A Critique of Social Constructionism and Postmodern Queer Theory by Rictor Norton


During the past half-generation the history of homosexuality has been dominated by social constructionist dogma. I should perhaps make it clear that I shall be analyzing social constructionist theory about the alleged ‘constructs’ of sex, gender, race, and class, or in other fields such as literature, art and the cinema, only in so far as they impinge directly upon the concept of homosexuality in history. The first generation of social constructionists in this field include, among others, Mary McIntosh, Jeffrey Weeks, Kenneth Plummer, Robert Padgug, David M. Halperin, John D’Emilio, Michel Foucault, Sheila Jeffries, Jonathan Ned Katz (in his later work) and, to a lesser extent, less dogmatic theorists such as David F. Greenberg and George Chauncey. The school is sometimes called ‘cultural constructivism’, which hides its political agenda; their ‘history’ invariably focuses upon the nineteenth century, the era of bourgeois capitalism capable of being subjected to Marxist/Maoist economic analysis. Jeffrey Weeks was a founding member of the Gay Left collective, refugees from the collapsed Gay Marxist Group, whose magazine was published twice a year during the mid to late 1970s with the aim of disseminating socialist theory vis-à-vis gay oppression; he became editor of the radical History Workshop Journal. Members of the Lesbian History Group founded in 1984, notably Sheila Jeffreys, were involved with the London Feminist History Group, and had much the same political aims. In 1974 Jonathan Katz invited John D’Emilio to join the gay men’s study group ‘convened to explore the utility of Marxist theory for understanding gay oppression. We met weekly for a period of almost two years . . . I came away from those readings and discussions with tools for intellectual analysis that still inform the gay history I write’ (D’Emilio 1993). When these theorists talk about ‘social constructs’ they are referring specifically to ideologies allegedly constructed by bourgeois society in order to control the working classes. Towards the late 1980s much of this political agenda was hidden behind some very sophisticated theorizing, but these are the bare bones that are fairly easy to read between the lines.

The social constructionists maintain that significant shifts took place in the nineteenth century – because that is when their political theory requires them to have taken place as part of the dialectics of revolution. By defining ‘the homosexual’ as ‘the modern homosexual’, the social constructionists can more easily move to redefining the modern homosexual – who merely has ‘class awareness’ – as the politicized homosexual, whose ‘class consciousness’ enables him or her to radically question such concepts as gender. The aim is to fight the class war so that ‘homosexuals’ (and ‘men’ and ‘women’) disappear as a class. I have some sympathy with the feminist position that 'heteropatriarchy' is a social construct through which women are subjugated; but I have even greater sympathy with the lesbian-feminist position that lesbianism is ‘natural’ while ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ is the ‘political institution’, and that it is only the latter, and not the former, that requires deconstruction (Rich 1993). The class war is an essential feature of social constructionist theory – if historical evidence can be produced which establishes the existence of the homosexual role and identity before capitalism, then the materialist theory starts to collapse. The dating of the emergence of the queer subculture, though crucial to the theory, is its weakest part.

A curious outcome of . . . centuries of oppression is that when the first writings on homosexuality reached the general public at the end of the nineteenth century, some individuals revealed to psychiatrists that, although they had responded solely to members of their own sex since adolescence, until then they imagined themselves unique in the whole world. They had ‘constructed’ their own sexual consciousness without any social input – a feat that should be impossible according to social constructionist postulates. (W. R. Dynes, ‘Social Construction Approach’, Encyclopedia of Homosexuality)

It is very easy for historians to establish that most of the sexual categories which are supposed to have arisen under modern capitalism in fact existed much earlier. It is nevertheless important to pursue this relatively easy branch of demolition, because the nineteenth century date is one of the major props of social constructionism, without which its economic/control analysis of homosexuality becomes meaningless. Any work which demonstrates the existence of significant ‘constructs’ before 1800 will tend to undermine Foucault’s theories about the ‘ruptures’ between the ‘epistemes’ of the Classical Period and those of the Modern Period.

