If you show a little baby a spider made out of plastic, they will propably play with it. If, however, the mother expresses her fear through screaming and changing her facial expression, while the child is holding the spider in his or her hands, he or she will begin to cry. The experience with monkeys results in an equal outcome: A monkey fears the plastic spider if another monkey does (Rothermund & Eder 2011, 183).
This introductory story should illustrate the connection between the expression of an emotion, obviously fear in the story above, and child-rearing - which are highly linked to culture. But, can we adopt this knowledge and transfer it in the mysterious field of “love”? Does cultural background matter for how individuals experience love and all the different kinds of pain love provokes? In this essay, I make the case that love as well as connected love pain, is rather a complex concept of biologically grounded emotions highly shaped by culture, than only one universal, inherent emotion.
Adapted from a wide range of anthropological, psychological, sociological and bio-cognitive literature, I want to critically examine and discuss the concepts and assumptionsabout the nature of the phenomena “love pain”. To explain this, I will firstly give anoverview over the historical research about love (pain), with special focus onanthropological approaches. In the following section, I will analyze how emotions evolvefrom bio-cultural conditions and discuss the implications of those findings for furtherstudy on frican concepts of “love pain” in the last chapter. In consideration of the topics’dimension and the lectures’ regional focus on Africa, I will mainly concentrate on Africanethnographies illustrating my thesis.
2. About Darwin, his research on emotional expression, Malinowski’s bias forthe sexual life of the Trobrianders and a discipline neglecting love for manydecades
In The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), Charles Darwin pursues thequestion whether the mimic expression of emotions, like showing sadness, fear or joy, arelearned or on the contrary given by nature. He points out, that the facial expression isinherent to humans’ biology and can be equated with the phenomenological feeling of the individual. He draws this conclusion from his observation of numerous similarities between animals and humans mimic. Thus he rejects the idea of cultural influencesthrough social behavior, nurturing or language and environment (Engelen 2012, 42).However, in the beginning of the last century, the time was not ripe to test Darwin’s orany other concept of emotions for “love pain” in an African context. On the contrary, theentire discipline of anthropology neglected love in the context of studying Africansocieties - for many decades and reasons. Bronislaw Malinowski, an anthropologist well-known for his comprehensive fieldwork about the Trobriand-Islanders living in the West-Pacific, describes in The Sexual Life of Savages (1929) erotic sex practices of theTrobrianders in detail - but no love. Alternatively, love was interpreted as an“epiphenomena”, which was only detected incidentally (Wynn 2015, 224).Why are there striking few accounts of love and related pain in the last decades? It has“methodological cause as well as cultural and disciplinary taboos” (Wynn 2015, 225).A discipline which struggles from time to time with its unscientific and unrepresentativereputation, is not highly interested in a theme which the common sense likewise manyAfrican societies locates it in a private, intimate and unobservable space (Wynn 2015,224f.). Furthermore, anthropologists fear to be subsumed under “modernization” theoryand the teleological and ethnocentric implication it has (Cole and Thomas 2009,Introduction).
3. Is “love pain” an emotion? The very nature of emotions
3.1 The body-mind dichotomy
In this section, I will argue that for defining “love pain” it is meaningful to refute the dichotomous view on emotions - as either body (and thus primarily bio-chemical1 grounded) or as mind (and therefore primarily socio-cultural) based. Nonetheless, this perception may help us to understand love pain better by interconnecting the assumed antagonists (Röttger-Rössler 2002).
According to medically verified tests, scientists detected the so-called “broken heartsyndrome” (takotsubo cardiomyopathy), which has been observed mainly in womenolder than 60 years of age who suffered from the loss or separation of a beloved person(Biteker et al. 2009). The interesting finding: The syndrome is triggered by different forms of emotional or psychological stress which results in biological symptoms similar to those of a serious heart attack. This instance of (love) illness illustrates the high inter-systemical influence between body and mind.
