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At what stage in the emotion process do people apprehend the relational meaning of their encounters with the practical or social environment? For many appraisal theorists, meaning (usually or always) comes first, shaping the activation of functional response modes by top-down influence. For transactional theorists, meaning emerges bottom-up in parallel with the real-time consolidation of the response syndrome. For attribution theorists, meaning is applied to emotional episodes after the fact, and is not an intrinsic part of any emotion-generative mechanisms. For communicative theorists, emotions are flexible strategies for conveying meanings to others. This paper reviews arguments and evidence for and against these four approaches and attempts to integrate their insights by sketching out a view of emotions as functional modes of engagement with the practical and social environment (relation alignment), whose operation is transformed by the imposition of societal prescriptions and descriptions. From this perspective, relational meaning is often implicated in the causes, content, and consequences of emotion but its roles in these phases of the transaction do not always coincide. Further, emotions should not be modelled simply as determinate responses to separately defined meanings or as communicative acts driven by internal goals, but also as situated adjustments to unfolding events and as active ways of transforming or producing meaning in collaboration with other people. © 2008 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.

Original publication




Journal article


Cognitive Systems Research

Publication Date





31 - 47