The Dreaded “Should” In Academia

Note: this blog post was originally published on Write Where It Hurts, and republished on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Dr. J. E. 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, and zir creative writing, such as the coming of age novel Cigarettes & Wine, focuses on LGBTQ experience in the South.

The Dreaded Should

I should be working on Project X. I should be doing Work-Related Task Y. I should be preparing for Academic Meeting or Conference Z. I should be more productive in comparison to that person, goal or norm. I should be doing more in my work about that issue, problem, population or concern.

I should …

I should …

I should …

“Should” is a word I’ve heard rather often from colleagues in my career, and it often carries with it an expectation that one is not doing enough in some way, shape or form. In such cases, people I know are hardworking, incredibly talented, deeply committed and quite impressive by any measure downplay whatever they are doing, accomplishing or achieving at a given moment based on what more they feel they “should” be doing, accomplishing or achieving.

I must note that I am not in any way disparaging the people in question. Rather, from what I can tell, the dreaded should — as I call it — is something they feel and experience deeply that causes them pain, turmoil or other forms of anxiety and stress. I further recognize, as others have noted, that this “shoulding” is encouraged in academic contexts as well as broader capitalistic contexts. People are constantly exposed to messages suggesting they are not doing enough — requirements that are often incredibly vague and subject to interpretation — and very real fears concerning job security, opportunities and resources in the academy.

Put simply, I am not knocking the people who feel this way, but rather I find it quite impressive that they manage to do so well while feeling these things on a daily basis. For me, their management of such feelings demonstrates a special type of strength wherein one feels regularly that one is losing a game yet somehow manages to continue on, do solid work and inspire and connect with others.

At the same time, as someone who — thus far, it appears — is immune to “shoulding” or thoughts about what I “should” be doing, I think this is a pattern that should be noted, discussed and recognized. Why? Because the effects of such stress on people probably — and from what I have seen, empirically do — take an incredible toll on their happiness, health and well-being. In many cases, for example, I see people who experience their lives in ways where “I should be doing X” overshadows all the things they are doing, takes them away from important self-care and/or leaves them constantly feeling as though nothing will ever be good enough. This is a recipe for negative outcomes, yet it is encouraged in the academy.

I cannot pretend to understand what it is like to feel this way. I tend to live in the moment to the point where even when I need to plan for the future, I don’t do it all that well. But I wanted to talk about how these patterns appear to me, as I often serve as a source of support for many people who experience such feelings. In many cases, I am lucky enough to be helpful to them, but in so doing, I am continuously struck by how powerful and damaging “should” can be in the current academic climate.

As such, I want to highlight here what we may miss when we become — or are trained to become — focused on “should” instead of “did” or “done.” If you are one who often feels as though you should be doing more, take a moment and instead ask yourself, “What have I done?” I ask this simple question all of the time when colleagues start talking about how they should be doing something. Universally, the answers reveal a lot of accomplishments. Odds are you are doing lots of things — personally and/or professionally — that you could be giving yourself credit for, and when I have asked people these questions and they have answered, they often feel better — at least for a little bit. Ask yourself how your life might be different if you could learn — or be trained — to focus on what you did do instead of what you should be doing. I’m not saying this will work for everyone, but in many cases, I have seen people realize that they have accomplished far more than they have been giving themselves credit for.

I also think we need to look at where the dreaded should comes from. Whether through comparisons to other people or norms within a given department or program, it tends to arise from the conditions of contemporary academic life — a culture that is focused on what you are doing next rather than what you have already done. People face serious concerns about, for example, job security; time for lovers, friends, family and self-care; and deadlines tied to advancement or even landing one of an increasingly small pool of decent-paying jobs. Such pressures are greatly exacerbated for academics from marginalized backgrounds and scholars in search of stable employment in the present market context. Each of these factors and many others feed the idea that one a) is never quite good enough, b) should be constantly working toward something new to set oneself apart or meet some (often vague) requirement for a job, tenure or other potential source of stability and c) should spend as much time as possible working on that next thing that will make all the difference.

We see these patterns translate into a continuous series of “shoulds” and “somedays.” When I have the job, then I will focus on my self-care, my personal life, that study I want to do or other factors, but for now, I should be X, Y and Z. When I have tenure, then I can have time for a family, take that trip I have been planning, write about what I really want to write about or otherwise do something else. But for now, I should be X, Y and Z. These types of feelings and statements are not only commonplace among academics, from what I can tell, but also understandable when we consider the broader context of academic norms, markets and opportunities. In all such cases, however, we are encouraged by these structural and interpersonal patterns to downplay right now and what we have achieved, or are achieving, for the sake of some future possibility.

