Masculinity Studies

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Masculinity Studies






Masculinity refers most commonly to socially constructed expectations of appropriate behaviors, beliefs, expressions, and styles of social interaction for men in a culture or subculture at a given time. The substantive meanings associated with masculinity are culturally specific, and refer to social arrangements and institutionalized practices as well as individual actions and embodiments. Historically, these meanings have been premised on ideologies and symbolism that cast women as opposite and inferior to men, and that position some men as superior to other men. This is due, in large part, to the framing of gender expectations by dominant groups in ways that endorse dominant group practicesand the personal characteristics that presumably represent the embodiment of those practiceswhile at the same time devaluing the practices and characteristics of other out-groups. Evelyn Nakano Glenn (2002) and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (2001) explain, for example, that Anglo or white men in industrialized Europe, North America, and other parts of the world support practices and social constructs that endorse their own position as superior to nonwhite men and men with little or no material resources.

Despite its complexity and relational character, popular conceptualizations continue to view masculinity narrowly as a unified set of personal characteristics, behaviors, and beliefsincluding physical strength, assertiveness, emotional detachment, competition, and the belief that men are better suited than women for positions of leadership and decision making. Though unsupported by scientific evidence, many also believe that masculinity is derived from biology. The notion of essential differences between men and women, and corresponding notions of womens and mens different abilities and proclivities, has its origins in late nineteenth-century political movements in Western Europe and the United States. As more women joined the struggle for basic human rights, such as the right to vote and the right to own land, white male scholars focused increasing attention on notions of biological sex difference as a means for supporting ideologies of female inferiority (Carrigan, Connell, and Lee 1985; Fausto-Sterling 2000; MacInnes 2001). Men already in positions of power and privilege relative to women, men of color, men with fewer material advantages, noncitizens, and the disenfranchised, used ideologies of innate differences to justify discriminatory laws and practices (Glenn 2002).

The highly visible womens movement, as well as the loss of control and opportunity that many menparticularly white menwere experiencing as industrial work processes became more routine and competition for work from immigrants and migrant workers became more intense (Glenn 2002; Kimmel 1996; Roper 1994), also fed into a perceived crisis of [white] masculinity in both Europe and the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century (Chauncey 1985; DEmilio and Freedman 1988). The perception of crisis added fuel to the search for biological evidence of male superiority and white racial superiority (Fausto-Sterling 2000, p. 156; hooks 2004).

Biologically based explanations for sex differences, notes François Nielsen (1994), were pervasive by the mid-twentieth century, and persist still. The logic behind these arguments is that evolutionary processes produce two distinct categories of humans, one that is more physically aggressive, competitive, emotionally independent, and instrumentally decisive, and another that is more passive, cooperative, interdependent, and nurturing. Persons categorized as male are assumed to fit the former, and those categorized as female to fit the latter. Scientific studies reveal many problems with the assumption that biology produces opposite sexes, that gender differences are derived from biology, and that males are innately superior to females. For example, the characteristics and traits that are supposed to differentiate women and men have much more in common than not (Fausto-Sterling 2000; Kemper 1990; Kessler and McKenna 1978).


Not all scholars of the early twentieth century viewed masculinity as a direct function of biology. The foundations of masculinity as identity were established in the early 1900s with the work of Sigmund Freud (1905, 1923). Freud posited that the personality people most commonly associate with masculinity results from complex processes of unconscious conflict resolution and emotional development that start early in life. The outcome of the differently structured Oedipal crises, explains Raewyn Connell, are the bases of Freudian accounts of femininity and masculinity (1987, p. 204). Freuds work has been variously elaborated by gender scholars. Nancy Chodorow (1978) focuses on how the division of labor within the family shapes how females and males process unconscious motivations and repressed desire. Given a gendered division of labor in industrial capitalist Western society, explains Chodorow, and a nuclear heterosexual family with a male primary wage earner, young boys construct a sense of self in relation to a mother figure whose presence is consistent and intense, and a father figure that is more distant because of his role in paid labor. This arrangement leads infants to associate the mother with the fulfillment of desires. Boys emotional attachment to the mother, however, transforms from one of oneness with her to a form of individuality-with-attachment that is intensely possessive. These possessive feelings for the mother lead the boy to view the father as a competitor for the mothers affections (Di Stefano 1991, pp. 4548). The feelings of threat that the boy experiences in relation to the father (castration anxiety), along with the need to establish self and not-female, evoke ambivalence, which in turn requires that the boy identify with the father. And to develop a sense of self apart from mother, the boy seeks to establish himself as that which women/females are not (Chodorow 1978, pp. 9697; Parsons 1964). Emotional detachment, competitiveness, and desire to control self and others become central to his identity (Gilligan 1982; Messner 1992).

