Queer(ing) Scholarly Research: Decentering Fixed Subjects for Implicated Subjectivities


David V. Ruffolo

Ontario Institute For Studies in Education

University of Toronto





Equity initiatives in higher education are committed to troubling the normative emphasis on equality that privileges the majoritized and subordinates the minoritized.  This paper uses queer theory to decenter the fixed and stable “identities” of subjects in scholarly research and endorse, instead, mobile and fluid selves that consist of continuously re/negotiated identifications.  The shift from identity politics to the politics of identity that this paper encourages creates new discursive spaces for research participants to engage a different form of agency. This agency is realized through the process of exposing how subjects are implicated in the practices that sustain and police collective identities.  The radical political position of this paper draws from queer theory and aims to disturb binary identities in scholarly research in order to expose the notion that research subjects are implicated articulations of circulating norms.



he academy, as an ideological representation of higher educational practices and spaces, is a site where knowledge is produced, disseminated, critiqued, adopted, and resisted.  The emphasis on scholarly research in the academy places researchers and research subjects at the core of many higher educational initiatives.  Alongside the notion that postsecondary institutions have a social responsibility to listen, respond, and react to the diverse needs of their immediate and global communities, is the recognition that scholarly research initiatives coincide with social and political practices outside of the university.  As such, the interactions amongst researchers and research subjects are highly subjective as these initiatives increasingly respond to social and political concerns.  Ultimately, it must be recognized that the various positions of researchers intersect with the multiple positions of research subjects. These intersections create continuously changing relationships that are constantly being renegotiated vis-à-vis the research process.[1] 

This paper explores, on the theoretical level, how research scholars come to understand and implicate research subjects as articulations of “identity”[2] positions. This paper then, is a contribution to a political project that is committed to equity and social justice in higher education.  The process of exposing how researchers implicate research subjects within fixed and stable identities is a primary theoretical disruption in this paper.  The political vision of this paper is to create spaces to realize the importance of moving away from the notion that research subjects have particular identities that are collective categorizations that subjects must assimilate into (i.e. sex, gender, sexuality, race, etc.).  The decentering of fixed subjects in research — moving away from understanding subjects in terms of pre-existing identities established on the collective level — creates spaces to reconceptualize the “I” as an ongoing negotiation. This exposes how subjects are discursively produced and so ought to take precedence over the normative emphasis on communal identities. 

Establishing and maintaining a strong commitment to social justice and equity initiatives in scholarly work requires researchers to disturb existing binary identities such as man/woman; masculine/feminine; gay/straight, that place subjects into fixed and stable categories that over time have been ordered hierarchically and patriarchally. Researching gender divisions, for example, in an area of higher education further supports the inequitable differences between men and women since in this way research continues to support and sustain binary identities. The “us” and “them” relations of bodies, present in research norms, are unequal since the privileged position (i.e., men) has to subordinate the minoritized other (i.e. women) to maintain its status. However, exposing how subjects are constituted and implicated as subjects in the gender divide in an area of higher education becomes more political.  Consequently, this paper proposes that researchers incorporate queer theory into their scholarly practices in order to disrupt the unequal binary positions — fixed and stable collective identities — of their research subjects so as to challenge heteronormative[3] ideologies that maintain inequitable binary relations.

The use of queer theory as a critical lens in scholarly research can create a much-needed shift from discussing identity politics — research that understands subjects in terms of fixed and stable identities — to exploring the politics of identity — research that problematizes the understanding of subjects in terms of fixed and stable binary identities that implicate subjects in categories that are hierarchical, patriarchal, and unequal.  How researchers conceptualize their subjects is critical for equity initiatives as the research process can be a political site where subjects are re/worked[4] as bodies implicated in heteronormative discourses.  With this vision, this paper argues that the incorporation of queer theory as a political and strategic lens in scholarly research can de-stabilize the fixed subject as a binary relation so as to create spaces to appreciate the self as a mobile and fluid negotiation.

The vision of re-conceptualizing the identities of subjects in research using queer theory as a critical research lens to decenter the fixed nature of subjects attempts to create new discursive spaces that can challenge heteronormative assumptions and practices in society.  What follows is an examination of how “identity” has and continues to be conceived as a stable articulation of the self, along with an analysis that uses queer theory to decenter the normative framework that upholds collective binary relations.   The process of exposing the discursive production of “identity” in Western societies vis-à-vis rethinking how subjects are understood and discussed in scholarly research can create spaces for research participants[5] to engage a sense of agency that is determined through the self, not by others. This then becomes agency that is subjectively negotiated through discursive practices, not determined by the apparent re/actions of (binary) others.[6]  The aim is to open spaces for dialogue that exist outside of dominant ideologies and challenges normative values and assumptions through the process of decentering the fixed subject in scholarly research.


