Queer Theory

Damien W. Riggs and Gareth J. Treharne

Introduction to the Meanings of 'Queer'

In this chapter we provide an overview of queer theory and share some key examples of how we and others have applied queer theory in social psychology research. Throughout the chapter, we highlight a differentiation of queer theory and queer research methodologies from queer studies as an emerging academic discipline and ‘queer’ as an identity category. As has been noted previously (e.g., Hegarty & Massey, 2006; Nic Giolla Easpaig, Fryer, Linn, & Humphrey, 2014; Warner, 2004), queer theory has received relatively little attention within psychology, despite the shared focus on the inherently social nature of identity within both queer theory and social psychology. As Clarke, Ellis, Peel, and Riggs (2010) suggest, this relative lack of attention may be a product of (1) the dearth of interdisciplinarity in certain fields within psychology, (2) the perceived complexity of queer theory, and (3) what has been seen as the inapplicability of queer theory to psychological methods. These three points draw attention to the important distinction that we make about our understanding of what is meant by ‘queer’. Whilst we will discuss this distinction in more detail throughout this chapter, it is important to signal here in

D.W. Riggs (*)

Flinders University, Adelaide, SA, Australia G.J. Treharne

University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand © The Author(s) 2017

B. Gough (ed.), The Palgrave Handbook of Critical Social Psychology, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-51018-1_6

our introduction the differences between (1) queer theory, (2) what are commonly referred to as queer research methodologies, (3) the burgeoning field of queer studies, and (4) the reclaimed identity category ‘queer’ that clashes with queer theory’s premise of problematising the construction of identity as category labels and questioning the seeing of some categories as ‘natural’ or ‘normal’. The research examples we draw upon provide further clarification of these differentiations as does a focused review of literature using the term ‘queer’ over the past century.

Queer theory, as we elaborate below, is an oppositional orientation to understanding how bodies and psyches are produced not through individual intent or experience per se but rather through what Butler refers to as ‘matri[ces] of intelligibility’ (1990, p. 17). In terms of gender and sexuality specifically, Butler describes ‘the matrix of coherent gender norms’ (1990, p. 24). These kinds of ‘cultural matri[ces]’ (Butler, 1990, p. 24) are a way of thinking about a coalescence of social norms within which particular modes of being are, at certain moments in social history and in certain locations, rendered unintelligible and impossible (e.g., women sexually attracted to women) whilst other modes of being are intelligible and possible (e.g., women sexually attracted to men) but always tentatively so. These renderings are far more complex and subtle than quantifying overt hostility towards people who self-identify with or who are labelled as being within certain identity categories, and queer theory draws our attention to the ways in which intelligibility polices possibility (Butler, 1993).

More broadly than sex, gender, and sexuality, queer theory suggests that all bodies and psyches are offered intelligibility through their relationship to a particular set of norms, ones that privilege the idealised White, heterosexual, middle-class, young, normatively sized, and abled body. Importantly, such a set of norms cannot per se refer to an actual normative body (though some people will indeed approximate it) but rather a normative fantasy in which a particular privileged mode of being could be arrived at and following this arrival, be unassailable because normativity can never been achieved in finality. In this sense, whilst queer theory is typically focused on those who are most marginalised by the norms described above, it does not operate from the principle that other groups of people are always already within the norm. Rather, it demonstrates how approximation to a norm is always an approximation and one that is always at risk of ‘failure’, which Butler (1993) describes as haunting by the spectre of the non-normative:

These excluded sites come to bound the ‘human’ as its constitutive outside, and

to haunt those boundaries as the persistent possibility of their disruption and

rearticulation. (p. xvii)

Butler argues that queer theory speaks to how marginalised groups can gain agency and recognition as intelligible because ‘realities to which we thought we were confined are not written in stone’ (Butler, 2004, p. 29).

There is a growing body of social psychological research that has applied the core premises of queer theory, particularly making use of Butler’s (1990, 1993, 2004) concept of performativity—the doing of identity that is embedded in daily life that maintains the fantasy of achieving the normative (e.g., being a good heterosexual) and simultaneously maintains the related norms (e.g., heterosexuality). Eichler (2012), for example, carried out an autoethnographic study of ‘coming out as a queer man [in the US]’ (p. 1) in which the identity of ‘LGBTQ individuals’ (p. 1) is related to performativity through a ‘consumptive pedagogy’ centred on material goods, gay bars, and online marketplaces for relationships. Hayfield, Clarke, Halliwell, and Malson (2013) explored the visual identities of bisexual women through semi-structured interviews. The women tended to position themselves as outside appearance markers of lesbian identity and constructed bisexual visual identity as in between, or as a blend of, ‘an implicitly excessive lesbian ‘masculinity’ and an equally exaggerated heterosexual ‘femininity’’ (p. 178) in ways that align with queer theory’s questioning of identity categories as stable: ‘I’m not gonna fix myself into a rigid identity just because it makes somebody else feel comfortable. I am keeping my options open as a human being so ... I’m gonna keep my options open in terms of my appearance as well (Rose)’ (p. 179). Phoenix, Pattman, Croghan, and Griffin (2013) also applied Butler’s concept of performativity in their research on young people and consumption. Both girls and boys who took part in focus groups referred to women’s bodies within their descriptions of consumption as performative of femininity and masculinity. Moreover, female and male participants discussed sexually revealing female clothing as demarcating ‘sexualised gender boundaries’ (p. 426), revealing an overarching disparaging of femininity. These findings demonstrate some ways in which research informed by the key concepts of queer theory can reveal the naturalisation of certain categories of sex, gender, and sexuality, whilst also revealing spaces of critical resistance.

