Interdisciplinary love studies

Photo, 154/365 - Heart for you, Olga Filonenko, Mar. 24, 2013, Flickr, creative commons
Olga Filonenko, "Heart for you," Flickr, 2013.

As readers of popular romance know, “love” isn’t just one thing. It’s more like an ecosystem, containing a range of climates and terrains. After all, when we talk about love, we’re often talking about things like the will to express care, appreciation, and protection, and those can be found in all sorts of contexts, not just in partnered (or soon-to-be partnered) romantic couples.

I started thinking about love in this more expansive, ecological way a few months ago, when I was one of 14 strangers who traveled to Brazil, part of an international collaboration between 10 colleges and universities in Atlanta, GA, and the states of Bahia and Pernambuco. We traveled seven days on five planes and participated in daily meetings, often quite intense, with a range of educators: everyone from community leaders and elementary school administrators to a Governor, Secretary of Education, and Minister for Women’s Issues.

The stress was intense. We had high expectations, of ourselves and of our partners, and we were a wildly disparate group, diverse in race, religion, age, language, nationality, and expertise. Despite all that, or maybe because of it, the bonds we forged went deep. I couldn’t help but wonder: what would happen if we started talking and thinking about love in an equally intense and inclusive way?

My academic background is black women’s intellectual history, so I am invested in understanding and creating more inclusive paradigms, and more practical, problem-solving ones as well. To me, the study of love is not merely an academic question. It needs to be undertaken in a way that improves the quality of life. As scholars, we mostly begin by mapping out the existing research on a topic, but as trailblazers and problem-solvers, sometimes we need to go about building the road as we walk.

Keeping both roles in mind, I realized it was time both to complicate and to coordinate the ways we study love.

The complication part is easy—after all, there are so many questions researchers must take up, or continue to address!  What role does self-love play in romantic love? How do animals or insects love? Is spiritual love dependent on self-love, or vice versa? What is the relationship of romance and love to sex? How does identity (i.e. race, gender, sexuality, location) impact our expressions of love? Who cares about romance anyway?

These questions should be answered—but we need to approach them in a purposeful, interdisciplinary, and collaborative way.  That’s why I say that we also have to start coordinating our scholarly understanding of love.  It is time, in short, for a new academic field.  I call it “Interdisciplinary Love Studies”: a sustained, comprehensive dialogue on the subject of love.

How do you get a field like this started?  Well, a book can’t hurt, so I recently put out a call for papers for Researching Love: Foundations of Interdisciplinary Love Studies in Higher Education. (You can find it here; as you’ll see, there’s a March 1 deadline.) My goal is to bring together scholars—a various, disparate gathering, just like that group in Brazil—who are mindful of the need to speak across disciplinary and national boundaries in a way that addresses the full complexity of love.

This collection will include a reading of intimate and romantic love, but will also will interpret expressions of self-love, social love, and universal or spiritual love. Given the breadth of possible topics, what questions do you think this new field should explore? What problems should it try to resolve? Current research clearly shows romantic love as the most popular type of study…how can interest in romantic love excite our senses and our intellect so we can better understand other dimensions of what we mean by love?

Initial responses to the call for papers have come from the United States, Australia, Canada, Germany, and Romania. I am happy others are ready to join the discussion in shaping this new area of study and look forward to hearing from as diverse a group of voices as those that began this journey, back in Brazil.

Stephanie Evans

Stephanie Evans is Associate Professor and Chair of African American Studies, Africana Women’s Studies, and History at Clark Atlanta University.

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