Tangled Relations: Emotions, Self & Culture

Self & Culture: An Ethnographic View

the relationship between the “self” and “culture.” It is also important to examine the relationship between what we call the 'self' and that thing which is 'culture.' The influences these two things have over othe other is far too bright to overlook; in addition to to being equally important to build an concrete understanding about the deeply woven relationship the two share with emotions. The curious case of SUNDs among the Hmong in the U.S. will hep to portray, quite possibly, at an exteme level the relationship between the self and culture via folk psychology. However, it might also hint to mind-body connections, but we shall not venture to far into that darkness at this moment. Moreover, the articles by Lisa L. Capps (1994), 'Change and Continuity,' in addition to Shelley R. Adler (1994), 'Sudden Nocturnal Death Syndrome among Hmong Immigrants: Examining the Role of the 'Nightmare'' help to provide the foundation for this understanding of Hmong people and their relationship to their culture, which provides an excellent introduction to the ties between self, emotions, and culture from a very different perspective.

The Hmong, who are native to the mountains of China, have faced a history of oppression, change, and 'culture shock' due to re-location, politics, and economic variables. Interestingly enough, only in America does SUNDS affect the Hmong. SUNDS, in an etic perspective, appears to be psychosomatic; while to the Hmong, it is the act of a 'nocturnal pressing spirit known as dab tso'“ (Adler 57, 1994). The dab tsog is warded off in the Hmong perspective through cultural practices such as “spirit-feeding” and ancestor reverence rituals(Adler 59, 1994). However, if a person is not able to maintain these rituals then the '[a]ncestor spirits may demand retribution […] or simply desert the negligent person,' thus, making a Hmong individual 'open to an evil spirit attack in the form of a nightmare' (Adler 59, 1994). However, once the Hmong culture is re-located to America these practices become taboo and are socially discriminated against by the mainstream culture. SUNDS, to an American, becomes psychosomatic and stress-related illness.

The basic frame to view these woven paths of culture and emotions within the Hmong community in the U.S. exemplifies the influence culture has over an individual. Furthermore, they lightly display two points to understanding emotions as being culturally cultivated. The self, within a culture, is monitored by the society which to it belongs; moreover, as Ruth Benedict remarks, “society in its full sense […] is never an entity separable from the individuals who compose it” (Benedict 78, 1934). This is important to the relationship between emotions and cultures, because it portrays the idea that each individual is becomes walking embodiment of their society. The actions of the individual are exhibited based upon the social acceptance levels from the community. Thus, a perspective of the life, in relation to emotions and culture, is crafted by society as a means to rationalize the individual, which ultimately helps society maintain an orderly continuance with the least possible disruptions. The individual benefits as well as the society. Thus, the relationship between the society and its individuals is reciprocal.

Neverthless, how one person emotionally responds to situations will differ from a close neighbor or relative. Yet, we should not forget that society does mold the responses a person will exhibit in response to emotional encounter. The social behavior is taught implicitly and explicity. Society is based upon culture, and culture encompasses a complete method to life according to those who live within it. The reality of life in a specific culture crafts the organization of a society as well as the organization of an individual's mental contents. Thus, the realities and social principles of cultures build a canon that develops models for acceptable human behavior, thought, and emotions. Social cohesion requires far more than public behavior.

To begin the process of using the perspective of emotions being derived from culture, I turn to Rosaldo. As stated above, the emotional display a person will express differs slightly from his/her closest neighbor and greatly from his/her farthest. Rosaldo was puzzled over the 'head-hunting' practices, because to him they did not make sense and required symbolic significance. Rosaldo's perspective and initial reaction to the Ilongot male behavior was originally based upon his social perception and thoughts – not the Ilongot's. Rosaldo had to empathize with the head-hunters before he could understand their actions. Moreover, this also illustrates how emotions are universal affective responses, but the way people express themselves after encountering emotions is culturally and individually dependent as well as different.

