Social Science and the Construction of Modern Sexuality

Social Science and the Construction of Modern Sexuality


Yale University

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Hall of Graduate Studies (HGS), Room 211
320 York Street

Reception 4 - 5 pm

Roundtable and discussion 5 - 7 pm

Free and open to the public

Five distinguished scholars discuss the history of twentieth-century social science and its neglected role in the construction of modern sexuality.


  • Roderick Ferguson, University of Minnesota
  • Sabine Frühstück, University of California, Santa Barbara
  • Dan Healey, University of Wales, Swansea
  • Elizabeth Lunbeck, Vanderbilt University
  • Chris Waters, Williams College
  • Moderator: Joanne Meyerowitz, Yale University

Sponsored by the Yale Research Initiative on the History of Sexualities with generous support from the Edward J. and Dorothy Clarke Kempf Memorial Fund.

Inspired in part by Michel Foucault, historians have asked how scientists constructed and regulated sexuality and its alleged “perversions.”  For the past two decades, various scholars have written a slew of books and articles on the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century sexologists who “medicalized” sexuality, on Alfred Kinsey and his colleagues, and on the mid-twentieth-century psychiatrists who pathologized homosexuality.  But we have scarcely begun to address the array of social scientists who played a critical role in constructing sexual knowledge.  Throughout the century, anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists, and others engaged in transnational conversations about the meanings and implications of sexuality, and they popularized their views and shaped public policies through books, magazines, films, advice manuals, and government reports.  Some of these social scientists placed their work within the field of sexology or sex research, but others did not.  They did not all “medicalize” sexuality; some of them “culturalized,” “psychologized,” or “socialized” it.  And many of them saw themselves as liberal reformers, challenging medical models.  The psychoanalysts, too, were not monolithic in their vision; some of them expressed a tolerance for sexual variance and disagreed with those who advocated therapeutic “cures.”  

Who were these social scientists, and what part did they play in constructing modern sexuality?  When and where did their projects overlap with those of the sexologists, and when and where did they diverge?  Where did their work circulate, and when and why did it appropriate, reconfigure, influence, or contest popular understandings of and public policies on sexual expression?  What impact did it have on various sexual subjects and their emerging social movements?   To what extent were the social scientists “liberal,” and what did “liberal” mean in the context of their time?  In what ways, does their work–liberal or not–fit the Foucauldian model in which scientists shaped the modern regimes of “biopower?”  And in what ways does their work complicate or challenge it?  

The evening public panel inaugurates a two-day closed workshop, in which a small group of scholars will present new research on twentieth-century social science, broadly defined, and its neglected role in the construction of modern sexuality.   Each participant will contribute a paper (no longer than 30 double-spaced pages).  The papers will circulate in advance of the conference, and the participants will come prepared to discuss each paper in depth and reflect on the general issues that the papers, taken together, may raise. 

Workshop participants:Karl Bryant, SUNY New Paltz; George Chauncey, Yale University; Judith Coffin, University of Texas Austin; Jennifer Evans, Carleton University; Roderick Ferguson, University of Minnesota; Sabine Frühstück, University of California, Santa Barbara; Lynn Gorchov, Denison University; Dan Healey, University of Wales, Swansea; Peter Hegarty, University of Surrey; Elizabeth Lunbeck, Vanderbilt University; Joanne Meyerowitz, Yale University; Mathew Thompson, University of Warwick; Chris Waters, Williams College; Henry Yu, University of British Columbia 

The event is organized by Joanne Meyerowitz, Yale University, and Chris Waters, Williams College, on behalf of the Yale Research Initiative on the History of Sexualities, with funds from the Edward J. and Dorothy Clarke Kempf Memorial Fund.