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Masculinity, Social Support and Sense of Community: The Men's Group Experience in Western Australia



Different self help groups exist to help deal with emotional health issues unique to men. There is however, a dearth of research on the experiences men have in these groups in Australia. This study aimed to gain an understanding of men's experiences in men's groups in Western Australia. Twelve men were interviewed about their experiences in men's groups using a semi-structured interview schedule developed to explore how the groups facilitate self-understanding and personal change. Thematic analysis of the data showed that symbols, rituals, and group rules played a role in providing a safe environment for identity change and the groups provided strong emotional support. Analyses also revealed a process of personal change and identity transformation that takes place because of involvement in the men's groups. Implications of the findings are discussed with reference to strategies for change such as community based education and discussion forums for men.
Masculinity and the men’s group experience 1
Masculinity, Social Support and Sense of Community:
The Men’s Group Experience in Western Australia
Julie A. Reddin1
Edith Cowan University
Perth, Western Australia.
Christopher C. Sonn
Edith Cowan University
Perth, Australia
1 We would like to thank Edward Barton and an anonymous reviewer for their helpful
comments on an earlier version of this paper. Correspondence should be directed to: Julie
Reddin School of Psychology, Edith Cowan University, 100 Joondalup Drive, Joondalup
6027, Australia. Email: or
Masculinity and the men’s group experience 2
Different self help groups exist to help deal with emotional health issues
unique to men. There is however, a dearth of research on the experiences
men have in these groups in Australia. This study aimed to gain an
understanding of men’s experiences in men’s groups in Western Australia.
Twelve men were interviewed about their experiences in men’s groups
using a semi-structured interview schedule developed to explore how the
groups facilitate self-understanding and personal change. Thematic analysis
of the data showed that symbols, rituals, and group rules played a role in
providing a safe environment for identity change and the groups provided
strong emotional support. Analyses also revealed a process of personal
change and identity transformation that takes place because of involvement
in the men’s groups. Implications of the findings are discussed with
reference to strategies for change such as community based education and
discussion forums for men.
Key words: men’s groups, masculinity, identity, sense of community,
emotional support.
Masculinity and the men’s group experience 3
Masculinity, Social Support and Sense of Community: The Men’s
Group Experience in Western Australia
Men are less likely than women to seek help for emotional
problems (Good, Dell & Mintz, 1989; Robertson & Fitzgerald, 1992). The
fact that they are less likely to seek help for emotional challenges has
implications for psychological and physical well-being and has contributed
to the rise in alternative systems of support. Increasingly, researchers are
exploring the role of alternative systems of support such as all male support
groups in addressing the different health needs of men (Mankowski, 2000;
Mankowski & Silvergleid, 1999-2000; Robertson & Fitzgerald, 1992). In
this paper we report on research that investigated the experiences of men in
two types of all male support groups. We were specifically interested in
understanding the ways these groups function from the perspectives of
these men, and to clarify the ways in which these groups facilitate
awareness of masculine identities.
Masculinity and Identity
Within the broader literature base on men’s issues, there has been
some focus on the ways in which traditional male roles are being redefined
and the implications of this for the social and psychological wellbeing of
men (e.g., Biddulph, 1995; Coyle & Morgan-Sykes, 1998; Horrocks, 1994;
Levant, 1992). Distinctions between what is perceived as masculine and
Masculinity and the men’s group experience 4
unmasculine have become blurred, resulting in confusion and gender role
conflict (Buchbinder, 1994). The ‘norms’ of masculinity which included
restrictive emotionality, self-reliance, avoiding femininity, seeking status
and success, aggression, fear of intimacy, and homophobia have collapsed
(Levant, 1992; O’Shaughnessy, 1999). Connell (1987), for example,
analyzed dominant male sexuality in Australia and referred to this as
hegemonic masculinity. He described this as a type of heterosexual
masculinity that is ‘macho’ and typical of Australian culture. Patience
(1991; 1996) described Australia’s ‘hard culture,’ suggesting that it has
encouraged homophobia, rigidity, gender ambiguity and the underestimated
difficulties associated with being male.