Rosaldo's ethnography also portrays the social development of emotional expressions that 'young men coming of age' must adopt (Rosaldo 18, 1989). The young men, as Rosaldo describes, 'undergo a protracted period of personal turmoil […] they desire nothing so much as to take a head' at this point in their lives (Rosaldo 18, 1989). The protracted period of personal turmoil occurs when the young men are faced with social and physical changes. The emphasis on the desire to head-hunt and 'wear red hornbill earrings that adorn the ears of men who already arrived (tabi)' illustrates a way in which the Ilongot society prepares the young men for their futures as Ilongot men. The exhibition of a series of emotions accompanying their yearning to take a head during the time of 'seek[ing] a life partner and contemplat[ing] the traumatic dislocation of leaving familes' reflect a possible method the Ilongot use to socially and psychologically transform the young men's attitudes and minds for their future roles as men in Ilongot society (Rosaldo 19, 1989). The relationship between culture and emotions, as perceived in Rosaldo's ethnography, showcases a possible method this particular society uses to prepare its male members for their place in society. The emotional responses are built upon the cultural norms and the desire to conform and excel within an individual's environment. Furthermore, the responses and experiences Rosaldo describes in comparison to the Ilongot responses and experiences demonstrate that the emotional expressions are culturally defined – not universal differences. For a Westerner, grieving does not involve taking heads; however, that does not mean that the deep pitted feeling we know as grief changes internally, rather the physical release and mental understanding of how to 'cope' and express is different for communities.

The canon for emotional expressions for individuals in all societies is based on the reality of their lives in social and physical environments. Culture shapes a person's perspective of life by 'offer[ing] fundamentally different 'frames' for understanding reality' in a various environments (DeMunck 19, 2001), The understanding of reality is dependent upon culture and reflects the experiences within an environment for different people. Rosaldo did not understand the behavior accompanying grief until he had studied the Ilongot and felt a deep loss accompanied by a heavy grief and rage. However, to unpack the idea that reality is based upon culture, ultimately molding emotions, I direct my attention to Scheper-Hughes' work in a poverty-stricken shanti town in Brazil.

Scheper-Hughes (2004) discusses the emotional responses of mothers who constantly deal with high infant mortality rates. 'Death Without Weeping' brings together the idea that culture and emotions are entangled in each other based upon cultural methods to adapt and rationalize life events. The culture located in Alto do Cruzeiro is reflective of the harsh life these women endure due to their political, economic, and social institutions. These women seemingly express what many Western mothers would call heart-less behavior towards high infant mortality rates, which is based upon the impoverished living conditions.

Therefore, the frames for reality, dependent on a culture, develop the emotional expressions these mothers ought to display. Life in a world where life itself is uncertain has shaped the communities' responses to infants dying situation; thus, they let 'nature take its course' in an effort to continue their existence (Scheper-Hughes 42, 2004). Moreover, their society allows for this behavior. Scheper-Hughes described an incident with one mother who had just lost an infant, and two young girls urged her, Scheper-Hughes, to adopt their emotional comfort methods for the mother's sake. The girls 'urged [Scheper-Hughes] to console the young mother by telling her […] it was 'too bad' that her infant was so weak that Jesus had to take him' (Scheper-Hughes 44, 2004). The young girls illustrate a learned emotional response to the infant mortality, which is established to maintain the community and its grieving mothers.

Moreover, these attitudes and practices of the Brazilian women are 'fairly common practices historically and across cultures,' thus, illustrating how a culture develops its members for what life is going to be living within its environment (Scheper-Hughes 2004). The culture provides the fundamental frames based upon the cultural models people acquire throughout their lives in particular communities and social, as well as physical, environments. The political, social, and economic involvements and strivings arrange the workings of society, as well as, the individual's mental contents. The psychological involvement the women in Alto express outwardly towards infants and children is due to their embodiment of their culture and behavior models. Cultures create the patterns its social individuals will adapt from 'to meet the psychological and biological requirements of human beings as members for society' (DeMunck 19, 2001).

Food for Thought