Research on the Margins

J. Sumerau provides advice to researchers who find themselves studying groups or phenomena missing -- mostly or entirely -- from the current scientific literature.

October 14, 2016

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.


J. Sumerau is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Tampa. J. is a regular contributor to “Conditionally Accepted.” Zir (the preferred pronoun of the author) teaching, research and activism focuses on intersections of sexualities, gender, religion and health in the experiences of sexual, religious and gender minorities.


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