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Schadenfreude: A Case Study of Emotion as Situated Discursive Display

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image of Comparative Sociology
For content published from 1960-2001, see International Journal of Comparative Sociology.

Most Americans are aware that joy was expressed in the Arab world over the suffering inflicted on Americans with the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Less known is that such Schadenfreude was expressed by many Chinese citizens as well. This paper analyzes a sample of texts from postings on the Beijing University bulletin board system. Following a discursive approach to the social psychological study of emotion, we consider discourse as the means whereby power relations are asserted and maintained. These power relations comprise a domain within which actions and emotional displays are occasioned and understood. Based on the texts analyzed here, Schadenfreude can be understood as a discursive display by an observer of an event. This event must be recognized in terms of a "discursive history" within which a bully (here, the United States) has repeatedly violated the "rights" of bullied parties. In accordance with this discursive history, the event is seen as a reversal-in-tradition whereby rights presumed by the bully are violated. Finally, the observer must disidentify with the bully. As a discursive display, Schadenfreude not only comprises the overt performance of the observer's taken-for-granted understanding of the bully-as-bully, but also displaces any potential alternative discourse such as expressions of sympathy other observers may have for any target of such an event. This approach complements the social constructionist perspective within the literature on the sociology of emotions, but departs fundamentally from this literature's essentialist (or psycho-physiological) perspective.


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