As a result, I find myself wondering how much of the right now people miss due to these patterns. What might academe be like if we were encouraged to celebrate the present moment instead of wishing for the future? What might it be like if we came together against the broader cultural patterns that create such conditions? Until those conditions can be changed, I also wonder what little things each of us can do in our own lives to ease the dreaded should we face and help to lessen the negative consequences of such patterns.

I am not saying it would be easy to change the culture of “should” or the economic and political conditions that facilitate such stress. But I think that we would all benefit if we came together and gave ourselves and one another credit for the tremendous amount we all do accomplish personally, politically and academically. At the very least, I think that we should talk about such issues, help each other as we face and experience these shared conditions in our own ways, and look for ways to create better conditions for ourselves and our colleagues individually and on a broader structural level.

J. Sumerau On Productive Research Collaborations

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

Creating Strong Scholarly Relationships

A lot of my scholarly work has been published with other authors. In fact, I have published more than 50 academic works, and many of them have emerged out of productive collaborations. Colleagues — from early to later career stages — often approach me for advice about collaboration, given my reputation in the field. After the most recent round of these conversations earlier this year, I thought that it might be helpful to others to describe the way I go about collaboration.

I should start by noting that this article simply outlines the processes that I use in my own career. I am in no way suggesting that others could or should follow my approach. Rather, as I tell people when I have been asked about this, I share my experience simply as a complement to other discussions on the topic, as an effort to highlight the benefits and potential issues that arise from collaboration, and as an example of one way that has worked well to date.

I have learned from others that my approach can be incredibly useful for some, wholly useless for others or anywhere in between for everyone else. So I invite readers to consider this essay in relation to both: (1) other discussions of the topic and (2) their own scholarly endeavors, goals and preferences. Because regardless of whether or not you find anything useful in my approach, thinking about what, if any, process might work best for you can benefit any academic who is considering or already engaged in collaborative scholarship.

As the title of this essay suggests, I approach collaborations the same way that I approach other relationships. Rather than focusing on a specific project, outing or shared interest, I concentrate on the person and seek to ascertain whether I may benefit from interactions (temporary or continuing) with them. From everything I have experienced, the people with whom we interact will shape us, whether we notice it or not. As a result, I seek out people who I think may accomplish such influence in ways that are useful for the entirety of my life rather than in relation to any given project.

I tend toward people who: (1) complement some aspect of my existing interests, whether by affirming or challenging it in their own life, (2) have something — a perspective, an experience, a background, a skill set, etc. — that I do not have and can thus learn about and from, and (3) can at least tolerate the fact that my own approaches to writing and other efforts are often a bit different than the mainstream ones we more commonly see within and beyond academe.

Strategies for Collaboration

Drawn from this overall approach, I engage in a handful of strategies that have worked well for me in establishing, evaluating and maintaining working relationships with others. These strategies help me monitor whether collaborative relationships are working well over time, avoid some of the potential problems people run into with collaborations and maintain my own endeavors — no matter the result of a given collaboration.

Diversify research. First, I maintain multiple lines of scholarship. Some lines have collaborators, but others are just my own work. In some cases, I work with the same group of collaborators, and in others, I work alone. In that way, I never put all my work in the hands of any one person, and I maintain my own line of work that is not dependent on others. As such, if line No. 1 with collaborators A and B fails or gets delayed, or the project is a bust, I still have line No. 2 that is just my own work, line No. 3 with collaborator C and/or line No. 4 with collaborators D and E in progress. As a result, no single collaboration determines my professional fate, my productivity for a given evaluation or my overall research agenda. Rather, each is a piece of a larger pie, which makes the stakes of any collaboration much lower.

Prioritize research agendas. Second, I decide who, if anyone, will be on a given project, based upon the priority of the project to my overall research agenda. If the project in question is significantly important, I will either do it alone or only collaborate with people who have demonstrated their reliability to me over time. This is not a knock on newer collaborations but rather recognition that the things I most want to accomplish are not the spaces where I put the outcome at greater risk.

As other academics have noted, collaboration can be risky as one depends upon another for a final product, and recognizing that risk is important because we all work under constraints and on varied deadlines. As a result, the top priorities in my research agenda are not the places where I take on the risk of new or more recent collaborators. Rather, they are where I work alone or only collaborate with people who have repeatedly demonstrated that I will be unlikely to face any risks from their participation.

