February 10, 2016

The New Anthropology of Love

Valentine's Day 2016

Love and desire are deeply personal, right? And when we fall in love with someone, it's because there's something unique and innate in them that matches with something unique and innate in us, right? Actually, neither of these things are as true as you think, according to Dredge Byung'chu Kang, a cultural anthropologist and a post-doctoral fellow in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. He discusses some national and global relationship trends, including data from online dating sites, that reveal how society and political economy shape what we consider intimate. He also shares one case in Thailand where love breaks the rule.


Image flickr: lisa568 and gabriela pinto. audio archive.org: qkxn, billchoi, chet baker. freesound.org: kwahmah_02.

Rebecca King: Hey there, Listeners! Thanks so much for tuning in to Hold That Thought. I’m Rebecca King, and with Valentine’s Day right around the corner, love is in the air—or at least in all of our advertising. So today I have a special guest to talk about the new anthropology of love.

Dredge Byung'chu Kang: My name is Dredge Byung'chu Kang. I am a postdoctoral fellow here in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Washington University.

RK: And even though we are talking about love today, Dredge and I think it’s only fair that we warn you upfront that this podcast is not about feeling lovey-dovey with your valentine.

DBK: I think that this is kind of the anti-Valentine’s Day discussion of love, because Valentine’s Day’s all about romance and about these pure relationships. You meet somebody. You fall in love. Everything’s great. And it’s based on this premise that we choose who we want to be with. What the new anthropology of love primarily focuses on is all those other social factors that aren’t about these lovely, giddy emotions but actually make love harder for people and show that love is structured in certain ways to get certain people together and produce certain kinds of relationships and not others.

RK: O.K. So now that all of us romcom and romance fans have braced ourselves, let’s begin. The topic is the new anthropology of love, but Dredge says anthropologists have been studying love for a while now and from many different angles.

DBK: I guess by calling it new, it has to be contrasted with something old or something that came before the new. Before when people talked about love, people tended to really focus on kinship. Basically, how do you get married, who marries who, what are the reasons for marriage, why does marriage differ in different places at different times. The focus was really about the partnership that is one of the most important in society. Anthropology, too, studies people in different ways, so there are biological anthropologists or cultural anthropologists, etc. Love can also be studied in those different ways. Biological anthropologists, for example, can study actual physical responses that people have when they are “in love,” so to speak, whether that is in the brain or heart responses and things like that. There has been a debate about whether love—romantic love—is universal. Do all societies have some kind of notion of romance, or is it particular to certain kinds of places? There has been a debate about that. People generally say romance is universal, but it looks very different in different places. Romance can be about things that aren’t necessarily about the couple themselves, so in some places, for example, romance is about the person that you want but cant have. That is also the model in courtly love in European history. It is the person you would like to have a relationship with but cant because of social circumstances. There are different nuances to that.

RK: Dredge is a cultural anthropologist as are many of those studying love, and he says how anthropologists look at love has shifted, especially from a cultural perspective.

DBK: A lot of what’s going on in what I’m calling the new anthropology of love is looking at how we are working on doing research about love now in the contemporary situation, really looking at both the variation in types of relationships that are out there and how they are changing now with capitalism and modernity, and also looking at the differences you see based on things like race, class, especially more of a focus on political economy in different parts of the world.

RK: I asked Dredge if he could unpack the idea of political economy a little more. Usually, these are not the kind of words I associate with love and romance.

DBK: Political economy is basically the two words, politics and economy, together, and the idea is that there are large structural issues. The basic one is how people make a living. So we would call the U.S., for example, a post-industrial society; it is heavily based on a service economy. You could contrast that to a place that is more agricultural. That’s going to shape how the society operates. And then in the contemporary world we have capitalism, globalization, etc. These are all kind of large forces that shape how societies can operate. Politics is about every society has a government and how that government operates effects what goes on in people’s daily lives. It’s really looking at how these big, big picture issues shape what’s considered very intimate and personal. Part of the idea is that when people think about love, they think about it as an emotion, a basic emotion, something that more or less all humans have and that is innate in us, as opposed to thinking about how does society and culture shape love, the way we think about love, who we love, what we expect in love. What looking at political economy and its relationship to love does is looking at how love changes based on what are the possibilities for different people in different places.

RK: And political economy effects all types of love: friendship, romantic love, even parental love. But for today, with Valentine’s Day not far away, we’ll stick with focusing on romantic relationships. So, for an example of how political economy can shape whom we fall in love with and even who we marry, Dredge turns to his research on trans-national relationships.

DBK: There’s a literature, especially now in East and South East Asia, on marriage migration. Before there was a larger literature on what were termed “mail-order brides,” which have now become “internet brides.” Typically in the past, it was women in Asian countries marrying men from Western countries, and then they would move to live with them.

RK: Since moving from mail to the Internet, Dredge also notes that aside from things happening much faster these days, the phenomenon has also expanded so that women from Russia, Eastern Europe, Central America, and South America are taking part, too.