From Researching Equality to Equity Research


he vision of an equitable future inside and outside the academy is one that is defined differently within the various areas of higher education. Issues of equity have been taken up for example in discussions about academic freedom (Haley, 2004; Hornosty, 2004; Meaghan, 2004) and academic programs (Eyre, 2004; Gordon & Blum, 2004; Reimer, 2004), as well as between administration and faculty (Briskin, 2001; Cassin, 2004; Paul, 2004). Equity has also been discussed in terms of pedagogy (Eyre, 1997; Ng, 1995; Rezai-Rashti, 1995).  Generally speaking, an equity focus within the various realms of higher education reveals a commitment to the democratization of the academy.  More specifically, the shift from “equality” to “equity” is of critical importance as it recognizes the need to explore intersecting differences (equity) rather than shared commonalities (equality). As George Dei explains: “equity encompasses concerns about race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, and how these implicate other dimensions of the human experience and condition” (1999, p. 80).  Therefore, an equity approach to exploring identity in research discusses the intersecting isms (i.e., racism, classism, sexism, ableism, etc.) that circulate in and around subjects.  Roxana Ng’s (2003) conception of an ‘integrative approach to equity’ also emphasizes the relational aspects of identities while clearly distinguishing equity from equality. As she explains: “whereas equality implies that people who receive equal treatment are or should be the same, equity takes difference into account” (Ng, 2003, p. 207).  Working towards the creation of equitable spaces in society using research as a political tool calls for researchers to commit themselves to decentering fixed subjects in their research through the disruption of heteronormative practices that support binary identities — practices focusing on equality where privileged and subordinated positions are maintained through the use of binary identities in research. 

The equity focus of this paper, furthermore, is different than equity research based on race, gender, sex, class, dis/ability, etc.  Although the value of researching equity practices in relation to identities as well as projects that intersect multiple identity positions amongst subjects is appreciated, the emphasis here is on exposing the inequitable processes and practices that maintain and support collective identities (race, gender, sex, class, dis/ability, etc.) in order to create spaces that can realize the self as a subjective negotiation with no fixed origin.

Research initiatives that uphold identity positions — identities that are collective and sustained through binary relations — are problematic for a vision of equity and democracy in the academy as the claiming, purchasing, assuming, and/or adopting of binary identities continues to support an “us” and “them” dichotomy. In this dichotomy an identity category must exclude its binary other in order to maintain its collective identity cohesion.  For example, understanding research subjects as heterosexual (i.e. straight) creates a clear distinction from sexuality’s binary other — homosexuality (i.e. gay) — and therefore maintains privileged and subordinated identity positions.  Consequently, the use of binary subjects in research further supports the unequal structure of sexuality — a structure that privileges some through the subordination of others — even though academic research, in many cases, is meant to liberate the subordinated subject positions.  The notion of equality, then, creates a false sense of ideological hope where there is a naïve assumption that subordinated subjects can be equal to their binary other.  Binary structures, however, are incapable of producing and supporting equal positions since they are by their very nature exclusionary. The use of queer theory as a critical research lens can resist normalization and reject assimilationist politics in order to bring about an equitable and democratic society where binary discourses are re/worked. Queer theory can (and should) be incorporated in research practices to realize subjects as mobile and fluid selves that can create spaces for research participants to engage in agency that works towards equity, not equality.


Reading the Texts as Queer and Queering the Texts


ueer theory[7] is a transformative political project that can be used as a critical lens in scholarly research practices to decenter research subjects as fixed participants of collective identities in order to re-conceptualize the subject as a mobile self embedded in difference.  This paper draws from three important texts, Queer Theory edited by Iain Morland and Annabelle Willox (2005), Queer Theory in Education edited by William F. Pinar (1998), and Queer Theory, Gender Theory (2004) by Riki Wilchins, to introduce, explain, and stimulate the possibilities for using queer theory as a lens to create spaces for equity as seen through the agency of research participants.[8]  The texts are used to address and explore the complex interconnections of identities while having a common vision to disturb the coherent nature amongst fixed, stable, and concrete categories.  The texts are used to search for ways to work outside of binary identity frameworks in order to uncover the subjective self in scholarly research — a mobile and fluid self that is produced through discourse and negotiated amongst the intersecting identifications[9] of subjects. 

Morland and Willox’s edited collection Queer Theory is a cultural critique of what it means to (dis)embody stable and fixed identities.  The collection introduces many key questions related to the use of queer theory in scholarly work, including: “What makes a theory queer? What does it mean to describe oneself as queer? Is ‘queer’ an adjective, a noun, or a verb? Is ‘queer’ something that you do or something that you are?” (2005, p. 1).  The editors display a commitment to exposing the complexities of identifications that are continuously at work in unstable and mobile bodies.  The fluidity of identifications explored in the collection provides a critical framework for disrupting binary identities in scholarly research as it presents the possibility of engaging agency and embodiment outside dominant discourses. 