Test the waters. Third, I approach collaborations slowly, cautiously and in pieces. The first time I collaborate with someone, we will work on a project that is not as high on my own priorities list or that I am already getting something else out of — so that our work is extra rather than required for my own research agenda or potential evaluation cycle. I also engage with collaborators who help out in very particular ways by doing specific portions of the work. In this way, I have, as much as possible, low-risk opportunities to try out collaborating with new people, and from those experiences, I am able to decide about future and more involved collaborations.

Get to know collaborators. Finally, I spend a lot of time getting to know the people with whom I collaborate while also being very open with them about my own perspectives, processes and endeavors. Whether that involves arguing with them about ideas, theories or other things about which we disagree; debating the usefulness of a particular perspective or method; or simply sharing aspects of my life while asking questions about theirs, I seek to allow collaborators to get to know me and to get to know them. In so doing, and especially in case we end up working well together, I seek to integrate them into my life and see if they fit well. At the same time, I attempt to determine how I might integrate into their life in a useful manner. That strategy allows me to continuously monitor whether collaborative relationships are useful for my life as whole, and adjust accordingly.

In closing, while I know from experience that my approach may not be useful to everyone, I have also learned that developing a system that does work for you can be incredibly useful for many scholars. It is with this in mind that I close this post by encouraging readers to ask yourselves what you want from collaborations, what you need to establish collaborations (or not) in ways that feed your overall life and what your own system of collaboration might look like if put into practice.

Advice For Publishing Research On Marginalized Communities

SumerauNote: this essay was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed career advice column. Dr. J. Sumerau (@JSumerau) 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.

Research on the Margins

Lately, I have had some conversations with other scholars who study marginalized communities about a topic that I have yet to see receive much attention in the academy. That is, what happens when, as part of studying marginalized communities, you find yourself: (1) studying a population that is almost completely absent from existing literature, and (2) needing to situate your study within a literature that does not include the population in question? How do you resolve this dilemma?

Not surprisingly, the problem arises from the processes of scientific study, publishing and debate as they play out over time. Scientific work, like any other humanly created endeavor, is both shaped and limited by the perspectives, standpoints and biases of the people who do it at different times, in different contexts and in different ways. As a result, it is easy to look back in time and notice that some subjects that seem obvious today are missing from earlier theories, fact statements, truth claims and entire disciplines.

It is equally unsurprising that looking back tends to reveal that those previously missing subjects often initially found their way into disciplines when, for example, members of such groups achieved access in scientific careers and opportunities, members of such groups became more visible or recognized in the mainstream, and/or members of such groups found themselves under attack as a result of emerging legal and political campaigns. Although such previously missing subjects existed beforehand in the natural world we all share, it typically took some type of external catalyst or impetus from people who experienced them for science to notice and slowly incorporate the subject into existing theories, fact statements, truth claims and disciplines.

While I could choose from any number of examples over time, an area I have worked in for years now provides a typical case. As revealed in narratives, archival documents and other materials, sexual minorities have been active within mainstream religious traditions and in the creation of their own religious traditions for at least a century. Yet scientific studies of religion, sexual minorities and sexualities in general did not really take any notice of them until the 1970s (with a couple of examples) and the 1990s (with a couple more examples). Further, the handful of studies in those decades did not really lead to an actual field of scholarship until the 2000s and the present decade. Before massive religious and sexual rights movements and events, and without the presence of many scientists who were open about being members of sexual minorities, this aspect of our world simply did not find voice in the scientific construction of it.

Some people will look at such patterns and argue that science is self-correcting, so no problem exists. Others will look at the same patterns and argue that science itself is problematic in a similar way to other mainstream institutions because it often serves as a self-sustaining vehicle of those in power. But I do not intend to get into those debates here. In fact, I can argue either side quite well, and I know others who can do the same. Rather, I return to the question at the beginning of this piece: What do scholars do when they find themselves in between existing scientific norms and attempts to study things that contradict or otherwise do not fit such norms?

I won’t pretend to have any absolute answer to this question, and I am not even sure whether one could fit all cases. At the same time, I have run into this dilemma at times studying transgender experience (in literatures built primarily upon cisgender assumptions and focus to date), bisexual experience (in literatures built primarily upon monosexual assumptions and focus to date) and nonreligious experience (in literatures built primarily upon religious assumptions and focus to date).

Here, I offer three ways in which I have managed this dilemma in those research areas, and I invite others to offer any additional strategies.

Use the absence of marginalized populations in science to demonstrate the importance of the study. In an article focused on transgender experience with religion, for example, I outlined the ways that religious, gendered and gendered-religious scholarship rest upon cisgender samples, assumptions, populations and findings. To accomplish that, my collaborators and I analyzed existing literatures in these areas for the ways they created a science of cisgender religion instead of a science of religion.

