Ken Plummer, Glasgow Caledonian.   October 2010

Handout notes from a lecture

A John H. Gagnon : Born November 22, 1931: Fall River, Massachusets.

 I travelled, while in the womb, from a Depression-gripped mining town in Arizona to be born in a dying mill town in Massachusets. My mother was 43 but I was spared visible birth defects…. My mother forced a decision about my fate: I was to be hear child, a child of the church, a child of Irish respectability, a printer or a post office worker – no atheism, no anarchism, no working in the mines’. (ID. p2-3). See Authors of Our Own Lives edited by Bennett Berger (1990)

 A chronology- a life flashing before our eyes:

0 -10 1930’s depression and poverty – and sex negativism

10-20 1940’s war and California – and sex negativism

20-30 1950’s Chicago undergraduate and graduate: first work in police/prison – and sex negativism

30-40 1960’s Kinseyland at Bloomington: work with Bill; a kind of affluence leading to 1968

40-50 1970’s to Stony Brook, new partner ; Sexual conduct published in 1973/4.

50-60 1980 Stony Brook: arrival of HIV and AIDS

60-70 1990’s Stony Brook: The Social Organisation of Sexuality published in 1994. Yet- post modern, post colonialism, queer theory etc

70- 2000’s   sort of retired in France with Cathy. An Interpretation of Desire published in 2004; second edition of Sexual Conduct in 2005.

 Both Bill and John were:“ Working class depression babies, war time adolescents, postwar workers and students, apprentice sex researchers by accident”…..The affluence of the 1950’s and 1960’s contrasted with the relative poverty of their childhoods…… and this was a backdrop to their thinking. (cf the anomie of affluence).


B: So how do you tell as life? John’s work and life (all our works and lives) speaks to issues of time, narrative, memories, generational standpoints and their symbolic orderings. How do you recall and tell the past? What indeed is a life and its work?

Reality exists in a present…we look forward with vivid interest to the reconstruction, in the world that will be, of the world that has been for we realize that the world that will be cannot differ from the world that is without rewriting the past to which we now look back.

-George Herbert Mead, The Philosophy of the Present (1932/1959:1,3)

Nothing lasts and yet nothing passes either, and nothing passes just because nothing lasts.”
Philip Roth The Human Stain


Only when the dusk starts to fall does the owl of Minerva spread its wings and fly.

                                                           G.W.F. Hegel, Philosophy of Right (1820) “Preface”

Generations are in a constant state of interaction
Karl Mannheim Essays in Knowledge (1937:301)

To study social life one must confront the ghostly aspects of it.

-Avery Gordon, Ghostly Matters (1997/2008:7)

C: The theory of generational standpoints: all knowledge dangles from an age structure and generational positions
It would be theoretically more illuminating to describe intellectual history in terms of active generations, about 3 per hundred years. A 33-year period is the approximate length of an intellectual’s creative work… We ourselves are living 5 generations after Hegel and 10 generations after Descartes.’ Randall Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies, 1998, p xix




2000- F Eg Twin Towers Mill…. J (70-120? )
1980- E ‘1989’ Mill… J (50-70)
1960- D ‘1968’ J (30-50)
1946 – C Post war AJ(16-30)
1930 JOHN’S Depression, World War11
J (0-16)
1910 A World War 1 J (before)






 D: The multiplicities of life and their ‘never ending conversations’.


Every morning, even before I open my eyes, I know I am in my bedroom and my bed. But if I go to sleep after lunch in the room where I work, sometimes I wake up with a feeling of childish amazement – why am I myself? What astonishes me, just as it astonishes a child when he becomes aware of his own identity, is the fact of finding myself here, and at this moment, deep in this life and not in any other. What stroke of chance has brought this about? Simone de Beauvoir: All Said and Done 1974


Where does the drama get its materials? From the unending conversation’ that is going on at the point in history when we are born’. Kenneth Burke



The Multiplicities of John – yet a rock hard JG: a physical presence and a powerhouse of ideas. You know you are in his presence. And in all the time I have known him since a first encounter in 1970 in Wayland Young’s House – 100 Bayswater Road – he has been a presence intellectually (and physically)in my life (this year we could celebrate our 40th anniversary! but I met him before in his writings).

