Emotion as a Commodity: A Review on Emotional Labour

In this era of late capitalism where no more the traditional conceptualizations of the trajectory of capitalism seems to be valid; where capitalism can no more be claimed as a homogeneous phenomenon, ‘emotions’ seem to play a crucial role in maintaining and transforming the economy continuously. Hence, this historic-economic era is sometimes even termed as ‘emotional capitalism’. However, the situation is akin to the dilemma of origination- the egg first or the hen first!? Emotions have come to attain central focus in the discourse of capitalism in the sense that some claim certain emotions to the sole drivers of capitalism, while others claim them to be the products of capitalism. Whatever be the case, of one fact, almost every thinking mind would have to concede is that emotions, like other aspects of life, could not escape the process of commodification.

The mechanism of the market society ensures that emotions like every other kind of capital must also be exploited to the fullest. Mothers are trained ‘mothering’; it is expected that every sphere of our life, right from work to sex, need have counselling centres/counsellors to solve ‘personal’ problems; psychologists are hired by corporations to help increase productivity and better manage the workforce; airline stewards/waiters/receptionists are expected to keep calm and smile throughout the duration of their job- nothing and no one gets spared. Scholars talk in terms of culture industry and consumer culture where the entire operation of production, marketization and consumption is based on bombardment of images which “play on emotions to connect with consumers, and use consumers’ emotions in design” (Ettlinger, 2004). Whether in the realm of production or that of consumption, emotions have been actively drummed up, implored and shaped by economic forces, thus making modern people simultaneously emotional and economic actors. And more often than not as people entwine thoughts and feelings across spheres of life, over time, economic and noneconomic logics become indistinct, leading to manifold, often incongruous sentiments.

This paper aims at reviewing emotions as being produced and consumed as ‘commodity’ in the market society of today in the form of emotional labour. Emotion, in spite of being something considered a ‘social construction’ was nevertheless thought of as a non-commodity, something outside the realm of economy but how far is it true today? In this era of bio capitalism can emotions be kept off limits to the market? Shouldn’t a normative perspective be developed so as to proscribe the exploitation of the one aspect of human which has the potential to keep intact the agency of humans or in Marx’s term ‘the species being’?


Emotion as a Social Construct in the Context of the New Market


Initially ‘emotion’ as a focus of study had largely been investigated through a range of scientific, biomedical and psychological discourses. An emotional phenomenon was considered exclusively as ‘individual’ and ‘private’ but with the turn of the historical events and thereby the paradigm shifts in the disciplines, alternative views regarding the origin of emotions have been adopted branching out into the sphere of culture and society.

It was with Durkheim’s study of Suicide that the idea of’ emotion’ as a social construct gained sturdy grounds within the intellectual tradition. However, Fisher and Chon (1989) establishes that an injustice had been done in interpreting Durkheim as the absolute sociologist who neglected the validity of other disciplines. Durkheim was not completely against the idea that each specific emotion has a physiological component which qualifies it to be an object of study in the psycho-physiological field. It is simply that these emotions and drives are multiplied and diversified because they tend to be directed or attached to objects that do not exist independent of the social milieu. While citing the example of the mourning behaviour of Australian aborigines which demands them to beat, bruise, lacerate and burn themselves, Durkheim maintains that such behaviour although is normal for the ones close to the deceased, it is hardly natural for the other group members because it is more of a behaviour than a emotion they need to conform so as to preserve the group solidarity. He observes that “If, at the very moment when the weepers seem the most overcome by grief, someone speaks to them of some temporal interest, it frequently happens that they change their features and tone at once, take on a laughing air and converse in the gayest fashion imaginable” (Durkheim 1961, p. 443). But again, even if in Hochschild’s language they are engaged in ‘surface acting’ (Hochschild, 1983); Durkheim believes that emotions that are mandated may result in other emotions which are genuine in themselves- like “a sensation of comfort which compensates the original loss” (1961, pp. 447-48).  Again this might not be ‘deep acting’, in Hochschild’s language, on the part of individuals in the group (Hochschild, 1983) but a spontaneously experienced emotion that is necessary for and constitutive of group life. “The deep acting, however, is done by the collective consciousness working in the individual via collective beliefs and sentiments (understood here as attitudes reflecting obligations, rather than specific emotions such as love or fear). In this way Durkheim adds to the list of ways in which emotions are socially constructed.” (Fisher and Chon 1989, p. 6)

