Sciknow Publications Ltd OJSSR 2013, 1(2):42-45
Open Journal of Social Science Research DOI: 10.12966/ojssr.05.05.2013
©Attribution 3.0 Unported (CC BY 3.0)
Understanding Men and Masculinity in Modern Society
University of Roehampton, Alumna;Daytona Global Enterprise Limited;VGC, Ajah.Lagos. Nigeria
*Corresponding author (Email:firstname.lastname@example.org)
Abstract - Research and critical studies into men and masculinity has originated as one of the most emerging areas of
sociological investigation. More books and articles have been published on this study area alone as well as the introduction of
two specialized journals and the creation of several websites all providing different explanations of their understanding of men
and masculinity at the millennium age. Masculinity is an area of sociology that has, since the mid-1950s, drawn on many theories,
including structural functionalism, Marxism, psychoanalysis, critical structuralism, and more recently, post-structuralism and
theories of the post-modern (Whitehead & Barrett, 2001). Within popular culture, the media have also come across the perceived
'crisis of masculinity' in Western cultures – newspapers, documentaries and talk shows have increasingly pondered the changing
meaning of manhood in our modern age (Alsop et al, 2002). The purpose of this writing is to understand men and masculinity in
the modern world putting into consideration the sociology of masculinity, the social construction of masculinity, the crisis within
masculinity as well as a fair contrast with masculinity and feminism.
Keywords - Masculinity, Social Construction of Masculinity, Sociology of Masculinity, Cultural Construction of Masculinity
1.1. What is masculinity?
The closest answer to this question is to state that masculinity
consists of those behaviors, languages and practices, existing
in specific cultural and organizational locations, which are
commonly associated with males and thus culturally defined
as not feminine. So masculinity exist as both a positive, in as
much as they offer some means of identity significations for
males, and as a negative, in as much as they are not the 'Other'
(Feminine). Masculinity and male behaviors are not the simple
product of genetic coding or biological predispositions
(Clatterbaugh, 1990; Whitehead & Barrett, 2001).
All societies have cultural accounts of gender, but not all
have the concept 'masculinity'. In its modern usage the term
assumes that one's behavior results from the type of person one
is. That is to say, an un-masculine person would behave
differently: being peaceable rather than violent, conciliatory
rather than dominating, hardly able to kick a football,
uninterested in sexual conquest, and so forth. This conception
presupposes a belief in individual difference and personal
agency. In that sense it is built on the conception of
individuality that developed in early-modern Europe with the
growth of colonial empires and capitalist economic relations
(Whitehead & Barrett, 2001). But the concept is also
inherently relational. 'Masculinity' does not exist except in
contrast with 'femininity'. A culture which does not treat
women and men as bearers of polarized character types, at
least in principle, does not have a concept of masculinity in the
sense of modern European/American culture (Connell, 2001).
Attention to historical specificity and historical change
illustrates the social construction of masculinity, the
multiplicity of ways in which masculinities can be enacted or
lived and the existence and potential of change (Alsop et al,
1.2. Sociology of masculinity
The sociology of masculinity concerns the critical study of
men, their behaviors, practices, values and perspectives. As
such the sociology of masculinity is informed by, and locates
itself within, feminist theories. Writers within the genre are
understood to be personally/politically aligned with feminist
agendas and to have a desire for gender justice. The critical
writings of men and masculinity which constitute the
sociology of masculinity seek to highlight the ways in which
men's powers come to be differentiated, naturalized and
embedded across all cultures, political borders and
organizational networks. Since its beginnings in the 1950s, the
sociology of masculinity has moved through three prominent
theoretical waves, in part mirroring similar shifts in the
theoretical patterns of feminist thinking. The first of these
waves was concerned with the problematic of male role
performance and the cost to men of attempting to strictly
adhere to dominant expectations and masculine ideology,
what Joseph Pleck (1995) has termed ‘male’ gender role
(discrepancy). The second wave arose in the early 1980s and
sought to highlight, not so much the cost to men of patriarchy,
but the centrality of male power to dominant ways of being a
man (Whitehead & Barrett, 2001).
