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Steven Epstein

Professor, John C. Shaffer Professor in the Humanities

  • (847) 491-5536
  • 1808 Chicago Avenue, Room 206
  • Office Hours: By appointment; email

Area(s) of Interest

Science, Knowledge, and Technology; Health and Biomedicine; Sexualities; Social Movements; Theory; Culture; Inequalities

Relevant Links

Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities

Science in Human Culture Program

Sexualities Project at Northwestern (SPAN)

Gender & Sexuality Studies Program

Cells 2 Society (C2S) 
The Center on Social Disparities and Health

Institute for Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Wellbeing


Ph.D (Sociology), University of California, Berkeley (1993). Professor Epstein is a faculty member at the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities; a faculty affiliate of the Science in Human Culture Program and of the interdisciplinary graduate cluster in Science Studies; a faculty affiliate in the Gender & Sexuality Studies program; a faculty associate in Cells to Society (C2S): The Center on Social Disparities and Health at the Institute for Policy Research, and a faculty affiliate at the Institute for Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Wellbeing. He is also a co-founder of the Sexualities Project at Northwestern (SPAN). Before joining the Northwestern faculty in 2009, Epstein spent the preceding 15 years on the faculty at the University of California, San Diego. He is a recipient of the John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, residency fellowships at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford and at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and a total of eight book prizes. His work has been funded by the National Science Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Professor Epstein studies the “politics of knowledge”—more specifically, the contested production of expert and especially biomedical knowledge, with an emphasis on the interplay of social movements, experts, and health institutions, and with a focus on the politics of sexuality, gender, and race. He is especially known for two books: Inclusion: The Politics of Difference in Medical Research (Chicago, 2007), which received multiple awards, including the American Sociological Association’s Distinguished Book Award; and Impure Science: AIDS, Activism, and the Politics of Knowledge (California, 1996), which also received multiple awards, including the C. Wright Mills Prize. He also co-edited Three Shots at Prevention: The HPV Vaccine and the Politics of Medicine’s Simple Solutions (Johns Hopkins, 2010), and he coauthored Learning by Heart: AIDS and Schoolchildren in America’s Communities (Rutgers, 1989). Epstein has published in such journals as Social Studies of Science, Body & Society, Sociological Forum, Social Science & Medicine, Theory and Society, and Sexualities.

Epstein’s newest book, The Quest for Sexual Health: How an Elusive Ideal Has Transformed Science, Politics, and Everyday Life, will be published by the University of Chicago Press in February of 2022. The book investigates the diverse initiatives that pursue sexual health—an evocative yet elusive goal. At least since the 1970s, health professionals, researchers, governments, advocacy groups, foundations, commercial interests, and many individuals increasingly have embraced the quest for sexual health, and this aspiration has served as an engine of productivity. Behind this banner, a wide array of programs have been launched, investigations undertaken, and commodities sold. From sexually transmitted infections to sexual dysfunction to sexual harassment to reproductive health to sexual rights to the market in sexual wellness products, sexual health now signals urgent concerns and substantial investments. It has fueled varied attempts to solve social problems, propelled an array of projects to improve medical care and expand knowledge, and encouraged individuals to “self-optimize” and governments to undertake campaigns of social improvement. Meanwhile, it has become a political battleground where the stakes are competing visions of the future. The Quest for Sexual Health analyzes the rise, proliferation, uptake, and sprawling consequences of sexual health activities. Conjoining “sexual” with “health” changes both terms: it alters how we conceive of sexuality but also transforms what it means to be healthy, prompting new expectations of what medicine can provide. The book provides critical tools to assess a range of potential consequences of the investment in sexual health and to consider how those consequences vary across groups and identities. By exploring debates about the defining of normality, the roles of experts of different sorts, and the relative emphases placed on risk and pleasure when considering sexual matters, it seeks to identify pathways that promote pleasure, equality, and social justice.

Epstein currently serves on the editorial boards of a number of journals, including Social Studies of Science and Science, Technology, & Human Values. He is a past chair of the Science, Knowledge, and Technology Section of the American Sociological Association. At Northwestern, he and Prof. Héctor Carrillo co-founded the Sexualities Project at Northwestern (SPAN), an initiative that promotes interdisciplinary research and education on sexuality and health in social context. SPAN funds faculty and graduate student research, holds a postdoctoral fellowship competition, and organizes workshops and reading groups, among other activities.

Courses Taught

Sociology Courses:

SOCIOL/HUM 220: Health, Biomedicine, Culture, and Society Syllabus

SOCIOL 376 / HUM 370 / GNDR_ST 332: Race/Gender/Sex & Science: Making Identities and Differences Syllabus

SOCIOL 476: Topics: Sociology of Health, Illness, and Biomedicine Syllabus

SOCIOL 476: The Politics of Knowledge: A Sociological Introduction to Science and Technology Studies Syllabus


THREE SHOTS AT PREVENTION: The HPV Vaccine and the Politics of Medicine's Simple Solutions
Johns Hopkins Press, 2010

INCLUSION: The Politics of Difference in Medical Research
University of Chicago Press, 2007

IMPURE SCIENCE: AIDS, Activism, and the Politics of Knowledge
University of California Press, 1996

LEARNING by HEART: AIDS and Schoolchildren in America’s Communities
Rutgers University Press, 1989


“Cultivated Co-production: Sexual Health, Human Rights, and the Revision of the ICD”
Social Studies of Science, 2021

Covid-19 and the Politics of Knowledge,” ASA Footnotes Special Issue on Sociologists and Sociology During Covid-19,” May-June 2020

The Proliferation of Sexual Health: Diverse Social Problems and the Legitimation of Sexuality (with Laura Mamo)
Social Science & Medicine, 2017.

Mirroring and Mattering: Science, Politics, and the New Feminist Materialism
Los Angeles Review of Books, 2016

The Politics of Health Mobilization in the United States: The Promise and Pitfalls of "Disease Constituencies"
Social Science & Medicine, 2016.

"For Men Arousal Is Orientation": Bodily Truthing, Technosexual Scripts, and the Materialization of Sexualities through the Phallometric Test (with Tom Waidzunas)
Social Studies of Science, 2015

Immigrant Sexual Citizenship: Intersectional Templates among Mexican Gay Immigrants to the United States (with Héctor Carrillo)
Citizenship Studies, 2014

The Pharmaceuticalization of Sexual Risk: Vaccine Development and the New Politics of Cancer Prevention (with Laura Mamo)
Social Science and Medicine, 2013

*Photo by Tony Rinaldo

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