Talk of Love: How Culture Matters

Article excerpt

Talk of Love: How Culture Matters. Ann Swidler. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. 312 pp. ISBN: 0-226-78690-0. $30.00 (cloth).

Women and men are spending more time away from home. Divorce rates are high. "Family values" seem up for grabs. Movie actors go through messy divorces, passionate encounters, and celebrated marriages, all in various sequences. Maybe love and marriage don't go together quite so naturally as a horse and carriage. Swidler, in her Talk of Love, argues that our ideas about romantic love combine with contradictory ideas about marital love to produce a sometimes messy but nonetheless resilient culture of love.

At least most of the time, Swidler is not particularly concerned with historical specificity or historical change; she has a far more ambitious and abstract agenda. She wants to develop her well-known and influential ideas on the uses of culture. Love is a site to develop her theory.

Talk of Love does use some data. It is based on interviews conducted in 1980 with some eighty White middle-class heterosexuals in California. We meet some of the same people who first appeared in Habits of the Heart, on which Swidler collaborated with Robert Bellah and three other coauthors. In her new book, Swidler focuses on what her respondents have to say about love and marriage, about what they expected and what they found. Using interview questions and vignettes, she asked them whether there is love at first sight, whether love should always be perfect or whether one needs to compromise and "work" on uncertain love, whether they hold to the view of romantic love promulgated in the movies or develop more prosaic conceptions of love rooted in daily and long-lived experience. Most important, Swidler finds that people live quite comfortably with multiple, conflicting views, and use them to justify different actions and solve various institutional dilemmas. Although Swidler does not use their work, her theories help provide a frame for much recent sociological research about cultural contradictions found in families, whether in Hays' (1996) work on motherhood, in Cooper's (2001) work on fatherhood, or Furstenberg's (2001) work on adolescence.

So how do Americans manage the gap between the romantic love and the prosaic love of marriage? Swidler concludes that Americans-whether fundamentalist Christians, utilitarians or the therapeutically inclined-produce a coherent and acceptable (to themselves and others) view of that gap by insisting on the operation of an autonomous self. This self freely chooses actions that support a prosaic culture of love, including commitment and obligation. As a form of self-fulfillment, sacrifice becomes personal preference. Because Americans operate within a culture of voluntarism, at a moment when so many marriages are unraveling, they must do such "culture work" to shore up marriage and resolve otherwise contradictory images of love.

Swidler's argument is intricate, elegant, and wonderfully complicated. Although built on remarkably open stories people told about love and life, Swidler's analysis is put to the service of grand theoretical project, about what culture is and how it influences action. For her, mythic movie star love and prosaic everyday love are both culture. In different contexts, people move back and forth between them, using them as guides to action. When thinking about whether to marry or stay in a marriage (an all or nothing decision), people draw on a mythic view. When managing a marriage they already have, people draw on the prosaic view.

Swidler takes on the big guys. Criticizing Geertz, Swidler argues that culture is not a coherent, unified body of meanings but is rife with ambiguities. Reprising the language of her "Culture in Action" (1986) she also contrasts her view of culture to a Weberian notion of ideas as "switchmen" that determine the tracks of action and to a Parsonian view that culture shapes values which in turn determine ends. …