Valentine’s Day is a market-based force that helps to shape love relationships and the rules of emotional life in Western culture. And its rose-coloured influence is spreading to other cultures, according to a multi-year ethnographic study by researchers at the Schulich School of Business into the rise of romantic love and consumption outside of the West.
The study, “The Meanings of Romance and Valentine’s Day: Ethnographic Insights from Indonesia,” examines love and consumption in Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous nation with the biggest Muslim population that has become a major emerging market economy in the past two decades. The study suggests that market-based practices such as Valentine’s Day, which emphasize moral individualism and emotional expressivity, can contribute to modernizing formerly traditional societies like Indonesia.
Co-authored by Markus Giesler, a marketing professor at the Schulich School of Business at York University, and Anton Siebert, a visiting PhD student at Schulich, the study is currently under review at the Journal of Consumer Research.
“Valentine’s Day is not only a celebration of our love. It is also a confession of faith to the market,” said Siebert. “We live in a society where celebrating Valentine’s Day or expressing our affection through consumption are taken for granted. The language of love and the language of the market have become very similar. Or else why would we say things such as ‘investing in each other’ or ‘showing how much the other is worth’?”
Siebert explained his research “shows that this linkage between love and the market is actually a fairly recent invention. So is the idea that love and happiness are essentially all about making the right market choices.”
Since traditional Indonesian culture is known to valorize arranged marriages, a family orientation and smooth emotional life, Siebert said he was surprised to find a growing influence of romantic consumption and Valentine’s Day in that part of the world.
Below is an excerpt of an interview with Anton Siebert and Markus Giesler.
Q: Why are you studying romantic consumption and Valentine’s Day in Indonesia?
AS: Studying romantic consumption and Valentine’s Day in another part of the world can teach us a lot about that part of the world but also about ourselves. Indonesia is an extremely interesting case here. It is the world’s fourth most populous nation, with the biggest Muslim population, that has become a major emerging market country in the last two decades. Its emotional culture has traditionally been described as one that disapproves of open expressions of affection. And the romantic passions that are celebrated in the West are understood as a potential threat to social peace. So how on earth could Valentine’s Day and romantic consumption emerge in such a different cultural context? To find out, I learned the language and spent almost two years on the island of Java, the political, economic and cultural centre of Indonesia. We then analyzed a great variety of archival and ethnographic data, including interviews with young and middle-aged Indonesians, over several years.
Q: Although this is an ongoing investigation, what do your findings reveal at this point?
AS: Let me highlight two findings: First, romantic consumption practices such as celebrating Valentine’s Day or giving romantic gifts are increasingly popular among young Indonesians. This is a consumerist development that brings the ways young Indonesians manage love into the realm of the market. And second, and perhaps even more interesting, these consumption practices can have a liberating and individualizing effect. So romantic consumption has become a way for young Indonesians to challenge and circumvent traditional relationship norms.
Q: Could you tell us more about this somewhat surprising result?
MG: In the traditional systems that guided emotional life in Indonesia, whether exemplified through parental or religious authorities, love was hardly ever a matter of the individual. Arranged marriages were the norm, and love was supposed to emerge through marital routine over time. Studies on arranged marriages have shown that they produce no less happiness than love marriages. But what we want to highlight here is that, with their inherent emphasis on moral individualism and emotional expressivity, market-based practices like Valentine’s Day can actually contribute to modernizing formerly traditional societies like Indonesia.
AS: These changes have not only affected consumers but also the commercial landscape and the life of many people that are now navigating this landscape. I am thinking of the many new rose kiosk vendors that each sell more than 1,000 roses per week and can make a living off of that. Or the empty strip of land on a hill near our field site that was turned into a thriving romantic place for couples, called the “Hill of Stars.” Small businesses and the government got together to redesign this area within a few months, and it has become one of the most popular places where couples can meet outside of their traditional homes. Romantic love is becoming increasingly public – and the public sphere is becoming increasingly marketized.
Q: Given all these changes, is there no resistance?
MG: Yes, plenty. Every year at Valentine’s Day, religious groups warn against the evils of celebrating a foreign, non-Muslim day of expressing individual passion. Parents complain about their children’s shameless behaviour. The individualizing force of the West, from its cultural products to its institutional actors, has long been critiqued in Indonesia and contrasted with the Indonesian way of life.
Q: The past two decades have also seen tremendous technological changes. What is the impact of technology on romantic relationships in Indonesia?
AS: Technology certainly plays a big role in Indonesian life, particularly among the younger generations. Young Indonesians are avid social media users and almost everyone has a smartphone. We’re looking at this in a different study at the moment. What I can say is that the use of smartphones influences the ways in which intimacy and trust between partners are cultivated. In a recent study, I have shown how Indonesian couples manage the sharing of all kinds of intimate information on their smartphones and how this affects the durability of their relationships.
Q: Last question: What do we learn about ourselves?
AS: We live in a society where celebrating Valentine’s Day or expressing our affection through consumption are taken for granted. The language of love and the language of the market have become very similar. Or else why would we say things such as “investing in each other” or “showing how much the other is worth.” Yet, our study shows that this linkage between love and the market is actually a fairly recent invention. So is the idea that love and happiness are essentially all about making the right market choices. Valentine’s Day is not only a celebration of our love, it is also a confession of faith to the market.