Culture, Power, and Institutions
My research on gay movements in the United States is integrated by a commitment to applying the insights of cultural and institutional theory to the study of social movements.
My book, Forging Gay Identities (Chicago 2002), demonstrates that the gay movement cannot be explained outside of a deeply cultural approach. Forging Gay Identities accounts for the dramatic emergence, proliferation, and diversification of new kinds of lesbian/gay organizations beginning in the 1970s. Throughout the fifties and sixties, public homosexual organizations were limited to a small number of organizations that thought of themselves as “homophile.” Homophile organizations modeled themselves on interest group politics, and hoped to improve life for homosexuals by educating the mainstream public. In the late 1960s, gay liberation overwhelmed the existing homophile project. As part of the New Left, gay liberation sought a total transformation of society. In the early seventies, affirmation of gay identity and celebration of diversity replaced societal transformation as goals. This shift in logic sparked the rapid proliferation of a vast diversity of new gay organizations. This turn toward identity building was accompanied by political consolidation and the explosive growth of a commercial subculture oriented around sex. The movement would not have crystallized when it did, in the way that it did, without the development of homophile politics before 1969, the cultural innovations of the New Left, the sudden decline of the New Left in the early 1970s, and the efforts of activists in the early 1970s to ensure the gay movement survived. The new framework shaped what was possible for the gay movement to accomplish. Internal contradictions embedded in the movement at this moment provide the fissures that shape contemporary internal conflict. The movement participated in the constitution of the actors on whose behalf it advocated. Understandings of the nature of the oppression of homosexuals, and visions of possible solutions, were likewise political and historical products, products that the gay movement itself played a role in producing. The meanings produced not only enabled the rise of a political movement but were some of its most important outcomes.
“Movements and Memory,” with Suzanna Crage (ASR 2006), further demonstrates the usefulness of a cultural approach to the study of movements. The paper examines why the Stonewall riots became central to gay collective memory while other similar events did not. We argue that the riots were remembered because they were the first that activists both considered commemorable and had the capacity to commemorate. We further argue that the embedding of Stonewall within gay collective memory required a resonant commemorative ritual amenable to institutionalization. This research contributes to a growing literature on cultural approaches to movements and research at the intersection or social movements and organizations.
In a recent Sociological Theory (2008) article, Mary Bernstein and I outline the tenets of a cultural and institutional approach to the study of social movements. This article juxtaposes the assumptions of political process theory with what we call a multi-institutional politics approach. We examine the conceptions of social movements, politics, actors, goals, and strategies supported by each model. We assert that the view of society and power underlying the political process model is too narrow to encompass the diversity of contemporary change efforts.
Collaborators include Mary Bernstein and Suzanna M. Crage.
Higher Education & Social Inequality
In the fall of 2004 Laura Hamilton, myself, and a group of graduate and undergraduate research assistants occupied a dormitory room on a women’s floor in a co-educational residence hall at Indiana University. We sought to involve ourselves in the lives of the 53 mostly first-year women living on the hall—two-thirds of whom were upper-middle or upper class, the others from less affluent backgrounds. We observed life on the floor over the course of the academic year and conducted in-depth interviews with the women over the course of the next five years, producing a total of 202 interviews. Forty-eight of the 53 women were interviewed at least once; thirty-three women participated in interviews all 5 years.
This data offers insight into American college experiences, particularly the role that college plays in the reproduction of social class in the United States. Hamilton and I are currently drafting a book, under advance contract at Harvard University Press, exploring the pathways of these women as they moved in and through Indiana University. American families invest a great deal in higher education. In most cases, these investments are well worth it, contributing to a broad range of positive life outcomes. Sometimes, though, college does not pay. For example, one participant spent six years as an undergraduate, accumulating staggering debt, earning a GPA of 2.0 in a field in which the likelihood of her being able to service her debt is low. The book will draw on this rich data set to identify how various factors converge to produce outcomes ranging from excellent to disappointing. We trace the role of class background and student orientations in these outcomes, and pay particular attention to the role of the university in student outcomes. We explore the impact of involvement in “college life” – that is, social scenes involving heavy drinking and partying -- on student trajectories. We find heavy socializing less damaging to the life chances of more affluent students, as affluent students draw on family resources that compensate for weak GPAs in the transition out of college. This research was funded by a Spencer Small Grant, a National Academy of Education/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship, and a fellowship from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University.
This book is part of a larger collaborative effort to re-vitalize and re-orient sociological research on higher education. In service of this goal, Mitchell Stevens, Richard Arum and I hosted a conference at New York University on new directions in the study of higher education, which produced an article published in the Annual Review of Sociology (2008). We are excited to see a diverse range of scholars – such as Neil Gross, Michele Lamont, Woody Powell, Jason Owen-Smith, Dan McFarland, Amy Binder, and Dan Chambliss – applying theoretical and methodological developments in organizational sociology, cultural theory, and social network analysis to a range of interesting questions in higher education.
Collaborators include Laura Hamilton, Mitchell Stevens, and Richard Arum.
Gender & Sexuality on Campus
When I initiated the longitudinal ethnographic and interview project described above, I planned to focus on gender and sexuality. The salience of social class to undergraduate experience, and the centrality of higher education to life outcomes, pulled us toward an investigation of the role of class and university organization on life trajectories. At the same time, though, we also collected extensive data on undergraduate sexual cultures.
In a paper on sexual assault on campus (Social Problems 2006), Hamilton, Sweeney and I offer an explanation for continuing high rates of sexual assault. We argue that existing explanations, which focus either on the characteristics of perpetrators or on campus rape cultures, neglect the role of campus organization in creating a context for social danger. Hamilton has written a paper exploring homophobia among women using ethnographic material from this study. This paper, “Trading on Heterosexuality: College Women’s Gender Strategies and Homophobia” was published in Gender & Society in 2007. More recently, Hamilton and I published a paper on sexual and romantic dilemmas college women face as a result of conflicting class and gender expectations. This paper, “Gendered Sexuality in Young Adulthood,” was published in Gender & Society in 2009. We are also working on a paper on how young people use the “slut” label. In the context of this paper, we will draw on and extend recent theorizing on sexual fields by Adam I. Green and John Levi Martin. We anticipate that this will assist in further developing the concept of hegemonic femininity, as well as more fully realizing the implications of thinking about sexuality for gender inequality. We may integrate and extend this series of essays into a theoretical text on gender and sexuality.
To further understand young adult sexuality, I have collaborated with Paula England on the analysis of her multi-university survey of college student sexual practices. England, Alison Fogarty and I published a paper on orgasm in college hookups and relationships in Barbara Risman’s Families as They Really Are. A more detailed investigation of the determinants of women’s orgasm and sexual enjoyment in hookup and relationship sex on American college campuses is under review. With Laura Backstrom and Jennifer Puentes, I am exploring the interactional challenges of cunnilingus in college hookups and relationships.
Collaborators include Laura Hamilton, Paula England, Alison Fogarty, Brian Sweeney, Martin S. Weinberg, Laura Backstrom, and Jennifer Puentes.