William F. Pinar’s Queer Theory in Education is a collection that intersects queerness vis-à-vis queer theory with the politics of education.  The collection is committed to disarming the normative politics of identity vis-à-vis educational praxis and moves beyond discussions of homophobia and heterosexism: Queer Theory in Education is committed to challenging heteronormativity by uniting the strategies of queer theory with the inqueeries of education.  Riki Wilchins’ text Queer Theory, Gender Theory dissects the dense concepts of many “queer theorists” on a level that is highly accessible and intellectually stimulating.  Wilchins problematizes many of the difficult issues around identity politics by exploring the politics of identity — a suggested prerogative for scholarly research committed to equity.  The political and social implications explored by Wilchins create spaces to appreciate the body in subjectivity rather than focusing on the body’s direct relationship with a larger identity category. 

This paper draws on these three texts to critically queer — disturb, dismantle, destabilize, and decenter — normative identity practices and assumptions and in so doing exemplify a critical process that can be used to disrupt and exhaust notions of normalcy and binary identities in research practices.  The following sections discuss how queer theory is used and can be used in scholarly work in relation to the radical process of re-conceptualizing the self as a discursive subject. The first section, Her/His-tory of Identity, traces the intersections of sex, sexuality, and gender identities as stable categories that maintain a strong sense of collective cohesion. The second section, Normative Binary Identities, explores how identities are capitalized and institutionally policed through notions of language and citizenship.  The third section, Intersecting “Queer” Subjects with Queer Theory, disturbs binary categorizations of identities and transgresses identity boundaries by introducing subjective identifications that are fluid and mobile.  The process of exposing, disturbing, and re/working identities in order to appreciate a fluid and mobile self provides a necessary framework for troubling the ways subjects are implicated in research practices that support hierarchical and patriarchal identity positions. It is through the process of re-conceptualizing the self in scholarly research that research participants can engage agency that is equitable — agency that is not based on identity positions but is realized through the process of exposing the implications of identity positions.


Her/His-tory of Identity


xposing the discursive production of identities is of critical importance when working to integrate queer theory in scholarly research, where queer theory can be used as a radical tool that can create new spaces for equity initiatives amongst research participants.  The history of identity is a foundational concern within the three texts mentioned above  — that is, the HIStory.[10]  The texts interrogate the history of identity as a form of heteronormative patriarchy by exposing how “normal” identities are policed through institutional and systemic practices in order to maintain the sex, gender, and sexuality cohesion. Judith Butler terms this as the “matrix of intelligibility” in her book Gender Trouble (1990) in which she shows how  gendered norms are created through their relationship to incoherent identities — identities that exist outside of the sex, gender, and sexuality cohesion.  Through the process of exposing the discursive productions of research subjects vis-à-vis the politics of queer theory the “matrix of intelligibility”, to use Butler’s concept, can be re/worked.

The evolution of research on homosexuality in the academy and the establishment of ‘gay and lesbian’ studies are explored by William Tierney and Patrick Dilley (1998). The authors track the his/tories of (homo)sexuality, from its perceptions as a deviant sexual category in the nineteenth century to notions of normalcy and assimilation in the twentieth century. As they state: “The 1970s also saw a rise in a second, more intensive and prolonged, burst of research that looked at lesbian and gay people not as deviants, but as ‘normal’ or quasi-normal” (1998, p. 52).  The “burst of research” Tierney and Dilley discuss follows the Stonewall Riots of 1969 and precedes the removal of “homosexuality” as a mental disorder from the American Psychological Association in 1973.  Tierney and Dilley’s analysis lays a foundation for disturbing “identity” practices in scholarly research as they clearly demonstrate the explicit and implicit ways bodies are constructed, restricted, and policed.

The opening chapters of Riki Wilchins’ text entitled Women’s Rights, Gay Rights, and Transgender Rights, provide an historical account of twentieth century equal rights movements (2004). Wilchins’ critique hinges on the contradictions inherent in ‘progressive’ politics of these movements. While progressive political movements stood for inclusiveness, their definition of inclusive was limited. Wilchins attributes the inequities inherent within progressive politics to the hierarchies supported by binary structures of identity created through equal rights movements: man/women, masculine/feminine, heterosexual/homosexual.  She shows how the fear of not fitting into a binary identity category created panic amongst the outsiders (those who are unable and/or unwilling to adopt/purchase normative identities) and further excluded them from the dominant collective groups. As she explains:  “[f]eminism had focused on winning for women the same rights as men in terms of access to opportunity, pay, and so on, but not the right to masculinity itself” (2004, p.7). Wilchins also critiques equal rights movements for further separating the interconnections amongst sex, sexuality, and gender.  According to her, gender is always linked to sex(uality). She refers to this as genderqueerness, where, for example, a gay identity lacks masculine signifiers and a lesbian identity lacks feminine signifiers: “It is now acceptable to be gay, but it’s still not yet okay to be a fag.  You can be a lesbian, but not a dyke” (2004, p. 19).[11] 

As Wilchins’ analysis makes clear, as long as identity politics continues to fight for “equal” rights through inclusive practices, those that do not or cannot assimilate into identity categories will be excluded.  Similarly, research subjects that are unable and/or unwilling to adopt/purchase normative identities are excluded and further subordinated in research that understands their subjects using binary identities. Consequently, subordinate subject positions continue to be excluded from dominant discourses as long as researchers continue to conceptualize their subjects using normative identity signifiers. Therefore, the support of identity categories in research does not create spaces for equity initiatives amongst research participants as the binary categories are upheld by a (false) foundation of inclusiveness in which binary subjects cannot be equal.  In other words, the attempts to create equality using identity categories in research encourages an idealistic impossibility as binary identity positions are unequal since one position is subordinated and the other is privileged.  Agency, particularly for subordinated (minoritized) research participants, is limited as a result of the restrictive identity categories that have been formed and upheld through heteronormative research practices — practices that understand subjects in terms of identities. 