Exemplified by the work of Carrigan, Connell and Lee
(1985), second-wave theorizing introduced the concept of
'hegemonic masculinity as a political, multiple, contested, yet
powerful concept. The third wave within the sociology of
masculinity has been primarily influenced by feminist
post-structuralism and theories of post-modernity (Butler,
1990; Nicholson, 1990). Here the theory is validated through
dominant discursive practices of self, and how men's sense of
Flourish Itulua-Abumere:Understanding Men and Masculinity in Modern Society
identity work connects with (gender) power and resistance
(Whitehead & Barrett, 2001)
In recent years, sociologists have become increasingly
interested in the positions and experiences of men within the
larger order that shapes them. This shift within the sociology
of gender and sexuality has led to new emphasis on the study
of men and masculinity within the overarching context of
gender relations, the societal patterned interactions between
men and women. Sociologists are interested to grasp how male
identities are constructed and what impact socially prescribed
roles have on men's behavior (Giddens, 2001). In gender and
power (1987) and masculinities (1995), R. W. Connell sets
forth one of the most complete theoretical accounts of gender.
His approach has been particularly influential in sociology
because he has integrated the concepts of patriarchy and
masculinity into an overarching theory of gender relations.
According to Connell, masculinities are a critical part of the
gender order and cannot be understood separately from it, or
from the femininities which accompany them (Connell, 1995;
1.3. Social/cultural construction of masculinities
In the last ten years field studies in the industrial countries
have multiplied and new theoretical languages have been
proposed. There is no settled paradigm for this new work, but
some common themes are clear: the construction of
masculinity in everyday life, the importance of economic and
institutional structures, the significance of differences among
masculinities and the contradictory and dynamic character of
gender (Connell, 1995). Richard Gruneau and David
Whitson's Hockey Night in Canada shows in great detail how
business and political interests constructed the aggressively
masculinised world of professional ice hockey (Gruneau&
Whitson, 1993). The construction of masculinity in spot also
illustrates the importance of the institutional setting. Messner
emphasizes that when boys start playing competitive sport
they are not just learning a game, they are entering an
organized institution (Messner, 1992).
Economic circumstance and organizational structure also
contribute to the making of masculinity at the most intimate
level. As Mike Donaldson observes in Times of Our Lives,
hard labour in factories and mines literally uses up the
workers' bodies; and that destruction, a proof of the toughness
of the work and the worker, can be a method of demonstrating
masculinity (Donaldson, 1991). Cockburn emphasizes the
political character of the construction of masculinity, and of
change in masculinity (Cockburn, 1991). The same point is
made by a Canadian research team in Recasting Steel Labour;
the first important study of masculinity is to combine survey
research with ethnography (Corman et al, 1993). Despite the
emphasis on multiple masculinities and on contradiction, few
researchers have doubted that the social construction of
masculinities is a systematic process (Connell, 1995).
However, the authors, Morgan (1992), Sedgwick (1985),
Maclnnes (1998), and Cornwall and Lindisfarne (1994) all
agree that masculinities is socially and historically, not
biologically, constructed. A good point with which to start is
Morgan's (1992) assertion that what is masculinity(and
femininity) is best approached from the stand point of what
men and women do (that is, how they behave) rather than what
they are. If gender is cultural, then it follows that women as
well as men can step into and inhabit masculinity as a 'cultural
space', one with its own sets of behaviors. In this view 'the
masculine' and 'the feminine' signify a range of culturally
defined characteristics assignable to both men and women
(Beynon, 2002). Masculinity
Male version/Female version
Male version/Female version (Beynon, 2002).
1.4. Socialization into masculinity
Sociology, in particular, has contributed to our understanding
of how factors like class, culture and ethnicity impact on
masculinity, which is seen to be shaped by the institutions in
which men and women are embedded. Male aggression,
competitiveness and emotional inarticulateness are held to
reflect their position in the economic system. Capitalism
places men in a network of social relations that encourages
sets of behavior recognized as masculine. Masculinity is thus
viewed as a set of practices into which individual men are
inserted with reference to upbringing, family, area, work and
sub-culturalinfluences. Socio-economic positioning
profoundly impacts upon the masculine sense of self so much
so that men's identities are constructed through social
structures which exist over and above any actions of the
individual (Edley&Wetherell 1995).