Other theorists point out that psychoanalytic object relations views, such as Chodorows, posit an overly unified concept of self and identity. Connell (1987, 1995) argues that Freud did not assert that processes of personality development produce two clear-cut, stable categories of personality characteristics. Connell agrees that fear of castration at the hands of the father leads boys to repress erotic feelings for the mother, to identify with the powerful father figure, to internalize prohibitions against desire for the mother, and to develop a strong superego, but argues that these are not fail-safe or immanent steps (Connell 1987, p. 204). Many contingencies and conflicts characterize these processes.

Building on existential psychoanalytic theory, Connell proposes the concept of gender projects, which views gender not as a fixed identity but rather as a system of symbolic relationships (1995, p. 20). From this view, past attachments, though often repressed, have consequences for future actions. The emotional contradictions and conflicts that arise as a boy goes through the pre-Oedipal and Oedipal stages produce a range of possible outcomes for the individual. The many conflicting emotions that a boy experiences in the development of his sense of self will influence how he projects himself into the future, and thus, the position he takes up in the symbolic order (Connell 1987, p. 211). Boys and mens gender projects take many forms, some of which are consistent with dominant ideals of masculinity, and others of which are not. The point, argues Connell, is that no one pattern of development can be taken as universal even within the specific social context Freud studied (Connell 1987, p. 206). Not all boys and men take up the same gender project (Chen 1999; Collinson 2003; Majors and Billson 1992; Messerschmidt 2000).


The most common social science frameworks for understanding masculinity since the mid-twentieth century have been sex role (later referred to as gender role) and socialization theories. The concept of sex roles was popularized in the work of Talcott Parsons (Parsons 1964; Parsons and Bales 1955). Underlying the logic of masculinity as a role is the assumption that significant differences separate men from women as social actors. According to Parsons, structural differentiation is a requirement of society, and the division of labor within the family between instrumental men and expressive women was necessary to ensure proper socialization of children. Boys are also taught within the family, peer groups, schools, and other social organizations and institutions the behaviors and traits that are considered appropriate for boys and men. Boys internalize gender-specific, appropriate personalities and behaviors as a result. Masculinity is the identity that corresponds with the position (or role) of man in societal structures.

Modeling behaviors and the rewards and punishments boys receive for their actions facilitate socialization processes. Cognitive approaches to gender socialization posit, further, that once boys embrace the male sex category for themselves, they actively seek activities, behaviors, and modes of presentation that facilitate feedback from others that affirm maleness (Kohlberg 1966). Social cognition models assume that in order to manage the wealth of information to which individuals are exposed in daily life, they look for ways to effectively prioritize the inputs to which they must pay the most attention, which in turn leads to the use of social categories for organizing the social world. Sex categories and corresponding gender schemas, or cognitive structures that allow individuals to organize social information about self and about groupings of people in society, shape what individuals pay attention to, remember, and expect of themselves and other people (Bem 1983, 1993). From this view, prevailing stereotypes about and expectations for men and women in society persist in large part because they provide cognitive road maps and a sense of ontological security for people (Howard and Hollander 1997, p. 88).

One critique of socialization theories is that they equate masculinity with that which men in the most powerful positions in society do (Howard and Hollander 1997; Smiler 2004). By assuming that normal males internalize normative masculinity, this perspective removes the issue of structural power from the analysis of gender (Connell 1987; Gerson and Peiss 1985; Lopata and Thorne 1978). Boys and men who fail to follow these prescribed paths are thus viewed as deviant (Schur 1984). Socialization is cast as an explanation without explicit discussion of the power struggles between differently empowered social groups (Howard 1988; Howard and Hollander 1997).

