Men and Masculinity
Sex Differences And Ethnography
The first important attempt to create a social science of masculinity centered on the idea of a male sex role. Its origins go back to late-nineteenth-century debates about sex difference, when resistance to women's emancipation was bolstered by a scientific doctrine of innate sex difference. The first generation of women who entered U.S. research universities not only violated the doctrine of female mental inferiority, they also questioned its presuppositions by researching the differences in mental capacities between men and women. They found very few.
This scandalous result triggered an enormous volume of follow-up research, which has flowed from the 1890s to the present and covered not only mental abilities but also emotions, attitudes, personality traits, interests—indeed, everything that psychologists thought they could measure. The main results have not changed. Sex differences, on almost every psychological trait measured, are either nonexistent or fairly small. When groups of studies are aggregated by the statistical technique of meta-analysis, it is more likely to be concluded that some sex differences in psychological characteristics do exist. These, however, are often influenced by social circumstances.
The idea of a social interpretation of sex differences came principally from anthropology. This new discipline was, after psychoanalysis, the main intellectual force that relativized Western concepts of masculinity and femininity. Ethnographers such as Bronislaw Malinowski (1884–1942) and Margaret Mead (1901–1978) published detailed accounts of non-Western societies that were very widely read in the 1920s and 1930s. In these cultures, men and women were seen to behave in ways that were intelligible and consistent, yet very different from the patterns familiar in metropolitan bourgeois society. Mead's Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935), in particular, showed men following radically different ideals of conduct in different cultural contexts. The models of heroic masculinity familiar in Western literature were, it seemed, specific to the West.
From anthropology, also, came the idea of the functional interrelatedness of a society and the idea of a social role within it. In the 1940s and 1950s these ideas were applied to sex difference research and gave birth to the term "sex role," which in time passed into everyday speech.
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