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social sciences

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Research on gender variant persons, long an important topic, was taken up within the new rubric of identities.

In response to the AIDS pandemic, an increasing amount of social research has been devoted to a deeper understanding of sex roles and sex practices among many peoples, notably among men who have sex with men, in order to develop more effective strategies to prevent the sexual transmission of HIV.

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Linguistic anthropologists have focused on ways in which lesbian or gay identity may be constituted or expressed through particular uses of language; these initiatives culminated in the annual conference on Lavender Languages and Linguistics, begun in 1993.

The professional status of lesbian and gay anthropology and its practitioners continued to be elevated during this period. In 1987, ARGOH was renamed the Society of Lesbian and Gay Anthropologists (SOLGA), which in 1998 became an official section of the American Anthropological Association.

New Directions, Old Quandaries

Despite a tendency toward internal coherence, lesbian and gay anthropology remains fraught with tensions around precisely those issues that an earlier generation of anthropologists could not reconcile.

Though its scope continues to expand, recent research has preserved the historical bias toward the study of biological males and the study of Euro-American populations. This reflects the intense legal preoccupation with policing homosexuality in these societies, as well as an ongoing reluctance on the part of research institutions to lend support to overseas projects of this kind.

Moreover, the questions of causation and universality continue to divide practitioners. While cultural anthropologists have generally dispensed with research on the social origins of homosexuality, it remains a pressing concern to biological anthropologists and behavioral ecologists, who are invested in demonstrating just how much (if any) of homosexual behavior is in fact socially determined.

Cultural anthropologists are frequently dismissive of research that suggests that homosexual behavior may have a biological as well as a social basis. Many cultural anthropological studies, meanwhile, tend to take identity categories such as "lesbian," "gay," "bisexual," or "transgender" more or less as given, even in cultural contexts where such identities may not be meaningful for the persons being studied.

This practice echoes the tendency of early anthropologists to assume that "homosexuality" was a universal human condition simply because it was believed to be a pathological one. This essentializing tendency has come in for criticism among anthropologists in recent years, who have argued (following queer theory) that sexual and gender identities are highly culturally and historically specific.

All societies have their particular social identity categories and ways of understanding what appears to Euro-American anthropologists to be "homosexual" behavior. These categories and understandings must be granted legitimacy independent of what is arguably an ethnocentric (if politically efficacious) point of view that "lesbian and gay people" exist in all the world's cultures.

Yet the virtual omnipresence of what we might term "homosexuality" is invaluable insofar as it prompts us to call into question what our own social identity categories mean, how they have been formed, and how they might be re-imagined.

Matthew D. Johnson

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social sciences >> Overview:  Cultural Identities

A growing body of scholarly and other work on Cultural Identities challenges the "naturalness," and even the political necessity, of a unitary gay and lesbian identity.

literature >> Overview:  Ethnography

Ethnography, the description of indigenous non-European peoples by Euro-Americans, has been a safe way for writers to discuss homosexuality as a normal, non-pathological behavior.

social sciences >> Overview:  Ethnography

Beginning in the 1960s increasing numbers of ethnographers have conducted research on glbtq issues, spurred by the premise that studies of diverse sexualities are crucial to understanding human behavior and culture.

social sciences >> Overview:  Etiology

The earliest etiologies--or theories of causation--of homosexuality date from European antiquity, but the search for a universal etiology has intensified as homosexual behavior has come under the scrutiny of science.

social sciences >> Overview:  Geography

Over the past 25 years, the academic discipline of Geography, especially its social scientific and humanistic branch, has been attuned to glbtq people, places, and natures.

social sciences >> Overview:  Homosexuality

The term "homosexuality," coined in 1869, with "heterosexuality" as its opposite, has led to a binary concept that oversimplifies the complexity of human sexual behavior.

social sciences >> Overview:  Indigenous Cultures

"Indigenous" is a concept important in the history of anthropology, particularly as it regards anthropology's treatment of same-sex sexual relations.

