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social sciences

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The first significant research into homosexual activity in the United States was conducted by Alfred Kinsey, a researcher at the University of Indiana, in his Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948). Kinsey was not a sociologist--he was a zoologist--but his groundbreaking research has influenced generations of sociological research into homosexual activity. He found that 37% of men had engaged in sex with other men. However, the research methods that he used had significant flaws. For instance, his sample was not representative of the United States population. He interviewed only white men, and these respondents were disproportionately from lower socioeconomic classes.

In 1994, sociologist Edward Laumann tried to recreate the Kinsey study by interviewing a nationally representative sample of men and women. It was, and still is, the most comprehensive study of its kind. Laumann's results differed significantly from Kinsey's, as Laumann found that only 7.1% of men had engaged in sex with other men. One of the major reasons for this difference is that Kinsey included a greater focus on adolescent sexual experiences. Moreover, Laumann's study had problems of its own. Survey research methodologies often result in underreporting of stigmatized behaviors, and the figures of same-sex sexual activity reported by Laumann are not to be trusted.

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During the 1960s several important works in the sociology of deviance were published, including Howard Becker's Outsiders (1963), Erving Goffman's Stigma (1963), and Martin Hoffman's The Gay World: Male Homosexuality and the Social Creation of Evil (1968). These works are important because they attempted to study homosexuality non-judgmentally, simply as a significant social phenomenon, without a particular concern for etiology. In effect, they attempted to rescue the subject from the province of psychology, which was then heavily invested in the sickness theory.

Another significant early sociological investigation into male homosexuality was conducted in 1970 by Laud Humphreys. This study involved covert observation of homosexual sex in public bathrooms, during which Humphreys acted as a "lookout" for those engaging in sex. After the sex acts were completed, Humphreys watched the men's cars leaving the area and recorded their license plate numbers so that he could visit them a year later in the guise of a health researcher. He determined that 38% of the men he observed were married and considered themselves heterosexual. While this research has been very important in broadening the sociological understanding of sexual behavior and homosexuality, it posed obvious ethical problems.

Lesbian and Gay Sociology

As the lesbian and gay civil rights movement began to build steam in the 1970s, students and faculty alike began to push for the development of courses on gay and lesbian experiences. At the same time, academics, activists, and other individuals began to publish the first wave of books focused on homosexuality.

These books became the texts for early lesbian, gay, and studies courses. While these courses were not generally found in sociology departments at the beginning (psychology and anthropology, along with experimental women's studies and English departments, were more accepting), it was almost inevitable that some of them would find their way into sociology eventually. This is because sociology has traditionally been concerned with inequality and social change, both facets of the study of homosexuality.

The development of feminist perspectives in sociology in the wake of the women's movement also brought about more investigations into homosexuality, particularly lesbianism. Feminist sociologists called for the deprivileging of nuclear-family centered understandings of relationships and child-rearing.

They began to do research on family lives and intimate relationships that had previously been thought of as trivial by the male-dominated field. Feminist social theory emphasized conflicts rather than functions, enabling sociologists to see better how minority groups in society experience their everyday lives. Additionally, they developed new ways of engaging in research that reduced the social distance between the researcher and the subject, leading to more truthful and insightful research into private and intimate aspects of people's lives.

Among the social theorists who have been important in developing a sociology of sexuality are Michel Foucault and Judith Butler, two influential post-modern thinkers. Post-modernism brought to sociology the idea that knowledge is not a set of truths but instead a set of socially constructed beliefs, and that no one knowledge is more credible than any other knowledge.

Foucault was a French social philosopher who wrote not only on sexuality, but also on authority and social control. He authored an unfinished series of books entitled The History of Sexuality that showed how Western society came to see its members as sexual beings. One of Foucault's most important contributions to the sociology of sexuality is the idea that identities are fluid, rather than fixed.

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