The bright side of this approach is that the existing literature bias provides the justification for studying an unconventional topic. The downside of it, however, is your chances of being published depend heavily upon journal reviewers’ and editors’ willingness to handle the bias you have just pointed out in a productive way or to consider pointing out such bias as a contribution to scholarship in your field. In fact, I have already experienced reviewers and editors who do accomplish these two things, and others who instead reacted in a much more negative way.

Bypass academic journals in favor of other publication options. Academic journals rely upon gaining acceptance from others who may have vested interests in the status quo, so it may be useful to seek other outlets. That is why it is common for members of marginalized groups and scholars studying marginalized communities to much more heavily cite and quote academic books from various presses, academic book chapters from various edited volumes and even academic and activist blogs and other informal writings. Since such spaces are not entirely dependent upon the perceptions of people already enmeshed within existing academic norms and assumptions, they often provide more room for new, challenging and critical ideas, data and arguments. In such cases, scholars may first publish, or find a citation in, scholarship outside the journal process and then use that publication or citation in later endeavors within it.

Focus the work on conceptual development rather than the population in question. Studies of members of dominant groups are often accepted on their own terms, but focusing on marginalized populations often draws negative reactions, accusations of “me-search” and questions about resonance or importance to the broader (read: dominant) world. As such, one way that studies of marginalized populations find publication involves framing them as conceptual.

For example, it is not a study of bisexual Black cisgender women, but rather a study of the ways some people manage emotions in relation to disparate racial, sexual and gender norms. When the population is not deemed mainstream enough to warrant observation or not often part of existing survey data or analyses, a conceptual angle (i.e., a way this “unusual” population relates to the mainstream) may be useful for demonstrating to outsiders the value of the case. Further, once a few of those pieces are published, researchers may draw upon a combination of them to argue for a (insert name of discipline here) field of study on this population — as has been done many times in the past with other marginalized populations.

While the aforementioned approaches are by no means exhaustive, and each one has its own benefits and drawbacks, they may serve as initial solutions for researchers who find themselves studying groups or phenomena currently missing — mostly or entirely — from the scientific literature or the specific assumptions and facts of their discipline. Based on existing scientific records, this dilemma is not new and not likely to go away. As such, it may be useful for scholars studying marginalized topics and communities to continue discussing, sharing and working on strategies for expanding the topics and populations recognized within and between varied scientific disciplines.

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.

When The Sociology Of Religion Isn’t Critical Of Religion

SumerauDr. J. Sumerau is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Tampa.  Zir teaching, research, and activism focuses on intersections of sexualities, gender, religion, and health in the experiences of sexual, religious, and gender minorities.  In this post, Dr. Sumerau reflects on zir observations of a conference in the subfield of sociology of reflection.  In particular, ze highlights the surprisingly high number of religious scholars in the field, and the exclusion of critical and marginal perspectives on religion.


Pray the J Away

Last year, I did something I had avoided since I first entered the academy. While I study religion in contemporary society, I had yet to attend a sociology of religion conference. I must admit that my reticence to attend such a conference came from three interrelated experiences during graduate school.

First, I attended sociology of religion gatherings and roundtables at American Sociological Association meetings as a graduate student, and generally felt very uncomfortable in these spaces wherein it appeared that everyone but me was, in fact, religious. Simply put, all but two sociologists of religion I encountered at the time offered feedback along the lines of “well, we have to understand the importance of religion to living a full life” and “well, in my church this doesn’t work like this.” In fact, more than a few asked me “what faith” I practiced and explained to me the importance of their “faith” in casual conversations.

Second, I attempted to publish my master’s thesis in a sociology of religion controlled journal, only to be rejected after multiple rounds of revision. Despite many positive reviews and multiple R&Rs (revise and resubmit decisions), the paper was rejected upon the editor finding a reviewer who basically said they did not “believe” in qualitative methods. When I asked a colleague more familiar with religious studies about this, he explained (himself having published in the field for years) that the experience was not uncommon for manuscripts that that took a more critical approach to religion (see here for a more recent discussion of this issue in sociology of religion).

I also read sociology of religion controlled or focused journals and noticed very quickly that, as Avishai and colleagues point out in their recent review, very little knowledge concerning gender and sexualities studies ever found its way into these journals, and there was rarely much mention of inequalities. And, these journals often use the term “traditional” to refer to anything Judeo-Christian created historically (i.e., traditional marriage in these journals meant the very recent historical construction of Christian marriage rather than the many forms this institution has taken across the world throughout time). There was also relatively little discussion of, for example, non-Christian, non-heterosexual, non-cisgender, and even nonreligious people in such journals, though more recent years have seen some discussion on these topics.

