Research

Sweet, Paige. 2019. “The Sociology of Gaslighting.” American Sociological Review 84(5): 851-875. 

Abstract: Gaslighting—a type of psychological abuse aimed at making victims seem or feel “crazy,” creating a “surreal” interpersonal environment—has captured public attention. Despite the popularity of the term, sociologists have ignored gaslighting, leaving it to be theorized by psychologists. However, this article argues that gaslighting is primarily a sociological rather than a psychological phenomenon. Gaslighting should be understood as rooted in social inequalities, including gender, and executed in power-laden intimate relationships. The theory developed here argues that gaslighting is consequential when perpetrators mobilize gender-based stereotypes and structural and institutional inequalities against victims to manipulate their realities. Using domestic violence as a strategic case study to identify the mechanisms via which gaslighting operates, I reveal how abusers mobilize gendered stereotypes; structural vulnerabilities related to race, nationality, and sexuality; and institutional inequalities against victims to erode their realities. These tactics are gendered in that they rely on the association of femininity with irrationality. Gaslighting offers an opportunity for sociologists to theorize under-recognized, gendered forms of power and their mobilization in interpersonal relationships.

Sweet, Paige. 2019. “The Paradox of Legibility: Domestic Violence and Institutional Survivorhood.” Social Problems 66(3): 411-427.

Abstract: Existing literature has demonstrated that victims of domestic violence and rape undergo processes of discipline when they interact with legal structures, transforming themselves into “worthy victims.” Intervening in this literature, I show how the medicalization of institutions surrounding domestic violence creates conditions under which women must prove their survivorhood, performing psychological recovery to achieve institutional legibility. Legal and therapeutic institutions create a matrix of demands on women’s lives, shaping their practices of survival and performances of self. Through interviews with domestic violence survivors, I show that women engage three strategies of transformation to make themselves credible survivors: (1) extracting domestic violence from their life stories; (2) explaining abuse through “self-esteem;” (3) performing survivorhood through “respectable” motherhood and sexuality. Through these processes, women craft a domestic violence narrative and an institutional performance of survivorhood, both of which allow them to navigate institutional pressures. These therapeutic narratives and performances, however, also rewrite the structural elements of violence into (feminized) accounts of psychological failure and overcoming. Thus, women navigate a paradox when they become survivors: they must tell stories of psychological recovery, even as those stories obfuscate the very infrastructure of violence. It is this disjuncture between individualized narratives of harm and the structural work of survival that I examine in this work. I develop the concept of the “paradox of legibility” to generalize this disjuncture, and to highlight women’s labor of making themselves credible amidst structural and institutional constraints.

Sweet, Paige. 2018. “The Feminist Question in Realism.” Sociological Theory 36(3) 221-243. *2017 American Sociological Association Shils-Coleman Memorial Award for Best Student Paper in the Theory Section

Abstract: Feminist standpoint theory and critical realism both offer resources to sociologists interested in making arguments that account for causal complexity and epistemic distortion. However, the impasse between these paradigms limits their utility. In this paper, I argue that critical realism has much to gain from a confrontation with feminist theory. Feminist theory’s emphasis on boundary-crossing epistemologies and gendered bodies can help critical realism complicate its notion of the bifurcation between epistemology and ontology. But taking feminist theory seriously also involves careful attention to the risks of epistemic violence, to questions about credible witnesses. I argue that both paradigms will be improved by better theorization of: 1) ideology as part of social ontology; 2) interactions between the context of knowledge production and social ontology. Attending to what is missing, distorted, or occluded between the knower, knowledge, and object of knowledge can provide resources for theorizing social ontology.

Sweet, Paige and Claire Decoteau. 2018. “Contesting Normal: The DSM-5 and Psychiatric Subjectivation.” BioSocieties 13(1): 103-122.

Abstract: In this paper, we analyze the debates surrounding the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5), psychiatry’s manual of mental disorders. One critical component of the recent DSM-5 debates focuses on how expanding definitions of illness reconfigure the underlying category of ‘normality.’ The literature on biomedicalization and neoliberalism suggests that we have moved past the discrete categories of abnormal/normal into an era in which we all must strive for scales of normality, only achievable via scientific optimization – a shift from normalization to normation. However, the DSM-5 debates suggest that this argument may be too totalizing. Many commentators on the DSM-5 revisions pine for an idealized era when the normal and abnormal were ontologically differentiated in dichotomous terms. We show how this desire to salvage normality from the ambiguity of the norm and the expansion of psychiatry’s domain over human conduct constitutes a critique of the neoliberalization of mental health and the biomedicalization of everyday life, which nonetheless essentializes ‘human nature.’ We excavate these figurations of the normal to highlight the ways in which psychiatry both relies upon and troubles the binary between normal and abnormality, and between optimization and essentialization.