Although these research examples demonstrate productive applications of queer theory, Warner (2004) highlights the problems that researchers may face in attempting to draw upon queer theory in social psychology research:

Often a queer researcher may eschew offering a clear definition of their terms, for they do not want to risk essentializing or reducing any of the categories. Instead they refer the reader to the way the term unfolds in their research, and in the flow of a given text. (p. 326)

Authors such as Nic Giolla Easpaig et al. (2014) have suggested how queer theory might inform a range of approaches to social psychology research, for example, within the field of community health psychology; however, to a certain degree, these approaches are weighed down by the disciplinary injunction to produce replicable findings. Nic Giolla Easpaig and colleagues propose that ‘collective analysis’ (p. 121) by community members might offer one way of avoiding the individualising tendencies of mainstream psychological research. Whist their proposal has considerable potential, it does not necessarily guarantee a queer theory-informed method, as it may still result in findings that essentialise a particular truth about the lives of community members. If anything, texts such as Textuality and Tectonics by the collective known as Beryl Curt (1994) are arguably closer to a queer theory-informed psychological ‘methodology’ than most publications that are currently presented as such. This text presents a range of voices that are never reducible to either the individual or the collective and in this sense, challenges the imposition of a normative subject upon the text. More broadly, the work of queering within applications of queer theory functions to perpetually avoid new forms of nor- mativity becoming inscribed.

These points about the production of queer narratives in research bring us to the third use of the term ‘queer’ raised above, namely the burgeoning field of queer studies and its alignment with more established disciplines such as gender studies, women’s studies, gay and lesbian studies, or lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) studies. Queer studies, whilst potentially informed by queer theory, is not automatically so. Instead queer studies, similar to, for example, ‘lesbian studies’, typically focuses on the lives of people who identify as queer. Several universities offer courses in ‘queer studies’, and Duke University’s (Durham, North Carolina) sexualities studies website hosts a list of ‘LGBTQI Studies & Sexuality Studies Programs in North America’ (n.d.). Duke University’s own sexualities studies programme is (at the time of writing) incorporated within the women’s studies programme (Duke University, 2015). The University of California, Irvine, offers a minor in queer studies within the Department of Gender and Sexuality Studies (University of California, Irvine, n.d.). City College of San Francisco has a LGBT studies programme which was ‘a pioneer in the development of the field of queer studies’ (City College of San Francisco, n.d., <I1) and is located within the School of Behavioral Sciences, Social Sciences, and Multicultural Studies. Humboldt State University (Arcata, California) has a Department of Critical Race, Gender and Sexuality Studies with an undergraduate programme that integrates Multicultural Queer Studies with Ethnic Studies and Women’s Studies. This select description of queer studies programmes is by no means a genealogy of the field of queer studies and is very much focused on North America, where the discipline is perhaps most established or best marketed and thus does not represent the world stage of queer studies. A focused search for queer studies programmes based in the UK revealed a masters programme called Queer Studies and Arts Based Practice at Birmingham City University (2015) and an interdisciplinary masters programme in Sexuality and Gender Studies at the University of Birmingham, with an explicit focus on queer theory amongst other critical approaches (University of Birmingham, n.d.). This select information on queer studies is not intended to be by any means comprehensive but gives an indication of the diverse identification of academic departments/programmes teaching queer studies and the relatively scarce existence of queer studies as a specific discipline, particularly compared to the vast number of universities with psychology departments and programmes.

Beyond our identification of locations where queer theory is explicitly branded as a part of course curriculum, there are a number of key points to be made about queer studies as an area of academic study. First, as mentioned above, queer studies may not automatically be representative of queer theory. Whilst this may seem anomalous, we make this suggestion because the collectivisation of ‘queer people’ may be considered to run against the grain of queer theory (i.e., by producing a universalising truth beyond that arising from the effects of demands to intelligibility). It could be argued, following Fuss (1989), that such collectivising represents a form of strategic essentialism (knowingly deploying the idea that identities are a ‘true’ inner state); however, we would want to be careful about making this claim about all who are seen to fall under the banner of ‘queer studies’.

Also in regard to queer studies, it is important to acknowledge that not all people who identify as ‘queer’ will do so through an orientation to a queer theoretical critique. Whilst many such people may well report an oppositional identification that is informed by queer theory, many people may use the identity category ‘queer’ as shorthand for ‘non-heterosexual’ or as a more general critique of normative gender binaries. Our point here is not to undermine the identity claims of people who identify as queer but rather to make a distinction between the various uses of the word ‘queer’. This point about the uses of the word ‘queer’ in queer studies brings us to a point we take up later in this chapter, namely that of coercive queering. As Ansara (2010) suggests, the labelling of certain groups (such as trans people) as ‘queer’ when this is not a label they would use is a form of cisgenderism (defined as the ideology that delegitimates people’s own understandings of their bodies and gender identities, see also Riggs, Ansara, & Treharne, 2015). This enforced labelling is an issue that will be an ongoing concern for queer studies as much as it has been for the gay liberation movements from which it grew in part (Hegarty & Massey, 2006).

In the following sections of this chapter, we elaborate in greater detail some of the points made above with specific focus on the relationship between queer theory and social psychology. We begin by examining the limited ways in which queer theory has appeared in leading social psychology journals, demonstrating that there has been little uptake within mainstream academic outlets. We then outline in some detail what we believe to be the central arguments of queer theory, before then taking up these arguments with application to some of our own work. From there we highlight some of the key areas that we believe, into the future, hold opportunities for the use of queer theory within critical social psychology. We conclude by drawing attention to the fraught nature of any attempts at the institutionalisation of queer theory, in this case within the context of social psychology.

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