The gender role conflict that arises from the changing masculinity
has been defined as a “psychological state in which gender roles have
negative consequences on the individual or others” (O’Neil, 1990, p.25).
This conflict results in the restriction of a person’s potential, and occurs
when “rigid, sexist, or restrictive gender roles, learned during socialization,
result in the personal restriction, devaluation, or violation of others or self”
(O’Neil, 1990, p.25). To deal with the challenges facing men there have been
a rise in the formation of all male support systems. For example, self-help
groups developed specifically for men’s health issues have addressed
fathering, prostate cancer (e.g.“Us Too”) masculinity and men’s self-
Masculinity and the men’s group experience 5
development (e.g., the “ManKind Project, MKP”) (The Mankind Project,
2002; Mankowski & Silvergleid, 1999-2000) and batterer intervention
programs, including the Duluth Model (Mankowski, Haaken & Silvergleid,
2002; Pence & Paymar, 1993). These groups function to provide a context
within which men can deal with social and psychological issues including
gender role conflict.
Gender role conflict and men’s support systems
The literature (e.g. Burda & Vaux, 1987; Wilson & Mankowski,
2000) indicates that social support groups are beneficial for men
experiencing relationship problems or life crises, where support systems
breakdown. Social support operates in different ways and there are different
types of support (Felton & Shinn, 1992; Orford, 1992; Wills, 1985).
According to Orford (1992), support networks provide informational,
instrumental, emotional, and esteem support.
A main aim of all male support groups is to allow men to assess
themselves by looking inward through emotional work and learning new
skills. That is, there is a strong focus on emotional support. These groups
provide men with opportunities to develop emotional openness, intimacy,
and role-related personal growth; men can also bond and form social and
support networks with other members (Karsk & Thomas, 1987; Rabinowitz
& Cochran, 1994). A key outcome of participation is that men gain insight
Masculinity and the men’s group experience 6
into their gender role socialization and relationships, and this reduces gender
role conflict (Karsk & Thomas, 1987).
Some have investigated patterns of interaction within all-male
groups with researchers focusing on the way masculinity is negotiated in
these groups (e.g., Mankowski, 2000; Wilson & Mankowski, 2000). Social
identity is developed through shared personal storytelling and community
narratives in these groups (Mankowski, 2000; Mankowski & Rappaport,
1995; Rappaport, 1993). Rappaport and others have illustrated the way
processes and structures in GROW (Inc.) groups impact on members where
members adopt an alternative narrative and gain emotional support while
working toward their desired goals (Antze, 1976; Rappaport, 1993). People
jointly reconstruct the narratives and part of the power lies in the joint
construction of the story in a supportive context. However, it appears few
empirical studies in Australia have documented the nature of these
supportive functions and processes in men’s groups and the ensuing positive
outcomes, which may include a deeper understanding of identities and self-
Stories, Identity and Men’s Groups
Mutual help organizations may be viewed as narrative communities
where personal change and identity transformations are consequences of
shared stories and narratives. Men’s support groups may be construed as a
Masculinity and the men’s group experience 7
relational community with a community narrative (Heller, 1989; McMillan &
Chavis, 1986; Rappaport, 1993; 1995). Narratives may be communicated in
various ways including writing, personal contact, rituals and shared events.
All-male groups provide members with an identity through its community
narrative, and this provides a basis for change in a member’s personal
identity story (Rappaport, 1993). Mankowski and Rappaport (1995) used a
narrative framework to explore identity development and transformation in
social settings. They suggest masculine identity may be understood in terms
of storytelling. From this perspective, dominant cultural stories or hegemonic
masculinity guide social constructions of male identity. Dominant ideologies
are communicated through social institutions and mass media, and may be in
the form of myths, fairytales or legends (Horrocks, 1995; O’Shaughnessy,
1999). Wilson and Mankowski (2000) suggest the use of mythology is more
common in mythopoetic men’s groups. This is characterized by Robert Bly’s
(1992) work, where men explore male spirituality and psychology by way of
rituals, literature, and art. In some of these groups, the focus is on
exchanging stories and creating alternative versions about masculine
ideology (Mankowski, 2000).