Further, social constructivist theorists like Arlie Russell Hochschild advocates that feelings are not inside us and do not exist independent of acts of management. She says- “In managing feeling, we contribute to the creation of it.” (1983, p. 18). As mentioned above, Hochschild differentiates between two kind of acting- surface and deep- imperative in the construction of emotion both in our private and public life. In surface acting the actor/worker is conscious of the act they produce so that their action seems more than behavioural compliance. As against this, deep acting is the part where the actor/worker internalises the acting to such an extent that it transcends conscious action, so that conflicts can be kept to minimum through fusion of the real self and the acting self and diminish the likelihood of emotive dissonance. (Hochschild 1983, chapter 3) Hochschild is not against a pre-existing emotional state that is indicative of a given self but she insists that emotions are constructed because they need to be managed as the self is contingent upon socially constructed expectations. It is but evident that the social constructivists do not discard the possibility of existence of innate animalistic instincts and drives which need to be managed in order to project socially acceptable ‘emotions’.

This lead us to believe that certain basic emotions like fear, anger, aggression, sadness, delight, excitement are qualities of personhood; something innate in a human however feelings like greed, pride, shame, obligation are social constructions. Emotions (drives, instincts, reflexes) per se are not constructions but of course the social causation rests in the way in which the emotions are awakened and sustained. Unlike the animals’ desires which are stirred spontaneously, among humans emotions are regulated by the society and now a day they are more ‘managed’ by the ‘market society’.

The Market is no more an organized structured entity where the transactions take place visibly and no more are transactions as tangible and visible as was in the pre-industrial and industrial era. Literal markets are declining and are being replaced by metaphorical markets, where even as delicate phenomena as ‘sentiments’ are in transaction. “The era of Fordist, industrial production was all but destroyed and the mass worker was replaced by the ‘socialized worker’, bringing into being a new epoch in which the factory is increasingly disseminated out into society as a whole.” (Gill and Pratt 2008) Gill and Pratt (2008), quoting Negri, further say that now the “labour is deterritorialized, dispersed and decentralized so that ‘the whole society is placed at the disposal of profit’.  Although markets are ever more global in scale, they are also increasingly disjointed, being divided into segmented niches rather than mass populations of consumers. This new market lives and run mostly on what Negri and Hardt would call ‘immaterial labour’ “where labour produces immaterial goods such as a service, a cultural product, knowledge or communication” (Hardt and Negri 2000, p. 292) and manipulation of the basic emotions to construct other feasible emotions is central to the functioning of the new market. Gill and Pratt (2008) cites Cristina Morini (2007) – “cognitive capitalism tends to prioritize extracting value from relational and emotional elements”. Morini and Fumagalli (2010) states “The  production  of  wealth  and  value  is  no  longer  based  solely  and  exclusively  on material  production,  but  is  increasingly  based  on  immaterial  elements, namely  on intangible  ‘raw  materials’,  which  are  difficult  to  measure  and  quantify  since they directly  result  from  the  use  of  the  relational,  emotional  and  cognitive  faculties  of  human beings.”

Emotion as a capital is indispensable. The very notion of conceiving emotion as capital indicates its inescapability of being commodified. A better understanding of how emotion has become a commodity like everything else in and around us can be grasped through a brief discussion on emotional labour.


Emotional Labour  


The service sector is the vital organ of the post-capitalist market economy which is dependent more on interpersonal skills than mechanical skills and thus, its heart lies in the manipulation and management of emotions. It runs purely on ‘emotional labour’.  According to Hochschild, emotional labour is “the management of feeling to create a publicly observable facial and bodily display” (1983, p. 7) It is labour in the sense that it “is sold for a wage and therefore has exchange value” (Hochschild 1983, p. 7) She goes on to specify that it “requires one to induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others” (1983, p. 8) Although Hochschild’s thesis on emotional labour was based on the study of flight attendants and debt collectors, it has generated a wide range of study which now includes many other works requiring emotional labour.

