Men's Studies

views updated

Men's Studies

Early forays into the study of issues involving maleness and masculinity began in the 1970s. However, it was not until the 1980s that those issues were theorized consistently as parts of a coherent discipline called men's studies and courses in men's studies began to be offered at some academic institutions. As men's studies became more visible in theoretical writings and academic classrooms, writers focused on the relationship between men's studies and the larger field of gender studies. Two distinct branches of men's studies developed, both strongly influenced by the social and political consciousness-raising goals of gender studies and feminism.


One branch of men's studies emerged as a reaction against gender studies and feminism. Although theorists who react to feminism in this way acknowledge the historical oppression of women, those writers emphasize the idea that patriarchal systems are capable of oppressing men as well as women. In addition, those writers voice a concern that men are left out of the conversation in gender studies or are degraded, perpetuating a sense of guilt and inferiority.

The second branch of men's studies envisions a more peaceful coexistence with feminism and gender studies. According to its practitioners, the mission of men's studies is to continue the revolutionary project of gender studies. For theories of gender studies to succeed in consciousness-raising and political change across a society, the impact of those ideas on men as well as men's role in society must be examined in a more thorough and systematic way.


Despite an extensive theoretical discourse that categorizes the project of men's studies as interconnected with that of feminism, some academics in gender studies raise the concern that men's studies is a form of masculine appropriation. Through men's studies, those scholars contend, male academics have a vehicle that can be used to silence the feminine viewpoint in gender studies, demonstrating another example of patriarchal oppression. This perspective raises the question of why a specific mode of inquiry based on men is needed when in essence all of history has been dedicated to men's studies.

The field of men's studies has tried to defend itself from that charge in a variety of ways. Some practitioners have countercharged that feminist resistance to men's studies amounts to a forceful appropriation of gender studies and a repetition of the exclusionary practices of which men have been accused. In addition to efforts to turn the accusation around, scholars of men's studies have tried to demonstrate that although feminist scholarship is correct in its assertion that humankind has been equated with the masculine, that is not the same thing as an analysis of the masculine as a gender. Further, the attempts that have been made within gender studies to analyze the masculine gender have been conducted in the context of men's impact on women instead of examining the masculine gender on its own terms. A more expansive vision of gender studies that includes men's studies, it is argued, will alleviate this shortcoming. An effort needs to be made to go beyond taking the historical norm of the masculine for granted and explore the specific details that make up that norm.

Some practitioners of men's studies assert that although they admire the ideals of gender studies, they see within the discourse of gender studies unfair negative stereotypes of men. Going beyond a critique of gender studies, that vision of men's studies suggests that the life and role of men in late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century society need only be looked at to demonstrate the crisis of modern masculinity. That crisis manifests itself first and foremost in terms of men's health. As a result of the significantly higher rate at which men are afflicted by drug and alcohol addiction, heart disease, death and injury in times of war, and suicide compared with women, health issues are read as indicators of the male plight. In a similar vein overwork and homelessness are indicators of the male crisis in a social context.

It has been hypothesized that this vision of a male crisis is a result of industrialized society. In that analysis men at one time were protectors of the family and the earth. Because they were forced to leave the family structure to achieve economic success, men became alienated from the family. Such evocations of masculinity characterize the masculine ideal as a mythic and primitive generative essence that has been lost but must be regained in a fashion similar to that propounded by Robert Bly in his best seller Iron John (1990). The social construction of the masculine crisis can be combated, ushering a political element into the practice of men's studies. The political action dynamic can be beneficial by encouraging a stronger bond with the family, protecting nature, and emphasizing the importance of male role models for children, or it can have aspects that are potentially antithetical to feminist political engagement through efforts to increase fathers' rights.


Harry Brod (1987) opposes such a conception for men's studies because for him and for theorists such as Michael S. Kimmel (1987), Jeff Hearn (Hearn and David 1990), and Bob Pease (2000), men's studies should be conceived of as an extension and not a corrective of gender studies. In "The New Men's Studies: From Feminist Theory to Gender Scholarship" (1987b), Brod criticizes the corrective force in men's studies. According to Brod, men's studies must be a "qualitative different study of men … not quantitatively more study of men" (Brod 1987b, p. 190).

Central to this extension of gender studies is the fact of patriarchy and the need to question the impact of patriarchal institutions on men and masculinity. In questioning the function of masculine power, it is important to recognize that masculinity is not a single unified entity but a shifting and changing plurality of masculinities. Labor functions as a significant determinant of the masculine role, but the different varieties of labor create significantly different social power dynamics. Race and sexuality also create different social dynamics and thus different visions of masculinity.


Bly, Robert. 1990. Iron John: A Book about Men. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Brod, Harry. 1987a. The Making of Masculinities: The New Men's Studies. Boston: Allen & Unwin.

Brod, Harry. 1987b. "The New Men's Studies: From Feminist Theory to Gender Scholarship." Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy 2(1): 179-196.

Hearn, Jeff, and Morgan David, eds. 1990. Men, Masculinities & Social Theory. London and Boston: Unwin Hyman.

Kimbrell, Andrew. 1991. "The New Politics of Masculinity: Beyond Drumming Groups and Wilderness Retreats." Utne Reader, May-June.

Kimmel, Michael S., ed. 1987. Changing Men: New Directions in Research on Men and Masculinity. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Pease, Bob. 2000. Recreating Men: Postmodern Masculinity Politics. London and Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

                                       Lance Norman