Love is Sociological
When I was a kid, my parents had a book that I used to flip through called Love Is Walking Hand in Hand. The book was written by Peanuts illustrator Charles Schulz, and each page had a picture of Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Lucy, and the gang explaining what love is: Love is hating to say good-bye; Love is walking in the rain together; Love is letting him win even though you know you could slaughter him; Love is the whole world (this was written in the 60s, after all!). Although it's been quite a few years since I've looked at this little book, I'm pretty sure there is no page that said: Love is sociological.
To say that love is sociological may sound strange and even somewhat sacrilegious. Most of us think of love as something that we feel naturally. It's a spiritual, even cosmic, connection that brings forth an array of reactions such as butterflies in our stomachs, sweaty palms, weak knees, or just warmth and happiness. What could possibly be sociological about these physiological responses and heartfelt emotions?
When I ask students to consider if love is sociological, I pose a series of questions to them to get them thinking more critically about the social foundations of love. Most students begin this discussion thinking that love is some sort of natural, psycho-biological process. By the end of the discussion, I hope that many of them are rethinking this assumption and asking their own questions about how love is sociological. Here is a sample of the types of questions I pose:
Who do we love? Although many of us like to believe in the popular idea that love is blind, in reality, love is often quite prejudiced. As many sociological studies have detailed (here is one recent example), most people do not find themselves deeply and madly in love with just anyone; instead, most of us end up in love with someone who looks, thinks, and acts like us. More specifically, we tend to end up in love with people who share our race, ethnicity, religion, age, and social class. Sociologists originally referred to this as homophily—the idea that we gravitate towards those who are similar to us.
Although there are more instances where "opposites attract"—as in the case of interracial or interfaith unions, the majority of situations still demonstrate that birds of a feather are likely to flock together. However, the fact that there are increasingly more heterogeneous couples further demonstrates the social nature of love. As societies become more diverse, and individuals form bonds with a greater variety of people—what's known as the propinquity effect or contact theory—their views of who they find attractive and appealing has been shown to change. Like people, love can be prejudiced; however, such prejudices are not natural and they can be overcome through our social interactions.
How do we love? Most of us know how to properly display the love we have for someone else: we give them things such as chocolate, flowers, or a greeting card; we say certain words and phrases to them such as "I can't live without you," "you complete me," or "we were meant for each other"; or we engage in specific physical acts with them such as hugging, kissing, and having sex.
Increasingly, we use technology to find and express our love as comedian Aziz Ansari and sociologist Erik Klinenberg discuss in their best-selling book, Modern Romance. Are all of these displays of love natural? Is it just instinctual that we give someone a heart-shaped box full of processed sugar and cocoa, a bouquet of roses, or even a hickey? Or is it more likely that we have learned that these acts are the culturally approved ways to demonstrate love for someone?
It seems hard to deny that the way we come to express love is a product of our socialization. Practically everything we know about how to love comes from a variety of agents of socialization such as family, friends, the media, and even religious doctrines. And like all things that are social, the ways through which we demonstrate love is variable based on the social context in which we find ourselves. If you doubt the social foundations of how we learn to love just talk to your grandparents, your friends from other cultures, or read some early modern literature, and you will quickly find out that there are many different norms, practices, and behaviors that people have developed to demonstrate love.
When do we love? It's not uncommon in many high schools to see couples making out in the hallways, parking lots, or lunchrooms. Some people are quick to attribute this to young love and raging hormones. But if the need to make out in high school is indeed the necessary release of a biological impulse, then why just a few months after students graduate high school and enter college do these public displays of affection seem to end abruptly? In all my years of teaching college, I have rarely seen these public displays of affection in hallways or in any other public spaces on campus. Have students' hormones changed that drastically over the summer between high school and college? Or have they learned the norms of this new environment about when it is appropriate to display their love for someone else?
Even beyond these displays of affection between two lovers, we see that the question of "when we love" is highly dependent on the social context. Think back to when you were a teenager. How often did you express your love for your parents or your siblings (with words, a kiss, or a hug) when you were in the company of your friends? As young people growing more concerned about our presentation of self, many of us learn how uncool it is to display or express familial love in front of our peer group. This taboo is especially strong for boys who fear being seen as less masculine or as "momma's boys"—a point that is made poignantly in the new documentary about masculinity, The Mask You Live In.
These are just some of the questions that I pose to students to uncover the social foundations of love. Other questions you may want to consider include where do we love (are there socially sanctioned places where love occurs), why do we love (are there social functions of love), what do we love (is love only for people or can other living things and objects be loved), and of course the biggest question, what is love (how is love defined and does this definition change across time and space)? These questions, and the answers you come up with, will help you realize that while love is a many-splendored thing, it is also highly sociological.