Laurel Westbrook

Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, Grand Valley State University
Ph.D., University of California, Berkeley (Sociology)

Contact: westbrol (at) gvsu (dot) edu

Curriculum Vitae

Recent Publications

Syllabi for Courses I Teach

Research  and Teaching Interests:
Social Theory, Gender, Sexuality, Violence, Social Movements, and Media Studies

About me

I utilize a range of research methods, including interviews, statistical analysis, and textual analysis to examine the sex/gender/sexuality system, violence, and social movements. My interests have given rise to four research projects. The first examines violence against transgender people and social movement efforts to prevent that violence. The second theorizes everyday ways in which the sex/gender/sexuality system is reproduced and/or changed. The third explores the social scientific construction of ideas of sex, gender, race, and sexuality. Finally, my second book project looks at how the gender system harms men.

My work on violence against transgender people has resulted in two published articles, a book manuscript, and another two other articles which are in progress. The major aim of my book, Fighting Violence with Identity: The (Un)Intended Consequences of Identity-Based Anti-Violence Activism, is to reorient the way we study gender violence and the outcomes of certain types of social movements. Traditionally, gender violence has been studied as what Michel Foucault termed “repressive power”: power that stops action and oppresses people. I argue that we must examine how violence, through the narratives we tell about it, is also a case of “productive power”: power that encourages certain beliefs and behaviors. When activists and others tell stories about acts of violence, they influence people’s ideas about who is vulnerable to violence, who perpetrates violence, and how we should try to prevent violence. The empirical core of the book focuses on the intersection of identity politics with anti-violence activism and investigates activism aimed toward the reduction of violence experienced by transgender people as an in-depth case study of what I term “identity-based anti-violence activism.” This form of activism, such as groups struggling to reduce violence against women or stop anti-gay violence, has become so common that it now seems natural or obvious to do anti-violence work using the logic and rhetoric of identity politics. Often, as both scholars and citizens, we assume that this sort of activism is good for the groups it works to protect. However, I find that this type of activism has a number of negative (unintended) consequences. These narratives often include an idea of the members of the identity group as equally vulnerable to violence at all times, producing enormous levels of fear and ignoring factors that put some members at higher levels of risk. This shapes the lives of members of the group and reduces the effectiveness of proposed solutions. In the book, I incorporate examples from other identity-based anti-violence activist groups (particularly the women's, gay and lesbian, and civil rights movements) to illustrate how these patterns occur with all identity-based anti-violence activism.

In addition to my book manuscript, I have two articles in progress that extend my research on transgender victims of violence. “How Gender Changed: Shifts in Gendering of Transgender People in the Mainstream Media” uses a combination of textual and statistical analysis to explore patterns of gendering transgender homicide victims in the mainstream news. I examine whether and how the growing awareness of transgender people affected dominant understandings of gender in the United States and I demonstrate that a significant shift in gender in the media occurred in the early 2000s, when reporters moved from using a body-based determination of gender to taking identity into account. At the same time, the number of gender categories used by the news media expanded from two to three: men, women, and transgender. Journalists began to use the term “transgender” as a new, stable gender category with its own sets of norms. In light of these findings, I conclude that visibility of people doing gender differently from the norm can slowly, but significantly, alter dominant understandings of gender.

The second article currently in progress, “Unequal Risk: Patterns in Murders of Transgender People in the United States,” uses a statistical analysis of an original dataset of all of the known murders of people who would commonly be labeled as transgender in the United States between 1990 and 2005 to show that, contrary to the assumptions of previous research, there are clear, meaningful patterns to fatal violence against transgender people. Research on these homicides typically assumes that all transgender people are at equal risk for violence simply because they are transgender. However, I find that gender, race, and class all play a significant role. Moreover, an exploration of these patterns also offers insight into the sex/gender/sexuality system, as trans women, particularly trans women of color engaged in first time sexual encounters (either as hook-ups or as sex workers) are much more at risk for fatal forms of violence.

