The word love refers to a variety of states, emotions, and attitudes. It can function as a rationale for innumerable actions or inactions, as a goal, or as an explanation for one’s well-being. Yet, despite its centrality in the lives of so many, love exists somewhat on the periphery of academic discourse. For example, you will not often see it on the syllabi of social work courses. In contrast, practitioners commonly deal with issues related to love in an interpersonal context.

In Western societies romantic love is the dominant discourse. Its common understanding has been shaped by mass media and commercial interests. However, there are other ways to think about love and its potential for social change as in the work of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Thich Nhat Hanh. Within social work, Godden (2016) has employed what she calls the love ethic in international rural community work. As conceived, the love ethic is based in love-centered radical feminism, dialogue, nonviolence, and the interconnectedness of people and nature.

Similarly, McInerney (2016) writes about a hermeneutics of love that “begins with a deep and profound recognition of the radical transcendence of the other, the radical otherness of the other” and he uses this as a framework for community-based, participatory action research.
Are we missing something important by not addressing love as an important topic in our understanding of social life? Can love be a factor in community development, inquiry and education? Can it be a catalyst for transformative change?

How does love figure in your work – implicitly or explicitly? What are your views about love in relation to the above?

Group Members:
Laura Beres, University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, Canada
Sally St. George, University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada
Jessica Shaw, University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada
Frannie Joseph, University of Lapland, Rovaniemi, Finland
Julie Altman, California State University, Monterey Bay, California
Anna Nikupeteri, University of Lapland, Rovaniemi, Finland
Jerri Bourjolly, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, USA
Jennifer Chappell Deckert, University of Kansas, Lawrence, USA

Summary of Group Discussion

Eight of us gathered over two three-hour sessions to consider this question, “What’s love got to do with it?” within the context of social work practice, inquiry and education.

Recognizing romantic and sexual love (eros) is the dominant discourse about love within Western societies, particularly in popular culture, we also reflected upon the manner in which a profound level of caring can be experienced within direct practice, for individuals and families, for communities and also for students and colleagues. How might we transform social work practices if we labelled this “love”? What does it mean that we experience the need to add, “Of course, with boundaries and we don’t mean sexual or romantic love”?

Just as spirituality has been displaced from social work discourses and curriculum over the years as the discipline has been pressured to fit within scientific-rational paradigms which discredit the aspects of human flourishing which are not easily pinned down, codified and measured, so has love been pushed into the margins as not being appropriate or professional within social work practice, inquiry or education. Of course, there has begun to be more acceptance recently about the importance of including spirituality in our discussions again, but love continues to be considered inappropriate somehow.

But what if love did not have anything to do with it? What a fearful, drab experience we would have of it.

As we discussed and reflected upon our experiences in our group we began to think of love as an antidote to fear and this certainly seems to be expressed in Selig’s (2016) article describing the hermeneutics of love exemplified by Martin Luther King, Jr. In fact, Mahatma Ghandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Tich Nhat Hanh all link love to social change . . . and ground their love and commitment to social change to their spiritual practices.

We discussed an example one of us had had being anxious about how teaching and learning were progressing and the manner in which it is too easy to slip into a defensive and self-protective stance in such a situation. On the other hand, consciously fostering connections and interest in the students as Others assisted with a movement toward a more loving stance that facilitated more growth and learning. McInnery (2016) writes about the hermeneutics of love and calls on Levinas’ reflections about the “Other”, suggesting that love requires a profound acknowledgement of the radical transcendence and radical otherness of the Other.

Reflecting upon the link between spirituality and love, we considered what the Rule of St. Benedict, written in the 6th century C.E. has to say about hospitality and the radical act of receiving the Other. Benedict writes about loving the Other and making them a welcome guest within the context of the monastery, and also withdrawing and continuing to take care of the needs of the community that was offering welcome to the guest. There has recently been more written about this concept of hospitality as it relates to professional practice and personal ways of being in the world. This led to a discussion of the need for self love and self care as precursors for radical hospitality and love, but also the need for graciousness as guest. How often, after all, are we as social workers visiting others in their homes and communities as well as offering hospitality as hosts in agency and classroom settings?

Without enough time to fully discuss, we put forward other ideas we thought to be associated with our experiences of love, showing love, and sharing love inside and out of the classroom or in our clinical and community work. We found significant relationships to examining our forms of inviting and offering to others, holding a sense of worthiness, developing rituals, giving of self unconditionally, and acting to preserve the integrity of relationships. As I (SSG) had promised the group, I took the summary of our conversation back to my Master’s students. There were mixed responses—fear that this was out of line and relief that we could include it in our work.

We all agreed that as we ended our discussions we perhaps had more questions and that we would be continuing to reflect on these ideas. In fact, the more I (LB) have thought about this the more I have considered whether it might be useful to go back to what the ancient Greek philosophers had to say about love, rather than thinking we need to recreate the wheel, so to speak. It might be useful to think more about their descriptions of four different types of love: eros, agape, phileo, and storge. Perhaps considering the Latin term, caritas, as the virtue of charity, or love of neighbour, could also add to the discussion and validate again the importance of love.

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Jon Hudson
Jon Hudson
7 years ago

What a wonderful topic! I remember asking my academic advisor at KU about this when I was taking my doc and he responded as if I had lost my mind. My initial thought is that I feel too often we think about and treat love the way we have come to treat child birth. Everyone speaks of child birth as a miracle. I get that it has a one of a kind impact on the parents, especially first time parents, but the reality is that it is a quite normal biological function and not a miracle at all. We are in danger of creating the same mystique around love. I am one who believes that we all, with exceptions, of course, we are human after all, born with an epigenetic set of emotions. Given that we are allowed to develop normally and fully we have happiness, sadness, anger, fear, love, etc. responses. Some of us, myself included, have to work hard in order to enjoy a rich emotional life as adults but if the epigenetic possibility was not there I would never have found them, even with help. So the idea of treating love as something miraculous is, I think, not good. By the same token, treating it as if it has no place in some life areas plays the same role. It tends to treat it as “other” or alien, something we must check in order to be thought of as an academic or a professional. In fact, especially for us, the exclusion of love is actually a red flag that something is amiss. I did have to do a considerable amoun of work to make it possible for me to be in touch with a number of my emotional responses. Love was not the only one. However, having access to it is not a matter of effort but more of letting go. I would really love it if we could find a way to open ourselves and our policy making bodies to this the way we did with issues and topics such as spirituality and social work, as the great Ed Canda did, and social work and the natural environment, such as our own Fred Besthorn helped with. My own research experience has led me to believe that the matter may well be one of beginning rather than waiting. The policy making bodies tend to be policy writing bodies and they follow us. We are the innovators. As Ed once told me at a very low time, remember if your work is not meeting with some resistance you’re probably not innovating.