The process of exploring the discursive production of subjects in research coincides with disturbing the political notions of inclusion and exclusion in relation to the formation and cohesion of collective identities. Collective identity categories that support binary ideologies are problematic, for a binary identity must exclude the other in order to include its unifying members.  For example, a researcher may attempt to expose the social injustices related to access issues in postsecondary institutions as it relates to race.  If the researcher uses the same racial identity categories that are socially unequal in the research without exposing how subjects are implicated as racialized subjects, the researcher not only inadvertently supports binary categories but also excludes research subjects that do not and/or can not assimilate into the racial categories that are being researched — the genderqueerness, or perhaps racialqueerness, of subjects is eliminated from research conversations.  Therefore, rather than focusing on how binary identities can achieve equality, it is more important to problematize the exclusiveness of equal rights discourse in its attempts to be inclusive. As Garber explains: “To think in terms of categories is to categorize” (68).  Agency for the minoritized/subordinated subject is at great risk when dominant discourses support binary ideologies since time has shown that “third spaces” tend to be excluded.  For example, researching issues about gay and straight alliance groups in universities does not create a voice for subjects who do not or cannot associate with the categories “gay” and “straight.”  The re/working of binary identities vis-à-vis the radical politics of queer theory that disturb fixed and stable identities can create spaces for all research participants to engage in agency — agency that is no longer reserved for privileged, discursive, normative subjects.

The notion of “identity” as an expression of a fixed and stable self is clearly problematic in equity research as it maintains un/privileged subject positions — positions that are supported by the binary framework of what is characteristically defined as an identity.  Mark Norris Lance and Alessandra Tanesini challenge the permanency of the concept of identity by exploring how “identity ideologies” are embedded in heteronormative discursive language. As they explain: “identities are constituted by the current social-normative significance attributed to identities” (2005, p.177).  In other words, the continuous re/production of social norms creates and maintains stable identities — identities do not create norms. The re/production of certain discourses establishes norms, which are then translated into normative identities.  Thus, for Lance and Tanesini the claiming of an identity involves “endorsing” its behaviours and “defending” its existence. Identities are political endorsements of normative claims.  Therefore, understanding subjects in terms of identity positions in research not only supports identity categories but also reinforces the norms that maintain the circulation of identity positions.  The complex and intersecting norms in society that endorse inequitable, subordinated positions through the valorization of privileged identities are re/produced in scholarly work that researches binary identities.  In order to re/work binary identities that are unequal and are supported by the circulation of norms in society it is critical to decenter the fixed subject in research using queer theory as a radical political lens. The shift from fixed and stable identities to more fluid and mobile selves can be realized using the radical politics of queer[12]:


To be queer in the old usage was first to be excluded from what is ‘proper’,and then to be reviled for it.  To call oneself queer in the new usage is to endorse that exclusion and to turn the evaluation on its head, to embrace difference as a challenge to what is regarded as proper. (Lance & Tanesini, 2005, p.182)


The vision of this paper is to offer a process to trouble identities as fixed, stable, and concrete representations in scholarly work.  This process works to expose the mobility and fluidity of research subjects using queer theory to explore how subjects are implicated in their identities.  It is argued that the use of queer theory as a critical lens in scholarly research can make the shift from structuralist identities to poststructuralist subjectivities.


Normative Binary Identities


he her/his-tory of identity politics explored in the previous section provides a context for understanding the interconnection between the circulation of norms in society and the privileging of binary identity positions.  It has been suggested that the use of binary identities in scholarly work promotes inequitable relations amongst research subjects and as a result prohibits the realization of agency for all research participants.  In addition to recognizing the circulation of norms and identity categories in research practices it is also necessary to discuss how binary, polarized, dichotomous conceptions of identities are upheld in discourses of language, capitalization, and citizenship.  It is through analyzing these social and political processes in research that scholars can expose how the identities of subjects are discursively produced rather than (simply) understanding the subjects in terms of their identities.

