Other, Please Specify: Queer Methods in Sociology

Other, Please Specify: Queer Methods in Sociology

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520289277
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 07/31/2018
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 565,500
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

D'Lane Compton is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of New Orleans. Compton is the coauthor of How Identities, Stereotypes, and Inequalities Matter through Gender Studies and a contributor to several volumes, including the International Handbook on the Demography of Sexuality.

Tey Meadow is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Columbia University. Meadow is the author of Trans Kids: Being Gendered in the Twenty-First Century.  

Kristen Schilt is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago. She is the author of Just One of the Guys?: Transgender Men and the Persistence of Gender Inequality, and her work has appeared in journals such as Gender & Society and the Annual Review of Sociology.

Read an Excerpt


The "Not Sociology" Problem

Kristen Schilt

In the 1973 supplemental issue of the American Journal of Sociology (AJS) titled "Changing Women in a Changing Society," an intergenerational assembly of scholars weighed in on the problems facing women in the United States and on the place the study of gender held within the broader discipline. Publication of an issue edited and authored almost exclusively by women in the longest running and most historically significant sociology journal — and the fact that this issue was then printed separately as a book that sold over 25,000 copies — suggested a turning point in which feminist inquiry was becoming a central area of sociology. Almost fifty years later, Gender & Society, the feminist sociology journal started in 1987 by Sociologists for Women in Society, has nearly tied with AJS in terms of impact. The Sex & Gender Section of the American Sociological Association also has emerged as the organization's largest member subgroup. At the same time, a quick perusal of JSTOR shows that feminist scholarship — and even research on any gender topic — continues to be underrepresented in most high-impact sociology journals that advertise their mandate as publishing research of "general interest" to the discipline. Taken together, these trends suggest that while feminist theories and research might not yet be at the center of sociology, feminist scholars have staked out an influential claim in the discipline.

The evolution of a feminist community within the broader discipline of sociology exemplifies a dynamic that I wish to explore about "queer work" — and here, drawing on Amy L. Stone and Jaime Cantrell's writing about queer archives, I invoke the older meaning of queer as something "odd and perplexing" that can disrupt the status quo of a social milieu, such as an academic discipline (2015: 3). In the 1970s and 1980s, feminists presented such a queer challenge to sociology with their investigation into how normative gender ideologies infused traditional research methods and theories in ways that perpetuated institutional and interpersonal gender inequality (see Smith 1989; Stacey & Thorne 1985). When faced with opposition from disciplinary gatekeepers, they developed a community of scholars who served, first, as emotional support and interlocutors and, later, as feminist institutions gained ground, as editors, reviewers, and tenure-letter writers (see Laslett & Thorne 1997). A similar process of community and institution building in response to disciplinary marginalization is evident in the experiences of scholars of color working in critical race studies who have to navigate what Tukufu Zuberi and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva term "white logic, white methods" (2008), and exemplified as well by queer scholars pushing back against long-standing sociological associations between nonheterosexual identities and practices and social deviance (see Seidman 1996). The growing body of writing about the importance of community building from scholars working in areas of sociological inquiry that have been relegated to the margins of the discipline gives valuable insight into the varied strategies for resisting such marginalization, and presents a historical record from which future generations can evaluate disciplinary change.

In this chapter, I shift the focus from a discussion of how we navigate academic marginalization to an examination of the strategies used by disciplinary gatekeepers to keep us marginal. In thinking through how to conceptualize these strategies of resistance to queer work, I have come to think of them as bolstering what we might call the "not sociology" problem. I borrow this concept from Marjorie DeVault's writing about how, early in her career, sociological gatekeepers often dismissed her feminist research with the statement "But that is not sociology" (1999: 15). Thissentence struck a chord with me because it is a pithy synthesis of academic resistance that I have faced — and that I have seen many others face — while doing research in the area of transgender studies. And it captures the resistance my colleagues and students have encountered when doing social justice–oriented work on a number of other "queer" areas of inquiry, such as sex work (see Hoang, this volume). While we may discuss these marginalizing experiences in small groups in dark bars at conferences, we often keep silent about them in public talks or in print because the cost of calling out the ideological character of these responses to our work can be so high. Yet there is something to be gained from transforming these reactions from embarrassing personal incidents into a politically situated analysis about how sociological gatekeeping works — and how we might disrupt it.


