The Sociology of Love

In a Sociological Review paper, Julia Carter​, reported on the curious absence of love in young women’s account of their relationships. She found that many of these women struggled to talk about their feelings in general and about love in particular. Contrary to sociological theories of individualisation, Carter discovered a tendency to describe ‘drifting’ into relationships which ‘just happened’. In this interview, she reflects on the paper and places it in the broader context of the sociology of love. 

Why is love sociologically interesting? How have sociologists tended to understand it?  

Love is interesting sociologically for so many reasons. To start with, just the one word can represent so many different meanings and understandings: sexual love, intimate love, companionate love, romantic love, parental love, friendship love, inter-species love, love for places, belongings, views. It is a word that is used prolifically to mean so much, which means it is incredibly difficult to define and study.

But intimate love between a couple is different. This is an emotion that has gained prominence and significance over the past 100 years and has come to legitimate a range of institutions, ideologies and policies. With changes in the way society is structured from more formalised institutions to reflexive practices, the formal processes enshrined in law to keep families together have fallen away, resulting in a new bedrock for relationships, families and society: love.

Love is interesting because it is everywhere and has a significant impact on our culture, society and lives, and yet we can know relatively little about what it actually means. Love is not something we can ‘know’- we have to investigate how it is represented socially and culturally. In the UK we are structured by the norm of the loving couple, this is seen as keeping families and society together and stable.

Love played an important part in women’s emancipation: the rise of romantic love and its link with marriage, meant women increasingly had more choice in their future partners. The notion of romantic love had historically been reserved for sexual relationships outside of marriage. So as the interconnection between love and marriage grew, so did the condemnation of extra-marital relationships.

This couple love is supposed to take different forms and some sociologists have distinguished between ‘romantic’ love- a whirlwind, one-and-only type of love- ‘companionate’ love- a caring, intimate type- ‘confluent’ love- contingent, democratic and in flux- and ‘liquid’ love- temporary, weak and based only on happiness.

There are, of course, many other definitions. Alternatively, sociologists interpret love through cultural discourses, highlighting the increasingly commercialised aspects of love and its use as a cultural norm to privilege certain types of relationships. These theorists note the importance of remaining critical of these discourses.

So why does love have such power? Whether a private emotion, organising institution, normative expression, commodity, societal glue or legitimating ideology, love is clearly an important concept to understand and interrogate in modern society.

Do the different understandings sociologists have of love reflect different understandings of it within society? 

Sociologists’ understandings of love tend to reflect different understandings of it within society, simply because the way we can study love is through talking to people, investigating cultural representations and understanding the structuring and organising principles of love; these will inevitably reflect general societal understandings of love.

Perhaps what produces divergence from societal understandings is the way in which we interpret and analyse these findings. For example, while it may be common knowledge that couples often marry for love, as sociologists, we know that this is a fairly recent development in Western societies that implies changes in wider societal structures and social forces.

Sociological discourses of love generally reflect trends within society; a recent emphasis in debates around relationships, for example, is the retreat of marriage and long-term commitment, supposedly reflected in decreasing marriage rates and the rise of cohabitation (and a focus on living apart together relationships).

Some theorists suggest that there has been a transformation in intimacy and that we live in an increasingly individualised, agentic and democratic world of personal relationships. This may result in two outcomes for intimate love: either it is transitory and temporary or it is increasingly valorised as more formal relationship processes fall away.

Alternatively, relationships and love still appear to be very important to people and so other sociologists suggest a continuity in the ideal of long-term or even life-long love. Love has simply become more risky.

How well do these sociological accounts of love map on to the way that the women in your study talk about their own experiences of love?

The interesting finding for me was that love was not openly discussed by my participants, without prompting from me first. When I asked them about their relationships, their responses were always very practical and very few young women spontaneously mentioned love or being in love. It was almost taken-for-granted and when I did ask, their love for their partner was immediately confirmed.

What became apparent was that long-term love was very important to people, even if it was difficult to articulate. Therefore, sociological accounts of temporary, transitory or contingent love could not be mapped onto women’s accounts.

The young women talked about ‘drifting’ into relationships and forming relationships with friends or people they already knew. What this points to is the de-formalisation of relationship practices- there is more freedom now to begin and end relationships and drift into and out of them. Rather than this being talked about in terms of agency and choice, however, their accounts were characterised by a distinct lack of agency, talking about relationships that ‘just happened’. Agentic notions of love and relationships may, therefore, be rather optimistic.

There was, however, evidence from my research to support the normative notion that love should be romantic, once-occurring and life-long. When talking about past relationships, participants would recall (and re-interpret) their emotions, saying ‘I thought it was love…’ or ‘it was not love at all…’ This happened in numerous accounts suggesting that ‘real’ love should only be experienced once and this should not come to an end. This description of love creates the normative imperative for life-long monogamous relationships, reflected in social policy, media and commercial products. Nevertheless, love was not valorised by participants and it certainly was not the only meaningful concept: commitment and marriage were also extremely important.

Sociological accounts of love did not account for the absence of love talk in these women’s discussions of their relationships. What I argue is that they found love difficult to talk about because it has become an increasingly private emotion due to the societal emphasis on compulsory coupledom: love has become a quiet, private project for couples in a society that worships coupledom and romance.

Julia Carter is Senior Lecturer in the School of Psychology, Politics and Sociology at Canterbury Christ Church University. Her research interests include families and relationships, gender, femininities and research methods. 

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