, the feelings remain in the main text. Again Hochschild fails to provide a convincing connection between the cognitive and the emotional.

Maybe a sociological project can exclusively zoom in on emotions, but such an approach does not suit a more political agenda. In their interviews the tea party members repeatedly joke about the prevalence of hippies in Berkley. Perhaps a hippy principle also underlies Strangers in Their Own Land: We just need to feel for each other and then the people can all be happy together. I don’t blame the tea party, if they reject that principle.

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