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Men and Masculinity

Social Construction

The contemporary field of masculinity research, alternatively known as men's studies or critical studies of men, was created when several impulses in the 1980s moved discussions decisively beyond the sex role framework. One was the continuing development of theories of gender, both structuralist and poststructuralist, which provided more sophisticated models of the gender relations in which men are located and masculinity is constituted.

A second impulse was provided when the coexistence of multiple masculinities was recognized—a move strongly influenced by gay thought. A third impulse was a new wave of empirical research in sociology, history, and cultural studies. This research has been very diverse in subject matter but has generally had a local character. Its main focus has been the construction of masculinity in a particular milieu or moment: a printing shop in Great Britain, a professional sports career in the United States, a group of colonial schools in South Africa, drinking groups in Australian bars, a working-class suburb in Brazil, or the marriage plans of young middle-class men in urban Japan. Its characteristic research style has been ethnographic, making use of participant observation, open-ended interviewing, or discursive analysis of texts in popular culture. The primary research task has been to give close descriptions of processes and outcomes in the local site. This body of research was systematized in the mid-1990s in R. W. Connell's Masculinities.

This "ethnographic moment" in masculinity research developed first in the English-speaking world, mainly in Australia, the United States, and Great Britain. In central and northern Europe, where feminist and gay research had also taken an early interest in the gender practices of men, there was more emphasis on survey research, such as the well-known "Brigitte study," based on a national survey in Germany in 1984–1985, sponsored by a women's magazine and conducted by feminist sociologists Sigrid Metz-Göckel and Ursula Mueller. There was also a focus on the ways men are positioned in relation to gender equity policies, a concern that has continued in Scandinavia to the present. The results of this great social experiment have recently been drawn together by the Norwegian sociologist Oeystein Holter, emphasizing that in favorable circumstances men can and do change their gender practices. In the same region, an interest developed in using masculinity research to uncover the roots of violence, which in recent years has become one of the most important fields of application of masculinity research internationally.

The picture that emerged from this research differed significantly from older ideas of the male sex role and even more from conceptions of "natural" masculinity. One of the key achievements of this research was to document the diversity of masculinities. There is not just one pattern of masculinity, good in all times and places. Different cultures vary, some being much more peaceable than others. Within a single society—even within a single community or institution—there will be different patterns of masculinity, different recognizable ways of "being a man." Just as we now recognize the diversity of family forms, so we also now recognize that there are likely to be different constructions of masculinity in different social class settings, different ethnic communities, and different regions.

Additional topics

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