The following excerpt is from William Reddy’s The Making of Romantic Love, elaborating on the problem of conflating romantic love with more universal forms of love. – PW
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The Anthropology of Romantic Love
The English word love can mean so many different things that, by convention, one adds the word “romantic” to distinguish those types of love that include a sexual component from all other types of love. This is the sense of “romantic love” deployed by William Jankowiak and Edward Fischer in a widely cited study published in 1992.1 The authors presented evidence that romantic love was present in 147 out of 166 cultures, or 88.5 percent. Their definition of romantic love was very broad. Evidence of any one of five criteria was regarded as sufficient: (1) accounts of personal anguish and longing, (2) love songs or folklore “that highlight the motivations behind romantic involvement,” (3) elopements due to mutual affection, (4) native accounts of passionate love, and (5) ethnographers’ affirmations.
The authors believed their findings disproved a view expressed by a number of scholars that romantic love was found only in modern individualistic societies. The evidence, they concluded, strongly supported the universal occurrence of romantic love. Jankowiak subsequently edited an anthology of essays by ethnographers presenting evidence for the existence of romantic love in a variety of cultural settings from West Africa to Polynesia.2
In a 1998 essay, Charles Lindholm rejected Jankowiak and Fischer’s conclusion, however, on the grounds that their definition of romantic love lacked sociological and cultural specificity.3 […] Lindholm’s observations strongly indicate the need for a more nuanced vocabulary. After all, his objection to Jankowiak and Fischer’s conclusions may be the result of a terminological confusion. Jankowiak and Fischer cast the widest possible net that the term “romantic love” permits.
In this study, the term “longing for association” will be used to refer to that wide net that Jankowiak and Fischer cast, and the term “romantic love” will be reserved to refer to those forms of the longing for association that have emerged in Western and Western-influenced cultural settings where one or another of the historical versions of desire-as-appetite is accepted as common sense.
To illustrate the importance of this distinction, consider a case mentioned by Leonard Plotinicov in the 1995 anthology edited by William Jankowiak. Plotinicov reports on a Nigerian informant who became fascinated, even obsessed with his third wife the moment he saw her. Although he already had two wives, he said, “I told her I wanted to marry her. She said she had nothing to say about that, and directed me to her parents.” He immediately went to negotiate with the parents and soon married her.4 Whatever this man’s emotion was, to equate it with “romantic love” as practiced in certain Western settings is to ignore the centrality of reciprocal feeling and of exclusivity in Western norms for love partnerships.
. William R. Jankowiak and Edward F. Fischer, “A Cross-Cultural Perspective on Romantic Love,” Ethnology 31 (1992): 149–55.
. William R. Jankowiak, ed., Romantic Passion: A Universal Experience? (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995).
. Charles Lindholm, “Love and Structure,” Theory, Culture & Society 15 (1998): 243–63.
. Leonard Plotinicov, “Love, Lust and Found in Nigeria,” in Romantic Passion: A Universal Experience? ed. William Jankowiak (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), 128–40, quote from p. 134.