However, there is still the unanswered question, how cultural and cognitive evaluation processes influence what an individual feels. Would it for example matter, if in the case above, a woman lived in a culture where a concept of a “broken heart” does not exist? Where the society recognizes “love” not as a proper and essential foundation for marriage? Or, which has a concept of the expression of inner feelings, like grief which differs totally from what many Europeans take for granted?
Assuming it definitely matters, in the following section I examine the impact of semantics, gender and upbringing on the process of “learning” an emotion or concept.
3.2 Understanding emotions as a “learning process” and the impact of semantics and gender on the concept of “love pain”
Neurophysiologists have shown that emotions are partially determined by nature, but intheir ontogenesis they are shapeable (Engelen 2012, 43). Realizing, that we cannotunderstand the emotions and feelings of others without understanding our-self, the ownemotional assets have to be formed. The latter only take place in social circumstances. Theprocess of “learning to understand oneself” arises from a successful semantization ofemotional sensation. This starts on the day after birth which can be understood as theformation of emotions (Engelen 2012, 41; Rothermund & Eder 2011, 183).
To illustrate, let us imagine a child, between 9 to 12 years in age, exercising her or his first emotional sensation with miserable amorousness. The attachment figure as well as the peer group are of enormous importance for which kind of signals are counted as “love pain” and which not. That means that the word “love pain” is becoming a concept for the growing child, it is not enough to learn a vocabulary. The child has to get familiar with the purpose and with some models of behavior which constitute the word’s meaning of “love pain”. Furthermore, a small child already learns in the age of an infant at which moments emotional sensations are accepted and tolerable, and when not. The word “love pain” is consequently embedded in “contexts of action and situation and intrinsically tied with particular feelings of emotional sensations” (Engelen 2012, 47).
There are also situations in which gender matters. It may gender-specific whether an emotional sensation, connected to love pain, is allowed. Or, on the opposite parents and other authorities may insist on its’ suppression (Engelen 2012, 47). For instance, it is a paradigmatic assumption in Bedouin culture in the Western Desert of Egypt that female morals are inferior to men, thus are assumed to be among others dishonest, ignorant and cowardly on a “natural” basis (Abu-Lughod 1988, 118f.)
3.3 Applying the “cultural/mental model” approaches to “love pain”
Individuals try to adapt themselves into the cultural and as “natural” perceivedenvironment into which they were born. For orientation as well as for behavioral reasons,they create “mental models”2 which can be best understood as an abstracted model of theexternal world, like a city map is a simplified abstraction of an actual town. The differenceto a “cultural model” which consists of manageable and flexibly connected unities ofcognitive information, shared between individuals, is that “mental models” are lessinfluenced by culture. Moreover, they can be interpreted as a template from personalexperiences with different focuses and accentuations (Röttger-Rössler 2002, 151).
Why do I mention this? It is crucial to understand, that in every culture a gap exists between how things ought to be and how things are in reality. Applying this knowledge to “love pain” means that the “cultural model” can shape and control only to some extent how an individuals’ “mental model” looks like in particular. More often, exactly the discrepancy between the “ought to be” and the reality of love causes the individuals’ pain, sometimes expressed through poetry (Abu-Lughod 1988, 240-248).
3.4 The historical and material embeddedness of emotions and the exemplary Malagasy concept of fitiavana (love)
Nowadays, there is much written about love, desire and also love pain. One example isKenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o, but also in the academic field an awareness of thetopic occurs. In African daily life, romantic soaps from Bombay, Hollywood, Brazil andMexico influence local ideals of love, supporting the globalized “consumerism” ofromantic love (Illouz 1997). English-speaking newspapers discuss love problems in theircolumns and give advice to their readership. Popular francophone love songs deal with allkinds of ecstasy and pain, which love provokes (Cole & Thomas 2009, 3f.).
To paraphrase Coles’ and Thomas’ perception of emotions, the concept of “love pain” can be studied throughout: “How are emotions [linked to love pain] embedded in historical and material conditions that constitute certain kinds of subjects and enable particular kinds of relationships?” (2009, 3).