After locating and spending time with some nonreligious people who worked in the sociology of religion, however, I decided maybe I should give one meeting a shot. Importantly, I made sure to have a supportive network at the conference just in case. This was incredibly fortuitous since I basically walked into (what felt like) a church called a conference.

Sociology of Religion As “Church”

If you asked critical questions, for example, people got very uncomfortable and quickly ended the conversations. Similarly, like many academic conferences, everyone seemed to subscribe to a “Sunday best”-style dress code that, with slight variations, meant most people looked like they went to the same uniform shop before the meeting. Unlike other academic meetings, I couldn’t really find any exceptions to the dress code other than my companion and me. I was asked four times by people in these uniforms what “someone like me” (whatever that means) was doing at the conference; I was mistaken for “the help” or “someone lost” twice. It was also the first time that I’d been at an academic conference where someone offered to pray for me after speaking with me for a few minutes. In fact, the moment it truly hit me that I had accidentally entered a church came in the midst of my own presentation.

As I spoke, I looked out into the audience and saw someone actually praying. Now, I will admit by the time I gave my presentation, I was basically doing my own mini-ethnography to try to see just how church-like the place was, and thus I made sure to offer a different type of presentation style than anyone else in the session. Specifically, I took a casual conversational style for my presentation wherein I engaged the audience with questions about the subject, used personal anecdotes to contextualize my approach to studying religion, and utilized explicit language about sexual acts and practices to drive home points.

I wanted to see whether conformity trumped research or the other way around. That said, I didn’t say or do anything that I haven’t done at other conferences, or that, at times, hasn’t gotten me praise and/or free drinks at other conferences. I hypothesized that conformity would rule as is common in religious services, and I was thus not surprised that everyone in the room (other than my companions whom I work with regularly) seemed incredibly uncomfortable and spent a lot of time fidgeting and looking at the exit. I was surprised, however, when an audience member started praying. One of my companions actually saw a second person praying whom I didn’t notice at the time.

I had already long become accustomed to the religiosity embedded in the sociology of religion. One need only look to Mark Regnerus’s study and the support it received from many prominent sociologists of religion in an open letter or findings from editors of pro-religious bias in the subfield’s main journals for examples. But, I was rather surprised to see it so openly displayed in the midst of conference proceedings. It made me wonder where the line is drawn (if it is) between a sociology of religion and religious sociology? It also made me wonder what, if anything, we really know about religion sociologically at this point in time where it appears that religious believers run most of the subfield?

Exclusion And Uncritical Perspectives

Considering that historically men, whites, cisgender people, heterosexuals, and other scholars from privileged groups missed a whole lot about gender, race, cisgender privilege, and sexualities, I can’t help but wonder what religious scholars (i.e., scholars who identify as religious themselves) have missed about the social operation of religion in the world. While it seems intuitive that religious people would be interested in studying religion and I think that these perspectives are useful and helpful for understanding some aspects of religion in society, it is unlikely we’ll understand much about religion overall without also gathering the perspectives of religious minorities and the nonreligious. One may simply imagine the same scenario in other subfields to visualize this idea. If, for example, sexualities scholarship was almost entirely controlled by heterosexuals, racial scholarship by white scholars, and gender scholarship by males, we might expect the same patterns we see in the sociology of religion wherein critical or inequalities focused studies are relatively rare, and positive depictions of existing sexual, race, and gender systems are the norm. As the editors of the newly formed Critical Research on Religion journal asked, I wonder what a more diversified approach to the study of religion might reveal (both positive and negative) about this social system.

While I can’t begin to answer this question at present, I do know from experience just how awkward it can be to be nonreligious while studying religion in the current academic marketplace. When, for example, one comes across questions from conference-goers or journal reviewers that effectively say “be nicer to the religious folk” or “you need to recognize the importance of faith,” it is a constant reminder of the taken-for-granted privilege and dominance of religious perspectives in our society. At the same time, when conference-goers and reviewers in other fields downplay the importance of religion to the existence of contemporary social inequalities (i.e., our racial, classed, gendered, and sexual systems all rely heavily on religion for their initial and continued existence), one has to wonder how much religious privilege influences “which” inequalities we are able to discuss and debate. In fact, considering that around 70% of professors express some form of religious belief, one has to wonder just how much of the academy itself is shaped by religious assumptions and perspectives.