Lives as accidental, contingent and marginal


Two senses of the world that I know Bill and I shared. First, was a certain view of our lives as accidental and contingent, lives that could have turned out quite differently; and second, a recognition of our marginality to the larger sociological profession as advanced by the Graduate Program in Sociology at the University of Chicago and recorded by the official historians of the department and the discipline…..   …. P287 SC 2


The significance of intellectual work as developing through interaction ritual chains….. if this is so John has:

Reading him – I get one major sense of him , but many voices ( I can only hint at five here)..

John the sociologist

John the sex researcher

John the homosexualiste

John the critical sexualities theorist

John the American intellectual

John as a Sociologist: never truly part of the Chicago School. Too late for the old (the Neo-Chicagoeans), too at odds with the new (the new Columbia-Chicago Department). He was a young member of the generation of Goffman . He mentions:   Hughes, Strauss, Horton, Hauser, Otis Dudley Duncan. But by the time of graduate school Herbert Blumer, Anselm Strauss, Erving Goffman, Howard S. Becker had all gone. A fellow traveller maybe – but never a devoted symbolic interactionist. Always on the margins – with a fondness for Marx once, and latterly perhaps Durkheim? His later life – Stony Brook from 1970 or so. (The importance perhaps of the Cosers).

John as a Sex Researcher. In search of Kinsey, walking in his shadows. Life at Kinseyland – The Institute for Sex Research – where there was a sense of ‘winding down’ p 16   Kinsey had been dead for 4-5 years, Martin left in 1960, Pomeroy was near to leaving. John worked on the Sex Offenders study till 1963. An induction into mainstream survey research – which then sets up a permanent tension in his work with theorizing. Bill comes by 1964…. ‘We collaborated June 65 to June 68’…… . Just three key years. Repeat? Amazing things can be done in a short time with the right people at the right time.

Attempt to locate work in the emerging Generational Cohorts of sex Research?

Foundational generations 1860’s- 1940’s (several) From Krafft Ebing (1840-1902) to Freud (1856-1939)
Empirical research comes of age Kinsey 1930’s-1960’s Kinsey
Masters and Johnson
Start of Critical Sexualities Studies: ‘the social’ 1960’s -1980’s Gagnon and Simon
Queer, post modern 1990’s -2010 Butler. Sedgwick etc?
Contemporary Who knows? ?????????????


No mention of postmodernism, or queer, or Judith Butler; and Foucault gets very short shrift: He writes outside of the fashion and shows little concern with any of it. Like Jeffrey Weeks,, he ignores much of it and consequently he is largely written out of their writings. Ambivalent:

“What Foucault does is too texty; its too parochially French.. he is not very new except to folks who are not well read in history and the other social sciences’……. P280-1.

John ‘The Homsoexualiste’: from his earliest research at Indiana through pioneering AIDS work – to his latest work in California, John has always been a great friend to the gay community. Yet he is not gay identified. Unusual in his time. Much could be said here….

John and the birth of Critical Sexualities Studies which highlights the social. A critical defining moment. Bill, the moment and the place: five years of energy?

The relationship with Bill. Knew and wrote at Chicago; John helped get him job at Kinseyland with a Hugh Hefner grant. They worked ‘crazily together’ till 1968 and then wrote the book by 1974. At the same time they were getting new career structures – John at Stony Brook, Bill at Houston (and as it happens new partners and families). But after Sexual Conduct, they remained friends- you could see them together at conferences; but the critical moment was over. Their intellectual lives moved on differently. We must all be grateful that they spent those five years together at Kinseyland. Without the time, the place, the people mix would this have happened?

E: Personal: Their early written work had a profound impact on my understanding of sex, emotion and body: a counterbalance to the biological or Freudian models. My earliest readings


‘Sexual Deviance’ (1967) – the fact of sociology looking at these concerns, the first cluster of articles of significance (Achilles, Reiss, Leznoff and Westley…..etc); and John’s key article on ‘sexuality and sexual learning in the child’ (1965) – the significance of labeling the child’s world…..

Homosexuality: The formulation of a sociological perspective’ (1969 JHSB 8 p177-85). Key flaws the ‘obsessive concern’ with the homosexual as a type and its causes; and the suggestiveness of careers….…..

‘Psychosexual development’- which came out in Transaction in 1969, and introduced the idea of scriptings and social development to me for the first time…..

