Should you study love in a sociology course?

I’ve seen multiple stories about a new sociology course on love at a university in India. Here is one such story:

The battle of superiority between natural and social sciences is being played out at one of India‘s oldest universities and good old Love may just become a casualty.

Among general education courses to familiarise humanities and science students with each others’ disciplines, Kolkata’s Presidency University is offering unique optional papers like “Digital Humanities”, “The Physics of Everyday Life”, and “Love” – likely to be option number 1 for most undergraduate students!

The subject of Love, hitherto the premise of departments of English and Philosophy, will be addressed for the first time by a department of sociology in an Indian university. The only other known precedent is the Sociology of Love undergraduate course offered at the University of Massachusetts in the US…

Roy hopes to cover several elements of Love – from Love-as-romance to Love-as-industry. He is hoping to bank on Love theorists like Anthony Giddens, Zygmunt Bauman and Eric Fromm, who have enriched sociological discourses with “The Transformation of Intimacy; Sexuality, Love and Eroticism in Modern Societies” , “Liquid Love” and “The Art of Loving” respectively.

My first thought is a line that I have provided to Introduction to Sociology students: if humans are involved in any way, sociologists can and will study it. Considering there is not a shortage of writing and commentary about love, sociologists should study it.

But, several articles, including this one, seem to hint at a different sort of issue: by applying social science methods to love, do social scientists change what love is? If it is shown to be influenced by social forces and norms, does this demean love? This sounds a bit silly to me: we know there is a more individual component to love (emotions, though this individualistic idea ), we know there is a physical dimension (the response of the body), and we know there is a social dimension (what love is and how it is expressed differs). Sociologists often “pull back the curtain” on social behavior but this doesn’t necessarily mean it ruins the experience of love. On the contrary, it may just enlighten people about the social dimensions of love.

Another idea. A number of social scientists have been behind the creation of popular dating websites (great phrase: “algorithms of love”): a psychologist is behind, a sociologist is behind, and an anthropologist developed the algorithm behind These social scientists have helped develop the idea that love can be scientific, that there are patterns that can be applied in a waiting market where plenty of people want such “Scientific” matching.

Don’t be worried about dating a leftist sociologist

A recent wedding story in the New York Times included this bit about getting to know a leftist sociologist:

Ms. Levine, 61, is keeping her name. She is a sociology professor at Colgate University who has written six books, including “Class, Networks and Identity: Replanting Jewish Lives From Nazi Germany to Rural New York.” She graduated from Michigan State and received a master’s in sociology from McGill. She also holds a Ph.D. in sociology from the State University at Binghamton. She is a daughter of Rae Levy Levine of Peabody, Mass., and the late Frank Levine…

At the time, he did not care to know her name. But in February 2011, after his relationship ended, he changed his opinion. Once he found out she was Ms. Levine, he looked her up on the Internet.

“I saw titles,” he said. “I saw she was a leftist sociologist. So what?”…

He soon called with an invitation for dinner at his house, where they became so caught up in conversation that “the tuna steaks were way overcooked on the grill,” he said. While there, she scanned his bookshelf, and drew comfort from the fact he had books by Barbara Ehrenreich and so many other left-leaning authors she uses in her classroom. “It turned out we were much more compatible than I thought,” she said.

If sociologists can teach courses on love, they can also get married, sociological commitments notwithstanding.

An emerging portrait of emerging adults in the news, part 2

In recent weeks, a number of studies have been reported on that discuss the beliefs and behaviors of the younger generation, those who are now between high school and age 30 (an age group that could also be labeled “emerging adults”). In a three-part series, I want to highlight three of these studies because they not only suggest what this group is doing but also hints at the consequences. (Find part one here.)

In Sunday’s edition of the Chicago Tribune, there was a story citing research that shows emerging adults are more tolerant than previous generations on issues like intermarriage, gay marriage, other races, and immigration. Yet, at the same time, there is also research suggesting levels of empathy among college students are down about 40% compared to the 1970s:

“Millennials, A Portrait of Generation Next,” an extensive study of teens and 20-somethings released earlier this year, showed that members of the Millennial Generation, generally born between 1981 and 2000, are “more racially tolerant than their elders.”

More than two decades of Pew Research surveys confirm that assessment.

“In their views about interracial dating, for example, Millennials are the most open to change of any generation,” the report states.

The study goes on to report that nearly 6 in 10 Millennials say immigrants strengthen the country, compared with 43 percent of adults ages 30 and older…

The problem is that tolerance doesn’t necessarily mean understanding, researchers say. Adults working with teens say they see an unsettling strain of desensitivity among young people.

In May, University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research issued a report on an analysis of 72 studies on the empathy of nearly 14,000 college students between 1979 and 2009. The result: Today’s college students are about 40 percent lower in empathy than students two or three decades earlier.