I also know from experience that religious journals often don’t want research that critiques religion, and that mainstream journals often reject the same pieces because (they say) such work belongs in religious journals. As another friend of mine put it succinctly, “Religion wins because religious outlets protect it and critical scholars don’t want to question it.” Although critical work on religion does occasionally appear in mainstream sociology of religion journals (i.e., Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion and Sociology of Religion) and journals with more critical orientations have risen in recent years (i.e., Secularism and Nonreligion and Critical Research on Religion), most work that critically evaluates the good and bad of contemporary religion finds voice in other places and by focusing primarily on other issues (i.e., race, class, gender, sexualities, and health) while utilizing religious samples. In fact, in my experience, one seeking to publish critical work on religion must be ready to fight with reviewers (i.e., about what it says about religion instead of about say theory or the data itself) even if one receives some editorial support for their submissions.

As a result, I (and the thankfully growing number of other scholars I know who take a critical approach to religion in society) find myself in an awkward academic position quite often wherein it feels like sociology attempts to pray or otherwise do away with empirical findings that call religion into question. I cannot help but wonder what this says about contemporary sociology, and how other nonreligious people manage this dilemma throughout their academic endeavors.


1 It is noteworthy that after the experience contained herein, I attended another sociology of religion conference put on by a different professional organization. In this case, I only went to one nonreligious and one gender session, but experiences in these sessions were much more like my experiences in academic conferences as a whole. I don’t know if this is because of the organization, because it was in combination with other meetings instead of a stand alone conference, because I was only there for about two hours (i.e., two sessions), or if it was simply because I only went to sessions engaged in more critical-oriented niches within the larger subfield. I did not present at this second meeting, but I also escaped without anyone offering to pray for me.

On The Exclusion Of Trans And Intersex People From “Nationally Representative” Surveys

Dr. J. SumerauDr. J. Sumerau is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Tampa.  Zir teaching, research, and activism focuses on intersections of sexualities, gender, religion, and health in the experiences of sexual, religious, and gender minorities.  In this post, Dr. Sumerau raises the provocative question: why do we call surveys that exclude certain populations — in this case, trans and intersex people — “nationally representative”?

What Does “Nationally” – As In, Nationally Representative – Actually Mean?

A few months ago, a student asked me an interesting question for which I had no answer at the time. As I do each fall, I was teaching a course on the sociology of sexualities, and as I also do every fall, I was showing students some statistical profiles of sexual and gender minority communities, issues, and concerns so that we could discuss these patterns and they could learn how sociologists utilize statistics in the study of sexualities. After class, one of my transgender students came up to the front of the room and asked, “Why do sociologists call their surveys nationally representative? Are these surveys from nations that do not have trans people?”

Despite my own personal and professional background related to transgender politics, scholarship, and experience, I must admit that I was stumped. My first inclination was to offer the standard “graduate course in statistics” answer concerning statistical weighting, government demographic tables and sources, and measurement strategies. But, I realized right away that none of these answers would suggest that our surveys actually represent any nation of which I’ve ever heard in the concrete world (i.e., a nation where only males and females exist). As a result, I decided to forgo my first inclination, and answer honestly. I told the student (as I had been told years before) that scientists (physical and social) have historically ignored and/or demonized the existence of intersex and transgender people. Not surprisingly, the student understood this, but said, “so, they’re not actually nationally representative, right?” After I agreed, the student asked, “then why do we call them that?” I have yet to find an adequate answer other than transphobia and/or cisgender privilege.

By transphobia and/or cisgender privilege, however, I do not necessarily mean research has consciously or intentionally erased transgender and intersex populations, though this may also be the case. Rather, I am observing that we live in a society historically constructed via the elaboration of sex and gender binaries by legal, social, political, religious, and scientific power structures and elites. As a result, much of our “knowledge” and “belief” is constrained by these artificial binaries and the entirety of social relations often implicitly or explicitly serve to reinforce these notions of “what counts” and “what should be.” The ability to call a data set representative of a nation when it does not contain transgender or intersex people thus (best I can tell) emerges as a result of internalizing the promotion of these binary “knowledges” and “beliefs” throughout our social world.

Let me be clear, I have attempted to find another answer to my student’s question throughout the past few months in many different ways. First, I spent considerable time reading everything that I could find on statistical theory, survey design, and methodological practice, but in none of these sources could I find a reason that we would call something that did not represent any nation “nationally representative.” The best answers that I could find suggested that since our government erased transgender and intersex people in its data collection, we scientists just did the same in our surveys (or vice versa). Next, I began just casually asking colleagues the same questions that my student asked, and their responses fell into three categories. Some people (like me) responded by experiencing “oh shit” moments and then saying that they guessed it reflected transphobia or cisgender privilege built into science. Other people either (a) said “that’s just the way we’ve always done it” or (b) got frustrated and didn’t want to talk about it. Finally, I began casually asking this question at conferences (three of them so far), but once again I got the same two answers (probably transphobia or religious impressions of “always been this way”) coupled with more angry and frustrated reactions wherein people didn’t want to talk about it or simply dodged the question.

