In Other, Please Specify: Queer Methods in Sociology, editors D’Lane Compton, Tey Meadow and Kristen Schilt bring together contributors to reflect on the challenges and rewards of developing and conducting queer research while also questioning the traditional epistemological, methodological and political commitments of sociology. This is an engaging and vital book that provides methodological advice and practical strategies for undertaking queer research, writes Catalina Martin.
Other, Please Specify: Queer Methods in Sociology. D’Lane Compton, Tey Meadow and Kristen Schilt (eds). University of California Press. 2018.
Queer studies as a discipline is concerned with learning about the ways in which, throughout history, forces such as heteronormativity, poverty, colonialism and white supremacy have shaped and affected the lives of LGBTQ+ individuals and communities around the world. Queer studies also recognises the importance of the sex practices, bodies, needs, desires and wishes of their participants in the research context, which has generally been seen as non-sexual by default (54) – but what are the realities of conducting this type of research?
Other, Please Specify: Queer Methods in Sociology, edited by D’Lane Compton, Tey Meadow and Kristen Schilt, is a wonderful book which draws on the experiences of multiple sexuality scholars across the US, presenting readers with personal accounts of the challenges and rewards of developing and conducting queer research. Contributors to this book work together to engage readers in a critical discussion of the traditional epistemological, methodological and political commitments of sociology, questioning the Western and positivist assumptions which have typically characterised its methods. The overall aim of the book is to encourage the use of queer methodologies among emerging scholars by providing practical advice and strategies on carrying out research about gender, sexuality and racially diverse queer communities as well as building a collaborative culture within the field of sociology.
The general theme of this book is to critically navigate the overall discomfort of sociology in the US towards the study of non-heteronormative and non-white populations. This includes reflections on the discipline’s historical preference for positivist research that values causal mechanisms and generalisability: a challenge for many queer sociologists who seek to voice local understandings and meanings of people who have been politically and socially marginalised through the use of innovative qualitative methods. All of the contributors to this book are trained as sociologists and share experiences of isolation and an absence of mentorship when pursuing their work in different intersections of LGBTQ+ studies. By sharing these, they aim to broaden the space for queer research within sociology and provide optimism and pedagogical advice for a new generations of sociologists.
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Other, Please Specify is divided into four broad themes. The first topic is referred to as ‘anti-orthodoxies’ and forms the opening section of the book, which explores different accounts of some of the challenges of conducting queer research in very traditional and positivist sociological departments. The second theme looks at the relationships of researchers with their discipline and with others in the field, and explores how their own identity impacts their work, including reflections on the ways that queer research involves intellectual and emotional risk beyond what is often perceived in traditional sociology. The third theme of this book is the resourceful strategies used by queer academics to adapt traditional frameworks to better reflect queer populations and research enquiry, ranging from the recruitment of participants to sampling and less conventional ways to achieve rigour in their projects. The last section of this book is named ‘Epistemologies’, and reflects on some of the wider barriers faced by queer academics within sociology, exploring some of the limits of queer theory as well as the need to increase collaboration within and beyond the discipline.
In the chapter ‘The Methods Gatekeepers and the Exiled Queers’, Jane Ward reflects on how her own work, and queer research in general, is often questioned through methodological critiques. As a member of the editorial board for the journal Gender and Society, on numerous occasions the author saw valuable queer research being dismissed for not including a big enough sample, for studying inappropriate sources of popular culture – such as popular queer advice columns or online support groups to gather a good insight into cultural narratives – or for being methodologically confusing by drawing on too many different data sources and in general not complying with the specific journal criteria. Reviewers of her work criticised her on the grounds that her work lacked rigour and a systematic approach. To publish her work and access funding for projects, Ward writes of the need to reframe her research in ways that reflect the expectations of neoliberal academic structures which favour goal-based research focused on measurable outcomes achieved through traditional methods (61). Ward argues that discussions of methodological inconsistency were used by colleagues to hide worries about the race, gender and sexuality of participants in queer studies, mobilising what initially appear as neutral concerns to undermine politically invested research.
Catherine Connell’s chapter, ‘Thank You for Coming Out Today: The Queer Discomforts of In-Depth Interviewing’, is found in the second section of the book, and explores some of the difficulties encountered when conducting qualitative research in the form of interviews. By reflecting on her own research on gay and lesbian teachers’ experiences in a culture where homophobia is part of everyday life, Connell explores some of the ethical issues around snowball sampling, including contacting participants who might feel their privacy has been threatened, and also unpacks some of the assumptions made by researchers when conceptualising their work. The author reflects on how her own sexual identity impacted her study: disclosing this, in her words, limited participant opportunities to provide deeper explanations or disagree with her views. She discusses the pros and cons of being an ‘inside researcher’, which impacted her study in ways she did not anticipate, and how researchers’ own positionality in queer methodologies is potentially less stable and coherent than typically understood in sociological research. However, Connell goes on to argue that this is an essential part of queer theory and methods, and that it can be used in a productive way to challenge the norms of traditional research and knowledge to create change, drawing on insights that have hitherto been ignored or undiscovered.
Overall, Other, Please Specify is a very engaging read: readers can relate to the real-life experiences of researchers at different stages of their careers. While highlighting some of the difficulties of applying established sociological methods to researching LGBTQ+ populations, it provides methodological advice and practical strategies for conducting queer research and for dealing with the traditional absence of mentorship in exploring queer topics. The book would have benefitted from sharing more ideas of what ‘good’ queer methodologies might look like in sociology, as well as further reflections of colleagues in Europe, the Global South and other regions where heteronormativity and academia are experienced in different ways. The book nonetheless contains a vital message about the importance of connecting with other queer sociologists as an essential way of finding comfort within a discipline which still has a long way to go in establishing queer methodologies.
- This review originally appeared at the LSE Review of Books.
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of USAPP– American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
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Catalina Martin – University of Edinburgh
Catalina Martin is a first-year PhD researcher at the Centre for Homeless and Inclusion Health in the School of Health in Social Sciences at the University of Edinburgh. Her project aims to explore the experiences of ‘home’ and ‘homelessness’ for LGBT youth in Scotland.