The state of poly research: Guest interview with Eli Sheff
Today we host a guest post by Dr. Anya Trahan and Liane Ortis. They interviewed sociologist Elisabeth Sheff, author of The Polyamorists Next Door and founder of the PolyResearchers Yahoo group, on how things currently stand with regard to research into polyfolks and their lives.
Take it away, Anya and Liane—
Who are we? We are two emerging poly researchers as well as members of the poly community. We are/were the first two scholars in our respective fields (that we know of) to embark on dissertations that explore the topic of polyamory. In so doing, we not only carefully review(ed) as much as we could from the general media on the poly movement, but we also review(ed) a growing body of research called Polyamory Studies, which usually only professors and academics read — the stuff that doesn’t make it into the mainstream news. Instead of boring you with a list of things you must read to understand the “researchey” side of polyamory (which we can provide upon request) we thought it would be more fun to talk to a prominent expert, one that we both deeply admire, about why some of this research might be interesting to you.
Dr. Elisabeth Sheff researches the diversity of identities and experiences of polyamorous families. She is the foremost academic and legal expert on polyamory in the United States. Among her many other accomplishments, Sheff provided a valuable contribution to the growing body of scholarship on polyamory by coining terms such as polyaffective, which describes emotionally intimate non-sexual relationships between poly people. She is author of The Polyamorists Next Door: Inside Multiple-Partner Relationships and Families, which presents the findings of her groundbreaking 15-year study. Sheff is collecting submissions for a new collection, Stories from the Polycule: Real Life in Polyamorous Families (to be published by Thorntree Press in October). Sheff has given more than 20 radio, print, podcast, and TV interviews with outlets from Radio Slovenia to National Public Radio, the Sunday London Times to the Boston Globe and Newsweek, CNN to National Geographic Television.
We thank Dr. Sheff for joining us and sharing her thoughts. We also welcome any further dialogue sparked by this post!
What purpose does academic research serve the poly community?
In general, I think academic research can help make the topic less personal: so polyamory can be shown as a social phenomenon, rather than just a whole bunch of slutty people. It can make things more understandable at a less visceral level. Polyamory is something that I think many people find profoundly threatening. Academic research on polyamory can remove the conversation from such a threatening, emergency feeling and place it in a much more calm and rational type of conversation.
Can you give examples of how published research has benefitted and/or harmed the poly community?
I think published research in general can benefit sexual minorities as a whole, and polyamorous research specifically, in terms of using facts, or evidence-based ideas, to counter hysteria or prejudice. For example, The Polyamorists Next Door has helped a couple different people introduce the concept of polyamory to their Child Protective Services workers.
In terms of harm, I haven't observed that aspect. I think I and others who are doing academic research on polyamory have been vigilant about protecting people's identities, and allowing the participants to choose their own level of out-ness. To my knowledge, no one has ever been accidentally outed in my own research, and I know that a majority of other researchers continually stress the privacy aspect. And, in the United States, as well as in many other places across the world, universities have strict IRB (Institutional Review Board) standards for researchers. IRBs are charged with maintaining the welfare and rights of people involved in research, and polyamory researchers, just like other researchers, must follow those strict standards.
What are the most influential pieces you recommend everyone read, both academic and non-academic?
I think it depends on what people are looking for. If they’re looking for a more theoretical treatment of polyamorous families, I strongly recommend Dr. Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli’s book: Border Sexualities, Border Families In Schools. She does this great update and forward of the Mestiza idea that Gloria E. Anzaldúa came up with about living on the "border."
Also in terms of academic work, it’s hard to go wrong with Meg Barker; she has written both academic and popular press.
In terms of non-academic work, there’s More Than Two by Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert. It’s a much more practical guide to polyamory. So I think that’s a great one in terms of really practical responses.
For another practical book, there’s Kathy Labriola’s The Jealousy Workbook: Exercises and Insights for Managing Open Relationships. She has been in the poly community as well as treating polyamorous folks in relationship counseling for years. I find her book just really well done, non-judgmental, and kind of a realistic way to deal with jealousy.
Do you feel current methods of academic research can adequately represent the variety of experiences and identities within the poly community? How so?
I think current methods can accurately represent the "mainstream polyamory community." I think the sampling techniques (how one gains participants for research), which tend towards internet research and snowball sampling [asking recruits to find other recruits], tend to produce these very white, educated samples of people. I think those procedures lead to a somewhat false homogeneity.
Also, polyamorous people with less privilege (in terms of race, economic status, etc.) are not necessarily being captured by this research. Their voices are not coming forward because they have more to lose from participating.
How important is the popular media (news articles, blogs, podcasts, books for general audiences) to the academic research being done on the poly movement?
It’s actually fairly important in that it brings much greater public awareness to polyamory. So journal editors, who in 2004 had never heard of it, or viewed it as this crazy fringe thing, or questioned why should we talk about this in academia because ‘there are really more important things’, now recognize submissions about polyamory. So I think it makes the research more likely to be taken seriously and get published. Hopefully as polyamory becomes more socially widespread there can be funding for research.
In our own academic fields (Dr. Anya in rhetoric and writing studies; Liane Ortis in higher-ed administration), we were/are the first researchers to take on projects dedicated solely to exploring polyamory in depth. At this time, sociology and psychology seem to be churning out the most research on polyamory. Have you heard of any other fields that have, recently, broached the topic?
Yes. Anthropology — which is a lot like sociology, or sociology is a lot like anthropology. Social psychology — which is so much like sociology and psychology. Geriatrics and life-course aging studies. Family studies. There are certainly some medical studies for looking at the transmission of sexually transmitted infections in consensually non-monogamous relationships versus non-consensually non-monogamous relationships. Also, the legal field is looking at monogamy/non-monogamy, particularly decisions made on hearsay and fear versus facts surrounding families/children.
What is the most pressing work that needs to be done in the future? What’s missing?
I think looking at the long-term effects of polyamorous relationships, in terms of physical and mental health, and financial stability, and [whether] these relationships really foster well-being over the long haul. My hypothesis is that if people get over the hump of figuring out how to deal with multiple partners and can establish a supportive network, folks in multi-partner relationships are actually going to be better off than folks in monogamous relationships because they have a wider support network.
|...and her forthcoming book cover.|