In mapping out the interactional and institutional strategies that push queer work to the sociological margins, I identified the Three R's: resistance, the attempt to erect boundaries against an emerging area of inquiry (e.g., transgender studies, fat studies, critical heterosexualities) that pushes up against an established canon or theoretical frame; reduction, the attempt to dismiss scholarship on group X as too "fringe" to sociologically matter; and ridicule, the attempt to devalue scholarship on group X by positioning it as absurd. These strategies are not mutually exclusive — a scholar might face all three in the course of one talk — nor is my list by any means exhaustive. I see this trio simply as a starting point for a discussion about making disciplinary change and mitigating the emotional labor spent on navigating these reactions. People doing work at the margins of sociology often meet with ideological critiques disguised as objective criticism from colleagues, institutional gatekeepers, and peers. If we desire sociological careers in the academy, we can feel pressure to sit quietly while our work is dismissed with labels that fit under the "not sociology" umbrella: "too micro," "descriptive," "me-search." If we offer a challenge, we risk being positioned as "not collegial," "too ideological," or "aggressive." Yet keeping these experiences to ourselves can make us doubt our work, can lead us to switch to new research topics that we are not invested in but that seem "safe," can encourage us to leave sociology for other fields, or can drive us out of the academy altogether.

As a tenured professor, I recognize that the costs for me in writing publicly about these strategies are less severe than the potential costs to graduate students, untenured faculty, and adjunct faculty. I also recognize that in talking about such reactions to our work, we must look at how they manifest differently depending on who is presenting the research. I received much more overt resistance to my work as a graduate student, for instance, than I do now as a tenured professor. Further, as a white, queer cisgender woman, the forms of resistance I have faced when presenting research on transgender topics have sometimes overlapped and sometimes differed from the experiences of transgender and nonbinary colleagues with whom I have collaborated. Many of us have encountered the advice that transgender research is a bad idea — it's just a fad, it's too micro, we won't get jobs (see Lombardi this volume for a larger discussion). Yet I rarely face questions about whether I am doing "me-search." I am more likely to be positioned on a continuum from someone who does intentionally "provocative" work to someone who received poor guidance as a graduate student — and who could be saved if I just moved to a new area of study. To cite a case highlighting this last point: when I was on the job market, two senior scholars at different universities asked me in what I interpreted as hopeful voices, "Do you have any other interests besides transsexuals?"

As someone who identifies in my published work as cisgender, I also have been privy to unwanted commentary from cisgender sociologists whom I often barely know about their experiences with and feelings about transgender people — much in the same way that white people may assume that other people whom they perceive as white are a safe audience for racist commentary (Picca & Feagin 2007). While telling people I was politically committed to transgender social justice did little to stop such comments, letting them know that I had been partnered with a transgender man for many years usually did — though I was then often asked for details about my sexual history. I mention these experiences as a way to make my positionality visible and to demonstrate how our social locations in the status hierarchy of the discipline and our identities — and how our colleagues perceive these identities (whether correctly or incorrectly) — shape the ways in which our research is taken up and what gatekeeping strategies, if any, we may face when doing queer work. I turn now to examples of how I have experienced the Three R's while presenting to sociological audiences research about the lived experiences of transgender people.


