When Participants Speak Back:
The Growing Pains of Testing a Cherished Theory
- “Please stop making such overly complicated surveys to answer relatively simple questions.”
- “I don’t need crazy charts to help me know who I am.”
- “Quit being a bunch of idiotic, useless twits. GET A REAL JOB!”
Responses like these are not exactly what I was expecting when I finally rolled out my first survey in graduate school after a full year of tireless preparation. In fact, I expected quite the opposite—maybe some applause, trumpets, balloons. I don’t ask for much! But when the data came in, I was faced with some challenges to say the least.
Let me back up a bit to a time before graduate school. It was a bitter cold March in Chicago, where I was living at the time, and I was debating between a few schools and trying to do as much reading as I could to aid my decision. I vividly remember being on the train during my daily commute, reading a coffee-stained paper that introduced me to Dr. van Anders’ sexual configurations theory (SCT), and feeling the earth shift beneath me in the way I thought about gender, sex, and sexuality. It made so much sense to me. PLUS it was explicitly feminist and queer!! I felt like I hit the jackpot and knew immediately that I wanted to work with this theory in the lab that produced it. Lo and behold, that’s now exactly what I’m doing! Sometimes life really does work out that way.
Why am I a bit of a fangirl for this theory? Well, SCT allows the description and representation of diverse sexualities and gender/sexes that are often untapped by existing measures and theories, especially in psychology. Being in the queer community in Chicago, I saw the beautifully diverse ways my friends moved through the world, identifying and expressing themselves in all sorts of ways that are often marginalized in scientific research. SCT is grounded in those lived experiences. It makes space for nonbinary identities and interests, decenters gender/sex as the only thing that may matter in people’s sexual orientations (other aspects of sexuality also matter, like how many partners one would ideally have), and describes how erotic and nurturant attractions may converge or diverge, among other things. It also allows individuals to map their partnered sexualities as well as their own gender/sexes on a series of diagrams that not only contain a lot of useful information, but also look really cool (I call the one shown below the “gender tornado”). I could now visualize how my beautifully diverse friends (and myself!) might be mapped onto a common framework.
For my first project in graduate school, I was interested in the piece of SCT that allows individuals to visually represent their sense of their own gender, sex, and gender/sex. Previous work in our lab demonstrated that people can use SCT’s diagrams in meaningful, unexpected, and frankly awesome ways during a one-on-one interview with a researcher. But what happens when a researcher isn’t there? Is it possible to collect data online with SCT? Answering these questions could allow us to vastly increase the impact of SCT—hypothetically, anyone with a computer and internet access could then engage with the theory that I found so useful for myself.
After about a year of fits and starts (the all-too-common rhythm of research), all signs pointed to go. We had a functional drawing mechanism that people could use to mark on digital versions of the gender, sex, and gender/sex diagrams. We had a pretty entertaining instructional cartoon that showed the different ways the diagrams might be used. We had positive feedback from pilot participants. And I had such high hopes for the impact of this survey. I think that when we do feminist work that has an explicit social justice aim, sometimes the stakes feel even higher. Not only did I want to collect useful data for my Master’s thesis, I also wanted to help my participants understand who they are and how to communicate their identities. Traditional psychological research often doesn’t view data collection as a site of social change, but I thought my study could be more than just an extraction of information. I wanted to disseminate the satisfying feeling of things “clicking” that I experienced on that train in Chicago.
To quote my favorite music artist Sara Bareilles: “Cue humble pie.”
When the data came flooding in, my hopes dropped. The responses were flush with quotes like the ones above. They said things like, “Being asked to do this is frustrating to me – the entire instructional video was frustrating to watch” and “[The diagrams] are poorly designed, and try to fit too much into one visual component.” Someone with a penchant for calling us twits said, “It takes useless pompous asses like you to come up with such inane concepts.”
Suffice it to say there was no parade, no fanfare. The very people who I thought might find SCT incredibly useful were questioning the foundations of our ideas and the utility of the diagrams. Not quite the revolution I was hoping for.
BUT, as I sat with the data, I realized I had focused on the negative (as I am prone to do—as I think most people are…right??). Many participants expressed that they were able to describe themselves in ways they couldn’t in other contexts: “This is the first survey I’ve taken that lets me explain my gender and sex outside of preset categories” and “I was able to describe the way I expressed myself specifically instead of having to use a label, which would lop me in with people that I may not identify with.”
Perhaps even more thrilling for me were the people who had the sorts of revelations I had when first encountering SCT: “The diagram gave me a fresh visual means of considering the gender/sex spectrum. It might reframe my thinking in the future” and “The mapping of the different aspects was something I have never seen before and actually gave me a whole new way of thinking about gender.” And perhaps my personal favorite: “I’ve never framed it that way before and I really like it. F*** the genderbread person.”
Not only did we get these positive reactions (that, to be honest, may have made me tear up and/or laugh out loud a few times) but also our diagram data worked. People pointed out the sometimes-confusing complexity of the diagrams, but were able to fill them out in fascinating, meaningful ways. For most people, I could more clearly see the contours of their gendered ways of being—much more clearly than if I had only seen their responses to: “Are you a man, woman, or other?”
So I took my humble pie and gingerly walked back to a place of envisioning social change, just maybe on a smaller scale this time. Those people who saw the worth and utility of SCT may be forever changed by participating in my study—what more could I ask for??
More than anything, this experience made me realize that I have so much yet to learn. The challenges posed by my participants reminded me that this is why we collect data! This is why we don’t protect our theories from the real-world. We put our theories to test and they become all the better for it, despite the growing pains that might not feel the best as they’re happening. It also reminded me that investing emotionally in a project holds its dangers. But would I have it any other way? I don’t think so.
van Anders, S. M. (2015). Beyond sexual orientation: Integrating gender/sex and diverse sexualities via sexual configurations theory. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 44, 1177-1213.
Schudson, Z. C., Dibble, E. R., & van Anders, S. M. (2017). Gender/sex and sexual diversity via sexual configurations theory: Insights from a qualitative study with gender and sexual minorities. Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity, 4(4), 422-437.
Will Beischel is a second-year PhD student in Psychology at the University of Michigan. His work focuses on the diverse ways people think about their gender/sex and sexuality and how to capture that diversity in psychological research.