Emotional labour is recognized as required in professions like waiting staff – flight stewards, waiters, receptionists; care workers- nurses, nannies, social care activists; television and pornographic actors as well as escorts who provide what is called a girlfriend experience (or boyfriend experience),  retail workers, salespersons, holiday representatives, call-centre workers, bar staff. More subtly, it is also what runs the teaching job, psychotherapy and counselling industry, police jobs, paralegal and many more. Emotional labour has also been called ‘affective labour’ by some and others have termed it as ‘caring labour’.

Whatever, it may be called; its core function is to pacify customers through ‘good and graceful’ emotional dispositions in order to incur profits for the organization where the labour is being sold. A flight steward is expected to keep smiling throughout the journey, even while attending to the wildest fancies of some insufferable passengers; a receptionist is expected to talk as gracefully as he/she can; a counsellor is expected to listen to the client while projecting genuine concern for him/her throughout the counselling session. The job doesn’t end with the smile or the patient listening but it extends to the effort made to understand others and to have empathy with their situation. “In other words, the purpose of emotional labour is to make customers feel good (in the case of retail sales) or feel bad (in the case of prison guards or police officers).  In the labor of detectives and criminal interrogators, the object is not only to make suspects and alleged criminals feel bad but to have them confess.”  (Steinberg and Figart, 1999)

Emotional labour also calls for the worker to produce an emotional state in the person/persons she/he is in interaction while at the same time managing one’s own emotions. The expression of emotional labour may be or may not be authentic. If it is not authentic then the more effort the labourer needs to put into the act. Emotional labour is improved through selection, training, and supervision of employees.  Through the development of social scripts, or in Hochschild’s terms ‘feeling rules’, employers are able to exercise a degree of control over the emotional labour of employees, thus affecting productivity and profit.

Another aspect of emotional labour which must be emphasised upon is that emotional labour has in general been identified with historically female jobs. For example, females are preferred for professions like secretaries and receptionists and are expected as part of the normal performance of their jobs, to be sociable and to look attractive because their ‘feminineness’  is believed to offer more warmth and hence to the smooth functioning and flourishing of the firm in question. The same feminine warmth is welcomed in case of nursing and baby caring.

Hochschild thus believes that emotions are not only commodified but there is a gendered commodification in addition to it.


Commodification of Emotion


The term commodity is entrenched within the market society. Nearly everything is a commodity- from the shoe laces to the hair of a person. George Lukacs is right in observing that there is a process of universal commodification going on. According to Radin (2001, Preface) commodification means the “social process by which something comes to be apprehended as a commodity, as well as to the state of affairs once the process has taken place.” When we term something as a commodity we look at it as devoid of life value; what remains of it is only the use value and even more than that the exchange value.

The  expression  of emotion,  which  was  once  privately  determined,  has  now  become  a market- place  commodity. It has got a high exchange value in the market of emotional labour. Emotion can be brought so easily these days that its spontaneity is seeing a gradual death. In fact to such an extent that even when someone displays real emotion, others in the interactional process might get bamboozled.

Most organizational scholars believe in the usefulness of emotions in proliferation of profits and greater proficiency. Few works have been carried out regarding the detrimental effect of commodification of emotions. Even if these studies  vary  in the  degree to  which  they  follow  Hochschild  in  her  explicit  condemnation  of  emotional  labour,  they, however,  tend  to contain  an  implicit  acceptance  of  its  exploitative  and  subordinating  nature.

Emotional labour needs managing emotions and in the word ‘management’ it is implicit that except in rarest of rare cases the emotions displayed are not genuine enough. They are driven more by the uncovered management- defined norms or “display rules,” and management-controlled, routinized, and scripted performances. The degree of authenticity of the employee’s emotion can never be measured.  For the benefit of the lucidity of the discussion let us consider two cases: the ‘smile’ of a flight attendant and the ‘empathy ‘of a counsellor.

