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Steven Epstein

Professor, John C. Shaffer Professor in the Humanities - On Leave (2020-21 Academic Year)

  • (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.

In his current primary research project, Epstein is studying the emergence and proliferation of the modern concept of “sexual health,” with the goal of understanding the contexts in which the recent emphasis on sexual health has arisen, the consequences of attempts to lay claim to it, and its implications for what we imagine sexuality to be. This work brings together his interests in knowledge formation, health politics, sexual subjectivity, and the genealogy and standardization of concepts.

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


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

Thinking Sex Ethnographically
Commentary for special issue marking the 25th anniversary of Gayle Rubin’s essay “Thinking Sex.”
GLQ, 2011

A World of Standards but not a Standard World: Toward a Sociology of Standards and Standardization
(with Stefan Timmermans), Annual Review of Sociology, 2010

Culture and Science/Technology: Rethinking Knowledge, Power, Materiality,
and Nature
Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 2008


*Photo by Tony Rinaldo

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