Exercising this to an African context, means to be aware that there are “multiple andsometimes competing conceptions of attachment” dating back to pre-colonization,Christian mission, European colonization and the influence of Islam (Cole & Thomas 2009, 5). These incorporated concepts are layered with new concepts of an idealized romantic love. Due to lack of space within this essay, an ethnography from Jennifer Cole (Cole 2009) has to show cultural-specific behaviors of expressing love (fitiavana) and also pain when the expectations of love have to remain behind reality.
While doing her fieldwork in Tamatave, Madagaskar the anthropologist found out that especially young people have a concept of fitiavana (love) characterized as relations of material interest or emotion, or inversions of both. In any case, young men complain that fitiavana madio (“clean love”) does not exists any longer (Cole 2009: 109). Cole noticed a dispute between a young woman and a man, ending in the dismayed question “What, just because a guy is poor, you wouldn’t love him” (Cole 2009, 109).
The Malagasy word fitiavana can be translated as “to be loved”, “to be preferred” or “todesire” (Richardson 1985 in Cole 2009, 113). The English word for love is by contrary tofitiavana, thought to be strictly apart from any material interest. In Madagascan culturewhere especially in the rural areas people depend on each other, the concept of fitiavanabinds them together. “Reciprocity” as a central idea of society “underpinning theancestral-descendent relationship” thus also including emotional attachments (Cole2009, 115).
Jealousy, insecurity, shame, anger are all possible sorts of pain fitiavana can provoke inthe context of Tamatave, Madagascar caused by the example that a young man may havelittle money and does not (cannot) show his love by buying nice gifts for his girlfriend. Aswell as, there is the possibility that mainly women are part of the “sexual economy” hopingto find a European husband (Cole 2010). Ideals of romantic love can in such a contextreiterate gender roles.
4. Methodological implications for a further study on (African) concepts of “love pain”
What kind of contribution could anthropology make to the further studies on (African)concepts of “love pain” and which methodological implications follow from my essay?Firstly, anthropologists should be conscious about their own concepts and semanticsdescribing love and love pain. Taking the ideal of romantic love for granted and asuniversal3, is potentially a cradle for naivety and misinterpretation. Therefore, it is ananalytical and personal challenge to search out which conceptual and emotional field cancount as “love pain” or which other idiom for “love pain” exists in the field of research(Cole & Thomas 2009, 5).
Secondly, for research which has to be of interdisciplinary interest, anthropology cannotretreat on its’ cultural-relativistic point of view, explaining culture and their concept of“love pain” out of the natives’ own point of view (Röttger-Rössler 2002, 149).Rather, anthropology can help to understand cultural-specific behavior of expressing“love pain” (Röttger-Rössler 2002, 147). For example, by examining semantics, historicaland economic (material) conditions and moral codes and values, like gender perceptions.Thirdly, because of the interconnection between body and mind, a comprehensiveresearch has to be conducted interdisciplinary (Röttger-Rössler 2002, 147).Anthropology neither can answer the bio-chemical aspects of love pain - which have tobe explored by medicine and neurophysiology - nor can it exactly figure out what theindividual feelings’ are in particular - that is a task for psychology.
To sum it up: Love does not hurt the same way everywhere on the world. “Love pain” isneither one universal essential emotion nor is it exclusive and particular in nature. Rather,it is a complex concept of biologically grounded emotions which are learned andembodied during the entire life. The sometimes competing concepts of “love pain” arehighly shaped through their historical and cultural background. Partially determined bybiological parameters which are jointly responsible for an emotional attachment,individuals nevertheless do have agency, creating their own “mental models” of “love pain” through personal experience and adaptation as well as orientation processes within their culture.
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1 Why do we feel “butterflies” fluttering in our stomach when we are in love? This and similar awareness’s offalling in love and struggling with it, are explained in the light of biology in “Liebe im Scanner” (Henrik Walter inRöttger-Rössler & Engelen (eds.) 2006, 81-99) and “The nature and chemistry of romantic love” (Helen Fisher2004).
2 A model by cognitive anthropology (see Röttger-Rössler 2002)
3 Just to mention the cross-cultural study by Jankowiak and Fischer (1992) which claims the universality of romantic (passionate) love