In the second project, I work to theorize the processes of the sex/gender/sexuality system, including how gender and sexuality are intertwined, how gender inequality is created and maintained, and the current dominant criteria for gender categorization. In this vein, I have taken up a fully collaborative project with Kristen Schilt (University of Chicago) that examines the criteria for gender attribution in different social spaces. In 2009, our first article “Doing Gender, Doing Heteronormativity: ‘Gender Normals,’ Transgender People, and the Social Maintenance of Heterosexuality” was published as the lead article in Gender & Society’s Special Issue on Heteronormativity and Sexualities. In this study, we compared cisgender (non-transgender) people’s responses to transgender people in work places and sexual situations and found that cisgender people use identity to determine gender in non-sexual situations and genitals to determine gender in sexual situations. This article has already made a significant impact on the sociology of gender and sexuality. It has been cited numerous times has been in the top 20 most downloaded articles in Gender & Society every month since it was published in August 2009. In 2010, it won the Outstanding Article Award from the Sex and Gender Section of the American Sociological Association.

We have extended our previous work by examining the criteria for gender attribution in sex-segregated spaces in a second article (“Doing Gender, Determining Gender: Transgender People, Gender Panics, and the Maintenance of the Sex/Gender/Sexuality System”) which will be published in the April 2014 issue of Gender & Society. This article explores what we term “determining gender” – the interactional practice of placing others in a sex category – through an analysis of three case studies: policies determining eligibility of transgender people for competitive sports, public debates over the expansion of transgender employment rights, and proposals to remove the surgery requirement for a change of sex on birth certificates. By examining moments of conflict over who counts as a man and who counts as a woman, we show that the criteria for determining gender are different in sex-segregated and sex-integrated situations. Sex-integrated public spaces are more likely to use identity-based gender ideologies in determining gender, while sex-segregated spaces are more likely to use biology-based ideologies. In addition, “men’s” and “women’s” spaces are not policed equally. Because of beliefs that women are inherently vulnerable and men are dangerous, access to women’s spaces, but not men’s, is central to debates over transgender rights.

More recently I have turned my attention to the social scientific construction of knowledge about common categories of difference, such as race and ethnicity, sex and gender, and sexuality. Building on the theorizing of the sex/gender/sexuality system in my previous work, I have started a new project (with fellow assistant professor Aliya Saperstein, Stanford University). Through a systematic examination of questionnaires, manuals and other technical materials from the longest-running and most widely used social surveys, we examine how methods of measurement have, or have not, changed over time and vary across surveys. We aim to uncover the often unspoken assumptions about what it means to be a member of a particular race, sex or sexual orientation that are implied by aspects of the survey design. The construction of the surveys not only shapes the types of responses that can be recorded, it also constrains the kinds of analysis researchers can conduct. By revealing both the structure and silences about race, sex, and sexuality in our national surveys, we hope to highlight the role that social science research plays in producing – and reproducing – particular visions of the social world. We have been awarded several grants to fund this project, including the American Sociological Association’s Fund for the Advancement of the Discipline (FAD) grant and internal grants from both of our universities.

Finally, I have begun work on a new book project, tentatively titled Doing Gender, Doing Violence: Men, Masculinity, and How Gender Hurts Everyone. Here, I examine the under-theorized topic of violence experienced by heterosexual, gender-conforming men. Surveys and crime data show that men experience more physical violence than women; however, the study of gendered violence has traditionally focused only on violence against women. In this project, I use interviews with a racially, socioeconomically, and regionally diverse group of men to examine what types of violence men experience, how they interpret this violence, and how it shapes their lives. I explore whether they experience certain acts, those that are typically defined as violence when done to women or children, as violence at all and if, for example, those violent encounters leave them feeling vulnerable for having experienced the violence, or strong for having survived or ended it. By contrasting men’s and women’s experiences of violence, I aim to show how the gender system makes specific types of bodies vulnerable to specific types of violence—women have increased risk of experiencing domestic violence and sexual assault, while men are more vulnerable to physical bullying, assaults in public, and death in military combat—and how gender shapes the interpretation of violent experiences.

Laurel Westbrook,
Feb 26, 2014, 9:26 AM