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After Kinship and Marriage, Anthropology Discovers Love

Published: November 24, 1992

IF, as Stendhal said, "Love is like a fever," then that fever infects all peoples,
anthropologists say.
Some influential Western social historians have argued that romance was a
product of European medieval culture that spread only recently to other
cultures. They dismissed romantic tales from other cultures as representing
the behavior of just the elites. Under the sway of this view, Western
anthropologists did not even look for romantic love among the peoples they
studied. But they are now beginning to think that romantic love is universal
and is a rogue legacy of humanity's shared evolutionary past.
The fact that it does not loom large in anthropology, they say, reflects the
efforts most societies have made to quash the unruly inclination. In many
countries, they suspect, what appears to be romance newly in bloom is
rather the flowering of instincts that were always there, but held in check
by tradition and custom.
Romantic ardor has long been at odds with social institutions that knit
peoples together in an orderly fashion: romantic choices rarely match the
"proper" mates a family would select. In that light, falling in love has been
seen by many peoples throughout the world as a dangerous and subversive
-- though undeniably alluring -- act, one warned against in folk tale and

"For decades anthropologists and other scholars have assumed romantic

love was unique to the modern West," said Dr. Leonard Plotnicav, an

anthropologist at the University of Pittsburgh, and editor of the journal

Ethnology. "Anthropologists came across it in their field work, but they
rarely mentioned it because it wasn't supposed to happen."
Romantic love is a new focus for anthropologists; next month there will be
the first scientific session on the anthropology of romance at the annual
meeting of the American Anthropological Association in San Francisco.
Anthropologists distinguish between romantic passion and plain lust, as
well as other kinds of love, like that between companions or parents and
children. By "romantic love," anthropologists mean an intense attraction
and longing to be with the loved one.
"Why has something so central to our culture been so ignored by
anthropology?" asked Dr. William Jankowiak, an anthropologist at the
University of Nevada, who is organizing the session.
The reason, in the view of Dr. Jankowiak and others, is a scholarly bias
throughout the social sciences that viewed romantic love as a luxury in
human life, one that could be indulged only by people in Westernized
cultures or among the educated elites of other societies. For example it was
assumed in societies where life is hard that romantic love has less chance
to blossom, because higher economic standards and more leisure time
create more opportunity for dalliance. That also contributed to the belief
that romance was for the ruling class, not the peasants.
But, said Dr. Jankowiak, "There is romantic love in cultures around the
world." Last year Dr. Jankowiak, with Dr. Edward Fischer, an anthropologist
at Tulane University, published in Ethnology the first cross-cultural study,
systematically comparing romantic love in many cultures.
In the survey of ethnographies from 166 cultures, they found what they
considered clear evidence that romantic love was known in 147 of them -89 percent. And in the other 19 cultures, Dr. Jankowiak said, the absence

of conclusive evidence seemed due more to anthropologists' oversight than

to a lack of romance. What's the Evidence?
The survey demanded a careful reading of the records, since anthropologists
often paid no systematic attention to whether the people they studied had
romantic involvements, or failed to distinguish between lust and love.
Some of the evidence came from tales about lovers, or folklore that offered
love potions or other advice on making someone fall in love.
Another source was accounts by informants to anthropologists. For
example, Nisa, a Kung woman among the Bushmen of the Kalahari, made a
clear distinction between the affection she felt for her husband, and that she
felt for her lovers, which was "passionate and exciting," though fleeting. Of
these extramarital affairs, she said: "When two people come together their
hearts are on fire and their passion is very great. After a while, the fire cools
and that's how it stays."
Much of the evidence for romantic love came from cautionary tales. For
example, a famous story in China during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) was
that of The Jade Goddess. Similar in its description of romantic love to the
European tale of Tristan and Isolde, it recounts how a young man falls in
love with a woman who has been committed by her family to marry someone
else, but who returns his love. The couple elope, but end in desperate straits
and finally return home, in disgrace. A Question of Chemistry
Indeed, from the Kama Sutra to the poems of Sappho, tales of romance are
found in ancient literatures throughout the world, though largely ignored by
anthropologists and Western social historians. This is one clue that romance
is a universal human trait, Dr. Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at the
American Museum of Natural History, contends in "Anatomy of Love,"
published this month by W.W. Norton.