The still widely accepted view among the general public
is that men and women fundamentally differ and that a distinct
set of fixed traits characterize archetypal masculinity and
femininity. This is reflected in popular sayings such as 'Just
like a man' or 'Just like a woman' and in the kinds of features
found in popular magazines along the lines of 'How manly is
your man?', with a list of attributes to be rated or boxes to be
ticked. Masculinity and femininity are often treated in the
media as polar opposites, with men typically assumed to be
rational, practical and naturally aggressive and women, in
contrast, are held to be expressive, nurturing and emotional
(Beynon, 2002). The role model depicts men and women not
as free agents but like actors following pre-scripted roles: so to
'be a man' is to play a certain masculine role. To take the
theatrical metaphor further, masculinity is a performance, a set
of stage directions, a 'script' that men learn to perform.
Socializing agents like the family, school and the media
inculcate and validate gender appropriate behavior and the boy
learns the male role through observation, initiation and
feedback (Bandura, 1977).
Brannon (1976), Pleck and Thompson (1987) and Moore
and Gillette (1990) have over the years identified some typical
males (for example, being a 'big wheel', 'sturdy oak', 'no sissy
stuff'). However, Ian Harris (1995) eventually provided the
most comprehensive study to date of the socialization into
roles perspective based on extensive interview data with large
numbers of men in the United States gathered over a number
of years. Critiques found in many ways Harris study as
difficult and challenging but nevertheless it provides a very
comprehensive 'map' of contemporary American masculinity
Open Journal of Social Science Research (2013) 42-45
in the words of men themselves. The socializing 'messages'
emanate from parents, teachers, peers, the media,
organizations like church and the Scouts, and constitute a
series of 'scripts', or guidelines, by which men live their lives
(cited in Beynon, 2002).
1.5. Relationship between masculinity and identity
The relationship between masculinity, identity and gender as
social structure has changed somewhat during the various
phases of development with the sociology of masculinity.
Early influences tended to draw heavily on notions of gender
role and its 'strains' or ‘discrepancies’ for men (Pleck, 1981).
Thus, social constructionists argue that gender role theory was
inadequate for exploring male power and failed to fully
recognize differences between male and female (Kimmel &
post-structuralism accounts of masculinity, especially those
which draw on Jacques and Foucault, is that they offer a means
by which to link social action and power relations with identity
processes, without, however, falling into a deterministic
understanding of power relations as an ideologically inspired,
unchanging structure (Sarup, 1993).
From a post-structuralism perspective identity is
understood as always in process, never finally accomplished.
So in this regard, there is no core, grounded, or fixed self, but
rather a fluid arrangement of multiple subject positions which
together provide the means by which the individual achieves a
sense of identity (Rajchman, 1995). The importance of
masculinity to this process of identity work is in the validation
it can give to this fluid self. So if we accept there is no core self,
then socially dominant forms of being a male (masculinities)
can be seen to provide an acceptable means by which boys and
men may express their gender and thus their sense of identity.
In taking up these localized and culturally specific signifying
practices, males achieve an association with other males and
also a differentiation from the 'Other' not only women but also
those males who appear 'different'. The difference is usually
marked by sexual orientation, but can also include forms of
embodiment and ethnicity, as well as national and cultural
variations of masculine performance (Whitehead & Barrett,
Because individuals do not have biologically fixed
identities, any sense of self can only come about through
working to achieve a sense of 'belonging' in the social world.
However, 'belonging' is not an automatic process, and so far
most men masculine performance is central to achieving entry
to, and being accepted within, any particular 'community' of
men. This desire for belonging creates, then, both gender and
an individual's sense of self. As Bell describes it, “identity is
the effect of performance and not vice versa.” (Bell,
1999;Butler, 1990) Such understandings do not assume that
males are passive in this process of identity work; this is not
simply a case of all-powerful gender socialization. Rather, all
individuals are skilled at creating theirselves, but within the
parameters of their social and cultural experience, factors
which are also subject to change (Whitehead & Barrett, 2001).