Socialization and role theories, in addition, reify the notion of gender dualisms, thereby minimizing and obscuring differences between men and other men, and between women and other women, and fail to address the intersections of social categories of difference and inequalitysuch as class, race, and sexual orientationand how these shape negotiations of dominant masculinity imperatives (Chen 1999; Collinson and Hearn 1994; Martin 1996; Nonn 2004). The notion that masculinity exists as a role into which boys and men are socialized obscures how power structures mediate individual negotiations of identity and self.

Throughout U.S. history, for example, boys and men of color have resisted many of the practices and beliefs constructed by white and middle- to upper-class men as appropriate and ideal for true men, especially those practices and beliefs that cast men of color as inferior. Men oppressed by other men on the basis of race, ethnicity, and national origin have approached power hierarchies and the men whose positions of structural power enable them to mobilize resources in their own favor with what the American educator and writer W. E. B. Du Bois (1903) identified as double consciousness. Double consciousness is born out of the experience of being constrained not by actual personal inabilities but by structures and practices constructed and reinforced by those who control material and symbolic resources. This two-sided consciousness allows members of systematically subordinated groups to understand the dominant groups constructions of status differences and related expectations for social behavior while at the same time resisting the dominant cultures construction of the subordinated group as inferior. The notion that masculinity exists as a role that boys and men fit to varying degrees, however, backgrounds the continual negotiations among men and between women and men over the actual meanings that constitute what is commonly referred to as masculinity.


The limitations of identity and role theories of gender have led many late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century scholars to argue that masculinity does not consist of a single unified set of practices, beliefs, or characteristics. Rather, masculinit ies are multiple and exist not only as embodied practices, characteristics, and beliefs, but also as routinized and institutionalized practices and symbols. As such, masculinities are constructed and negotiated via discourse and material relations, and are the object of contestation by groups and individuals (Carrigan, Connell, and Lee 1985; Collinson and Hearn 1994; Hearn 1998; Whitehead 2002). This scholarship emphasizes the relational and hierarchical character of socially constructed genders (Connell and Messerschmidt 2005; Collinson and Hearn 1994; Martin 2001; Whitehead 2002).

Gender as a relational concept acknowledges that while bodies are sex-differentiated (i.e., they produce some different physiological needs), these differences do not determine the actual practices in which people engage. Instead, social embodiment transforms bodies (Connell 2002, p. 50). Masculinities and femininities are sets of practices constrained but not fully dictated by the structure of social relations that centers on the reproductive arena (Connell 2002, p.10). The reproductive arena refers not to a biological base for gender but rather an arena in which social processes occur. Practices exist as patterns of relationships that connect and separate individuals, and constrain the practices in which individuals engage.

Gender as a relational concept also acknowledges the different material interests that groups have in an unequal society (Connell 2002, p. 71). Men have less interest in changing the social structures that give them a collective advantage over women and are more invested than women in maintaining the category woman as the other against which men are defined because this distinction supports the illusion of gender difference and male/masculine superiority (Bordo 1993). Similarly, Anglo and middle- and upper-class men are more invested in maintaining the structures that sustain their collective advantage over oppressed race and ethnic groups, and over lower socioeconomic classes of men (Lewis 2003; MacLeod 1995; Majors and Billson 1992; Willis 1977).

Hegemonic masculinity, the conceptual framework used commonly to express gendered relations of domination and subordination, refers to the configuration of gender practice which embodies the currently accepted answer to the problem of the legitimacy of patriarchy, which guarantees (or is taken to guarantee) the dominant position of men and the subordination of women (Connell 1995, p. 77). Hegemonic masculinity is composed of practices that enable and sustain the status and power of men over women collectively (external dimension) and of some men over other men (internal dimension) (Demetriou 2001). All males (and those who pass as male; Halberstam 1998) are subject to prevailing expectations of hegemonic masculinity, though few actually live up to these expectations (Bird 2003; Dellinger 2004; Messerschmidt 2000; Messner 1992). Few men fit hegemonic ideals of masculinity for any extended period because these ideals and standards change over time and vary by social context, and because mens bodies and minds also change over the life course.