My early interest in sociology came from its ability to provide what I saw as an empirically grounded and theoretically rich language with which to investigate my long-standing preoccupation: how to make effective challenges to social inequality. While the Sociology Department at the University of Texas at Austin, my undergraduate institution, emphasized a particularly traditional form of sociology, I was able to take courses with feminist professors and graduate students that shaped the trajectory of my adult life. It was transformative to discover the theory of social constructionism — to take hold of the idea that unequal social relations could change, no matter how hard that change might be to accomplish, because they were not static, ahistorical, or innate. For my MA work, I built on my undergraduate thesis about Riot Grrrl, a 1990s punk rock feminist subculture that presented challenges to second-wave (1960s–1970s) feminist theory and the male-dominated realm of subcultural studies. I found generous support for this work from feminist mentors. Senior feminist scholars invited me to present at conferences as an early-stage graduate student, where I built crucial mentoring networks, and encouraged me to send my work out for review to journals. With a vibrant community of mentors who reflected to me the value of studying areas of social life that are dismissed or devalued by those in positions of social power, I grew a thick skin for situations in which nonfeminist professors and peers told me that gender scholarship was not interesting or important — in other words, was "not sociology." And, most important, I learned how to distinguish a constructive critique of my research design or theoretical argument from an ideological opinion (often stated as a fact) about what was worthy of study.

I did not realize how important this ability to distinguish between critique and opinion would be until I began presenting my dissertation research about the workplace experiences of transgender men to feminist audiences in the mid-2000s. I saw this shift in my research as a response to the body of crucial and innovative theoretical and empirical scholarship about the lives of transgender people that began to emerge in sociology in the 1990s and early 2000s (see Namaste 2000; Rubin 2003). Having the opportunity to take classes in LGBTQ studies, queer theory, and transgender studies as a graduate student at UCLA, I viewed sociological methods as well suited to bring rigorous empirical data on transgender people's experiences to bear on policy and activism around transgender rights — much in the way that feminist sociologists had done for cisgender women in arenas such as sexual harassment and workplace inequality. I saw the emerging subfield of transgender studies in sociology as poised to challenge the long-standing positioning of trans people as deviant within the sociological literature and to radically transform how sociologists conceptualized gender. As a person with political commitments to feminist and LGBTQ activism, I wanted to be a part of this work.

I had the luck to be in a department with a core group of feminist scholars who strongly supported my research even though it was outside their topical areas of expertise. Yet, in my first attempts to present my research to a broader feminist audience, I was often met with seemingly purposeful resistance from the people who held positions of authority in the subfield, such as conference panel organizers and journal editors. When I sent in papers about transgender workplace discrimination to "Gender and Workplace" sessions at the annual sociology conference, I was told that my work would find a better home in the Sexualities Section or on LGBTQ-focused panels (of which there were very few at the time) — advice that signaled to me that transgender people's experiences at work were not of interest to gender-and-work scholars. In presentations, I had feminist audiences dismiss accounts of trans men's experiences of workplace discrimination and ask if I could provide examples of how trans men might help cisgender women at work — a question that signified to me an understanding that cisgender women should always be at the center of sociological research on gender inequality. And I met with a pervasive assumption among older feminist scholars that transgender men initiated gender transitions because of internalized misogyny. I was asked many times by second-wave feminists in formal and informal settings why "those poor women" (i.e., trans men) felt they needed to "mutilate" their bodies with surgical interventions and hormones.

At first, it felt as though an unspoken message were being conveyed that research on transgender people was irrelevant to sociologists of gender — a "not sociology of gender" variant of mainstream dismissal. This message became overt, however, when I saw a prominent gender scholar tell a conference audience that transgender people could not be part of "the gender revolution," because they were too deeply invested in reifying a gender binary. I have since faced this response many times in relation to my research from people I associate with second-wave feminism. In these interactional moments, I always feel a sense of disorientation because it is often a well-coiffed cisgender woman with eye-catching jewelry or scarf telling me, a cisgender woman who has long eschewed pants for dresses, is usually in heels, and has a fondness for metallic lipsticks, that transgender people are reifying the gender binary. While I consciously perform what I envision as a queerly referential femme-ness, I recognize that outside queer spaces I can easily be read as reproducing traditional norms of femininity in my appearance. Yet I am not a problem for feminism.

