As society changes, sociological concepts can be used in new ways or change their definition. As one example, sociologist Arlie Hochschild is asked about the expanding use of “emotional labor”:
Beck: Since the time you coined it, have you noticed the term becoming more popular? How is its use expanding?
Hochschild: It is being used to apply to a wider and wider range of experiences and acts. It’s being used, for example, to refer to the enacting of to-do lists in daily life—pick up the laundry, shop for potatoes, that kind of thing. Which I think is an overextension. It’s also being applied to perfectionism: You’ve absolutely got to do the perfect Christmas holiday. And that can be a confusion and an overextension. I do think that managing anxiety associated with obligatory chores is emotional labor. I would say that. But I don’t think that common examples I could give are necessarily emotional labor. It’s very blurry and over-applied…
We’re trying to have an important conversation but having it in a very hazy way, working with blunt concept. I think the answer is to be more precise and careful in our ideas and to bring this conversation into families and to the office in a helpful way.
If you have an important conversation using muddy ideas, you cannot accomplish your purpose. You won’t be understood by others. And you won’t be clear to yourself. That’s what’s going on. It’d be like going to a bad therapist—“Well, just try to have a better day tomorrow.” You’re doing the right thing, you’re seeking help, but you’re not getting clarification and communicating clearly. It can defeat the purpose; it can backfire.
Sociologists and other scholars can spend a lot of time developing precise definitions for particular social phenomena. While this may seem like arcane or unnecessary work, it is a critical task: having a clear definition then often leads to more precise measurement which can then lead to more productive use of data.
At the same time, sociologists need to be nimble in updating concepts to changing conditions. A great concept from several decades might no longer fit – or it could still be highly relevant. The originator of the concept could adjust the idea (though it is easy to see why this might be difficult to do given the amount of time one invests in the original concept) or the academic community could come to a consensus. Some concepts from the early days of sociology are still regularly discussed and taught while others were abandoned long ago. Such as in the case above, concepts might be adapted by others in unique ways. This could lead to disagreement or an acknowledgement that the concept now means something different in broader circles.
It would be interesting to analyze the changing conceptualization of key ideas within sociology. The concept of emotional labor is now 35 years old. Is that a normal lifetime adhering to an original definition?