I must admit I am especially fascinated by the angry, frustrated, and/or unwilling to talk about it reactions I have received because these responses are identical to the responses of preachers and other devout believers whom I encountered when I asked questions in church as a child. Although I cannot be certain, I think these reactions likely stem from (a) people’s faith in “representative statistics” or “statistical generalizability,” which leads them (like people with faith in other secular or religious forms of knowledge and prophesy) to lash out at anything that challenges their beliefs and assumptions about “what is real” and “what is right,” and/or (b) people’s realization that, by calling these surveys “representative,” we are participating in the erasure and marginalization of transgender and intersex people, which leads them (like people who benefit from other dominant social norms) to face difficult questions about their role – intentionally or otherwise – in the pain and suffering of others. In either case, I am rather amazed by just how “faithful” or “dogmatic” many people are when someone questions normative assumptions about statistics and/or surveys.

As I continue to seek answers, however, I have run into a couple of exceptional responses. In such cases, people avoided the question at first by pointing out that nationally representative surveys always leave out some groups (i.e., the homeless or smaller populations like those found in new religious movements), so it did not necessarily say anything about transgender or intersex people. Of course, I then asked them why we called something “nationally representative” if segments of the nation (i.e., whichever ones they had just noted) were left out of the sample. Why did we not simply call these “selected” or “chosen” or (as we do with some other surveys) “convenience” samples? At this point, I once again was unable to get an answer to the question (i.e., they generally became angry, frustrated and/or didn’t want to talk about it anymore), but I was able to point out that their first response demonstrated the point of the question. Whether or not the absence of trans or intersex people says anything about transphobia or cisgender privilege, there is still no empirical reason that I can find to call something that does not represent any actual nation “nationally representative.”

In fact, this practice is incredibly problematic if we seek to study the “actual” rather than some “imagined” social world. If we call something nationally representative that leaves out portions of said nation, for example, we are symbolically saying these people either (a) do not belong in our nation, (b) do not matter in our nation, and/or (c) are not worth our attention, concern, or respect as researchers. Within sociology, we have a term for such processes when done by other (i.e., not our own surveys) means: symbolic annihilation (i.e., the symbolic erasure of inconvenient or marginalized truths and communities for the sake of power and privilege). Likewise, if we call something nationally representative that leaves out portions of said nation, we are not studying the empirical world, but rather engaging in creative writing about a possible world we have created to fit our own needs. When others (i.e., not physical or social scientists) do this, we typically call it religion or spirituality instead of science. While these suggestions may be especially frustrating or anger-inducing for many of us (especially given the prominence and prestige of “nationally representative” terminology in our existing academic structures), they are likely considerations that all scientists should consider and debate if we hope to avoid becoming just another religious tradition.

Closing Thoughts

The combination of these experiences has led me to stop using the phrase “nationally representative” whenever possible until I see surveys that actually reflect empirical populations within our world. Instead, I have begun referring to these surveys (i.e., the General Social Survey, Add Health, and others) as either “Cisgender Representative Surveys” or “Biblically Representative Surveys” since they only contain cisgender populations (i.e., so the weighting might make them representative of these populations), and they do actually reflect what the Bible says our world looks like (i.e., males and females only). At other times, I simply point out that every sample that does not contain a representation of all social groups is simply a “convenience” or “self selected” sample. Not surprisingly, some people have responded with cheer at my new terms while others have become very uncomfortable or angry. In both cases, however, I am attempting to create space where we may begin to wrestle with the question my student asked me last fall.

As a result, I close this post by asking all of you the same question: why do we call these surveys “nationally representative,” and what does that say about the place of transgender and intersex people (as well as other groups that are marginalized, small, or for some other reason not part of the “nation” represented despite their existence within empirical nations we attempt to “represent”) both within society and within science? Further, I call upon readers to think about resources that could be developed to help scholars who seek more “representative” survey instruments. How could we go about constructing surveys in ways that encourage transgender, intersex, and other underrepresented populations to participate? Obviously, one way would be to stop calling surveys that leave out populations “representative.” But, beyond this linguistic shift, what concrete ways could we go about actively seeking to include all possible elements of populations (national or otherwise) in our survey designs?

