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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.

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Written by fabiorojas

April 23, 2015 at 12:01 am

3 Responses

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  1. Where’s your point #3? ;)

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    Eric

    April 23, 2015 at 1:04 am

  2. Eric: #3 is added.

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    fabiorojas

    April 23, 2015 at 2:47 am

  3. Also must read The History of Sexuality by Foucault
    “In actual fact. The manifold sexualities – those which appear with the different ages (sexualities of the infant or the child), those which become fixated on particular tastes or practices (the sexuality of the invert, the gerontophile, the fetishist), those which, in a diffuse manner, invest relationships (the sexuality of doctor and patient, teacher and student, psychiatrist and mental patient), those which haunt spaces (the sexuality of the home, the school, the prison)- all form the correlate of exact procedures of power.”

    Foucault argues that we generally read the history of sexuality since the 18th century in terms of what Foucault calls the “repressive hypothesis.” The repressive hypothesis supposes that since the rise of the bourgeoisie, any expenditure of energy on purely pleasurable activities has been frowned upon. As a result, sex has been treated as a private, practical affair that only properly takes place between a husband and a wife. Sex outside these confines is not simply prohibited, but repressed. That is, there is not simply an effort to prevent extra-marital sex, but also an effort to make it unspeakable and unthinkable. Discourse on sexuality is confined to marriage.

    The repressive hypothesis explains that there have been certain outlets of confession, where “improper” sexual feelings could be released safely. Foucault identifies prostitution and psychiatry as two such outlets. Steven Marcus labels those who turned to psychiatrists or prostitutes in the Victorian era as the “other Victorians.” These “other Victorians” created their own space for discourse on sexuality that freed them from the confines of conventional morality.

    The 20th century is no different, according to the repressive hypothesis. Freud may seem to have made open and frank discussions of sexuality possible, but this discourse is still confined to the academic and confessional realm of psychiatry. We cannot free ourselves from this repression simply by means of theory: we must learn to be more open about our sexuality, to talk about it, to enjoy it. Discourse on sexuality, seen as a revolt against a repressive system, becomes a matter of political liberation rather than intellectual analysis.

    Foucault suggests the repressive hypothesis is essentially an attempt to give revolutionary importance to discourse on sexuality. The repressive hypothesis makes it seem both defiant and of utmost importance to our personal liberation that we talk openly about sex. Our discourse on sexuality, in its promise for a better, freer way of life, is a form of preaching.

    Foucault wishes to address the modern paradox of our discourse on sexuality: why do we proclaim so loudly that we are repressed, why do we talk so much about how we can’t talk about sex? A supporter of the repressive hypothesis might answer that we are so aware of our repression because it is so evident, and liberating ourselves is a long process that can only be advanced by open, frank discussion.

    Foucault asks three questions about the repressive hypothesis: (1) Is it historically accurate to trace what we think of today as sexual repression to the rise of the bourgeoisie in the 17th century? (2) Is power in our society really expressed primarily in terms of repression? (3) Is our modern- day discourse on sexuality really a break with this older history of repression, or is it part of the same history?

    http://www.sparknotes.com/philosophy/histofsex/section1.rhtml

    Like

    Dexter Fox

    April 23, 2015 at 3:12 pm


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