Hochschild observes that as the training starts the ‘personal smile’ which acted as the asset for the flight steward to be recruited for the job in the first place, is groomed to become the ‘professional smile’ to suit the disposition of the organization. “…it estranges workers from their own smiles and convinces customers that on-the-job behaviour is calculated” (Hochschild 1983, p.  5) She even subtly smirks that “…advertisements, training, notions of professionalism, and dollar bills have intervened between the smiler and the smiled upon, it takes an extra effort to imagine that spontaneous warmth can exist in uniform- because companies now advertise spontaneous warmth, too.” (1983, p.  5)

Counsellors have became an extraordinarily dominant social group as they entered the army, the corporation, the school, the state, social services, the media, child rearing, sexuality, marriage, etc. In all of these areas, psychology establishes itself as the ultimate authority in matters of human distress, by offering techniques to transform and overcome that distress. A counsellor, day in and day out, needs to suppress and hide his/her own anxieties (and emotions triggered off by the anxiety) in order to give patient hearing to the client; remain calm throughout the process of interaction and also suggest remedies. They have to deal with difficult cases and yet they are expected to bring least emotional disquiet on their faces. This says that now a day, not only a smile but a friendly handshake, empathy and sympathy also comes at a cost. A counsellor would, in retrospect, hesitate to show a frown of concern to a friend, because she/he knows that the same thing would have brought him money in other cases.

Generalization would be an error. No doubt there are people who do love their job and would carry it out even without being paid money for it.  Most people want to work, engage in an activity which they would do otherwise too, even without money- not all of us turn on capitalist rationality. Inspired by Hannah Arendt, Radin differentiates between work and labour- “work as always containing a non-commodified human element; and to think of the fully commodified version as labour.” (2001, p. 105) In work the labour is not separated from the person who performs it. Over time writers, artists, nurses, counsellors, fire-fighters, paramedics, law enforcement officers have acknowledged of their love for their work. However, when market rationality takes over, there seem to be less and less room for working with care because the personal touch to the act is diminished, replaced by a brutal impersonal show.

Hochschild’s analysis rests on this distinction between emotion work and emotional labour. The process of managing and presenting emotions in the private sphere of our lives, such as amongst family and friends and even as a customer can be called emotion work; the actor does it willingly and spontaneously.  Emotional  labour,  unlike work,  entails  the commercialisation of workers’ feelings through a transmutation of ‘private sphere’ feelings into a package  of  emotions  that  is  consumed  by  the  customer  as  a  commodified  service  interaction.  Their emotions are thus no more their own but are owned by the management because the control over form, timing, giving and withdrawal of feelings, moods and their display shifts from the worker to the managers.

This loss of control/ownership is triggered off by certain situations. First, and foremost, as irrational an element as emotion is completely rationalized and is managed under rules. One might lose their source of livelihood by showing the wrong emotion (even if that ‘wrong’ emotion was the genuine and spontaneous emotion on the part of the worker). Secondly, subordination is discernible in the labourer- customer relation because the rule is that the customer is always right. The flight steward should keep up with the smile even while the passenger shows the worst possible behaviour towards her/him; a salesperson should gulp down refusals/accusations from customers as gracefully as she/he can.  “This is in contrast to our private lives, where we tend to experience a much greater level of assumed and/or near equality in our emotional interactions… In private life, we are free to question the going rate of exchange and free to negotiate a new one. If we are not satisfied, we can leave; many friendships and marriages die of inequality. But in the public world of work, it is often part of an individual’s job to accept uneven exchanges, to be treated with disrespect or anger by a client, all the while closeting into fantasy the anger one would like to respond with. Where the customer is king, unequal exchanges are normal.”  (Hochschild 1983, pp. 85–6) Thirdly, there is an exploitation of the emotion to such an extent that infringes upon the limits of permissibility on the part of the worker and often this might lead to counter-effect on the (present and future) psychological disposition of the worker.  Fourthly, the exploitation comes in the form of the blurred boundaries of paid and unpaid work. Emotional work is something that comes naturally and is being carried out by many (especially women) on a daily basis. It is but evident when attempting to measure the value of social reproduction (domestic work, care, relational services), that this value is greater than the sum total of paid work. In the current phase of capitalism it is acknowledgeable that “life  must  work  for  production  and  production  must  work  for  life  (Hardt  and  Negri, 2000).” As emotional labour is made more visible in paid work, it becomes increasingly visible as a critical aspect of unpaid work in the home.  Morini and Fumagalli (2010) states that – To  put  it  differently,  when  the  productive  process incorporates knowledge and affects, desires and bodies, motivations and opinions, then it is clearly evident that what is actually sold is not entirely paid. Fifthly and most importantly- life appears to be totally subsumed under labour as the separation between working time and life time becomes indistinct.

