12/11 Expressions of Emotions–and Inner Feelings–in Kilivila, the Language of the Trobriand Islanders: A Descriptive and Methodological Critical Discussion
This lecture addresses some crucial methodological difficulties encountered in the study of the relationship between human emotions, facial expression and language. By exposing a group of Trobriand Islanders to two different experiments, Senft attempts to answer three questions: Can emotions be expressed through language or are they rather ineffable? Do speakers agree on the ways they name expressions? Do facial expression or context give better clues than language to the labeling of human emotions?
The answer to all these questions shows the limitations of existing research methods. The “Ekman faces method”, for instance, relies on the belief that human expressions are universal. The reaction of the Trobriand Islanders to a set of photographs representing allegedly basic ‘universal’ expressions, proves the inaccuracy of this method: There is almost no coincidence between Ekman’s typology and the answers provided by the consultants.
Another more sophisticated method, the film-based “Mind Reading Emotions Library,” provides better result and higher coincidence. While this method develops a categorization of human emotions based on English, Trobriand Islanders seem to categorize a big number of expressions in a similar way. However, methodological doubts persist insofar as the MREL provides with staged emotions; further research is necessary in order to reach evidence on the relation between emotions and their linguistic expression.