Emotional labour

In 1983, Arlie Russell Hochschild, a sociologist and now professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, published a seminal book, republished in 2003 and again in 2012, which laid the conceptual foundations of “emotional labour”. Entitled “The Managed Heart” and subtitled “Commercialization of Human feeling”, it was translated into French late, in 2017, under the title and subtitle “Le Prix des sentiments, au Coeur du Travail émotionnel”.

The cover of the French edition shows an air hostess, one of the jobs in the hospitality sector that this author has studied to show how emotions can be dictated to individuals in service jobs according to the applicable “rules of feelings”.

Cover of the French edition of Arlie Russell Hochschild’s book (Source: https://www.editionsladecouverte.fr/le_prix_des_sentiments-9782707188960)

Definition of the concept

Hochschild’s analysis is based on observations of the interactions between Delta Airline cabin crew and trainers, and on individual and group interviews and internal documents (Hochschild, 2003a: P. 14). This company was chosen in particular because of the importance it attaches to service, the quality of its flight training programme and the absence of unions for cabin crew, reinforcing the requirements for this professional group (p.13). These data were supplemented by observations of the Pan American Airways recruitment process and other interviews with cabin crew employed by different airlines (p.14-15). Her fieldwork brought to light these rules of feeling and this emotional labour. This concerns situations where an employee is required to express the emotions expected by the entity that employs them during service interactions.

The definition of this concept emphasises the publicly observable character of facial and bodily expression as well as the exchange value of this service.

I use the term emotional labor to mean the management of feeling to create a publicly observable facial and bodily display; emotional labor is sold for a wage and therefore has exchange value.”

The Managed Heart, 2003a: p. 7

Surface acting and deep acting

Two main strategies of emotional work have been identified in the literature:

  • Surface acting consists of masking real emotions to show those expected by the organisation.
  • Deep acting causes employees to change their emotions to match those required to interact with customers. Deep acting is in line with the demands for authenticity that are often required from tourism and hospitality employees. It is also a way to preserve oneself whereas surface acting can generate emotional dissonance in case of incompatibility between the emotions felt and those displayed.

Arlie Russell Hochschild specifies (2003b: P.21), in an article in French, that she uses «Les termes “gestion émotionnelle” […] comme synonymes de “travail émotionnel” et de “jeu en profondeur”” (the terms “emotional management” […] as synonymous with “emotional labour” and “deep acting””. Emphasising the fact that Erving Goffman’s “situationism” conceals the importance of deep acting (p.26-29), she uses the method of drama professor Constantin Stanislavski to illustrate the nature of this deep acting (p.29). Emotional labour refers to the effort made, whether or not it results in success (p.33). This emotional labour is based either on evocation (cognition in this case aims at a desired emotion that is initially absent) or on suppression (when cognition aims at an involuntary emotion that is initially present). However, emotional labour techniques are not always cognitive (p.34-35), they can be bodily (controlling one’s breathing for example) or expressive (the change of expression, making an effort to smile for example, to be distinguished from surface acting).

In the first way, we try to change how we outwardly appear […]. This is surface acting. The other way is deep acting.  Here, display is a natural result of working on feeling; the actor does not try to seem happy or sad, but rather expresses spontaneously, as the Russian director Constantin Stanislavski urged, a real feeling that has been self-induced.”

The Managed Heart, 2003a: p. 35

Apart from these two possible ways of acting, the natural expression of emotions (form of self-regulation, Diefendorff et al., 2005) can either be adapted to a situation, or show emotional deviation from the established rules of feelings.

Need for a person-centred approach

Employees may, depending on their profile, their suitability for their job and the situation they face, have more or less recourse to one or more forms of emotional regulation, justifying the interest to opt for a person-centred approach rather than focus on the links between independent and dependent variables, thus making it possible to fully understand the complexity of emotional regulation processes (Gabriel et al., 2015).

Emotional labour and theory of social exchange

Interactions can be analysed as exchanges of gestures (Hochschild, 2003b), acts of display (in the case of surface acting) or emotional labour (when deep acting is required), the rules of feelings making it possible to establish the value of such gestures. It should be noted that surface acting can be considered as a form of emotional labour because it requires the accomplishment of an effort to produce the act of display, even if Hochschild reserves the concept of emotional labour to deep acting only. We can thus place this concept of emotional labour in a broader sense including the different gestures, whether they reflect surface acting or deep acting, in the vast theoretical framework of social exchange in order to better clarify this framework, as suggested in the literature (Cropanzano et al., 2017).

