Formation of community emotion examined

Source:Chinese Social Sciences Today 2023-10-17


Elders gather at the community plaza to chat in Beijing on Oct. 8. Photo: Yang Xue/CSST

The community emotion is a new type of collective emotion — a shared psychological process that residents experience in their daily interactions with other community members. These collective expressions of emotion take place within specific geographic environments and are social emotions at the community level. It represents a new subset of group or collective emotion.

Community emotion serves as a fundamental driving force that establishes a positive community order and builds community cohesion. The concept not only has general psychological features but also the distinctive features of neighborhood residents as a specific group. The community’s common nature adds territorial and interactive attributes to community emotion. Community emotion is influenced by residents’ identities and relies on the intensity of community identification. This kind of emotion is a specific category of social emotion which serves as a bridge between macro-level social emotions and micro-level individual emotions, and closely connects them.

Community emotion generally is formed in three stages: pre-event, mid-stage, and post-connection. Under the influence of community emotion at different stages, community residents transition from a dispersed “atomized” state to a “community-oriented” one.

Pre-event stage

The formation of community emotion relies on interpersonal interactions. When people gather in the same place, the interactions among community residents are increased and they pay closer attention to each other. Whether or not there is a clear awareness of emotional connection, this mutual interpersonal attention is the starting point for future connection. Casual conversations among neighbors in the community, residents’ gathering to discuss disputes, neighbors’ negotiating community management with property managers — regardless of the interaction itself — any gathering of community residents provides a prerequisite for the formation of a group. Mutual attention is the result of gathering and the starting point for subsequent community actions.

In communities, issues such as poor property management, environmental pollution, neighborhood disputes, security concerns, and unauthorized construction often take the shape of common concerns or negative emotions shared by community residents. Meanwhile, neighborly friendliness, mutual assistance, well-placed community services, and warm family relationships convey positive information and create a pleasant and harmonious community emotional atmosphere, becoming a positive shared focus for residents. The emotional resonance formed through mutual attention can be called as “instantaneous sharing,” and further promotes the production, usage, and co-creation of shared symbols and meanings, which eventually shapes the boundaries of social groups within the community and gives people a deeper sense of connection to other members.


The mid-term phase is a crucial stage in the formation of shared emotions among community residents because it makes community residents transform from “atomization” to “community orientation.” The most critical element of this phase is the transformation from an individual’s self-representation to an integrated group identity. Building upon the shared concerns and group focus developed in the early stage, people continually reinforce common norms and identities as community members. They shift from being independent individuals to individuals with group characteristics, who strongly identify with their community.

In community interactions, individuals gradually internalize community norms, such as using leashes when walking dogs or adhering to the designated times and locations for garbage disposal. This is a process in which the community identity is imprinted onto individuals, or “self-stereotyping” as described by British social psychologist John Turner. Through self-stereotyping, individuals depersonalize and transform from ordinary individuals into individuals with characteristics similar to the community prototype. They redefine, describe, and evaluate themselves according to the typical group characteristics and apply group norms and values to themselves, resulting in complete community immersion.

In addition to self-stereotyping, there is another path to community identification known as “self-anchoring.” Self-anchoring is the process through which an individual projects their self onto an internal group. In this process, interpersonal interactions according to common demands lead individuals to observe high levels of consistency between their actions and emotions and those of others, triggering a “shared representation.” This results in new connections between the self and the group. Individuals begin to define the internal group positively and differentiate it from external groups, identifying with the community based on “self-anchoring.”

The two cognitive processing methods, self-stereotyping and self-anchoring, create an overlap between the “self” and the “internal group.” The boundary between the self and others gradually blurs, and people discover more and more similarities of their personal attributes and characteristics. Individuals gradually become part of the community, highlighting their identity as community residents. They are more likely to approach community affairs from a community perspective, accept the viewpoints and emotional expressions of other residents, and invest their personal efforts in community affairs. A strong sense of community belonging arises. This process also involves emotional resonance with community members and the echo of typical behavioral patterns within a larger community, constituting an emotion-based experience of identity.

Post-connection stage

Emotion has powerful social functions, not only connecting people, but also forming social bonds and constructing complex social structures.