Exposing how language supports identity politics through the circulation of norms can be a critical point of disruption within the realm of scholarly research.  The idea that “normal” identities are a consequence of the re/production of social norms through their relations with the exclusive other is a mediation of linguistic politics[13]. Certain words are used to describe certain identities, acts, and desires. The words used to articulate identities are understood by means of their exclusions. Wilchins (2004) uses the example of a chair to explain this concept. As she explains, a chair is a chair because it is not a stool, chaise lounge, or love seat (2004, p. 36).  In other words, x is x because x is not y.  This codependency (i.e., x is dependent on y for its meaning) is problematic for it supports an “us” and “them” relationship — a positioning that always privileges one group over the other.[14] According to Wilchins, “binaries are not just a curious way we have of understanding the world.  They are political.  They are about power.  They create hierarchies — male/female, white/black, colonial/native — that produce winners and losers” (2004, p.41). Understanding research subjects in terms of gender, sexual, and racial identities supports the systemic and institutional practices that uphold binary systems of identity. This is what is considered normative policing. 

Normative policing is alive in the university in its scholarly research since research subjects are, in general, understood in terms of binary identity categories. In this way, (and in other ways as well) academic research contributes to the re/production of hegemonic ideologies.  Conceptualizing subjects in terms of binary identities maintains privileged hierarchies and further supports power differentials that place certain subjects into un/privileged categories.  For example, researching the (possible) associations amongst varsity male sports teams and university hazing rituals on campuses across Canada inadvertently supports systemic and institutional identity norms.  The intersection of circulating hyper(hetero)sexual masculine signifiers of team players with aggressive, abusive, and degrading hazing rituals re/produces immediate connections amongst men, masculinity, and heterosexuality.  Even though the research results may present an inconclusive connection, the “matrix of intelligibility” remains intact through the unchallenged exploration of how masculine signifiers implicate men to support heteronormative discourses; how considering oneself a man is directly linked with one’s ability to use masculine signifiers; how heterosexuality is assumed through the immediate associations amongst men, masculinity, and sports.  Regardless of the research results, the research initiatives promote identities in ways that may not have been originally intended.  Therefore, researching the effects of identity positions — in this example, how sex, gender, and sexuality are related to hazing rituals — further police the norms of identities.   As a result, instead of researching the effects of identity positions, it is radically political to expose how research subjects are implicated in their identities.  The shift to decenter fixed subjects in research creates spaces to interrogate implications instead of effects — a research shift that is critical for the realization of agency amongst research participants where it becomes possible for subjects to engage agency based on the ways they are implicated in identities instead of agency being determined by their identities.[15]

As Suzanna Danuta Walters  explains (1998), hierarchical binary conceptions of identities are a form of policing where the possibility to realize identificatory fluidity and mobility — multiple and intersecting momentary relations amongst subjects with no original or fixed sense of self — is restricted.  According to Walters, “regulation itself is the problem; the creation of norms is the fundamental act of repression” (1998, p.8).  In order to appreciate the subjective differences amongst subjects, binary identities can be disturbed through dismantling the processes that require subjects to buy into normative identities.  Normative policing is explored by Erica Meiners (1998) where she views the body as a site of capitalist production, much like that of the Ford assembly line.  She explains how identities have become commodities through their continuous re/production as desired items to be purchased.  In her critique, Meiners explores the reliance of the capitalized body on the hierarchy of binary identities. Such hierarchies are necessary for these bodies to be marketable and profitable. As she states:


With cars, as for bodies, questions of mobility are directly related to economic and identity privileges: who is permitted to drive, who has access to which forms of transportation, who is moved by choice and who is not, and so on.(1998, p.131)


Consequently, much like the marketing of the Model T Ford, identities must be “available, affordable, and desired by all workers” (1998, p.132). The norms re/produced by individuals, much like the parts assembled by factory worker, create identities - cars - that resemble a desired norm that must be purchased in order to be validated.  Therefore, those who are unable to “purchase” certain identities, as a result of their inability and/or lack of desire to re/produce norms, are considered outsiders and excluded from dominant discourses.  Research participants who do not “fit the norm” are unable to purchase/engage agency as a result of their inability or lack of desire to purchase the commodity.  The concern, however, is not placed on the inability of research participants, but rather, on the institutional and systemic re/productions of the commodities (i.e., identities) that restrict agency.

The ability to “purchase” normative identities that are made desirable through their continuous re/productions is, in a sense, a question of citizenship. Those who are able to “claim” a normative identity are given citizenship and those who do not have the currency to purchase a desired identity are left without a passport.  Society’s need to place individuals into fixed, concrete, and convenient categories supports the desire to maintain a strong cohesion amongst identities — the “matrix of intelligibility.”  In order for research participants to engage in agency that is determined through the self, not by the other, it is critical that researchers re/work how they privilege binary ideologies in their research. It is important for researchers to move away from the notion that their subjects have and share collective identities.  The creation of equitable and democratic spaces — the vision of scholarly work committed to social justice — is possible using queer theory to re/work binary conceptualizations of identity where the “matrix of intelligibility” is disturbed through exposing how research subjects are implicated in the capitalist practices that discursively produce their identities.  One way to realize new identities and new selves is through reconceptualizing research subjects as queer.