When a complete objectification of emotion takes place, the worker himself is commodified. According to the Kantian worldview, as Radin puts it – “The person is a moral agent, autonomous and self-governing. An object is a non-person, not treated as a self-governing moral agent…Objectification puts pressure on the conception of our personhood.” (2001, p. 155) While doing emotional labour, the worker becomes nothing but the machine whose remote is in the hands of the managers and who automatically produces certain emotions as required by the organization. The worker becomes the means and hence is objectified. It is nothing but what Marx would call the process of alienation. Workers are estranged from not only their emotional product but even the process of emotion production.  Hochschild  argues that  the  human  cost  of  performing emotional labour is  as  harmful  as  that  of  the  physical  and  mental  labour  discussed  by  Marx.  Marx’s famous sentence in Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts- with the increasing value of the world of thing proceeds in direct proportion the devaluation of the world of men- has ever more relevance today, when as important an aspect of personhood as emotion has become a thing in itself.

Radin (2001, chapter 8) states that objects can be commodified but not persons. But how to disentangle ‘personhood’ from something as intricately related to it as ‘emotion’? Emotion is not an object that lies external to the person; it, in its subjectivity, is very much the part of the person. So when emotion is commodified, it no longer leaves us the scope to identify a person as a person but an object, which has a use and an exchange value.

Critics have accused Hochschild of basing her theory on incomplete grounds of Marx’s theory of alienation but the subtle hints of using the complete theory is not lost in her work if one reads the text differently. The fact that the emotional labourer works mechanically is the indication itself of her being disassociated with life and her fellow beings and it often happens that the worker internalizes the subordination and objectification, even as they seek to overcome it, which adversely affect their image in front of their own eyes. The commodification of emotion thus leads to the objectification and alienation of the whole person.



Hochschild (1983) states that – emotional labour is potentially good. No customer wants to deal with a surly waitress, a crabby bank clerk, or a flight attendant who avoids eye contact in order to avoid getting a request. Of course, she is not in favour of the exploitation of emotion but it must bring a question into our mind immediately- for whom it is potentially good? For the customers and the producers (the owners of the capital) but what happens to the means of production- that is the labourers?  What of the human agency? The daily grind of the job life; of living a life of fake emotions is never over. But the human agency in every emotional labourer is not lost. There might be cases of ‘incomplete commodification’ as Radin puts it and revolutions lingering in the corners where there are ‘differences’ in perceiving ‘work’.  There are workers who cannot always conceive of their labour as commodity and hence are alienated from others who do, because “in the workers’ view people who conceive of the workers’ labour as commodity fail to see them as whole persons.” (Radin 2001, p. 93) This refusal to perceive work as commodity is also engraved in the affective dimension (emotion). Gill and Pratt (2008) suggests that these variations and difference are windows on tension and flux that are overlooked in conventional understandings of culture as homogeneous, coherent, and unchanging. In the multitude of nonconforming cases, their affective dimension and interaction rests “social potential for transformation…This has some echoes of Marx’s ideas about the contradictory nature of capitalism. For autonomists, too, capitalism’s potential destruction is imminent to it.” (Gill and Pratt 2008) The disarticulation of a worker from her or his local work, social, family, vocational, and/ or other communities can be in the course of time subsequently link it proactively to others ’disarticulation and develop fruitful collective action.