After experiencing emotional connection with a community, people want to have more community interactions, and all interpersonal interactions have the potential to evoke group emotions. When the residents are engaged in community activities, such as planning, organizing, group discussions, and decision-making activities related to public affairs, they are more likely to construct an inclusive, open, supportive, and harmonious community culture. The integration of individual and community identity of residents can amplify shared community emotions during the interactions. The language, expressions, postures, and actions of other community members are imitated and assimilated spontaneously, which can lead people to immerse more deeply in the emotions of others, resulting in the convergence of positive emotions or the formation of shared emotions.

As communities become more diverse, conflicts may arise within those communities. In community conflicts, the interactive coordination mechanism is disrupted, which leads to a chaotic and disordered rhythm on all sides. In such cases, both parties in a conflict seek to gain control, and disrupt the dynamic of each group involved. This repeated disruption of micro-rhythms can intensify tension and anger among the emotional transmitter and subsequently these emotions will be transmitted to emotional receivers. Some scholars have pointed out the existence of a “perception-imitation-feedback-emotion” activation mechanism in this type of interpersonal interaction. In this mechanism, interactants can perceive each other’s emotions and generate corresponding emotional experiences through spontaneous imitation of facial expressions or other non-verbal cues such as body language.

Another way by which community emotion is formed is processing inference—community residents consciously acknowledge, distinguish, and accept the emotions of others. This is a rational process of understanding and receiving emotion. If a community has open channels for expressing public opinions and mechanisms for resolving conflicts and disputes, residents may connect with each other by sharing ideas and emotions. However, they may also disagree with one another due to differences in goals and values. Public interactions and communication in communities often have clear intentions and motives. Therefore, interpersonal emotion transmitted within the community has distinct characteristics and is regulated from top to bottom by the advanced social system.

Inference processing emphasizes the conscious engagement of community members in processing, discerning, and either accepting or rejecting the emotional information conveyed by others. This information then serves as input in social decision-making. Information processing and appropriate judgment are two factors that influence community members during emotional inference processing. The extent to which emotional information is processed by community members primarily depends on their motivation and evaluative inference abilities.

Research shows that individuals with higher education levels, who are intelligent, and have a better working memory, tend to have greater emotional information processing abilities and are more inclined to use inference to gauge community emotions.

In community interactions, people compare their emotions with others, and if appropriate, they would accept the emotions of others and mirror them. This aligns with shared community interpretation strategies and emotional expression norms, representing appropriate judgments made by other community members. The formation of appropriate judgments depends on the social context, the content of expression, the characteristics of the expresser, and the characteristics of the observer.

Emotional responses and emotional inferences should both be classified as interpersonal or situational expressions of community emotion, which primarily focus on interpersonal processes that occur in communities. Additionally, it’s important to note that community emotion, as shared emotional experiences either within the entire community or in certain groups within the community, requires emotional feedback cycles and reinforcement at the community level.

Emotional transmission within a community includes one-way transmission, two-way transmission, and a networked transmission process including many community members. This process forms a dense network of emotions through layered emotional reactions and inferences, connecting to more complex group emotional structures. In this process, individual emotional experiences serve as both inputs and outcomes for others’ emotions and behaviors, reinforcing links through multiple interactions and spiraling upward, leading to the formation of homogeneous emotional states and connection among community residents.

At the same time, integration based on community identity allows residents to be both expressers and observers in highly interactive emotional environments. The flow and aggregation of emotions results in more resonant emotions driving weaker ones, ultimately leading to shared emotions. At this point, community residents experience emotional resonance and fusion, and the incremental effect of emotional connection continues to expand, further promoting unity within the community and the formation of community emotions.

In summary, community emotion originates within a specific space and time in communities and is triggered by whether community residents’ life needs are met or not. Community emotion is formed through communications and interactions among residents, and shapes the community’s identity. Through emotional reactions, emotional inferences, and a series of psychological processes, a sense of community emotion is generated, characterized by its holistic, shared, and dynamic nature.

Based on this, this article proposes the following strategies for governing community emotion today: indicators should be established to measure and monitor community emotions; attention should be paid to the real needs of community residents when enhancing community identity and cohesion; and negative community emotion must be redirected to highlight positive community emotion.


Jing Shijie is from the School of Social Development at East China University of Political Science and Law; Yang Yiyin is from the Institute of Sociology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences; Wu Ying is from the School of Ethnology and Sociology at Minzu University of China.

Editor:Yu Hui

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