Men and masculinity suggest that masculinity is
intimately linked to wider social and cultural transformations
within the British nation-state andother western countries and
that the assumed crisis of masculinity can be read as an
effectof the wider crisis of late modernity. The question of
identity has once again emerged as one of the key dynamic
concepts in the context of rethinking social and cultural
change. It is suggested that socio-cultural change is marked by
the disintegration of older social collectivises such as social
class and increased fluidity of social relationship, with an
accompanying interest in identity and subjectivity (Bradley,
1996). More specifically, there has been a focus on the
dislocation (Giddens 1991; Hall 1992). The concept of
identity is a highly resonant term that is used in a wide variety
of ways in different contexts. Britain (1989) illustrates the
usefulness of the concept of identity, examining three
emphases, which are relevant to the theorization of
masculinity, namely, the socialization case, masculine crisis
theory, and the reality construction model. Sociologically, the
high conceptual value of identity emerges from its
contribution to new individuals and society (as cited in Alsop
et al, 2003, p. 17).
1.6. Crisis in masculinity
Claims that men and masculinities are constantly in crisis are
constantly and vociferously made, the precise nature of the
crisis in masculinity (that is, how it manifests itself and is
actually experienced) is ill defined and elusive. The idea that
masculinity, in one guise or another, is in a state of deep crisis
has become widely accepted as a 'fact'. But is it a case that
something, repeated time and again, is assumed to exist on the
'no smoke with out fire' principle? Moreover, if there is a crisis,
then there are three possible explanations, namely that it is
new and unique to our times, that it has existed in the past,
either in the same or different forms, or that it is constitutive of
masculinity itself (Beynon, 2002).
1.7. Evidence for men in crisis
In the 1990s men have been seen to be in the fore front of
social concerns about jobs, changing family patterns, failure in
school and violent crime. Cowards (1999, p. 52) has listed a
list of some contradictory factors that lead to crisis in
masculinity. According to Cowards (1999) in his list, he
mentioned that men are generally far more reluctant than
women to face up to and respond to physical and
psychological problems. They suffer deep depression at the
loss of the breadwinner role and the status that went with it as
this was regarded as one of the crises of masculinity.
Furthermore, Cowards explained that men face constant job
role changes, the threat of unemployment and job related
stress daily. The advent of post modernity has resulted in
redundancy and downsizing: less than 50 per cent of men aged
55 and over in Britain are in work and many such men die
prematurely. Many remain bad at acknowledging and
expressing feelings and are trapped between old-style,
machismo and nurturing 'new man-ism'. All of these put
together are some of the crisis faced by men in the late modern
society (Beynon, 2002).
Masculinity, certainly as it has been traditionally
understood, has become unfashionable and the 'crisis' has been
created by a reversal in value of 'male' and 'female' traits.
Being logical, disciplined, rational and competitive are “now
seen as the stigma of deviance [whereas] the very traits which
once marked out women as weak and inferior-emotional,
spontaneous, intuitive, expressive, compassionate,
empathetic-are increasingly seen as the makers of maturity
and health” (Clare, 2000, p. 68). For Clare (2000), 'at the heart
of the crisis in masculinity is a problem with the reconciliation
Flourish Itulua-Abumere:Understanding Men and Masculinity in Modern Society
of the private and the public, the intimate and the impersonal,
the emotional and the rational' (2000, p. 212). This is, of
course, a predicament shared with women, namely protecting
the personal and private against the intrusions and excessive
demands of a voracious economic system (as cited in Beynon,
In conclusion, the understanding of masculinity has
demonstrated that masculinity is not 'natural'. Instead, it is
seen as a gender identity that is socially and culturally
constructed, historical and political. It has represented the
social and cultural interpretation of maleness learnt through
engagement and participation in the society. The
understanding of masculinity in modern society has also seen
femininity as a treat on masculinity and an evidence of that is
the present crisis that men face in the world or work and job
roles in the society. So also, this essay has demonstrated how
socialization has lead into the creation of masculinity and the
relationship between masculinity and self-identity.
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