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social sciences

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Ethnographic research done by sociologists in the 1960s influenced anthropologists in the 1970s who were interested in conducting studies of glbtq communities in North America. One of the first book-length ethnographies on gay and transgender life was published in 1972 by Esther Newton. Based on fieldwork done in 1968, Mother Camp was an exploration of the world of female impersonators that took a cultural, rather than pathological, perspective.

Newton's classic text stood largely alone until the end of the decade, at which point glbtq-oriented book-length ethnographies slowly began to emerge. These included studies of lesbian communities (Wolf 1979) and gay bar life (Read 1980) in the United States, and Gilbert Herdt's research on "ritualized homosexuality" among the Sambia in Papua New Guinea (1981).

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Books that focused on alternative genders and sexualities began appearing even more regularly from the mid-1980s. Some of these ground-breaking texts included studies of two-spirited people among Native Americans (Williams 1986), a support group for male-to-female in the United States (Bolin 1988), and the hijra of India (Nanda 1990). Several important edited volumes also appeared in the 1980s, including Ritualized Homosexuality in Melanesia (Herdt 1984) and The Many Faces of Homosexuality (Blackwood 1986).

A New Era

The 1990s saw a dramatic increase of theoretically sophisticated research on issues of sexual and gender diversity as gay, lesbian, , and transgender studies began to be taken more seriously in the academy. Several important ethnographic studies of gay and lesbian communities in the United States were published during the first half of the 1990s, including works by Weston (1991), Newton (1993), and Kennedy and Davis (1993).

Moreover, grant monies from public health agencies and non-governmental organizations increasingly became available for research relating to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. This allowed researchers to pursue studies of sexual subcultures to an extent that had not been possible before in the social sciences.

In the late 1990s transgenderism emerged as a significant research topic, with long-term research projects carried out by ethnographers in countries such as Brazil (Kulick 1998), the Philippines (Johnson 1997), Tonga (Besnier 1997), and among Native Americans (Lang 1998). Recently, more attention has also focused on lesbianism and female-to-male transgenderism, subjects that were often ignored in the past (Blackwood and Wieringa 1999).

In addition, two landmark volumes co-edited by Ellen Lewin and William Leap were published that explore the history, politics, and debates surrounding gay and lesbian ethnography, and the complex issues of positionality and authority that affect gay and lesbian ethnographers.

Methodological Considerations

A number of sensitive questions face ethnographers who conduct research on glbtq topics, as well as those who themselves identify as glbtq. For example, what are the implications and effects of being "out" in the research setting? How does one's sexuality and gender identity impact how one conducts fieldwork?

In the past, ethnographers have typically remained silent in their written ethnographies about their own identities. But in recent years reflexive reporting, in which researchers offer personal (sometimes intimate) information in their finished texts, has become popular in the social sciences. Accordingly, glbtq ethnographers have recognized the importance of allowing readers to understand how the sexual and gendered aspects of the researcher's identity can influence how a research topic--whether glbtq-focused or not--is approached, and how being out may shape personal relationships that are formed in the field.

Questions of identity inevitably lead to questions of privilege. Does being glbtq-identified permit a researcher greater access to certain research populations? For instance, does being an out lesbian allow a researcher to gain a greater measure of trust among lesbian informants than would otherwise be possible? This in turn leads to a consideration of the ethical implications of pursuing sexual relations with one's informants.

A final controversial issue concerns the use of Western labels to refer to indigenous terms. That is, how applicable are English words such as homosexual, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transvestite, and queer to people in non-English speaking cultures? After all, such words have their own context-bound histories. Thus, the ethnographer must make the decision when writing up fieldwork whether to use native terms or English glosses.

Indeed, whose interpretation of reality will become privileged in the final written ethnographic product? Should a group of people be labeled and conceptualized as homosexual or transgendered even if they themselves do not self-identify as such?

For example, some Thai kathoey view themselves as "women" (phuying), but are typically described by Western social scientists as "drag queens," "transsexuals," or "transgendered homosexuals." How to reconcile the tensions between such insider and outsider views is a major challenge for today's ethnographer.

Andrew Matzner

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social sciences >> Overview:  Anthropology

Anthropology, the first of the social science disciplines to take sexuality--and particularly homosexuality--seriously as a field of intellectual inquiry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, has achieved a new impetus in the post-Stonewall era.

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:  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:  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:  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 >> Berdache

Both male and female berdaches (or two-spirit persons), common among Native American tribal cultures, were characterized by gender variation sanctioned by supernatural dreams and visions.