Political correctness has unfortunately relegated ‘gay history’ to the recent and contemporary history of the gay emancipation movement. But to place this movement in its proper historical perspective we must revert to some of the principles of ‘queer history’. Jeffrey Weeks (1991) and other social constructionists have stressed ‘the vital importance of distinguishing between behaviour, role, and identity in any sociological or historical approach to the subject of homosexuality’. On the contrary, I believe it is vital to recognize the integrity, unity and ambiguity of the experience that is falsified by over-intellectual analysis.

One of the reasons why many contemporary lesbian and gay theorists fail to appreciate that homosexuals existed before 1869 is the politically correct view that terms such as ‘queer’ and ‘faggot’ and ‘queen’ are not nice, and especially since the late 1960s people have endeavoured to use the phrase ‘gay and lesbian’ wherever possible. There are some men who lived before 1869 whom I would feel uneasy at calling ‘gay’ or ‘homophile’, but I would not hesitate to call them queer or even silly old queens. Many of the mollies of the early eighteenth century were undoubtedly queens, whose interests and behaviour are virtually indistinguishable from queens I have known in the early 1960s (and later). I use the word ‘queer’ in such a way as to subsume the meanings of words such as homosexual, homophile, homoerotic and homosocial, all of which I think involve false distinctions which obscure the genuine continuity within the meanings of queer, faggot, dyke and gay. These latter terms more accurately reflect the working-lass reality which formed gay (sub)cultures, whose authenticity middle-class lesbians and gays began denying in the 1950s and 1970s, privileging the concept of homosociality, which is little more than homosexuality with a fig leaf.

My emphasis will be upon ethnic autonomy rather than assimilation (reflecting the separatist stance of contemporary ‘queers’). ‘Gay and lesbian’ is perfectly acceptable for life since the 1960s, but most of my focus is upon the earlier past. ‘Queer’ was the word of preference for homosexuals as well as homophobes for the first half of the twentieth century, and of course is being reclaimed today in defiant rather than defensive postures. In English during the eighteenth and most of the nineteenth century the words of preference were ‘molly’ and ‘sapphist’, for which good modern equivalents are ‘queer’ and ‘dyke’. During the seventeenth century and earlier the commonest terms were ‘Sodomite’ and ‘tribade’, for which, again, good modern equivalents are ‘queer’ and ‘dyke’. In ancient and indigenous and premodern cultures there were many terms for which good modern equivalents are ‘queer’ and ‘tomboy’. And the nearest modern equivalent for the nineteenth-century term ‘homosexual’ is: queer.

I add my voice to the widespread dissatisfaction with social constructionist thought, that seems to have been based on nothing and to have lead nowhere in the past twenty years. Its initial premises have been constantly reinforced by restatement and incestuous quotation amongst constructionist colleagues rather than supported by scholarly research. The approach quickly became authoritarian and totalitarian, insisting that only one method be used and that certain questions not be asked. ‘There remains today a fundamental divide between historians who believe that one should first decide what questions require answers, then wring answers out of whatever material is available, however unsatisfactory, and historians who prefer to be guided by the available material and to ask only those questions to which the material provides well-substantiated answers’ (Marwick 1989). Social constructionists have even redefined the word ‘experience’ as a product of discourse, so ‘evidence’ itself is a social construct (Scott 1993). The notion that there can be a social constructionist history is a contradiction in terms. New Historicism is anti-history.

