My research focuses on the reproduction and transformation of systems of social inequality in the United States. I am interested in gender, sexuality, social class, and other dimensions of inequality. I approach these questions as a cultural and organizational sociologist. To date I have investigated: 1) The sources, development, and consequences of gay movements in the United States from the 1950s through the 1990s; 2) The role of the university in the reproduction of social class; and 3) The role of sexuality in gender inequality in young adulthood. My primary post-tenure contribution to the first stream of research is a synthetic theoretical essay co-authored with Mary Bernstein in which we articulate a multi-institutional politics approach to social movements (Sociological Theory 2008). In Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality (Harvard University Press 2013), Laura Hamilton and I identify organizational mechanisms contributing to the reproduction of social inequality on American college campuses. This book furthers the second line of investigation. Knowledge about gender inequality in sexuality in young adulthood is advanced by a series of articles, including an article on the factors predicting orgasm among college women with Paula England and Alison Fogarty (American Sociological Review 2012), and an article on the ways in which both hookups and relationships are marked by gender inequality with Laura Hamilton (Gender & Society 2009). In the future I intend to explore the ways in which the de-institutionalization of marriage and the development of new communication technologies may be shaping adult sexual and romantic relationships.
Gay Movements in the United States: A Cultural and Institutional Approach
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 Sociological Theory (2008) article, Mary Bernstein and I outline the tenets of a cultural and institutional approach to the study of social movements.
Higher Education and Social Inequality
In the fall of 2004 my then student and now co-author Laura Hamilton, a group of graduate and undergraduate research assistants, and I occupied a dormitory room on a women’s floor in a co-educational residence hall at a research university in the Midwest. 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 has generated two related sets of papers-one that focuses on the role of the university in the reproduction of social class, the other on gender inequality in sexuality. A third set of theoretical papers on the acquisition of cultural capacities remains unrealized as yet.
In Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality (Harvard University Press 2013), Laura Hamilton and I observed that these young women, similar to each other in all ways except class background, exited college with vastly different life prospects. Time spent at the university did little to diminish pre-existing differences in circumstances. Few women from less privileged backgrounds realized their dreams of mobility. Most women from privileged backgrounds were poised to reproduce their parents’ circumstances-although we also found disturbing numbers of women from affluent families at risk of downward mobility.
In the book we argued that women’s outcomes were in part a result of the structure of academic and social life at the university, which best accommodated the interests of affluent, socially oriented, and out-of-state students. We identified three pathways through the university-each associated with the agendas of a different group of students. With the Greek system at its center, and supported by the residence hall system and the provision of easy majors, the party pathway was the most accessible, visible, and well-resourced route through Midwest University. The party pathway structures the academic and social experiences of all students, putting the majority at a disadvantage. The mobility pathway, in contrast, was in such disrepair at Midwest U that less privileged women who transferred to regional campuses ended up with better short and long-term labor market prospects than similar women who remained at the university. The university also supported a professional pathway that enabled academically-oriented students from affluent backgrounds to achieve academically and socially, positioning them to move into professional jobs or strong graduate programs. Success on this pathway required the active intervention of involved, highly educated parents, thus putting it out of reach of less affluent women.
Our findings suggest the need to revisit claims that the effects of class background are erased with the receipt of a college degree. Our study suggests that organizational arrangements may shape whether schools exacerbate or ameliorate inequality. Moderately selective public universities may not equalize as well as more or less selective institutions. More selective institutions may offer programming designed to pull less affluent students toward the center of campus life, while less selective institutions may better meet the specific educational needs of less affluent students. In more recent years the equalizing effects of college may be diminishing due to the massification and diversification of the sector. These hypotheses lend themselves to investigation with representative data.
With Johanna Masse, Laura Hamilton and I are writing an article articulating an institutional approach to educational stratification. Attention to schools as organizations is largely absent in research that tracks students through post-secondary schooling. If successful, this piece will crystallize the theoretical contributions of this project in a way not possible in Paying for the Party, which was drafted with a more general audience in mind.
This book is part of a larger 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).
Sexuality in the Reproduction of Gender Inequality
This set of papers explores a variety of forms of gender inequality in young adult sexuality. The first paper in the series, “Sexual Assault on Campus” (Social Problems2006), co-authored with Laura Hamilton and Brian Sweeney, tackles one of the most dramatic manifestations of gender inequality on campus-continued high rates of sexual assault. We argued that existing explanations, which focused either on the characteristics of perpetrators or on campus rape cultures, neglected the role of campus organization in creating social sexual danger. Furthering the project, Laura Hamilton published a solo-authored paper exploring homophobia among women (Gender & Society 2007). She demonstrated that women’s public same-gender sexual behavior can be derived from their location in erotic hierarchies. This paper suggests that privileged young women’s agency and interests-particularly their investment in maintaining positions at the top of erotic hierarchies-yields insights into the reproduction of gender inequality more generally. In “Gendered Sexuality in Young Adulthood” (Gender & Society 2009), Hamilton and I explored the sexual and romantic dilemmas women face as a result of conflicting class and gender expectations. This paper debunks notions that hookups are the problem and relationships are the answer. We show that both hookups and relationships are marred by gender inequality, thus posing different problems for women. This paper takes an intersectional approach by showing the ways in which privileged and less privileged women are differently situated in relationship to social structures. Developing the intersectional analysis further, Hamilton, Elizabeth Marie Armstrong, Lotus Seeley, and I drafted a paper entitled “Good Girls: Social Class and Sexual Privilege” which is under review at Social Psychology Quarterly. This manuscript explores the ways in which class and race offer affluent, white women “sexual privilege” by providing resources that enable them to maintain an identity and reputation as a “good girl” even when they engage in non-romantic sex. This paper furthers our argument that women are implicated in the reproduction of gender inequality by illustrating the ways in which some women deploy the “slut” label against other women. The argument about the investments in gender that some women have-and the role these investments play in gender inequality-will be more fully developed in a theoretical paper developing the concept of “hegemonic femininity.”
My interests in gender and sexuality on campus have also generated other collaborative relationships. Paula England, Alison Fogarty and I published a paper on orgasm in college hookups and relationships (American Sociological Review 2012). This paper, based on quantitative analysis of survey data and qualitative analysis of interviews, showed that orgasm was more common in relationships than hookups. Sexual practices, partner-specific experience, and affection predicted orgasm in both contexts. Qualitative analysis suggested that men’s higher investment in partner orgasm in relationships-and frank lack of concern about it in hookups-may account for part of the hookup/relationship gap in orgasm. With Laura Backstrom and Jennifer Puentes (Indiana University graduate students), I investigated the interactional dynamics of cunnilingus (Journal of Sex Research 2012). Cunnilingus seems to have become taken-for-granted in relationships, but not in hookups. For women who like cunnilingus, this poses a problem in hookups as they must be assertive to get cunnilingus. For women who do not like cunnilingus, men’s expectation that they will receive it in relationships is problematic. In an interesting effect of gender inequality, men’s interest in giving cunnilingus in relationships sometimes overrides women’s lack of interest in receiving it-to women’s ultimate satisfaction.
I have tried to make this research accessible to undergraduates and general readers. A number of the articles have been included in edited collections designed for teaching. We have also drafted articles specifically for use in the undergraduate classroom, including two pieces for Contexts and a chapter for a textbook on the sociology of the family edited by Barbara Risman.