Eli Alston-Stepnitz

Eli Alston Portrait

Position Title
PhD Candidate

SS&H 290


  • Ph.D. University of California - Davis, Sociology (expected 2023)
  • M.A. University of California - Davis, Sociology (2017)
  • B.A. San Francisco State University, Sociology (2012)


I am a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology with a Designated Emphasis in Feminist Theory and Research. I am a qualitative researcher with expertise in sex & gender, science & technology, and law & policy. Expectedly, I came to grad school very passionate about research on sex & gender, and I still am (see my dissertation abstract below). Unexpectedly, I found myself working on issues related to climate change mitigation within two prominent research institutes on campus-- the Energy & Efficiency Institute (EEI) and the Institute for Transportation Studies (ITS). Working within and across these subfields, I have become particularly interested in knowledge production, and as such, my research focuses on expertise, claims making, and bureaucracy. My research asks questions such as who get to make claims? Who get to be experts? Who get to make decisions? How do different claims get linked? My work pays close attention to the specific contexts in which knowledge is produced (e.g., law, science, popular culture), and enacted (e.g., government, courts, health care, schools) and the associated impacts on historically underrepresented groups.

Dissertation: "On the Basis of Sex: The Legal Construction of Sex (1964- 2020)"

Over the last 50 years, debates over the meaning of sex, what constitutes sex-discrimination and who deserves protection have been primary foci of anti-discrimination law, and yet the meaning of “sex” remains stubbornly unsettled. In previous work analyzing sex-discrimination cases between 1973 and 2006, I demonstrate how the legal definition of sex evolved from anatomy-only concepts to definitions that also consider behavior and identity. My findings reveal a paradox: ever-broader interpretations of sex should expand protections for all groups and individuals, but in practice the category “sex,” even when broadly defined, remains ambiguous and unevenly applied. Building on this work, my dissertation expands on my analysis of the evolution of sex as a category and inquire, also, into how the logic and structure of the American juridical field--including, in particular, a hard distinction between sex and gender-- tends to sustain the malleability and ambiguity of the category “sex” in legal practice. More specifically, I identify and analyze key sex-discrimination cases in the United States between the enactment of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the recent Supreme Court case Bostock v. Clayton County (2020), looking also at amicus (friend of the court) briefs and interpretive statements of federal agencies and departments to better understand how, why, and to what effect the juridical field, understood as one of the “many hands of the state,” produces and sustains institutionalized ambiguity with regards to sex classification.

Research Focus

Sex, Gender, Sexualities, Feminist Science, Science & Technology, Law & Policy, Qualitative Methods, UX Research


Hoff, C. C., Gonzali, A. V., Alston-Stepnitz, E., Frost, D. M., & LeBlanc, A. J. (2022). Limitations to Participation in Family of Origin Among Same Sex Couples: A Couple-Level Minority Stressor. Journal of Homosexuality, 1-14.

Outcault, S., Alston-Stepnitz, E., Sanguinetti, A., DePew, A. N., & Magaña, C. (2022). Building lower-carbon affordable housing: case studies from California. Building Research & Information, 1-16.

Sanguinetti, A., Outcault, S., Alston-Stepnitz, E., Moezzi, M., & Ingle, A. (2021). Residential Solar Water Heating: California Adopters and Their Experiences. Renewable Energy.

Alston-Stepnitz, E., Sanguinetti, A., Outcault, S., & Peffer, T. (2020). Connected Thermostats for Low-Income Households: Insights from User Testing. In Proceedings of the ACEEE 2020 Summer Study on Energy Efficiency in Buildings.

Sanguinetti, A., Ferguson, B., Oka, J., Alston-Stepnitz, E., & Kurani, K. (2020). Designing Robo-Taxis to Promote Ride-Pooling. In International Conference on Human Interaction and Emerging Technologies. Springer, Cham.

Alston-Stepnitz, E., Frost, D.M., & LeBlanc, A.J. (2019) Consequences of Unequal Legal Recognition: Same-Sex Couples’ Experience of Stress Prior to Obergefell v. Hodges. In Liu, H., Reczek, C. E., & Wilkinson, L. (Eds.) Marriage and Health: The Well-being of Same-sex Couples. Rutgers University Press.

Frost, D., LeBlanc, A. J., de Vries, B., Alston-Stepnitz, E., Stephenson, R., & Woodyatt, C. (2017). Couple-Level Minority Stress: An Examination of Same-Sex Couples’ Unique Experiences. Journal of Health and Social Behavior.

De Vries, B., LeBlanc, A. J., Frost, D. M., Alston-Stepnitz, E., Stephenson, R., & Woodyatt, C. R. (2016). The relationship timeline: A method for the study of shared lived experiences in relational contexts. Advances in Life Course Research.

LeBlanc, A. J., Frost, D. M., Alston-Stepnitz, E., Bauermeister, J., Stephenson, R., Woodyatt, C. R., & de Vries, B. (2015). Similar Others in Same-Sex Couples’ Social Networks. Journal of Homosexuality.

Mamo, L., & Alston-Stepnitz, E. (2014). Queer Intimacies and Structural Inequalities New Directions in Stratified Reproduction. Journal of Family Issues.


2020 Leon Mayhew Prize for the Best Qualifying Paper ($1,000)
2020 Mellon Public Scholar Fellowship ($7,500)
2015 Provost’s Fellowship in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences ($25,000)