The Verbal Communication of Emotions: Interdisciplinary Perspectives

By Susan R. Fussell | Go to book overview

— 2 —

Explicating Emotions Across
Languages and Cultures:
A Semantic Approach

Cliff Goddard

University of New England, Australia


EMOTIONS: THE PERSPECTIVE FROM
CROSS-CULTURAL SEMANTICS

Cross-cultural research of any kind cannot afford to ignore the problems posed by semantic differences between languages. These problems are particularly pertinent for psychology, given that information about other people's mental states is inevitably mediated by language. Unfortunately, however, social scientists often regard the problem of translation as a mere methodological nuisance—as something to be "gotten around" so that they can move on to implementing familiar research techniques, rather than as a profound epistemological and conceptual issue deserving of sustained and focused attention. At the same time they underestimate both the scope of semantic variation between ethnopsychological lexicons, and the Hazards of uncritically using English as the metalanguage of cross-cultural description.

This tendency is evident even among anthropologists, who are more sensitive than most to the possibility of deep-rooted conceptual differences between languages and cultures. As Lutz (1988) commented, it is a shibboleth of anthropological method that "all ethnography is comparative, involving the implicit or explicit comparison of the culture of the observer with that of the observed" but in practice this "rarely leads to the simultaneous examination of both meaning systems" (p. 44). Instead, indigenous emotion concepts are merely "tagged" with English glosses. This practice not only brings with it an obvious danger of ethnocentric distortion, it also excuses the analyst from engaging in deep conceptual analysis of English folk categories, which continue to be mistaken for objective categories of psychological reality.

Discussions of this issue in anthropology, psychology and sociology often get bogged down in fruitless exchanges between entrenched relativist and

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