Supporting a family financially, exercising autonomy and authority in paid labor, and superior athleticism are all examples of practices that commonly align with hegemonic masculinity in many contemporary Western nations. Most men support the idea that these are practices that distinguish men as different from and superior to women (and lesser men), and confer legitimacy and status upon men who are exemplars of these practices (Chen 1999; Gerschick and Miller 1994; Henson and Rogers 2001). This is the case even though hierarchies of class, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender expression, religion, and able-bodiedness ensure that not all men exercise the same level of power or status over women. Most men remain complicit with hegemonic masculinity because as long as the category man is constructed as distinct from and superior to the category female, dominant as well as subordinated men will continue to benefit from the status of being male (Whitehead 2002).

Resistance to and even rejection of hegemonic masculinity imperatives does, however, exist (Gerschick 1998; Majors and Billson 1992). Thomas Gerschick explains, for example, that while some men with physical disabilities embrace fully ideals of masculinity that only fully able-bodied men can attain, others reject these ideals and construct meanings of their own. Whether and the extent to which one embodies hegemonic practices is partly a matter of having the resources to do so, partly a matter of being allowed to embody such practices, and partly a matter of wanting to embody them.

Research also shows, however, that while there are many forms of resistance to hegemonic ideals and imperatives of masculinity (Boyd 1997; Garcia 2004; Majors and Billson 1992; Mirandé 1997; Neal 2005), complete rejection of all elements of hegemonic patriarchal masculinity is rare (Carby 1998); hooks 2004; Neal 2005). Scholars including Hazel Carby, Anthony Chen (1999), Jerry Garcia (2004), bell hooks (2004), and Mark Anthony Neal demonstrate, for example, how African American, Latino, and Asian American men often adopt patriarchal sexism even as they are struggling against white men for racial and ethnic equality.

Since the 1990s, scholarship has examined the themes outlined above in a variety of contexts, including work organizations (Bird 2003; Britton 2003; Dellinger 2004; Kerfoot and Knights 1993, 1998; Martin 1996, 2001; Pierce 1995; Williams 1995), families (Adams and Coltrane 2005; Marsiglio and Pleck 2005), sports (Messner 1992, 2004), crime and violence (Messerschmidt 2000), the media (McKay, Mokosza, and Hutchins 2005), education (Ferguson 2000; Lewis 2003; McGuffey and Rich 1999; Swain 2005), and leisure settings (Bird 1996; Bird and Sokolofski 2005; Campbell 2000). Gender theorists have called for a greater focus beyond the level of organizations, institutions, and cross-cultural comparative ethnographies. Scholars, including Sikata Banerjee (2005), Wendy Bracewell (2000), Charlotte Hooper (1998, 1999), Joane Nagel (1998, 2005), Raewyn Connell (2005), and Sergei Zherebkin (2006), illuminate macro constructions of masculinity and the relationships between nationalism, imperialism, and globalization. Nations seeking to construct and/or sustain national unity, loyalty, and strength, especially military strength, draw upon the imagery, power relations, division of labor, and emotional relations associated with emerging global patterns of hegemonic masculinity. While Connell (2005) argues that an emerging global hegemonic masculinity focuses on transnational business practices, Hooper (1999) asserts that practices in the arena of international power politics are the basis for a global hegemonic masculinity. These and other scholars note the need for further collaborations across continents and nations in the study of masculinities (Committee for Research on Men and Masculinities in Europe 2005; Gutmann and Viveros Vigoya 2005; Morrell and Swart 2005; Taga 2005).


In this brief overview, some of the key theoretical issues regarding the study of masculinities have been presented. During the twentieth century, scholarship moved away from theories that posit biological determinism and toward a greater understanding of masculinities as social constructs that exist not simply as personality characteristics but as practices that are variously taken up by individuals and, at the same time, are embedded in organizations, institutions, and global systems. Twenty-first-century scholars study multifaceted masculinities that, in conjunction with multifaceted femininities, organize every aspect of social life.

SEE ALSO Du Bois, W. E. B.; Femininity; Feminism; Freud, Sigmund; Gender; Gender, Alternatives to Binary; Gender Gap; Gender Studies; Men; Womens Studies


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Sharon R. Bird