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Dismantling dominant narratives of polyamory: A portrait of social science research as an undergrad at the UW

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Social science

Cordelia Ilton, an undergraduate student in the sociology honors program, is currently researching polyamory. In an exploratory study, she asks people who identify as polyamorous questions about how jealousy and need fulfillment play a role in their relationships.

Some of these questions include whether and how polyamorous people discuss relationship expectations with their partners, as well as what obstacles people encounter when communicating with their partners.

Additionally, Ilton hopes to fill existing research gaps and disrupt some dominant narratives surrounding polyamory.

“A lot of the research done on polyamory thus far has been very white dominated,” Ilton said. “So I’m trying to also disrupt that image, saying [polyamory] is very diverse and we need to hear other voices.”

In her research, Ilton loosely defines polyamory as people questioning the ability to love more than one person at the same time and actively seeking out multiple people to date, though she says that her main focus is not to define polyamory. Rather, she wants to add to the diversity of people represented in research on polyamory and look for overarching themes among their varied experiences.

To do this, she is conducting interviews with people who identify as polyamorous and asking them questions about their experiences, especially surrounding jealousy and need fulfillment.

“This is something that I wanted to learn more about, and from other people who are experts,” Ilton said. “Everyone is an expert in whoever they are, so I wanted to talk to people who are experts in who they are [as polyamorous people].”

One aspect which differentiates social science research from research in the natural sciences is that social science research can be more flexible and exploratory, like Ilton’s study. Ilton noted that when performing strict empirical research, sometimes it seems that social scientists are trying to legitimize themselves in the face of the more concrete “hard sciences.” However, Ilton argues this can lead to problems in social science fields because it is difficult to generalize the behavior of humans.

“By doing that, we’re falling into the same problems of STEM, where you’re making a generalization,” Ilton said. “And with humans, you can’t.”

The subject matter of social sciences, usually people and societies, often makes research procedures less clear-cut and predictable. For one, when your object of study is humans, it is much more difficult to find subjects who will consent to being studied. This problem doesn’t always exist when researching natural phenomena.

“My goal is 15 interviews, [but] people keep saying 10 is fine for an undergraduate paper,” Ilton said. “And now my second mentor says if I can just get five or six that’s fine. ‘Cause it’s hard!”

Additionally, observations and results of research may be interpreted in different ways according to different social scientific theories and assumptions. This can lead to a lack of clear answers to questions being studied.

However, Ilton says that the social sciences do not always need to have concrete, generalizable answers.

“Generalizability shouldn’t be what makes your research valid,” Ilton said.

Instead, social science research should be done in the pursuit of knowledge and learning more about the social conditions in which we live. The goal of Ilton’s research is to learn more about the polyamorous community from a diverse set of perspectives and give a platform to people of the polyamorous community to share their stories.

Reach reporter Emily Young at Twitter: @emilymyoung7

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