Intersecting “Queer” Subjects with Queer Theory


racing and problematizing the her/his-tories and normative ideologies of binary identities challenges the discursive production of fixed subjects in heteronormative spaces.  Queer theory is used in this section to build on the disruptive realizations and practices discussed in the previous sections to create third spaces in scholarly research for appreciating research subjects in terms of identifications that can transgress identity boundaries — spaces that rest outside of binary frameworks where subjects are subjectively and continuously re/worked through mobile and fluid negotiations amongst subjects. 

Queer theory works towards dismantling and decentering all behaviors, assumptions, and practices that are considered “normal.”  According to Morland and Willox, “queer theory politicizes sex, gender and sexuality in a way that severs the notion of identity from any stable reference points” (2005, p.4). In other words, it is very difficult, if not impossible, in binary conceptions of the self to be z if x and y are the norms, where x is dependent on its subordinate other y for its meaning and validation.  Consequently, queer theory disturbs x and y practices in order for third spaces outside of the binary framework to be possible.  It is through the “third space” that all research participants can engage agency as it is a space that works outside binary relations in order to re/work the ways subjects are implicated in normative identity practices.  It is through the research process where queer theory can be used to pay close attention to the politics of (queer) theory and the theory of (queer) politics that third spaces can be created. 

Although the term queer is often considered a noun (embodiment), the queer in queer theory can be seen, if not preferred, as a verb (process). It is therefore a radical political process that has no fixed origin or destination. With this recognition, incorporating queer ideologies in theories and practices of agency encourages mobility and fluidity across the multiple identifications amongst subjects. Agency, therefore, is not an effect of a fixed and stable identity. Agency, in terms of a politically queer process, is not an extension of “identity” but is a radical subjective process embedded in identificatory negotiations that expose how subjects are implicated in normative discourses.  Marla Morris’ notion of “queerness” is particularly important to this process:


My definition of queerness, then, contains three ingredients: (a) Queerness as a subject position digresses from normalized, rigid identities that adhere to the sex = gender paradigm; (b) Queerness as a politic challenges the status quo, does not simply tolerate it, and does not stand for assimilation into the mainstream; (c) Queerness as an aesthetic or sensibility reads and interprets texts (art, music, literature) as potentially politically radical.  (2003, p. 277)


In addition, Tierney and Dilley suggest that queer theory works to “conceptualize new ways of knowing and understanding what it means to be ‘normal’ and/or ‘other’…Queer theory, then, is about questioning what (and why) we know and do not know about things both normal and queer” (1998, p. 60).  Therefore, the queer as queer and the queer in queer are both forms of radical politics that can disturb normative practices to create new spaces for agency that defy definition and certainty.  Queer, as a noun and/or a verb, can be the unstable space outside of binary relations. 

The process of decentering fixed subjects in research by exposing identity implications to realize queer selves in third spaces that exists outside of binary frameworks begins with the disruption of the “matrix of intelligibility.”  Butler’s (1990) notion of performativity is particularly useful in exposing how gender norms are re/produced: gender identifications are made up of historicized discourses that re/produced and re/negotiated through the circulation of norms amongst subjects without an original, unique, or individually owned identification.[16]  Butler’s notion of performativity supports the need to move away from identities — fixed and stable collectivities — and work towards exploring the self through identifications — multiple and ongoing associations with no definitive memberships. Butler’s notion of performativity is useful in queering the research subjects in the example of the varsity male sports teams and university hazing rituals.  The theory of performativity exemplifies the circulation of norms in relation to hegemonic discourse. Performativity explains how circulating “identity” norms are a part of a larger social project that works to maintain dominant, heteronormative, hierarchical, and patriarchal binary relations. Rather than describing the identity positions of the subjects (i.e., recognizing that the players are, for example, male, heterosexual, and masculine) to explore the relationship between varsity male sports teams and university hazing rituals, researchers can decenter fixed subjects (i.e., troubling the “identities” of players) by exposing how the players are implicated in identity practices using performativity to explore the identificatory negotiations[17] that maintain normative behaviors. The recognition that there are no essential, original, or unique selves that individually embody identity positions creates the opportunity to realize and explore how research subjects negotiate their identities through the performative leading to the re/production of those identities.  For example, the hyper(hetero)sexual masculine male player becomes a highly complex subject that cannot be discussed as (simply) a male who is masculine and heterosexual.  The research of the hyper(hetero)sexual masculine male using performativity re/works the coherent associations amongst the identity positions by exposing how  research subjects are implicated within and thereby reinforce particular identity positions and how research subjects re/produce identity norms through the identificatory negotiations amongst other team members. The hyper(hetero)sexual masculine male is no longer able to be masculine without reproducing the “norms” of heterosexuality that are tightly linked with the identity position of a man. These positions require “him” to re/produce these norms and negotiate “his” self through “his” interactions with others.[18]  Consequently, research subjects become queer subjects that are continuously troubled and re/worked as mobile and fluid subjects negotiating their “identities” through identificatory practices — the theory of performativity — that intersect with other identifications that have no fixed or stable entity or origin.  As such, the “identities” of research subjects become a critical and integral part of the research process, over-looked starting points, wherein “identity” positions no longer describe research subjects but are complex articulations that can be used vis-à-vis performativity to expose how subjects are implicated in the re/production of heteronormative, patriarchal, and hierarchical norms that maintain inequitable binary positions.

