A brief commentary on Jankowiak & Fischer’s misuse of the term ‘romantic love’

The following elaborates on a common misrepresentation of what romantic love is. – PW

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It’s amazing to observe how many academics have adopted a flawed idea of what romantic love is – all because Jankowiak & Fischer1 claimed to both define, and then find evidence of romantic love in 147 out of 166 cultures. However their definition does not match the romantic love construct from Europe which rested squarely on a feudal template of men serving elevated ladies – a template that is missing from Jankowiak & Fischer’s definition. As the most popular kind of love in the world today, this is no small oversight.

Romantic love is, in fact, different from the more generic form of love they describe.

Even the great Steve Stewart-Williams uncritically accepts Jankowiak & Fischer’s romantic love construct which omits the feudal template (ie. man as vassal, woman as lord), an omission that results in their construct not being romantic love at all because it is lacking its most definitive element.

Jankowiak & Fischer defined romantic love as based on intimacy, passion, commitment, idealization, limerence, and so on, and omitted the central relevance of the feudal template. But no feudal metaphor = no romantic love. Academics relying on such misinformation overlook the novelty of romantic love as does Stewart-Williams in his otherwise wonderful book on evolutionary psychology titled ‘The Ape Who Understood The Universe.‘ There he writes:

The question all these findings raise is a straightforward one: If romantic love is an invention of Western culture, why is it found in every geographical region, historical period, and ethnic group? The simplest and most plausible answer is that romantic love is not an invention of Western culture. Instead, the idea that romantic love is an invention of Western culture is itself an invention of Western culture, and a rather implausible one at that. Human beings were falling in and out of love for hundreds of thousands of years before we ever had Hollywood blockbusters or knights in shining armor. We’re just that kind of animal – the kind that falls in love from time to time.

Its clear that some academics are attempting to universalize a medieval phenomenon that is not, in fact, universal. And many subsequent academics are simply quoting, without checking, the robustness of the earlier study by Jankowiak & Fischer. Have they never read pre-medieval European literature, or perhaps Chinese history for alternative descriptions of love?

For example, the following quote is from the book Love and Women in Early Chinese Fiction By Daniel Hsieh (2009),2 which describes an absence of the European template in China:

The idea of a purely romantic hero, a man as both an amorous and exemplar figure, is almost unknown. Most modern readers would react to the Chinese romances with sentiments akin to E. D. Edwards who declared, “Of all characteristics of Chinese fiction which are foreign to European ideas none is more striking than the inadequacy of the hero of love stories. The nominal hero is generally a quite unheroic person….”. Given the norms of the culture this was inevitable. Romance ordinarily had little place in the life of a wenren, and any attempt to raise its position is problematic. A “real” man was not a lover. Earlier we saw an example from the Shishou xinyu where an individual was laughed at  for his excessive devotion to his wife. In “Diao Wei Wudi wen”, Lu Ji (261–303) writes, “As for entangling one’s emotions on extraneous objects or setting one’s thoughts on women (gui fang), these are things that a wise and outstanding man had best avoid.” In a Confucian world, feelings for the opposite sex were sublimated. It is not that women were necessarily seen as “evil.” Rather, having little place in moral and philosophical realms, they threatened to hinder a person from higher pursuits. One’s “passion” should be for ruler and state, and very early there evolved the model of the wenren official assuming the role of lover with the ruler being the object of his devotion. Some of the most passionate poetry in the tradition – Qu Yuan’s verse in Chu ci – is based on this idea. As Arthur Waley noted when discussing the “Li sao” (Encountering Sorrow), “In this poem, sex and politics are curiously interwoven, as we need not doubt they were in Chu Yuan’s own mind. He affords a striking example of the way in which abnormal mentality imposes itself.” In the West there occurred an interesting reversal of this notion. The rise of courtly love involved a kind of “feudalisation of love” in which man devoted himself to a lady in the way a vassal devoted himself to his lord.

It’s revealing to contrast the Chinese position that, quote “a real man was not a lover” with the opposite convention coming out of 12th century Europe where, “Here the truest lovers are now the best knights.”3 

This error of claiming romantic love as universal is akin to saying all four-legged animals are horses because horses have four legs. This kind of logic is relevant to hippophiles, but it isn’t science……. even if horses do, in fact, have four legs. Same with romantic love – it needs to be differentiated from more generic love constructs and not blurred together.

C.S. Lewis rightly defined courtly & romantic love as “a feudalisation of love.” Again, if there’s no feudal template (eg. is absent in many other cultures’ version of love), there’s no romantic love. So-called research that omits this point is an attempt to universalise a novel social construct. The feudal factor permeates the phenomenon of romantic love, and must be included as a guiding factor in any attempts at a cross-cultural study on romantic love. However, because this factor was omitted by Jankowiak & Fischer it renders their study misleading if we consider that the Europe-derived model has become the dominant format in many cultures today; if we are going to use the exact phrase romantic love it deserves a more detailed description.  

The kind of love that Jankowiak & Fischer do end up describing and then sampling in 166 cultures is more accurately phrased as pairbonding love, which does indeed exist in all cultures. To (mis)use the European phrase romantic love leads to confusion; so I would recommend they, and all researchers who have followed them, consider making this terminology change. 

The feudal metaphor is symbolised in this image of a man going down on one knee in a pledge of lifelong service to a woman considered elevated. This is a continuation of the commendation ceremony of the Middle Ages.

Addendum: Since writing the above commentary, I have communicated with both Jankowiak and Fischer who inform me that the above terminology problem has been recognized and addressed by them some time ago, leading to the dropping of the phrase romantic love and replacing it with the more suitable designation passionate love in subsequent publications. 


[1] Jankowiak, W. R., & Fischer, E. F. (1992). A cross-cultural perspective on romantic love. Ethnology, 31(2), 149-155.

[2] Hsieh, D. (2009). Love and women in early Chinese fiction. The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press.

[3] Wollock, J. G. (2011). Rethinking chivalry and courtly love. ABC-CLIO.



The following excerpt from William Reddy’s The Making of Romantic Love, elaborates on the conflation of romantic love with more universal forms of love. – PW

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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.


[1]. William R. Jankowiak and Edward F. Fischer, “A Cross-Cultural Perspective on Romantic Love,” Ethnology 31 (1992): 149–55.
[2]. William R. Jankowiak, ed., Romantic Passion: A Universal Experience? (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995).
[3]. Charles Lindholm, “Love and Structure,” Theory, Culture & Society 15 (1998): 243–63.
[4]. 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.

See Also:
Is Romantic Love a Timeless Evolutionary Universal, or a Frankenstein Creation of The Middle Ages?
A comment on Don Monson’s ‘Why is la Belle Dame sans Merci? Evolutionary Psychology and the Troubadours’