DBK: Now what we’re seeing in Asia in particular is that one of the patterns of this marriage migration is shifting and that women are no longer going to Western countries. So, for example, there’s a large migration of Filipino women that are going to Japan. There’s a large migration of Vietnamese women who are going to Korea. There are different trends that are evolving, and some of them are quite particular. Like, why Filipinos go to Japan and why Vietnamese go to Korea. But there are also wider trends, and the trend is typically what is called hypergamy. The idea with hypergamy is women tend to marry up in social status. For example, if you have a male doctor, he might marry a nurse, he might marry someone who is a secretary, etc. But if you had a female doctor, she is more likely to marry someone else who is a doctor, a lawyer, etc. Generally, the idea is you have women marrying up in status, and some people kind of refer to it as an exchange of a man’s wealth and status and, typically, a woman’s beauty. So that’s the general pattern; that’s why the movement is primarily of women from South East Asia, which are generally developing countries, to East Asia, which has more developed economies like Japan and Korea.

RK: Hypergamy is not just a trend within trans-national marriages. In fact, it’s quite common for marriage that happen between two members of the same society, including within the United States.

DBK: In the U.S., part of what I am looking at, too, is that there are racial patterns in terms of how hypergamy works. But they are also layered by ideas around gender. So in the U.S., you have a pattern where black women and Asian men in particular are considered undesirable partners. Part of that is that they break the stereotype of what a woman or a man should be. Black women are considered too masculine in terms of being a woman, and Asian men are considered not masculine enough in terms of being a man. Not meeting what our stereotypical ideas around correct gender performance, which are based on a white, middle-class idea of what that performance should be.

RK: Dredge says that these racial trends are captured in studies of online dating services like OKCupid and Let’s Meet, where black women and Asian men get the lowest response rates to their messages and the lowest ratings or amount of likes. Alternatively, white men and Asian women receive the most positive responses on the sites. OKCupid has been tracking statistics since 2009, and if you are interested, you can read more about these stats on their blog. We’ll include a link on our social media as well.

DBK: Overall, the trend with hypergamy and other kinds of issues in terms of looking for romantic partners is that the feminized partner is usually looking to move up in status. Globally, what that means is that if you think about power and hierarchies, the most ideal partner for the most people would be a Caucasian man. Part of my research is looking specifically a case where that doesn’t occur.

RK: In his research, Dredge is looking at gay Thai men, and based on the trends that we just talked about, he expected to find that gay Thai men would say that their ideal partner is a western male. This, too, he says is the kind of narrative that appears in popular culture: a younger Thai man partnering with an older white western man. However, this wasn’t what he found.

DBK: When I went to Thailand and started doing research there, a lot of people told me, “Actually, that is not what I want. I don’t want a white male partner. I would actually prefer to have a Thai partner or a Korean partner or a Japanese partner.” So then I had to start thinking about what was going on in the local context, and my argument around that is that Thailand has an international reputation for sex work because the trans-national sex industry in Thailand is quite large and very visible. For sex workers, any relationship with any person is a good thing, because that is how they earn their income. But for people who are middle class in a context where there are a lot of sex workers, one of the things they are trying to do is differentiate themselves from sex workers. In everyday Thai public space, especially in the big cities, people make assumptions about who you are based on whom you are with, like anywhere else. If a Thai person sees a Thai person, whether it’s male or female, with a Caucasian male, they generally assume that the Thai person is a sex worker and is partnered with that male because they are getting financial gain from it. In that kind of a context, if you want to differentiate yourself and say, “No, this is not who I am, and I am actually someone of middle class or high class or whatever,” then you specifically want to avoid those kinds of public performances that would point to you being a sex worker. That’s why I argue in this particular context, the middle class Thai gay men are specifically avoiding relationships with Caucasian men, because they don’t want to be seen as sex workers. That’s one of the ways that larger processes—these are larger economic issues around global inequalities; economic issues around who does sex work, who doesn’t do sex work; and racial inequalities as well—they’re all in this local context shaping what individual desires are in a particular way, and because the middle class people are trying to differentiate themselves from the sex workers, they are molding their desires away from “the ideal Caucasian man” to other Asian men, who in public space do not stand out and therefore do not point to you necessarily having a trans-national relationship or a relationship with someone who would be considered a financial sponsor. That is a way to link the political economics, which are the big picture issues, with things that are very minute and on the ground, and a way to talk about how people’s desires are shaped by these larger issues.

DBK: So we all want to believe that we love whom we love because we are certain people and the person we love is a certain person, and we all want to believe that our desire is completely unbiased—we could love anyone as long as they were the right match for us, because we could have this bond. But in fact, our desires and the patterning of our relationships are influenced by society and wider processes. Even if we these ideals—and that’s the ideal that romantic love is about it doesn’t matter. You could be on opposite sides of the tracks. It could be interracial marriage. It doesn’t matter. It’s just that there is a connection between two people who love each other, and therefore everything else is ok. That is the ideology that romantic love provides. But in actuality, that is not what we see happening in large parts of the world. Even in places like America, where we have a very strong ideology of romantic love, our relationships are still very highly structured by things like socioeconomics; there aren’t so many marriages where people cross class, and then when they do, it’s much rarer for the male to be of a lower status than the female. Those patterns still exist and show that people are not just randomly finding their love mates and engaging in relationships, but that their relationships have structural patterning.

RK: Whether you are still looking for “the one” or you’re lucky enough to go home to them every night, being aware of how larger societal and political economic processes influence what we think of as our personal desires and feelings is important knowledge in love and in life. Many thanks to our guest today, Dredge Kang, a postdoctoral fellow in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. And thanks to you, too, for tuning into Hold That Thought. Keep up with all of our latest by following us at SoundCloud, ITunes, or Stitcher.