Cisgender Scholars Conduct “Me-Search,” Too

SumerauNote: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed column. J. Sumerau is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Tampa. J. is a regular contributor to Conditionally Accepted. Zir teaching, research and activism focuses on intersections of sexualities, gender, religion and health in the experiences of sexual, religious and gender minorities.

Cisgender Me-Search

Earlier this year, I ran into a colleague at a conference who asked me an interesting question that I had not yet considered. This colleague had read my blog post about the exclusion of transgender people and their experience from the vast majority of nationally representative social scientific surveys, as well as two peer-reviewed articles of mine that have come out in the past year mentioning this topic.

After reading those pieces, thinking about them and discussing them with others, my colleague sought me out at the conference and asked, “Since transgender people are missing from most data sets, and most social scientists are not transgender that we know of, would most social scientific research today be considered me-search?”

Like most people I have met who study populations they are or were a part of in some way, shape or form, I have regularly heard the term “me-search” thrown around online, at conferences and otherwise throughout my time in the academy. Generally, people use the term as a kind of slur to attack the credibility or importance of research done concerning communities that the researcher has a connection to or is part of beyond their scholarly work. My colleague noted that many cisgender survey researchers spend their whole careers using surveys that only have cisgender respondents or have no way of measuring the possible existence of transgender or nonbinary people in the data set.

As the person spoke, I realized that I have seen the same thing myself. If me-search refers to people who study populations they are a part of outside of their scholarly work, then most survey work done by cisgender scholars — and thus most of social science — fits the definition of me-search.

In the conversations I have had and essays I have read on the subject over the years, however, I have only seen the use of the term “me-search” directed at scholars who study marginalized communities that they are part of or connected to in some way. This realization led me to wonder why this term is directed at members of marginalized communities and scholars studying marginalized populations even though, in many cases, members of dominant groups and scholars using mainstream surveys are doing the same thing. That might be a reflection of societal patterns whereby dominant norms and populations are constructed as more objective and free from questioning, while marginalized norms and communities are constructed as other and met with increased scrutiny. Whatever the source of the discrepancy, its existence suggests a number of important questions that practicing academics should ask themselves.

For example, if social scientists believe that studying one’s own community is problematic, then why do so many cisgender people use surveys that only contain other cis people, and thus only study other cis people? Further, why do they do so without talking about their own cisgender identity and experience as a potential limitation and bias of the study and its results? Is it only problematic if it does not fit their assumptions, lifestyle or background?

If, in contrast, social scientists do not believe studying one’s own community is problematic, then where did the term “me-search” come from, and why does it show up so often in conversations about only some contemporary research practice? Further, why is this term viewed as negative if the vast majority of social scientists are doing it throughout their careers? Is it only negative when it involves giving marginalized communities a voice in scientific traditions?

Finally, if the people who decry me-search believe studying one’s own community is in fact problematic, where are their passionate campaigns to do away with or change our existing survey designs? Put another way, why aren’t they decrying the cisgender me-search that makes up the bulk of contemporary survey work?

Whatever answers may arise from these questions, the point is that a fairly obvious double standard seems to be operating within scientific communities. If, for example, people study their own community but that community occupies a dominant social location, then their work tends to be considered mainstream or legitimate science. But if people study their own community but it occupies a marginalized social location, then their work may be decried or attacked as me-search or not as scientific.

What do we make of this double standard? What does it say about how our own assumptions shape what we do or do not define as legitimate science? And how might we move past this double standard in the future?

I am not going to pretend that I have answers to these questions, but they might be useful starting points for important discussions within the academy. I personally see no issue with me-search related to any social group. Following feminist, queer and critical race theory and other critical scholarly traditions, I think science depends on a mixture of perspectives, methods, lifestyles, experiences and backgrounds if it seeks to capture the world that we all share. Rather, the problem for me arises when some scholars who study groups to which they belong are celebrated while others are attacked or dismissed for doing the same thing.

Put simply, if me-search is a problem, it needs to be addressed when cisgender people or members of other dominant groups conduct it — instead of only when members of marginalized communities do so. If, however, it is not a problem when members of dominant groups study the populations they belong to outside their work, then the term “me-search” — like any other mechanism of inequality — should be done away with, for the betterment of us all.