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A pragmatic definition and measure of sexual orientation for social science research

John H. Bickford, University of Massachusetts Amherst


As researchers in the social sciences increasingly become interested in gay and lesbian issues and investigate questions pertaining to sexual orientation and nonheterosexual populations, methodological and sociopolitical problems with the conceptualization and measurement of sexual orientation must be addressed. Historical problems with this construct include compelling arguments that an essentialist, categorical conceptualization of sexual orientation is a sociopolitical artifact; that unidimensional and single-domain models are insufficient to capture the complete range of possible sexual expressions; and that the category of bisexuality is often neglected. Current measures of sexual orientation confound sexual orientation with sexual identity or they are impractical to use and difficult to interpret. This dissertation reviews how sexual orientation has been defined as a construct and measured for the purpose of psychological research, while discussing the theoretical and methodological problems that have emerged and proffering solutions to these problems. It proposes a conceptual and operational definition of sexual orientation that incorporates these solutions to past problems, providing a more theoretically sound and methodologically pragmatic approach to the study of sexual orientation issues. The Sexual Orientation Scale, a multidimensional self-report measure of sexual orientation that follows directly from the proposed model for defining that construct, is presented along with data establishing its reliability and validity and recommendations for its future use. The Sexual Orientation Scale comprises separate subscales for thoughts, feelings, and behaviors within sexual and romantic domains. Each subscale comprises two independent dimensions: androphilia (orientation to men) and gynophilia (orientation to women). Subscales may be analyzed separately or combined into grosser measures. The measure was designed to be temporally located in the present and to tap objective frequencies of actual thoughts, feelings, and behaviors; it therefore assesses actual sexual orientation independently of idealized sexual orientation or sexual identity.

Subject Area

Personality|Social psychology

Recommended Citation

Bickford, John H., "A pragmatic definition and measure of sexual orientation for social science research" (2003). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3110468.