Such a response to transgender people highlights a particular framing of gender transitions that has a long history in feminist scholarship (see Connell 2012; Serano 2007). In this line of thought, a feminist body project is one that encourages self-acceptance (e.g., love your body) while simultaneously seeking to trouble normative expectations for gender in theory, if not in embodied practice. Following this logic, transgender people who physically modify their bodies become self-hating cultural dupes of gender binarism, while cisgender women who feel they were "born in the right body" are allowed remarkable leeway for gender expression and attitudes toward feminism and gender equality. Using cisgenderism as the yardstick by which to measure the progressiveness or conservatism of a person's gender performance creates a situation in which Katy Perry on the cover of Cosmo may incite sighs from feminists who wish she was a better role model for young women, but does not invite the wave of condemnation and judgment that Caitlyn Jenner's Vanity Fair cover unleashed (see, for example, Garelick 2015). And it allows feminist gatekeepers to resist and exclude an entire group of people from an imagined shared feminist project of making a "gender revolution" without questioning what assumptions about authenticity or exclusionary notions of progress are wrapped up in that particular imaginary — adopting, in other words, a similar strategy of resistance that has long been used within sociology to devalue feminist research (see DeVault 1999).


While the "bad for feminism" response implies that transgender people have an inordinate amount of power to uphold the gender binary, a second set of responses I have received, from nonfeminist sociologists, suggests that transgender people are too "fringe" to warrant sociological study. This characterization maps on to what I term a strategy of reduction. In presentations to a general sociology audience, I have usually encountered this strategy through the question, "How many transgender people are there?" If I am interpreting this question in a generous way, I can see it as an earnest attempt to locate my interview sample size within a larger population frame. If there are, say, three hundred transgender people in the country and I conducted one hundred interviews, I would have a fairly strong basis from which to generalize. But, after getting this question many times, I now interpret it as drawing or guarding a disciplinary boundary separating a marginalized minority group that warrants sociological study from a "fringe" group that is too small or too "weird" to matter to a general sociology audience. Within this minority-versus-fringe framework, getting counted on a government document, such as the US decennial census or a large, nationally representative federal survey, often appears to be the dividing line. If transgender identification is not included in large-scale surveys that sociologists typically analyze, in other words, transgender people do not have to be taken seriously by quantitative sociology regardless of how much discrimination they may face. They are, in effect, too marginal to matter.


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Table of Contents


Introduction: Queer Work in a Straight Discipline
Kristen Schilt, Tey Meadow, and D’Lane Compton


1. The “Not Sociology” Problem
Kristen Schilt

2. The Methods Gatekeepers and the Exiled Queers
Jane Ward

3. Trans Issues in Sociology: A Trans-Centered Perspective
Emilia Lombardi

4. Beyond Academia: Strategies for Using LGBT Research to Influence Public Policy
Gary J. Gates and Jody L. Herman

5. Pornographics as Queer Method
Angela Jones


6. Not Out in the Field: Studying Privacy and Disclosure as an Invisible (Trans) Man
Cayce C. Hughes

7. Thank You for Coming Out Today: The Queer Discomforts of In-Depth Interviewing
Catherine Connell

8. Studying the “Right” Can Feel Wrong: Reflections on Researching Anti-LGBT Movements
Tina Fetner and Melanie Heath

9. The Mess: Vulnerability as Ethnographic Practice
Tey Meadow


10. Challenges, Triumphs, and Praxis: Collecting Qualitative Data on Less Visible and Marginalized Populations
Mignon R. Moore

11. How Many (Queer) Cases Do I Need? Thinking Through Research Design
D’Lane Compton

12. Queer Spatial Analysis
Amin Ghaziani

13. Queer Persistence in the Archive
Amy L. Stone

14. Gendering Carnal Ethnography: A Queer Reception
Kimberly Kay Hoang


15. Translation as Queer Methodology
Evren Savci

16. Queer and Punishment: Sexual Social Control and the Legacy of “Nuts, Sluts and Preverts”
Trevor Hoppe

17. The Demography of Sexuality: Queering Demographic Methods
Amanda K. Baumle

18. What to Do with Actual People? Thinking Through a Queer Social Science Method
C. J. Pascoe

19. Queer Accounting: Methodological Investments and Disinvestments
Carla A. Pfeffer

List of Contributors

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