can fields be sexy? (part II)


In a previous post I noted how in a paper by Martin and George, the orthodox market model was shown to fail whenever the “sexual market” was allow to have “Veblenian” standards of valuation, whereby the “sex-appeal” of one person depended on that person’s standing not only in the eyes of the focal actor, but of what that actor thought that person’s sexual attractiveness was in the eyes of others. While economists have been able to model these types of markets, before, none of the previous model’s assumptions accord with our intuition of how sexual markets might operate (which is the strong point of the exchange perspective). Sociological models that begin from normative (Parsonian) action-theoretic principles degenerate into their alleged opposite, normless utilitarian models. Enter field theory.

The authors point out that Weber can be considered one of the forefathers of a field theory of sexuality, when he proposed in his famous essay on “Religious Rejections of the World and Their Directions” his influential meta-story of modernity as the differentiation of autonomous “value spheres,” in which the erotic figured as one of the spheres. The authors don’t mention this, but I would also add Simmel as one of the precursors of such a view of modern sexuality (as becoming autonomous from its previous embeddedness in kinship, status-group reproduction) as he suggested in his essay on “coquetry” as a pure form of sociability. However neither Weber or Simmel developed a view of sexuality as field in its own right beyond this general idea of a possible autonomization of sexual striving in modernity (a theme that has been picked up by Anthony Giddens). It is only with Bourdieu, which provides a more complete conceptual toolkit that may lead to non-descriptive and non-obvious propositions about how a sexual field might operate that we can develop a more complete vision of sexuality as field.

The usual theoretical suspects are of course the idea of a field as both a spatial like “region” of social action (somewhat separate from other institutional spheres) and as a “battle-field” of competitive striving that develops its own unique principles of perception, appreciation and hierarchization (of both actors and the products that are produced in the field if it is a field of cultural production). As I pointed out before, field autonomy is key, insofar as autonomous fields are able to develop “transcendent” standards of value that may contradict dominant “hedonic” standards. The authors note that Bourdieu was a little wishy-washy as to whether we could think of sexuality as field in its own right. If he did so, he either reduced the “specific [erotic] capital” of that field to a set of objectified bodily automatisms produced by class upbringing, in this way thinking of the sexual field as completely heteronomous vis a vis the class field and thus lacking any internal consistency of itw own.

However, Martin and George think that erotic striving may be a partially autonomous field. This is offered as a working hypothesis, but it is not without merit and it is falsifiable. If sexuality is a field in contemporary society then we should expect to observe the following:1) an early period of “genesis” and “structuration” whereby a specific field of sexual hierarchization and sexual pursuit developed independently of other fields and institutions. John D’Emilio has argued that something similar to this explains the rise of homosexual communities in early 20th century New York and San Francisco.

2) the development of elaborate versions of both objectified and embodied types of sexual capital (the authors suggests that gender differences may be explained by recourse to different practical strategies of objectification and embodiment of sexual capital.

3) finally struggles over the illusio of the field; that is competing versions of what constitutes the basis of the ranking principles that should be correlated with such things as the amount of time that a person has been “playing the field” and thus figures as an established incumbent or a radical newcomer, complete with both orthodox and heterodox versions of the criteria of erotic hierachization and sexual value that are only available to field insiders (creating increasingly strong barriers in terms of perception between say the older married [presumably “out” of the field] and younger single people). Furthermore one can envision comparative analyses of field of sexual field autonomy and heteronomy (historical, across different societal contexts or across different groups within the same society), the basic hypothesis is that as the sexual field becomes more autonomous the correlation between your standing in one field (say field of power, or class) should become increasingly decouple from your position in the sexual field and vice-versa. If the sexual field has become more autonomous over time, then we should observe a similar “loose-coupling” dynamic gaining strength diachronically.

Written by Omar

August 9, 2006 at 4:25 pm

Posted in omar, sociology

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