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 >> Nopcsa, Baron Franz

Transylvanian paleontologist Baron Franz Nopcsa made significant contributions to the fields of paleontology, geology, ethnology, and evolutionary biology, and aspired to become King of Albania.

literature >> Thesiger, Sir Wilfred

Although there is some question as to whether travel writer, explorer, photographer, and cult figure Sir Wilfred Thesiger can be labeled as homosexual, his most powerful emotional ties were with the young male companions of his famous journeys.

social sciences >> Westermarck, Edward

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


Besnier, Nico. "Sluts and Superwomen: The Politics of Gender Liminality in Urban Tonga." Ethnos 62.1-2 (1997): 1-27.

Blackwood, Evelyn. The Many Faces of Homosexuality: Anthropological Approaches to Homosexual Behavior. New York: Harrington Park Press, 1986.

Blackwood, Evelyn, and Saskia Wieringa, eds. Female Desires: Same-Sex Relations and Transgender Practices across Cultures. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Bolin, Anne. In Search of Eve: Transsexual Rites of Passage. South Hadley, Mass.: Bergin and Garvey, 1988.

Devereux, George. "Institutionalized Homosexuality of the Mohave." Human Biology 9 (1937): 498-527.

Elliston, Deborah. "Erotic Anthropology: 'Ritualized Homosexuality' in Melanesia and Beyond." American Ethnologist 22.4 (1995): 848-67.

Ford, Clellan, and Frank Beach. Patterns of Sexual Behavior. New York: Harper and Row, 1951.

Gagnon, John, and William Simon, eds. Sexual Deviance. New York: Harper and Row, 1967.

Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books, 1973.

Herdt, Gilbert. Guardians of the Flutes: Idioms of Masculinity. New York: McGraw Hill, 1981.

_____, ed. Ritualized Homosexuality in Melanesia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

_____, ed. Sexual Cultures and Migration in the Era of AIDS: Anthropological and Demographic Perspectives. International Studies in Demography Series. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Hill, Walter. "The Status of the Hermaphrodite and Transvestite in Navaho Culture." American Anthropologist 37 (1940): 273-79.

Jackson, Peter, and Gerard Sullivan, eds. Lady Boys, Tom Boys, Rent Boys: Male and Female Homosexualities in Contemporary Thailand. New York: Harrington Park Press, 1999.

Johnson, Mark. Beauty and Power: Transgendering and Cultural Transformation in the Southern Philippines. Oxford: Berg, 1997.

Kennedy, Elizabeth Lapovsky, and Madeline Davis. Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Kulick, Don. Travesti: Sex, Gender and Culture among Brazilian Transgendered Prostitutes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Kulick, Don, and Margaret Willson, eds. Taboo: Sex, Identity and Erotic Subjectivity in Anthropological Fieldwork. London: Routledge, 1995.

Landes, Ruth. The City of Women. New York: Macmillan, 1947.

Lang, Sabine. Men as Women, Women as Men: Changing Gender in Native American Cultures. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998.

Lewin, Ellen, and William 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. The Sexual Life of Savages in North-Western Melanesia. London: Routledge, 1929.

Matzner, Andrew. "The Complexities of Acceptance: Thai Student Attitudes Towards Kathoey." Crossroads: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 15.2 (2001): 71-93.

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

Murray, Stephen. "Sleeping with the Natives as a Source of Data." Publications of the Society of Lesbian and Gay Anthropologists Newsletter 13 (1991): 49-51.

Nanda, Serena. The Hijras of India: Neither Man nor Woman. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1990.

Newton, Esther. Cherry Grove, Fire Island: Sixty Years in America's First Gay and Lesbian Town. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993.

_____. Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America. Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1972.

Oboler, Regina Smith. "Is the Female Husband a Man? Woman/Woman Marriage Among the Nandi of Kenya." Ethnology 19.1 (1980): 69-88.

Read, Kenneth. Other Voices: The Style of a Male Homosexual Tavern. Novato, Calif.: Chandler and Sharp, 1980.

Rubin, Gayle. "Studying Sexual Subcultures: Excavating the Ethnography of Gay Communities in Urban North America." Out in Theory: The Emergence of Lesbian and Gay Anthropology. Ellen Lewin and William Leap, eds. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002. 17-68.

Schaeffer, Claude. "The Kutenai Female Berdache: Courier, Guide, Prophetess, and Warrior." Ethnohistory 12.3 (1965): 193-236.

Sonenschein, David. "Homosexuality as a Subject of Anthropological Inquiry." Anthropological Quarterly 39.2 (1966): 73-82.

Weston, Kath. Families We Choose: Lesbians, Gays, Kinship. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.

_____. "Lesbian/Gay Studies in the House of Anthropology." Annual Review of Anthropology 22 (1993): 339-67.

Wikan, Unni. "Man Becomes Woman: Transsexualism in Oman as a Key to Gender Roles." Man 12 (1977): 304-319.

Williams, Walter. The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.

Wolf, Deborah Goleman. The Lesbian Community. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.


    Citation Information
    Author: Matzner, Andrew  
    Entry Title: Ethnography  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2004  
    Date Last Updated June 22, 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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