social sciences >> Overview:  Indonesia

A great range of non-normative sexualities and genders can be found in the Indonesian archipelago, but the concepts gay and lesbi are Western terms that have been transformed in the Indonesian context.

social sciences >> Overview:  Santería and Vodou

Santería, Vodou, and related belief systems comprise a complex of religious ideas, practices, and imagery whose origins can be traced to West African traditions.

social sciences >> Overview:  Situational Homosexuality

Situational homosexuality is same-sex sexual activity that occurs not as part of a gay life style, but because the participants happen to find themselves in a single-sex environment for a prolonged period.

social sciences >> Overview:  Sociology

As an academic field, sociology has only recently begun to examine sexuality, and members of the profession are divided over glbtq concerns.

social sciences >> Benedict, Ruth

Among the first American women to study anthropology, Ruth Benedict rose to the top of her profession; her "patterns of culture" theory explains human behavior and concepts of deviance as cultural constructs.

social sciences >> Freud, Sigmund

The founder of psychoanalysis and the discoverer of the unconscious, Sigmund Freud initiated a fundamental transformation in the self-understanding of Western men and women, including especially the role of sexuality.

social sciences >> Hay, Harry

Activist Harry Hay, an original member of both the Mattachine Society and the Radical Faeries, is recognized as one of the principal founders of the gay liberation movement in the United States.

social sciences >> Hirschfeld, Magnus

German-born Magnus Hirschfeld deserves recognition as a significant theorist of sexuality and the most prominent advocate of homosexual emancipation of his time.

social sciences >> Hooker, Evelyn

American psychologist Evelyn Hooker's pioneering studies on male homosexuality in the 1950s and 1960s challenged the "sickness" model of homosexuality then prevalent.

social sciences >> Humphreys, Laud

A founder of the Sociologists' Gay Caucus and a pioneer researcher in the study of homosexual behavior, Laud Humphreys combined academic study with political activism of all kinds.

social sciences >> Kinsey, Alfred C.

The most important sex researcher of the twentieth century, Alfred C. Kinsey contributed groundbreaking studies of male and female sexual behavior in America.

social sciences >> Krafft-Ebing, Richard von

The carefully detailed case studies of nineteenth-century psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing shed light on the sexual habits of a wide spectrum of men and women.

social sciences >> Mattachine Society

One of the earliest American gay movement organizations, the Mattachine Society was dedicated to the cultural and political liberation of homosexuals; but in the face of McCarthyism, it adopted conservative policies of accommodationism.

social sciences >> Mead, Margaret

Although she was one of the most prominent and widely admired American anthropologists of her generation, Margaret Mead chose to keep her own bisexuality a secret.

social sciences >> Ulrichs, Karl Heinrich

Nineteenth-Century German activist Karl Heinrich Ulrichs was both the first modern theorist of homosexuality and the first homosexual to "come out" publicly.

social sciences >> Westermarck, Edward

Finnish sociologist, anthropologist, and moral philosopher, Edward Westermarck wrote a number of classic books on sexuality and sexual mores.


Benedict, Ruth. Patterns of Culture. New York: Mariner Books, 1934.

Lewin, Ellen, and William L. Leap, eds. Out in the Field: Reflections of Lesbian and Gay Anthropologists. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996.

_____, eds. Out in Theory: The Emergence of Lesbian and Gay Anthropology. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. Sex and Repression in Savage Society. New York: Routledge, 1927.

Mead, Margaret. Coming of Age in Samoa. New York: Perennial, 1928.

_____. Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies. New York: Perennial, 1935.

Nardi, Peter M., and Beth E. Schneider, eds. Social Perspectives in Lesbian and Gay Studies. New York: Routledge, 1998.

Newton, Esther. Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972.

Weston, Kath. Long Slow Burn: Sexuality and Social Science. New York: Routledge, 1998.


    Citation Information
    Author: Johnson, Matthew D.  
    Entry Title: Anthropology  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2004  
    Date Last Updated September 24, 2005  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2004, glbtq, inc.  


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