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social sciences

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Since the early twentieth century, ethnographic research has focused on all manner of cultural practices, yet social scientists generally ignored or marginalized homosexuality, bisexuality, and . With a few exceptions, when the topic of sexuality did appear in studies, it was typically framed through models of deviance and described with stigmatizing language.

However, beginning in the 1960s increasing numbers of ethnographers began conducting research on glbtq issues based on the premise that studies of diverse sexualities are crucial to understanding human behavior and culture.

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A Definition

Utilized most commonly in the disciplines of anthropology and sociology, ethnography is a type of qualitative research method whose purpose is not only to describe, but also to interpret cultural practices and beliefs.

The ethnographer gathers data about a culture by living in it for an extended period of time and engaging in participant observation, that is, taking part in daily life while also maintaining the position of a researcher. Other data collection methods used in ethnography include interviewing, gathering life histories, videotaping, and distributing surveys.

Besides referring to a particular methodology, the term "ethnography" is also used to describe the final written results of ethnographic research.

Ethnography is a powerful research tool because of its ability to generate what Clifford Geertz calls "thick descriptions" of a culture. Moreover, by privileging the interconnections between "insider" information and "outsider" analytical and theoretical frameworks, ethnography effectively explicates how cultural realities are both representationally constructed and materially lived.

Early Studies

In the 1920s and 1930s, University of Chicago sociology students of Robert Park and Ernest Burgess conducted ethnographic studies in metropolitan areas of the United States. Many explored the "underbelly" of city life, including hobos, gangs, slum areas, and saloons. Although it was not the prime concern of their research, the students did provide information about homosexual behavior in their writings. Such urban ethnography continued after World War II, as did the inclusion of details about homosexual behavior.

While historically, most sociologists focused their research on the United States, anthropologists have mainly examined non-Western cultures. Most early ethnographers showed little interest in gender/sexual diversity. However, there were some who made reference, albeit brief, to such topics in their writing, as well as a small number of researchers who directly examined such issues.

For example, Bronislaw Malinowski, who is generally considered to be the father of ethnography in anthropology and whose long-term ethnographic fieldwork in the Trobriand Islands between 1915 and 1918 became a model for later anthropologists, documented various forms of sexuality among his subjects.

Margaret Mead, in her work on Samoan sexuality, published in 1928, also discusses homosexual relationships. And, reflecting long-standing anthropological fascination with the Native American "berdache," George Devereux in 1937 and Walter Hill in 1940 produced studies of intermediate gender roles among the Mojave and Navaho, respectively, while Ruth Landes in 1947 investigated the presence of "passive homosexuals" as both leaders and initiates in Afro-Brazilian possession religions.

In Patterns of Sexual Behavior, published in 1951, Clellan Ford and Frank Beach collected and collated ethnographic information from the massive Human Relations Area Files database. In the chapter on homosexuality, they discuss the number of societies in which same-sex practices are present, and the levels of acceptance in each. While valuable for documenting the existence of homosexuality in other cultures--and hence making a statement about the culturally relativistic nature of anti-homosexual attitudes in the United States--Patterns of Sexual Behavior was more quantitative than qualitative.

Responding to the continued lack of ethnographic attention paid to homosexuality, David Sonenschein challenged the scholarly community with his essay, "Homosexuality as a Subject of Anthropological Inquiry" (1966). Yet prejudicial attitudes within the social sciences, particularly in anthropology, meant that graduate students and university professors interested in conducting glbtq-focused research generally received little support from their departments.

Pioneers and Seminal Works

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, articles based on ethnographic research were increasingly published in academic journals, covering subjects such as "female berdache" (Schaeffer 1965), transgendered prostitutes in Oman (Wikan 1977), and Kenyan "female husbands" (Oboler 1980).

During this same period sociologists John Gagnon and William Simon carried out revolutionary studies that explored how North American homosexuals functioned in everyday life in their communities. They also edited collections of articles about gay and lesbian life based on ethnographic field methods. This type of sociological research was significant because it avoided pathologizing homosexuality and de-emphasized questions of etiology.

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