Identity politics can be queered in scholarly research by queering the politics of identity — a process that can decenter fixed subjects using the radical politics of queer theory to expose identity implications through performativity (as an example). In Queer Theory in Education, Dennis Carlson (1998) emphasizes the need to recognize the “self” as a form of politics and queers the question “Who am I?” by troubling the direct relationship between the “I” and the community (i.e., an identity group). The “I” is (only) understood in relation to others; thus, there is (really) no I in “I” — only an “I” that is made up of multiple, agreeing “Is.”  As a result, Carlson suggests that “identity politics needs to be infused with a politics of the self that disrupts the underlying binary logic that governs identity formation in contemporary culture” (1998, p.108).  He advocates for a disruption of identity formation through binary logic by “reveal[ing] the power relations that lie behind them and the ‘truth games’ they organize and are organized by” (p. 113).  As Carlson suggests, the process of re/working fixed subjects in scholarly research requires particular attention to the circulation of power amongst subjects. 

Expressing how research subjects are implicated in the re/production of norms that subordinate minoritized others can also be discussed using an analysis of power amongst the circulation of identificatory negotiations.  Roxana Ng makes a clear distinction between power and authority that is necessary to this process. As she explains: “Power is an individual property that is subjected to negotiation interactionally.  Authority, on the other hand, is formal power granted to individuals through institutional structures and relations” (2003, p. 208).  Linda Briskin also offers a unique approach to addressing power in relation to subjectivity. She states that “power is a dynamic relationship; it is conditional, not absolute; it is situational, negotiated continually in interactional and local settings” (2001, p.30). The exploration of the circulation of power in scholarly research as it relates to the radical queer process of decentering fixed subjects requires both Ng and Briskin’s analysis of power and authority. At the same time, the integration of a Foucauldian approach to power which views power as productive, relational, and complex is part of the process of queering. As Foucault himself states: “what defines a relationship of power is that it is a mode of action which does not act directly and immediately on others.  Instead it acts upon their actions: an action upon an action”  (1994, p.340).  The relational negotiations of power as mediated through actions coincides with the circulation of identifications amongst subjects as both processes re/produce and re/work existing relational negotiations that can never be traced to a specific origin.  The complex workings of power, subjectivity, “identity” implications, and identificatory negotiations can be explored through their intersections to create spaces to reconceptualize research subjects as mobile and fluid — subjects that are implicated in identity positions that attempt to maintain the illusion of fixed and stable identities through the circulation of norms in society.

The process of destabilizing identity binaries and decentering norms is the vision of queer projects and can be a critical component of equity initiatives in higher educational research.  Exposing research subjects outside of dominant, privileged, heteronormative discourses — third spaces outside of binary ideologies — is a queer ambition.  Queerness in scholarly research is a continuous process that re/works itself outside of dominant ideologies that support hierarchical and patriarchal categorizations — a process committed to re-conceptualizing the way research subjects are explored in scholarly work.


Revisioning the (Queer) Future of Research


his paper intersects queer ideologies with queer subjectivities to explore a process that can move away from identity politics in order to expose the politics of identity in scholarly research. Queer theory can be used as a critical lens in research to create opportunities amongst research participants to appreciate the third spaces outside of binary identity positions that can explore the self through multiple and ongoing identificatory negotiations.  It is critical for researchers to recognize that conceptualizing subjects in terms of “identity” politics is inequitable as it inadvertently upholds heteronormative, patriarchal, and hierarchical positions that privilege some and subordinate others.  An equitable approach to scholarly research explores identifications, not identities; subjective discourses, not constructivist/essentialist; her-stories, not (just) histories; fluidity, not stability; hetero-normativity, not homophobia; dis/embodiment, not assimilation; equity, not equality. 

The intersections of queer theory and subjectivity can create spaces to work towards equitable differences and social justice inside and outside the ivory tower.  A place for queer theory in scholarly research is critical for envisioning equitable spaces that are committed to disrupting identity categories that exclude in their attempts to include.  Queer theory and queerness are constantly in motion — a continuous process that disrupts normative claims. Reconceptualizing research subjects using an equity framework suggests a re-visioning of fixed identity positions in order to realize how subjects are re/negotiated as mobile and fluid selves implicated in social discourses.  The agency of research participants stems from the process of re/working research initiatives to reflect queer ideologies that decenter the stability of research subjects.  An equitable future that embodies social justice and democratic initiatives can be envisioned through the process of decentering fixed subjects in scholarly research.



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[1] For example, the privileged position of a researcher associated with a highly respected research university can intersect with a subordinated and arguably unprivileged position of a research subject to create a unique relationship where it is perceived that the researcher has the authority to collect, analyze, and interpret research data.  However, it is possible to rework this relationship where the researcher and research subject can be seen in the opposite roles: the researcher is the unprivileged position and the research subject is privileged.  This reworking suggests that researchers can only collect, analyze, and interpret the data that research subjects provide.  Consequently, this paper explores and exposes the subjective relationships amongst researchers and research subjects that are complex and continuously renegotiated — relationships that are undeterminable.