Settings with strong narratives are likely to reflect a strong a sense
of community (McMillan & Chavis, 1986). Sense of community is, “a
feeling that members have of belonging, a feeling that members matter to
Masculinity and the men’s group experience 8
one another and to the group, and shared faith that members’ needs will be
met through their commitment to be together” (McMillan & Chavis, 1986,
p.9). The model contains the elements; membership, influence, integration
and fulfillment of needs, and shared emotional connection. Membership is a
feeling of belonging, of being a part, and a feeling that commitment has
earned a right to membership and includes the attributes: boundaries,
common symbol systems, emotional safety, and sense of belonging and
identification. Sense of belonging and identification alludes to feelings of
group acceptance and devotion. Common symbol systems help to maintain
boundaries and create unity amongst group members. Influence is bi-
directional and may stem from the member’s input in the group and/or the
group’s influence on members to attain conformity and control (McMillan &
Chavis, 1986).
This model has been applied to a range of settings (Fisher, Sonn, &
Bishop, 2002) and can be used to explore men’s groups because these
function as community by providing a context for support and belonging. We
used the model to examine men’s experiences in men’s groups in Perth,
Australia. We were specifically interested in, a) exploring the experiences
and perceptions of emotional and social support, and community men have in
these groups and, b) understanding how identity transformation is facilitated
in men’s groups.
Masculinity and the men’s group experience 9
Participants were 12 males ranging in age from 40 to 60 years (M
= 7.5, SD = 5.06). Participants who had the knowledge and experience of
men’s groups were invited to participate in this study. The majority of the
participants were Australian born, with one New Zealand born and one
United Kingdom born participant. Participants were recruited from the
community through the Men’s Health and Wellbeing Association
(M.H.W.A.) of Western Australia. All had been, or were currently,
members of a men’s group.
Ten participants came from four different group settings that
focused primarily on men’s personal growth issues, and two participants
were involved with a domestic violence group. Some participants were
currently members of more than one group. All groups were open and
followed an unstructured group psychotherapy model (Pence & Paymar,
1993). Group numbers varied from three members in one group, and a
range of five to 30 in the other groups. At the time of interviewing, the
average length of membership was four years (with a range of 6 months -
10 years).
Educational backgrounds ranged from basic high school
certificates to university postgraduates. Seven of the participants had been
married, and six have children. Six men reported immediate family
availability as a support network, and three-reported availability of
extended family.
Masculinity and the men’s group experience 10
A semi-structured interview schedule was used to guide the
interviewing. Following two pilot interviews with two men previously
involved in men’s groups to establish the face validity and clarity of the
questions, some questions were re-worded and some omitted (Smith, 1995).
Questions included: “Can you tell me how you came to join a men’s
group?” “So, what has it been like? What has happened for you in your
time in groups?” “What does being a member in the group mean to you?”
“In terms of being a man, have you found your (masculine) identity has
Participants were recruited through the M.H.W.A. Copies of
information and consent letters were sent to key members of different
men’s groups and these were passed on to members. On expression of
interest, members contacted the researcher by phone and an interview
appointment was organized.
Participants were interviewed in-depth, using a semi-structured
schedule. Interviews were tape recorded and lasted from 30 to 90 minutes.
On completion, demographics were collected and participants were de-
briefed and any further questions regarding the study were answered. The
researcher kept a diary and entries about values and interests were made
after each interview. Documentation such as these gives a more complete
account of the research process (Pidgeon & Henwood, 1997). After 12
interviews saturation had occurred and interviewing stopped.