Academic Versus Actual Definitions Of Bisexuality, Part II

Dr. J. SumerauDr. J. Sumerau is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Tampa.  Zir teaching, research, and activism focuses on intersections of sexualities, gender, religion, and health in the experiences of sexual, religious, and gender minorities. In this second part of a two-part essay (see part I here), Dr. Sumerau reflects on the ways that academic definitions of bisexuality (which differ greatly from how it is defined and experienced outside of academia) actually facilitate biphobia.  Ze offers a few ways to combat these biphobic tendencies.


Academic or Actual Bisexuality, Part II

In the first part of this essay, I outlined contradictions that I have observed between academic and non-academic notions of bisexuality. In this second part, I will focus on some ways that academic definitions of bisexuality facilitate biphobia. After almost seven years working as an openly bisexual scholar in the academy (i.e., since my first days of graduate study), I’ve had plenty of time to think about these issues. I would like to offer readers some ways to disrupt biphobic academic definitions and interpretations of bisexuality in their daily lives. While I limit these examples to things I’ve tried myself (to varying levels of success), my hope is that we may begin a conversation wherein people seeking to be inclusive and supportive of bisexual people (as well as bisexual people themselves) can begin the work of moving past academic simplifications and marginalization of bisexuality.

  • When someone says that bisexuals are only attracted to males and females, ask them where they got their information. Point out that some bisexuals are attracted only to male and female people, while others are attracted to all sexes (i.e., their own and others).
  • When people cite or read from academic definitions of bisexuality, ask them who wrote or said it, whether they were bisexual-identified, did they come direclty to the academy after childhood or did they live among non-academic populations for some period of their lives, did they come up with this definition or did they draw it from somewhere else (if somewhere else, ask the same questions about that source). In other words, follow the lead of Black Feminist, Queer, Trans, early Lesbian and Gay, and Intersex scholarship by interrogating where these definitions come from and why they make sense to the people using them. In my experience, these questions will likely lead you to a cisgender heterosexual source at the foundation of the definitions, and thus – like white definitions of people of color or heterosexual definitions of homosexuality or religious definitions of the nonreligious – they should be examined critically.
  • When someone says attraction to males and females reproduces the sex/gender binary, ask them if attraction exclusively to males suggests the existence of only one sex or exclusive attraction to females suggests the existence of only one sex. This may sound silly to lesbian, gay and heterosexual people, but it is the same logic: attraction to X group means there is only X group. If being exclusively attracted to males and females automatically suggests there are only males and females (i.e., this attraction means you believe in binary sex only), then attraction exclusively to males or to females suggests there are only males or only females (i.e., this attraction means you believe in only one sex). I have yet to find lesbian, gay or heterosexual people who believe this, but I have encountered many who quickly recognize this logical fallacy when it is directed at them.
  • At other times, when someone says attraction to males and females reproduces the sex/gender binary, ask them if homosexuality and heterosexuality reproduce the binary. Lesbian, gay and heterosexual people often use expressions like “opposite sex” or “same sex,” which are predicated upon the existence of mutually exclusive and recognizable binary sex categories, but these people are generally not accused of reproducing the sex/gender binary when they do so. If being attracted to males and females reproduces the sex/gender binary, however, so does being attracted to the “opposite” or “same” sex. Again, in my experience, lesbian/gay and heterosexual people do not like this line of logic so much when it is directed at them instead of bisexuals.
  • When someone says “bi” automatically refers to the existence of only “two” sexes, ask them why they feel that way, ask them why it doesn’t refer to cisgender and transgender, ask them why it doesn’t refer to my sex and others, ask them why they decided (i.e., note that they chose what “two” to which the word “bi” referred) that it must mean two sexes. In my experience, you will very quickly learn that they see the world in binaries themselves, and are thus simply (intentionally or otherwise, with or without malice) seeking to place (or cage or box) bisexual people within their own frame of reference.

Finally, I would suggest readers – whether or not they adopt any of the above strategies in their lives – ask themselves if they have internalized academic or non-academic definitions of bisexuality. One way to do this would be to ask what the academy and the world might look like if we stopped trying to place every marginalized community into binary boxes, and instead embraced the fluidity, variation, and spectra of bio-social-psychological experience in all its forms. In fact, doing away with binary boxes and dichotomous definitions (no matter how comforting to existing academic traditions) might well provide more breathing room for all types of people. It might further help us recognize that (to the best of my knowledge) there is no one universal type of gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, fluid, queer, heterosexual, intersex, female, male, cisgender, transgender, or any other “static type” of being. Rather than seeking to place people into “bi”nary boxes based on oppressive traditions, we could seek to map, explore, and celebrate our similarities and variations “bi” treating all people with dignity and respect.