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The Anthropological Study of Romantic Love

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The anthropological study of romantic (or passionate) love is virtually nonexistent

due to the widespread belief that romantic love is unique to Euro-American

culture. This belief is by no means confined to anthropology. The historian

Philippe Aries (1962), for example, argues that affection was of secondary

importance to more utilitarian ambitions throughout much of European history.

Lawrence Stone (1988:16) goes further, insisting that "if romantic love ever existed

outside of Europe, it only arose among the nonwestern nation-states' elite who had

the time to cultivate an aesthetic appreciation for subjective experiences."

Underlying these Eurocentric views is the assumption that modernization and the

rise of individualism are directly linked to the appearance of romantic notions of


The validity of an affectionless past is challenged by some historians who draw

upon the insights of an earlier generation of anthropologists (e.g., Lowie 1950

Westermark 1922) to argue that European preindustrial courtship was neither cold,

aloof, nor devoid of affection (Gillis 1988; MacDonald 1981; MacFarlane 1987

Pollock 1983). However, much of this revisionist work continues to explain

instances of romantic love as a basis for marriage, ignoring the role romantic love

plays in affairs (see Stearns and Stearns 1985). Consequently, little has been done

to alter the prevalent opinion that romantic love is a European contribution to

world culture.



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