Masculinity and the men’s group experience 11
Data Analysis
Data analysis followed the procedures outlined by Smith (1995)
and those of Miles and Huberman (1984). After re-reading the transcript
several times, memos and notes were made, and categorization and coding
for data reduction commenced. To facilitate data analysis, each paragraph
of the transcript was numbered, and significant sentences were underlined
in blue pen. These were determined by the meaning they conveyed in
relation to answering the research questions and demonstrating the salient
features of the participants’ experiences.
An independent analyst read and analyzed the data. Agreement of
relevant and recurrent themes was decided after discussion and clarification
of issues (e.g., reviewing relevant literature). This verification process
ensures the transcript, or paragraphs, reflect the themes and categories
interpreted by the researcher (Denzin & Lincoln, 1994). Secondly, where
possible, member checking was employed (Miles & Huberman, 1984).
Although limited, this involved contacting five participants and asking
them to verify the researcher’s interpretation and understanding of their
transcripts to ensure authenticity.
Findings and Discussion
The themes that developed reflected some aspects of sense of
community (membership, influence, and integration and fulfillment of
needs). The notion of social and emotional support was reflected
throughout the transcripts and was predominantly reported under the theme
of integration and fulfillment of needs. Another theme reflected the process
Masculinity and the men’s group experience 12
involved in the men’s group experience. Two categories were incorporated
in this theme: personal growth and gender role conflict. Quotations and
keywords have been used in reporting to illustrate themes.
Boundaries. Who belongs in a group and who does not is
determined by boundaries (McMillan & Chavis, 1986). Data suggested that
boundaries are internally created for these groups; they are determined by
differences in the way these men think and behave compared to what is
considered the ‘norm’ in Western society, typically the ‘macho’ hegemonic
masculinity. These attitude changes stem from group experiences. Work
places were common arenas for these feelings to surface - where power,
competition and other traditional male traits are displayed. For example,
according to one participant:
...but my way of relating to them [ work colleagues] and my
understanding of them is quite different of my experience in men’s
groups, because they can all pretend to be macho types, and to be a
bunch of racists and sexists, but I also know that the vast majority
of them have another side, although they are hiding it .....
The participant continued: “They know that something is wrong but they
haven’t got to the point where it’s hurting them enough that they are going
to do something about it.” This notion of us/them was reflected in many
participants’ stories.
This aspect of boundaries is important and serves to create a
context that is perceived to be separate from the ‘outside world’ and owned
by members. A participant highlighted this by saying: “Because outside of
Masculinity and the men’s group experience 13
that I don’t have anything like that, so it’s like my view for the common
Common symbol system. When participants were asked to give an
account of a typical group experience they reported using certain social
conventions and collective representations such as “rituals”, “ceremonies”,
“rules,” and customary behavior. These characteristics were common
across groups, and provided a social bond that facilitated smooth
functioning within the groups, and fostered emotional security. The
following description illustrates a typical group format:
Firstly, we start off with a meditation,... and there’s a sharing circle
format. Then we open the floor for sharing, and there’s a talking
staff and you take that, and they have an open floor to discuss - and
they deal with whatever issue they want to with an atmosphere of
non-judgmental listening, and you don’t give feedback.
Another participant’s experience was:
and after that [meditation] we ring a Tibetan bell and everyone
would sit around and we light the candles on the floor and we read
the charter for the men’s group, which is that we meet for men’s
fellowship and there is an opportunity for personal growth... We
speak from the ‘I’. That is very important that we don’t start
lecturing or talking about other people. Everything must be from
‘me’ or ‘my’ personal experience....
An important rule that must be practiced and adhered to is listening.
Personal story telling is an important part of the group process, where
members are given the opportunity to tell their story. A “talking stick” is
used to give the holder the right to speak without interruption (Barton,
1998). Used to organize the group, this ritual also serves to empower and
Masculinity and the men’s group experience 14
honor members. This ideology is explained in the following quotation:
We don’t allow people to give advice - so we have a talking stick.
