Approximately at mid-century, two seminal works appeared that defined the most influential approaches to the interactions that simultaneously create individuals and societies. These two works were by writers fully aware of each other. One was Erik Erikson’s Childhood and Society (1950); the other was David Riesman’s amazingly prescient work The Lonely Crowd (1969). Childhood and Society, while mindful of the precarious nature of the culture – personality relationship, like much of the modernist tradition, was assertively ahistorical, focusing upon what were seen as the timeless requirements of the individual. It served as one of the most influential statements within the behavioral sciences and psychotherapeutic communities. The latter, while sharing to an extraordinary degree a common tradition, outlined a dialectic that sought to chart the reciprocal transformations of individual personality and the institutionalized practices of social life. The cumulative experiences of the past several decades, decades that have borne witness to dramatic changes along many of the most crucial dimensions of social and personal life, necessarily have returned our attention to the broad historical perspective. As a result, there is increased recognition that humanity can no longer be comfortably viewed as a species that merely experiences history, but must itself be viewed as the continuing and changing product of history (Castoriades 1987).

Where Erikson, among others, pointed to the continuities in the shaping of human behavior, to what can be viewed as the sources of its inevitable “over­determination”, Riesman clearly sensitized us to its “under-determined” qualities, allowing us to view both social orders and individuals as part of a permanent revolution. This latter point, which I shall emphasize, is of critical significance for consideration of gender and sexuality, two aspects of the human experience that more than others have been shrouded in illusions of biophysical species constancy. All but the most committed of social constructionists tend to display a reluctance to diminish the significance of the apparent universality of these two categories, their manifest relevance in all social orders, or their seeming rootedness in the constant (or slowly changing) nature of the body. It becomes increasingly important, perhaps for this very reason, to assert boldly the contextually specific nature of the behaviors we associate with these concepts. Many of the uses of gender and sexuality, observable within the context of the rapidly changing present, may in fact be different than any that humanity has previously known.

As a result, we must risk interpretations that are keyed to specific contextual implications without attempting to make such interpretations congruent with overarching generalizations abstracted from cross-cultural or transhistorical comparisons. Such comparative efforts are important, but their importance may rest as much in recognition of the similarities of differences as in recognition of the implicit differences of similarities. While this approach may be seen as encouraging an excessively reckless and uninformed relativism, the dangers of this are limited, at least for the moment, by the heavy, if not burdensome, weight of more traditional conceptions of social science scholarship.