"The brain chemistry for romantic love evolved along with pair bonding four
or five million years ago, when our species started to forage, stand on two
legs, and carry food back to a safe place to eat," said Dr. Fisher. "Mothers
could not do all that and carry an infant in their arms without help from a
partner. That led to a major change in reproductive strategy -- infatuation
and attachment, the ingredients of romantic love."
Dr. Fisher added, "With the evolution of pair bonding came body chemistry
that initiates and sustains bonding." She proposes that because there is a
biochemical system that regulates romantic feelings, the capacity for
romance is universal.
Still, given cultures may channel romantic feelings in different ways.
Romantic love, Dr. Jankowiak said, may be muted or repressed by cultural
mores such as marriages arranged by families while the betrothed are still
"The proportion of members of a community who experience romantic love
may well depend on that culture's social organization," Dr. Jankowiak said.
Three's the Charm
In an editorial note to the cross-cultural survey of romantic love, Dr.
Plotnicav wrote that, in retrospect, it was an oversight to ignore the topic in
his own field work. "I wish I had thought of looking at this 30 years ago in
Nigeria," he said. "But it wasn't part of our tool kit."
The traditional pattern of marriage among the people Dr. Plotnicav studied
was for a man to ask his relatives to find him a wife. But, if they could afford
the expense, men there could have more than one wife -- allowing romance
to enter the picture.
"It's often the third wife who is married for romantic reasons," said Dr.
Plotnicav. "I remember one man who told me he first saw his third wife

walking through the market and, as he put it, 'she took my life away.' He
was passionately in love, and pursued her until she married him."
While finding that romantic love appears to be a human universal, Dr.
Jankowiak allows that it is still an alien idea in many cultures that such
infatuation has anything to do with the choice of a spouse.
"What's new in many cultures is the idea that romantic love should be the
reason to marry someone," said Dr. Jankowiak. "Some cultures see being in
love as a state to be pitied. One tribe in the mountains of Iran ridicules
people who marry for love." First Marriage, Then Love
Of course, even in arranged marriages, partners may grow to feel romantic
love for each other. For example, among villagers in the Kangra valley of
northern India, "people's romantic longings and yearnings ideally would
become focused on the person they're matched with by their families," said
Dr. Kirin Narayan, an anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin.
But that has begun to change, Dr. Narayan is finding, under the influence
of popular songs and movies. "In these villages the elders are worried that
the younger men and women are getting a different idea of romantic love,
one where you choose a partner yourself," said Dr. Narayan. "There are
starting to be elopements, which are absolutely scandalous."
The same trend toward love matches, rather than arranged marriages, is
being noted by anthropologists in many other cultures. Among aborigines
in Australia's Outback, for example, marriages had for centuries been
arranged when children were very young.
That pattern was disrupted earlier in this century by missionaries, who
urged that marriage not occur until children reached adolescence. Dr.
Victoria Burbank, an anthropologist at the University of California at Davis,
said that in pre-missionary days, the average age of a girl at marriage was
always before menarche, sometimes as young as 9 years. Today the average

age at marriage is 17; girls are more independent by the time their parents
try to arrange a marriage for them. Pregnancy as an Excuse
"More and more adolescent girls are breaking away from arranged
marriages," said Dr. Burbank. "They prefer to go off into the bush for a 'date'
with someone they like, get pregnant, and use that pregnancy to get parental
approval for the match."
Even so, parents sometimes are adamant that the young people should not
get married. They prefer, instead, that the girls follow the traditional pattern
of having their mothers choose a husband for them.
"Traditionally among these people, you can't choose just any son-in-law,"
said Dr. Burbank. "Ideally, the mother wants to find a boy who is her
maternal grandmother's brother's son, a pattern that insures partners are
in the proper kin group."
Dr. Burbank added: "These groups have critical ritual functions. A marriage
based on romantic love, which ignores what's a proper partner, undermines
the system of kinship, ritual, and obligation."
Nevertheless, the rules for marriage are weakening. "In the grandmothers'
generation, all marriages were arranged. Romantic love had no place,
though there were a few stories of a young man and woman in love running
off together. But in the group I studied, in only one recent case did the girl
marry the man selected for her. All the rest are love matches."
A similar pattern is going on in the village in northern Morocco studied by
Dr. Susan Davis, an anthropologist and consultant in Haverford, Penn.
"When I first went there in 1965, marriage was a strictly utilitarian economic
arrangement," she said. "Your parents arranged your marriage." Then Came
But with the arrival of television and cinema in the village, bringing Egyptian
soap operas and American movies, ideas of romance spread. "It's still taboo

for a girl to say to her parents, 'I love a certain boy and want to marry him,'
" said Dr. Davis. "But what's new is that a girl now expects to have a veto
over the mate her parents propose, and that her parents will eventually
approve of someone she likes."
In all these cultures the trend toward "love marriages" is lamented by older
generations, who see it as a threat to traditional values. Dr. Jankowiak said:
"If you follow a private impulse, you'll abandon your loyalties and
obligations. Love matches create a new unit that disregards the economic
and social goals of your family of origin."
That deep fear of romance, said Dr. Jankowiak, explains the nearuniversality of Romeo-and-Juliet-type tales, where couples who fall in love
despite the objections of their families end tragically, rather than happily
ever after.
"The moral of these cautionary tales is that romantic love is the enemy of
the extended family and social stability," said Dr. Jankowiak. "But as
romantic marriage becomes more common in a given culture, the old,
traditional bonds weaken, though they may emerge in new forms to
accommodate the change."