lessons from the social organization of sexuality
In 1994, The Social Organization of Sexuality was published. The authors, Ed Laumann, John Gagnon, Robert Michael and Stuart Michaels,conducted a large N survey of a random sample of Americans. I use the book in my freshman class to discuss sexual behavior. In today’s post, I will discuss what sociologists should take away from the book.
1. Doing a well crafted large N survey on an important topic is huge service to science. When we think of sociology, we often think of “high theory” as being the most important. But we often overlook the empirical studies that establish a baseline for excellence. American Occupational Structure is just as important as Bourdieu, in my book. Laumann et al is one such study and, I think, has not been surpassed in the field of sex research.
2. The book is extremely important in that good empiricism can abruptly change our views of specific topics. Laumann et al basically shattered the following beliefs: people stop having sex as they age; marriage means sex is less frequent; cultural change leads to massive changes in sexual behavior. Laumann et al showed that older people do keep on having sex; married people have more sex; and cultural moments (like AIDS in the 80s) have modest effects on sexual behavior. Each of these findings has resulted in more research over the last 20 years..
3. An ambitious, but well executed, research project can be the best defense against critics. The first section of Laumann at al. describes how federal funding was dropped due to pressure. Later, the data produced some papers that had politically incorrect results. In both cases, working from the high ground allowed the project to proceed. It’s a model for any researchers who will be working against the mainstream of their discipline or public opinion.
4. Quality empiricism can lead to good theory. Laumann et al’s sections on homophily motivated later theory about the structure of sexual contact networks and prompted papers like Chains of Affection. Also, by discovering that network structure affects STD’s, it lead to the introduction of network theory into biomedical science about a decade before Fowler/Christakis.
When we think of “glory sociology,” we think of succinct theoretical “hits” like DiMaggio and Powell or Swidler. But sociology is also profoundly shaped by these massive empirical undertakings. The lesson is that well crafted empirical research can set the agenda for decades just as much as the 25 page theory article.