Criticisms and perspectives

The nature of the concept and its measurement have been criticised. In a report published by Mondes du Tourisme on her thesis which is about emotional labour in hotel groups, Aurore Giacomel (2019: P.2) underlined that researchers “indiscriminately assess a process, a biological mechanism, a competence, an expression or a strategy, measurements that do not use the same tools and do not lead to the same conclusions”. This led her to refer to the paradigm of complexity to propose an original reading of emotional labour, at the individual and collective level.

Hochschild’s work, now unanimously recognised as seminal work, is part of both a feminist critique of the emotional role assigned to women and a critical perspective of the effects of the capture of feelings by the commercial world. They paved the way for a lot of research on emotions, largely unexplored in the field of organisational behaviour until the end of the 1990s. Emotional regulation processes go beyond the strict framework of service interactions: they are also at work in working relationships, between managers and subordinates or between colleagues, offering interesting perspectives for research (Ashkanasy et al., 2017).

Nowadays, emotions have invaded the tourism and hospitality sector, where employees are asked to express their emotions, insofar as they are positive and are in line with the experiential expectations of tourists. This is a challenge when the employee experience does not match expectations and results in difficulties in recruitment and a particularly high labour turnover rate, more specifically in the accommodation and catering sector (Barry et al., 2021).

These limitations are explored in the work of Eva Illouz (sociologist and academic, director of studies at the EHESS since 2015) in the joint publication Les marchandises émotionnelle (emotional commodities) of 2019 prefaced by Axel Honneth, where she studies the interpenetration between our emotions and neoliberal capitalism, to emphasise the interference of capitalism in the shaping of affects and the concomitant transformations of the notion of authenticity. She describes the “emodities” (contraction of emotional commodities) which are objects and experiences both emotional and marketable, supported by the emotional labour necessary for tourism industry staff in particular, having to tackle the dictatorship of happiness evoked in the 2018 book Happycratie, in which doctor of psychology Edgar Cabanas and Eva Illouz criticise the new form of governance of conduct centred on positive emotions. For the authors, the modern quest for happiness appears to break with Aristotle and Spinoza’s rhetoric of virtue or reason: it now seems to be maintained by the utilitarian vision of the human being put forward by positive psychology, someone driven by the purpose of maximising utilities, including emotional utility.

Dominique PEYRAT-GUILLARD and Gwenaelle GREFE


  • Ashkanasy Neal M., Humphrey Ronald H. et Nguyen Huy Quy, 2017, «Integrating emotions and affect in theories of management», Academy of Management Review. vol.42, n°2, p. 175-189.
  • Barry Victor, Paloc Tristan et Obser Justine, 2021, Hébergement restauration : quelle évolution des effectifs avec la crise?. DARES Focus n°52, septembre, 2 p., en ligne [pdf].
  • Cabanas Edgar et Illouz Eva, 2018, Happycratie. Paris, Premier Parallèle, 260 p.
  • Cropanzano Russell, Anthony Erica L., Daniels Shanna R. et Hall Alison V., 2017, «Social exchange theory: A critical review with theoretical remedies», Academy of Management Annals. vol.11, n°1, p. 479-516.
  • Diefendorff James M., Croyle Meredith H et Gosserand Robin H, 2005, «The dimensionality and antecedents of emotional labor strategies», Journal of Vocational Behavior. vol.66, n°2, p. 339-357.
  • Gabriel Allison S., Daniels Michael A., Diefendorff James M. et Greguras Gary J., 2015, «Emotional Labor Actors: A Latent Profile Analysis of Emotional Labor Strategies», Journal of Applied Psychology. vol.100, n°3, p. 863-879.
  • Giacomel Aurore, 2019, «Les enjeux du travail émotionnel individuel et collectif dans les groupes hôteliers multinationaux: la complexité de l’équilibre émotionnel au service de l’homéostasie organisationnelle», Mondes du Tourisme. n°16, 5 p., en ligne.
  • Hochschild Arlie Russell, 1983 (2003a, 2012), The managed heart – Commercialization of human feeling. Berkeley, University of California Press, 307 p.
  • Hochschild Arlie Russell, 2003b, «Travail émotionnel, règles de sentiments et structure sociale», Travailler. 1/9, p. 19-49, en ligne.
  • Hochschild Arlie Russell, 2017, Le prix des sentiments – au cœur du travail émotionnel. Paris, Éditions La Découverte, 250 p.
  • Illouz Eva (dir.), 2019, Les marchandises émotionnelles, l’authenticité au temps du capitalisme. Paris, Premier Parallèle, 424 p.