Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Bisexuality, Social Science Research and Re-discovering the Personal

A lot of fellow academics think I have a nice time of it given I spend so much of my research exploring issues of public sex, barebacking and porn. Oh yes, it's a string of rampant antics and masturbatory machinations. Well, no it's not. Not quite. When I therefore read of scientists who spend their time attaching penises to electrodes (or electrodes to penises - I find myself pondering this sentence structure) and watching men orgasm all day, I know that it might sound more fun than it is.

Anyway, I found myself thinking of these fellow academics upon reading Mark Simpson's latest blog post in which he highlights what he calls 'those kinky penile plethysmograph fetishists at Northwestern University [who] just can’t get enough cock.'

This latest study reveals (shock, horror) that bisexual men do exist. Interestingly, Simpson doesn't welcome the report and is critical of the impact these findings will have on bisexual identity (read his post in full here).

Simpson disciple (or Simpsonista), Quiet Riot Girl (and regular commenter on this blog) supports Simpson's claims, noting that his own comments are rooted in experience rather than the 'removed' objectivity of science. I've spoken at a number of conferences and written on what I regard as a failure of modern day academia in addressing the personal. For reasons of complex ethics and established methodological norms, we can not (usually) merely talk about our own experiences even though we quietly acknowledge that they are crucial. In contrast to the 'say it all' scholarship of the 1960s and 1970s, social science research has become impersonal.

Nonetheless, this is starting to change. Tim Dean's Unlimited Intimacy is a remarkable mould breaker. Similarly, I was recently on the awards committee that bestowed the 2011 Hart-SLSA book prize to Rosie Harding's Regulating Sexuality - a book that includes a moving and powerful personal conclusion. If social science is having these difficulties, it is perhaps unsurprising that traditional science operates in a separate silo. A silo in which things can only be precisely measured, prodded and reduced to quantifiable data. Social scientists have traditionally stood as a counter-wight to this, and if anything, the comments of Simpson and QRG are a reminder that we need to re-discover the personal in our own writing.

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Elly said...

Great post and observations Chris.

I don't agree though that science and social science operate in 'separate silos'. I think they are both informed by the same 'positivist empiricism' that dominates academic research these days.

To give a *personal* example I nearly quit/was nearly kicked off my Phd programme in gender studies due to my refusal to adopt a positivist empirical epistemology.

The idea that all we need is to collect the data to prove the 'facts' about a situation is prevalent in most research disciplines I believe. Partly because in purely financial terms it is less costly, than actually exploring ideas and talking to people.

If some academics are bucking the trend I value that. But they are in the minority. That's why I rate Simpson's work so highly in part- it just would not see the light of day in neo-liberal academia.

Elly said...

Oh, I will also add that I think, from what I know of his approach and his work, that when Mark referred to the 'scientists' as 'kinky' what he meant was this. They get off on the idea that they are doing 'proper science' about sex, with all the machinery and graphs and electrodes that entails. I don't think he was saying they are 'kinky' because they do 'sex research', but because they fetishise the machinations of it.

You know, like what fetishists do.

Elly said...

a few more notes on this subject:

thanks again for posting!


Chris Ashford said...

I agree (in part). However, there are issues beyond that -for example the dominance of feminist legal studies in the field of gender, or even arguably, the growing influence of Queer (I have to recognise the impact of my own subscription to that theory for instance). Ironically, academia is rarely open to new ideas. Rather it likes to push things a little bit further along established tracks with the occasional 'new' idea which then becomes a totem around which academics gather.

However, for all of this there remains a big difference between 'science' and other subjects, for instance in the conception of ethics, the structure of PhD's, the definition of research and so on. That's the point I was trying to get at.

I also think it's important to acknowledge the academic mould breakers that are out there who must combat criticism within and beyond the ivory towers of the academy.

Elly said...

I like academic mould breakers sure. But they rarely get to really break the mould unless as you say they are clustered around an accepted 'new' idea. eg Cultural studies in the 60s and 70s.

Queer theory in academia to me, seems very 'old'! I have been writing about it as a fossil that is being preserved by some nostalgic homos.

If you include psychology as a social science, it bears many of the hallmarks of 'science' and shows how science principles and methods are used in social science disciplines.

Chris Ashford said...

You point on Queer is really interesting. It kinda died off in the late 1990s. Just 4/5 years ago when Is tarted to talk about queer theory ideas in the context of law scholarship it was seen as very odd but has suddenly surged into popularity in the last 18 months.

Law is frequently late to the party!

Elly said...

That's interesting.

I think in terms of the 'law' - gay and 'queer' rights have had a resurgence recently. Gay Marriage and gay people having/adopting children for example, have brought some legal issues around sexuality into the limelight again.

That's ok by me, I just wish people could talk about law and sexuality more widely, as you do.

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