Love and Sociological Theory
Earlier this term, I used Larson and Tsitsos’s (2013) “Speed Dating and the Presentation of Self” activity to get students to think about impression management and impression formation. The activity requires that half of the class stay seated, while others are tasked with switching seats/partners every three minutes. During each segment, students talk about anything they want. The activity enables students to practice analysis, participant-observation, and symbolic interactionism.
Partway through the activity, I modified the exercise and, after they switched partners, asked students to stare at the person across from them for one minute before talking. After about 30 seconds of nervous laughter and glances around the room, the students settled into staring. We then proceeded to finish the exercise without additional modifications.
Upon completion, and during our discussion component of the activity, several students mentioned that although staring at another classmate was “weird” and “made them uncomfortable,” it also created a connection between some of the participants. Students said that they felt closer and more trusting of the person they stared at. This trust enabled them to engage in deeper conversation and to feel an instant friendship with their staring partner.
During the radio segment, creative writer Mandy Len Catron shared an essay on the importance of participating in meaningful conversation and staring, in silence, at another individual. As a scientific exercise, Catron and a partner engaged in an exercise developed by social psychologist Arthur Aron. This included answering a series of 36 questions with a partner (romantic interest, friend, family member, etc.) and then staring into each other’s eyes for four minutes.
This last part, the staring component, peaked my interest as it was somewhat similar to what I asked my students to do during the impression management exercise. I started to wonder, is there something about not only talking to another person, but also taking meaningful time to sit in silence and really look at another individual that works to build trust and, in some ways, a sense of love and connection. And, in doing that can we work to build places of love?
We often think of sociology as concerned with questions of social inequality and other really difficult, sometimes heavy, subjects. We tend not to think of sociology and love as something that may go together. In fact, when I mentioned to a colleague that I was thinking through ways to make space for love, or love as a form of place-making, he laughed at me.
We are dear friends, and I know he was just teasing. However, his laughter also signifies how we, as a society (and as crabby professors), tend to think of love. It is a squishy, fluffy, nebulous, unserious thing. However, sociologically, love is quite interesting because it can mean so many different things to different people. There’s romantic love, love of self, familial love, friendship love, love for pets, love of things or places, love for one’s religious faith, et cetera. And really, as many of us have experienced, love can be a really difficult, sometimes heavy, thing. Furthermore, as Peter Kaufman reminds us, sociology is concerned with the movements of our everyday lives and interactions, including love.
In thinking about love and its connections to creating spaces for friendship and dialogue, Catron’s discussion of love is useful. Analyzing the cyclical way that words and actions frame each other, in her TED talk, Catron draws on the work of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in the “Metaphors We Live By.” For Lakoff and Johnson “conventional metaphors” frame our definitions, and, thus, the ways we think and act.
Conversely, “imaginative and creative metaphors” can open up new possibilities, expand our understandings of conventional ways of thinking, and help us to reframe how we view and engage the world. In this, they use the example of love. Conventional metaphors include statements such as: “I’m crazy about her,” “The magic is gone [from the relationship],” “She pursued him,” and so on. As an imaginative metaphor, they propose “love is a collaborative work of art.” This different way of thinking about love, according to Lakoff and Johnson, highlights the agency we each have in approaching how, who, and where we choose to love.
If love is collaborative, then it is a space where people learn to work together, build together, gain an understanding of each other, and look at each other with, as feminist Marilyn Frye says, “loving eyes.” To do this “one must consult something other than one’s own will and interests and fears and imagination.” Building upon Frye, feminist philosopher Maria Lugones highlights how we are socialized into “arrogant perception.” For Frye and Lugones, depending on our social status (race, gender, class, ability, sexuality), we are taught to perceive others as less than we are as a form of control, social stratification, and to maintain our own status.
How might we shift toward seeing love as a collaborative work of art? This means thinking differently about how we influence and construct classroom cultures, our interactions with peers, contentious family discussions, townhall meetings, et cetera. I don’t think this means absolving people of their actions, or willful ignorance. Rather, this is about all parties making a deliberate decision to enter a space with love, understanding, and openness. It may also include sitting in silence and really looking, lovingly (in all of its definitions), at another person.
Using this idea of love as a collaborative work of art, how might we rethink spaces of dialogue? Particularly with difficult ideas (such as abortion, politics, religion, finances, to name a few)?