[2] The notion of identity will be troubled and reworked throughout this paper.  It is the vision of this paper to reconceptualize the self in scholarly work outside of identity positions (sex, gender, sexuality, race, dis/ability, etc.) in order to appreciate a mobile and fluid self that is continuously renegotiated and reworked with no fixed “identity.”


[3] The notion of heteronormativity suggests that the values, practices, ideologies, assumptions (etc.) of heterosexuality circulate as dominant norms in discourse.  See (Warner, 1993).


[4] The incorporation of the slash (/) in words throughout this paper (i.e., re/worked; re/produced; re/negotiated; re/action) is strategically used to emphasize the productive meaning of the word.  For example, suggesting that “subjects are re/worked as bodies implicated in heteronormative discourses” implies that subjects can not only rework existing heteronormative discourses but that they can also work to create and maintain new heteronormative discourses through their reworking.


[5] My use of the phrase “research participants” refers those involved in the process of scholarly research: researchers; research subjects; discussants, etc. 


[6] The notion that agency can be discursively negotiated through the self and not determined by the re/actions of others is envisioned throughout this paper.  The understanding that research subjects have “identities” coincides with the statement that agency is determined by the re/actions of others where, similar to identities, the ability for a subject to engage agency is dependent on the direct relationship with the binary other.  Consequently, this paper argues that agency through the self — agency that is discursively negotiated through the multiple and continuously changing interactions with various subjects instead of being determined by an identity — can be realized through exploring the process of subject formation in scholarly research.  This paper, then, works towards exposing agency that is discursively negotiated through the process of scholarly research — a process that is committed to researching the politics of identity.


[7] Further readings that inform queer theory: (Britzman, 1995, 1998; Bryson & de Castell, 1997; Butler, 1990, 1993, 2004; Fausto-Sterling, 2000; Foucault, 1978; Fuss, 1991; Garber, 1991; Halperin, 1995; Honeychurch, 1996, 1998; Jagose, 1996; Kirsch, 2000; Kumashiro, 2001; Morland & Willox, 2005; Munoz, 1999; Namaste, 2000; Pinar, 1998; Sedgwick, 1990; Seidman, 2004; Sullivan, 2003; Talburt, 2000; Tierney & Dilley, 1998; Turner, 2000; Walcott, 1998; Warner, 1993; Wilchins, 2004).


[8] In this paper, I am not suggesting that these texts are foundations of queer theory.  Rather, I have selected these specific texts to articulate the academic breadth that queer theory can offer to higher education equity initiatives. 


[9] Identification differentiates itself from identity: whereas identities are fixed, stable, and shared collective categories that subjects assimilate into, identifications are momentary articulations that are continuously re/negotiated and reconstituted through the ongoing interactions of subjects.  For further readings that inform the notion of identification, see: (Butler, 1990; Fuss, 1995).  


[10] The notion of history suggests that what is commonly considered a “history” is an articulation and representation of patriarchy and hierarchy. 


[11] Wilchins’ statement that troubles the socially acceptable signifiers of gay/fag and lesbian/dyke echoes the disruptive politics of this paper: understanding research subjects in terms of identities— positions that maintain fixed and stable signifiers that are socially policed— prohibits the possibility of exploring the genderqueerness of subjects that do not and possibly can not fit the prescriptions and norms of collective identity categories.


[12] The radical politics of queer are specifically discussed in the latter part of the paper.


[13] The phrase linguistic politics refers to the ways in which language is used to maintain and circulate norms in society.  For example, using the word “feminine” to describe someone has a particular politics associated with signifiers that support what it means to be “feminine.” 


[14] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick provides an excellent description and exploration of this concept in her introduction to Epistemology of the Closet (1990).


[15] For example, rather than minoritized subjects — the subordinated positions in binary identity categories — attempting to engage agency that works towards achieving equal rights, minoritized subjects can engage agency that exposes how they are implicated in their identities: on a social scale, rather than fighting for same-sex marriage, it is more radical to disrupt the institution of marriage.


[16] Although in Gender Trouble Butler uses performativity to expose the performative nature of gender, this is not to say that performativity is restricted to troubling gender.  On the contrary, this paper is suggesting that the theory of performativity can be useful in numerous processes that work towards decentering fixed subjects.  For example, this paper is suggesting that performativity can be used to reconceptualize fixed subjects in scholarly research through exposing the implications of intersecting identities.


[17] Identificatory negotiations describe the multiple and intersecting identifications — fluid, mobile, and momentary articulations of the self — that circulate in and through subjects in order to maintain and re/produce “identity” norms.


[18] The quotation marks surrounding him and his reflect the complex workings of signifiers, linguistic politics, and identity norms: there is no essential or fixed “I” considering the multiple intersections of identifications that are continuously re/negotiated.



Higher Education Perspectives. ISSN: 1710-1530