Underman, Kelly, Paige Sweet, and Claire Decoteau. 2017. “Custodial Citizenship in the Omnibus Autism Proceedings.” Sociological Forum 32(3): 544-565. 

Abstract: In contemporary processes of citizenship, parents and other caregivers often must make claims to the state on behalf of children with disabilities. In this article, we draw from data on the Omnibus Autism Proceedings (OAP), which were a series of hearings in 2007 and 2008 in which parents of children with autism attempted to receive compensation from a federal program for vaccine injury. During these hearings, parents and their attorneys obfuscated the children’s subjectivity and instead showcased the children’s physical suffering in order to claim that their children had suffered a legitimate injury from vaccines that warranted compensation. We develop the concept of custodial citizenship to account for the process by which a legible rightsbearing subject appropriates the bodily suffering of the injured party in order to gain citizenship rights on behalf of that individual. In doing so, we trace the slippages of harm that occur in the lived experience of disability among family members and caregivers, in contrast to the individualizing rights-granting framework of the court system.

Decoteau, Claire and Paige Sweet. 2016. “Psychiatry’s Little Other: DSM-5 and Debates over Psychiatric Science.” Social Theory & Health 14(4): 414-435. 

Abstract: In 2013, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) broke rank with the American Psychiatric Association (APA) over the release of DSM-5, psychiatry’s ‘bible’ of mental disorders. Announcing that it would use its own biological categorization system in place of DSM-5, NIMH ignited a debate about the nature of psychiatric epistemology. We analyze these DSM-5 debates as a critical moment in psychiatry’s history of epistemological ‘revolutions.’ Psychiatric pioneers, throughout the field’s history, have presumed that biological dysfunction anchored mental disorders, and yet locating biological cause has proved elusive. Each time its failure to secure biological cause is unveiled, psychiatric experts reinvent the field in the image of greater scienticity. Using psychoanalytic theory, we argue that biology operates as Lacan’s objet petit a. The field of psychiatry is propelled forward by a mismatch between its imaginary identification as an objective science and its fragmented actuality as a symbolic system. Despite their attempts to repress the field’s fragmentation, leaders in psychiatry continuously bump into their failure to elucidate the biological foundation of mental disorders, compelling them to reiterate psychiatry’s fantasy identifications, now through imagery of the ‘mysterious’ brain.

Sweet, Paige. 2015. “Chronic Victims, Risky Women: Domestic Violence and the Medicalization of Abuse.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 41(1): 81-105. *2017 American Sociological Association Sex & Gender Distinguished Article Award

Abstract: Critical literature on the anti-violence movement has largely overlooked the role of biomedical institutions in de-politicizing domestic violence  advocacy. Additionally, studies of medicalization have largely failed to attend to domestic violence screening and diagnosis as key technologies through which gendered biomedical surveillance has expanded. Based on interviews with domestic violence medical advocates and healthcare providers, I show how domestic violence is being transformed into a “chronic” disease category, thereby reconfiguring the historical relationship between feminist-based advocacy and medical expertise. What follows is a scientized and de-gendered transformation of causal explanations for domestic violence: rather than patriarchy, advocates now explain domestic violence using the language of “risk.” I argue that haunting this construction of women as “high-risk” for abuse is a reconstituted gender essentialism that casts women victims as passive recipients of their partners’ abusive actions and marks them as responsible for their victimization. 

Sweet, Paige. 2014. “‘Every Bone of My Body:’ Domestic Violence and the Diagnostic Body.” Social Science & Medicine 122: 42-52. *2014 American Sociological Association Body & Embodiment Graduate Student Paper Prize

Abstract: Diagnostic categories for domestic violence have shifted over time, transforming from a disorder of psychological passivity and acute injury into a chronic and somatically invasive condition. This paper links these changing diagnoses to constructions of the abused body and to victim-blaming narratives. Based on an analysis of medical journal articles, this research identifies two logics that undergird domestic violence diagnoses, the body, and victim-blaming: 1) the logic of injury (1970se1980s); and 2) the logic of health (late 1980sepresent). The logic of injury is associated with overt victim-blaming, a temporally bounded and injured body, and psychological passivity. Once the feminist anti-violence movement gained mainstream credibility, however, the logic of injury fell out of favor as an explanation for domestic violence. What surfaced next was the logic of health, which is associated with chronic diagnoses and what the author calls a temporally extended body. The temporally extended body is flexible and layered, linking up past, present, and future states of disordered embodiment. The author suggests that, rather than ushering in hope and possibility via the logic of health's somatic flexibility, this abused body creates spaces into which new forms of blame and self-responsibility can take shape.