The researchers suggested that disheartening trend may have to do with numbness created by violent video games, an abundance of online friends and an intensely competitive emphasis on success, among other factors.

This is a very interesting conclusion: the younger generation is more tolerant but less understanding and empathetic. So what exactly does this tolerance look like? The lack of empathy, in particular, is interesting as it is another step beyond tolerance. Empathy is the ability to understand and take on the feelings and perspectives of others. Is tolerance the end goal or is there more that we should be striving for as a society?

This conundrum reminds me of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the current topic of our Sunday School class. In verse after verse, Jesus suggests that Christians aren’t just supposed to put up with people: “loving your neighbor” means taking an extra step toward people, bringing reconciliation, peace, and blessings to other rather than just letting them be or letting them pursue their rights in their own space. Loving people means putting them above yourself, something beyond both tolerance and empathy.

One outcome suggested by this story is a meanness or harshness among high schools. Teenagers understand about respecting difference but this doesn’t translate as well into personal interactions where being mean is seen as being cool.

Another possible outcome is living alone, keeping people at a distance. I will consider this in part three of this series.

Quick Review: The Harry Potter series

Over this past weekend, I finished reading the Harry Potter series for the first time. Somehow, I managed to know very little about the story coming in. I enjoyed the books and have some thoughts on the seven books:

1.These are books addressing fairly weighty topics. From love to death, friendship to evil, Harry and his friends encountered a lot. Some portions, particularly much of the last three books, were quite dark.

2. Even with weighty topics, the books had a wit about them. There were many small humorous moments that Rowling included. Perhaps it is just a dry British wit or perhaps it was the often funny interplay between the wizard and Muggle worlds.

3. I’m not quite sure what the main theme is that readers should take away from the books. It has a basic good vs. evil theme though it has more nuance since it is the love Harry’s mom has for him as a baby that eventually helps him meet his goals. But where this love comes from (and also where evil comes from) is left unexplored. This could be read as a coming-of-age story as Harry learns who he is and completes his task. It could be a hero’s journey tale as Harry overcomes obstacles to set the world right. Friendship is a major theme, particularly between Harry, Ron, and Hermione. There is a lot here in addition to the main action sequences and it might have been worthwhile for the characters to reflect more on the implications of their actions.

4. The characters are likable. Harry, Ron, and Hermione had a strong relationship and it was satisfying when Ron and Hermione finally came together. I was surprised by the number of school friends who were constant characters including the other Weasley kids, Neville, Luna, and others. The saddest part of the series for me was Dumbledore’s death – of course, it turns out it happened a little differently than it first appeared. Perhaps my only complaint: some of the teenage angst (among Harry, Ron, and Hermione) seemed like overkill. Another small complaint: two of the main female characters, Hermione and Ginny, could have been more fleshed out.

5. The ending seemed somewhat abrupt with the flash-forward sequence. I was left wanting to know more about life for all of them.

6. I’m not sure I want to see any of the movies. Of course, I have seen some images of the actors. But I feel that if I saw the movies, it would change my understanding and mental images of the books. (Looking back, I wish I had read all of the Lord of the Rings books before seeing the first movie.)

My conclusion according to my wife: I shouldn’t have waited so long to read such a great series.

My conclusion: even if I was behind, I still enjoyed reading the series this summer.

Quick Review: One Day

Over this past weekend, I read One Day by David Nicholls. This book is a love story told over a 20 year span. The twist: the author checks in with each member of the couple one day each year (the anniversary of their first meeting). The book has garnered a number of positive reviews.

My quick thoughts:

1. It is a story that would translate easily into a movie.

2. I don’t know if the characters are likable. They are young and idealistic when they first meet, not so much so later on after more life experiences. They are generally self-indulgent. Lots of drinking among both characters – a sign of their troubled lives or a reflection of contemporary life in the United Kingdom?

3. I like the idea of checking in once a year. Their lives gradually change and the story doesn’t get bogged down in extended scenes.

4. My wife and I disagreed about whether we enjoyed the book. She did not enjoy it, as “90% of the book involved the protagonists being miserable and/or drunk.” I think this book is like much adult fiction: it is more “realistic” or at least presents a strong contrast between miserable life alone and wonderful life together. Therefore, my wife finds reading a book like this unpleasant – she doesn’t want to spend that much time dwelling on the worse parts of life. Additionally, she felt that the author betrayed the reader at the end.  I, on the other hand, think misery is a common part of life and therefore should be explored in books, movies, music, etc. However, I do think much adult fiction today is melodramatic in its presentation of tough times.


Though it has the twist of checking in once a year, it seems like a fairly common story line. Two people meet and then experience difficulties over the years before meeting up again (though it is more complicated than this). This seems to be a kind of story our culture enjoys: love overcoming obstacles, even if these obstacles are self-imposed by the participants.

Overall: a good choice for light (not really fun but not exactly addressing deeper issues in life) yet engaging weekend-away reading. A modern classic? No.