Ultimately the wider sexual contexts: can there be low sex societies; how does emotion and body shift with the culture, can we get away from the repression /hydraulic model.……

A powerhouse of ideas which changed my life: to quote. I now knew that:

“ (1) Sexual conduct is entirely historically and culturally determined; (2) the menaing of conduct does not reside in a reading of the bodily activity of individuals; (3) sexual science is historically and culturally determined in equal measure ;(4) sexuality is acquired, maintained, and unlearned in all of its aspects and is organized by social structure and culture, and (5) gender and sexuality are both learned from of conduct and are linked differently in different cultures. (p136 ID).


Finally: John as an American Intellectual. His width of reading, his bringing of non sociological things to sociology and his wider concerns with sexuality. He brings a concern with ordinariness and even banality in everyday life……

: EPILOGUE: On getting it all wrong!


“You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion. … The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that — well, lucky you.” Philip Roth (American Pastoral)


“Writing turns you into somebody who’s always wrong. the illusion that you may get it right someday is the perversity that draws you on. What else could? As pathological phenomena go, it doesn’t completely wreck your life.”
Philip Roth





  • All conduct is scripted , and ..scripting theory is not merely to be applied to sexual conduct, but to all social conduct’ ID P136 Orig 1991
  • We have allowed the homosexual’s object choice to dominate and control our imagery of him……..(we will) only begin to understand [ through]… those complex matrices wherein most human behaviour is fashioned’….. Formulation, 1967.


  • Therefore, the authors reject the unproven assumption that “powerful” psychosexual drives are fixed biological attributes. More importantly, we reject the even more dubious assumption that sexual capacities or experiences tend to translate immediately into a kind of universal “knowing” or innate wisdom – that sexuality has a magical ability, possessed by no other capacity, that allows biological drives to be expressed directly in psychosocial and social behaviors. Pyschosexual Development 1969
  • No Play Without A Script : We see sexual behavior therefore as scripted behavior, not the masked expression of a primordial drive. Pychosexual development 1969
  • There are many ways to become, to be, to act, to feel sexual. There is no one human sexuality, but rather a wide variety of sexualities’. John Gagnon, Sexual Conduct 1977, Preface).
  • In any given society, at any given moment in its history, people become sexual in the same way as they become everything else. Without much reflection, they pick up direction from their social environment. They acquire and assemble meanings, skills and values from the people around them. Their critical choices are often made by going along and drifting. People learn when they are quite young a few of the things they are expected to be, and continue slowly to accumulate a belief in who they are and ought to be throughout the rest of childhood, adolescence and adulthood. Sexual conduct is learned in the same ways and through the same processes; it is acquired and assembled in human interaction, judged and performed in specific cultural and historical worlds. John Gagnon Human Sexualities 1977: p2)
  • There was no magic in the world… The world is no longer enchanted, and it cannot be enchanted again. And the search for enchantment in sexuality must end in failure……. SSp284
  • The critical posture to maintain is that the future will not be better or worse, only different’. P233 SC2. P233.
  • It is abnormal to think scientifically. Most thought processes, as you go through the world, are impressions and fragments and pieces. You have to create an environment in which linear and highly coherent thought can go forward; you find a quite room, you close the doors, you turn on your computer, you look at the screen, you type. You pretend there is nothing else going on in your head. But that describes a specialized environment of a very specialized form of thinking…… SSp280

H: John produced some 15 books and over 100 articles. Here are some key books….


2005     Sexual Conduct: The Social Sources of Sexual Conduct (Second Edition).
Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Books, 2005 (with William Simon.)
2004 An Interpretation of Desire. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004.
1994 The Social Organization of Sexuality. Chicago; The University of Chicago Press. (Co­author with Edward Laumann, Robert Michael and Stuart Michaels.) (Received the Gordon Laing Award for the book that added the most distinction to the list of the University of Chicago in 1995)
1977 Human Sexualities. Glenview: Scott Foresman, 1977, 432 pp.
1973 Sexual Conduct: The Social Sources of Human Sexuality. Chicago: Aldine Books, 1973, 316 pp. (with William Simon) (this work is still in print).
1967 Sexual Deviance: A Reader, edited with an introduction written with William Simon. New York: Harper and Row, 1967, 310 pp. (reprinted in JJ. Harper edition, 1969).
1965 Sex Offenders: An Analysis of Types. New York: Harper and Row, 931 pp. (with Paul H. Gebhard, Cornelia V. Christenson, and Wardell B. Pomeroy

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