It was early recognized that social constructionism seemed to be founded upon historical ignorance, but it is no longer possible to dismiss this ignorance as a product of youthful over-enthusiasm for a new idea. The recent argument that the debate between essentialists and social constructionists is ‘arid and false’ is an effort by social constructionists to consolidate their position in the face of the increasing recognition that by the end of the 1980s more and more historical evidence was coming to light and undermining their theories, which after twenty years of increasing abstruseness were still no more than unsupported working hypotheses. Marwick’s (1989) judgement on Foucault’s major works is that they are ‘philosophical, intuitive, and imaginative, and lacking in effective historical underpinning. . . . there has been the production of ever more complex, more abstract, and more uncompromising theory in which anything so mundane as what actually happens in real human societies seems to become less and less relevant. . . . With someone like Foucault it is probably truer to say that he sought refuge in imaginative leaps of greater and greater incredibility, rather than in any coherent theory.’ Camille Paglia (1994) more forcefully judges Foucault to have been ‘a glib game-player who took very little research a very long way . . . . Leftists have damaged their own cause . . . by their indifference to fact, their carelessness and sloth, their unforgivable lack of professionalism as scholars. . . . My first proposal for the gay world: Get rid of dead abstract "theory" and rabid social constructionism, the limp legacy of academic know-nothings.’

The absence of historical underpinning to social constructionist theory can be readily demonstrated in many fields. In the field of gay history, ‘The most vulnerable claim [of the constructionists] is that the notion of the homosexual as a distinct "species" originated only about a hundred years ago, an invention of the medical profession or the product of capitalist urbanization’; the materials gathered by Greenberg’s (1988) exhaustive review of research ‘make abundantly clear that the world was neither conceptually nor behaviorally polymorphously perverse prior to the Industrial Revolution. . . . Foucault, who held a chair in the history of ideas, assumed too readily that intellectuals are the sole repository of conceptual invention and simply imposed a new hegemonic discourse on passive recipients.’

The social constructionist strategy has ended up throwing the baby out with the bath water. As Anthony Julius notes in his review of The Jew In The Text: Modernity And The Construction Of Identity (1995) (essays collected by Linda Mochlin and Tamar Garb), if we take the view that what we hold to be our most private self is itself a construct, then ‘two unappealing consequences follow. First, if all Jews are "constructed", then the difference between "fictional" and "real" Jews, or between fictional Jews that are merely "stereotypical" and those that are fully realised, is not very important. Second, giving an account of individual suffering, of the violations of self, ceases to be interesting. . . . If, as one contributor says, "‘Real Jews’ and ‘fictitious Jews’ occupy the same representational theatre", then you disable yourself from protesting: "I have been misrepresented!" . . . One cannot write about persecution in a language in which that experience is invisible.’

Spencer (1995) rightly rejects Foucault’s position that ‘The sensuality of those who did not like the opposite sex was hardly noticed in the past.’ The shift that the social constructionists say took place at the end of the nineteenth century, Spencer, with a much better survey of the available historical evidence, places at the beginning of the medieval period: ‘the concept of bisexuality was discarded from the consciousness of society, [and] a polarity began to establish itself between the Other (what is repressed) and the Self (which is publicly acknowledged); between that which will later be called homosexual, which must be hidden, and the status quo, the heterosexual, which needs to be publicly enhanced. Human sexual nature, in the way it was considered socially, was divided into two parts, homosexual and heterosexual, as if they were mutually exclusive.’ This itself is not a very satisfactory ‘grand theory’, for there are many examples prior to the thirteenth century showing an awareness of a predominantly homosexual orientation, and, on the other hand, many contemporary queers who do not regard themselves as being exclusively homosexual.

My aim in the present critique will be to examine the nature of queer history, with a focus upon historiographical issues that have not been adequately addressed by historians in the 1980s and 1990s, who have largely failed to recognize the difference between attitudes towards homosexuals and the experiences of queers, and who have built up theories that have no empirical foundations in history. The myth that the homosexual was born circa 1869 is easily demolished, but beyond that I aim to show that the social constructionist emperor has no clothes. I will argue that a typology of queer personalities and relationships and the characteristic features of a queer culture arise from a core of queer desire and are not wholly configured by the regulation of that desire. Queer history properly considered is the attempt to recover the authentic voice of queer experience rather than simply to document suppression or oppression.

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CITATION: Rictor Norton, A Critique of Social Constructionism and Postmodern Queer Theory, "Social Constructionism", 1 June 2002, updated 19 June 2008 <http://www.rictornorton.co.uk/social02.htm>

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