Sunday, January 27, 2013

Some thoughts on the politics of asexuality research

When I first discovered asexuality, one thing that greatly frustrated me was how little research there was on the subject, and how there was a lack of quality information available to people wanting to know more.  Since 2007, there has been a lot of improvement in the amount of community-developed literature on asexuality (and increasingly on demisexuality and gray-As), and there has been much more academic literature produced on the subject, with an increasing number of people researching it.

The standard by which I judge academic articles on asexuality has long been, "OK, tell me something I don't already know."  Most articles don't do a very good job at this.  Several of the early pieces seemed to tell us little beyond what people who'd read AVEN's FAQ already knew, but I'd hoped that this would change over time.

I'm not sure that it really has, and I believe that part of the reason for this concerns academic activism.

Obviously, everyone who publishes on any topic does so for some reason(s), and sometimes this involves aiming to bring about some sort of social change.  I have long known that much of the work that I do constitutes a form of academic activism, and I do see potential benefits from academic activism, but also potential dangers, depending on how it is conducted.    I probably take a different view on what is appropriate/inappropriate academic activism than some, but I think it is important for asexuality researchers to think critically about how to do (and not do) academic activism.

Most of the academic work on asexuality is presently coming from three general areas: psychology, sociology, and gender studies/communication, as shown in the figure below.

Figure 1: Number of English language academic works on asexuality per year.*

Feminism and queer theory are overtly political, and that work clearly has political goals.  I strongly suspect that some of the research on asexuality coming from psychology was motivated partly from the backlash against the promotion of FSD (i.e. if you're wanting to challenge what you see as the over-medicalization of female sexuality, studying asexuality is a good way to do it).  My own research is partly motivated by a desire to promote better understanding of asexuality and increase academic visibility.

In my view, scholars' primary commitment in research should be epistemic, not political.  We should seek first of all to better understand things, and to promote better understanding in others.  Trying to improve society through research is acceptable only if done in this framework.  Because this involves striving to be “objective,” and “objectivity” has gotten a bad name in many areas, I want to discuss this matter:  I've generally found that people adopt, roughly, one of three main stances towards "objectivity."

1)  Researchers should be unbiased and objective (like me), not prejudiced ideologues (like people who disagree with me).

2)  While view-from-nowhere objectivity is impossible for humans, more limited forms of objectivity are both possible and desirable.  At least most of us have had the experience of reading works that were fairly "objective" and others that were less so.  We've read authors who fairly and accurately portrayed a variety of views, including ones the author(s) disagreed with, and we've read authors who present caricatures of opposing views.  We've read authors who openly acknowledged issues/data that are potential problems for their analyses, and we've read authors who try to sweep under the rug potential confounds, alternate hypotheses, and problematic data, hoping that readers won't notice.  In both, the former is felt to be “more objective” and this limited sort of objectivity, though often difficult, is desirable and something scholars should strive for.

3)  View-from-nowhere objectivity is impossible, so I'm free to be biased as all get out.  (Often, this will mean freedom to be biased towards what they view as morally good.)

As a caveat, I would like to distinguish between being objective and claiming to be objective.  My experience has been that people insisting on how oh-so-objective they are almost always have a rather obvious agenda and either a) they're hoping people don't notice this, or b) they hold to Type-1 objectivity and are oblivious to the matter.  Of course, those who adopt (2) have an agenda as well, if we regard "better understanding a topic" and "doing educational work to make others more informed" as agendas (which I think they are, though they are generally less partisan agendas.  Of course, scientific debates sometimes become partisan as well, but they at least generally have the virtue of the potential to ultimately be resolved with more research and new generations of researchers open to new ideas).

I very much favor Type-2 objectivity, and authors taking this approach are the ones whose work I most appreciate and find most informative.  This is the approach that I hope most people studying asexuality will take, but it can be difficult to do so.  In a future post, I intend to discuss means for striving for limited-objectivity.

*Figure 1 includes English language monographs (1);  journal articles [including editorials] (20); book chapters (4), doctoral dissertations (1), and masters theses (3).  For journals published online ahead of print, articles are coded based on when they go to press.  Two articles currently in press as well as one published in 2013 have not been included.

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