According to Radin complete non-commodification- complete removal from the market- is not the only alternative to complete commodification. Logically noncommodifying emotion, once it has entered the market arena is logically not possible. But collective action for claiming the minimum rights over ownership can be a viable solution. Radin proposes- incomplete commodification- “recognition by the society as a whole that things can have nonmonetizable participant significance. In legal culture this social recognition may be reflected in regulating (curtailing) the free market.”  (2001, pp. 106-107) According to her reforms such as collective bargaining, minimum wage requirements, maximum hour limitations, health and safety requirements, unemployement insurance, retirement benefits, prohibition of child labour, and anti-discrimination requirements reflect an incompletely commodified understanding of work. (2001, p. 108) In this context even emotional labourers could negotiate terms in their favour and opt for incomplete commodification.

Similarly, Negri and Hardt also comes up with a fundamental challenge to the process of commodification- refusal to work. As Hardt and Negri put it in  Empire: ‘the refusal of work and authority, or really the refusal of voluntary servitude, is the beginning of a liberatory politics…Beyond the simple refusal, or as part of that refusal, we need also to construct a new mode of life and above all a new community’ (2000: 204).

Just because emotion is a qualitative aspect of one’s labour should not lead to its suspension as ‘nothing’. More than anything else, something like ‘emotion’ need to revered and acknowledged of its life force. Conceding to ‘feeling rules’ and ‘management terms’ should have limits; it is not as if the organizations could keep dictating terms if a consensus is reached among the emotional labourers to refuse arbitrary terms like gulping down insults from a customer when the customer was at fault in the first place. Such submission is seriously detrimental to one’s self image.

Hochschild believes that when one realizes the limit to submission, the refusal to submit can transform into a nascent form of resistance. She says- “often  the  test  comes  when  a  company  speed-up  makes  personal  service  impossible  to  deliver because the individual’s personal self is too thinly parcelled out to meet the demands made on it. At this  point,  it  becomes  harder  and  harder  to  keep  the  public  and  private  selves  fused…  The  worker wonders  whether  her  smile  and  the  emotional  labour  that  keeps  it  sincere  are  really  hers.  Do they really express a part of her?  Or  are  they  deliberately  worked  up  and  delivered  on  behalf  of  the company? ( 1983, p.133)  The resistance need to be sustained to live life like a human and not a machine.

In a country like India where the mother is considered as sacred as the deity, it is indeed disillusioning to find posters advertising of classes for acquiring ‘mothering’ skills. In India emotions have been accorded high place in one’s life; where religious philosophy speaks of love, sympathy, empathy as one’s Dharma (obligation); where the spontaneity of emotions have always been encouraged. In such a place the present scenario of commodification of emotions is demystifying and de-motivating. More studies need to be carried out regarding the emotional labour and commodification of emotions in and at least initially through a discursive practise a resistance to such commodification of emotion must be encouraged.



  • DURKHEIM, E. (1961) The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, translated by J.W. Swain. London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd.
  • ETTLINGER, N. (2004) Towards a Critical Theory of Untidy Geographies: The Spatiality of Emotions in Consumption and Production. Feminist Economics 10 (3) pp. 21-54
  • FISHER, G.A and CHON, K.K. (1989) Durkheim and the Social Construction of Emotions. Social Psychology Quarterly, 52 (1) pp. 1-9
  • GILL, R. and PRATT, A. (2008) In the Social Factory?: Immaterial Labour, Precariousness and Cultural Work. Theory Culture Society, 25 (1)
  • HARDT, M. and NEGRI, A. (c2000) Empire. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
  • HOCHSCHILD, A. R. (1983) The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • MORINI, C. and FUMAGALLI, A. (2010) Life Put to Work: Towards a Life Theory of Value, translated from the Italian by Emanuele Leonardi. Ephemera: Theory & Politics in Organization, 10(3/4) pp. 234-252
  • RADIN, M.J. (2001) Contested Commodities: The trouble with Trade in Sex, Children, Body Parts, and Other. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
  • STEINBERG, R.J and FIGRAT, D.M (1999) Emotional Labour Since The Managed Heart. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 561 pp. 8-26