When you hold the stick it works. So, in situations where men are
together it is quite competitive, so one might tend to hold the fort
more than others and interject, but with this system that can’t
Physical contact between members is encouraged and is an accepted
characteristic of group behavior. However, this is gradually introduced to
new members and is optional.
Emotional safety. Emotional safety is concerned with the security
members’ feel within their group. Membership criteria establish boundaries
that provide the emotional security that facilitates group intimacy
(McMillan & Chavis, 1986). Interview data indicated that these men felt
security and acceptance among members in the context they had created.
For example, comments like: “it was a safe place to go....,” and, from
another: “I have learnt in that environment to take risk....” This sense of
security stems from an understanding and agreement of membership
protocol. Risk-taking generally related to truth-telling and self-disclosing
when telling personal stories. Hence, “confidentiality is imperative” and is
“part of the charter”(ground rules developed by group members) for all
groups. This fosters feelings of safety and confidence to “speak openly.”
When asked what it has been like in the group, one participant responded:
It’s been safe. I felt safe and confident. I can’t tell my mates how I
Masculinity and the men’s group experience 15
feel. And I can delve into how I’m feeling, and tell them almost
anything. I don’t mind speaking from the heart and speaking about
personal things. So we speak as openly as you feel for yourself.
Data revealed one of the most effective codes of conduct for
membership was the notion of speaking from the ‘I’ or sometimes called ‘I’
statements. This frame of reference protects members by facilitating “non-
judgmental comment” and reminds members to “never give advice.” As
one participant explained: “ ...where you can do it [talk] here because there
is no judgment, no ‘you said’, something I have learned, because it has to
be ‘I’ or ‘I’ feel, feeling ones….. No accusing stuff.”
Further, physical contact and sharing personal stories creates
intimacy and trust and a sense of emotional security. For example: “I think
the sort of hugging and stuff makes you really feel secure within the group -
the physical contact,” and, from another participant: “there is a sense of
knowledge about those people and a degree of trust comes out of that for
me.” Many respondents said they had never revealed that much to anyone
else before because they were now among a group of “common-focused
people” with “shared values”. For example, “.... you were taken very much
at face value, in a supportive sort of environment where everyone was there
for pretty much the same reason, because they were tired of the competitive
male society, and it was a refuge from it if you like...”. This sense of
emotional safety within the groups was consistent across transcripts.
Sense of belonging and identification. Responses reflecting sense
of belonging were mostly related to feelings of acceptance and relatedness.
Data suggested that these feelings were created and maintained by a safe
Masculinity and the men’s group experience 16
environment, familiarity with the group and shared value systems. The
following comment illustrates the notions of acceptance and relatedness,
and also reflects the presence of an ‘unconditional positive regard’ for
…suddenly there was this forum where I could talk about the
problems I was having .....and I didn’t talk about that to anyone
before that....they allow me to express my feelings and to
recognize how I am feeling and also see other men doing the same
thing.....And that is what I found was the greatest, or biggest thing
for me was that I suddenly was among a group of men who I could
relate to in quite a deep way, and trust, and a feeling of
camaraderie that I had never experienced in any other place.
Sense of belonging and identification is shown to be an important, positive
phenomenon for these men in transition, who have experienced low self-
esteem and vulnerability related to personal crises and gender role conflict.
The findings show most groups endorsed shared leadership where
they; “…acknowledge no expert, so we take expertise from each
other...and we take it in turns to be facilitator.” The role of influence is
central to these groups as this is linked to personal empowerment. This is
explained in these words:
[influence] is related to so many of these issues of what it is to
be a man. I mean part of our Western society’s conception of
man is dog sort of stuff. This is the traditional conception
of maleness, the competitiveness, and top dog. But that’s why
there are certain understood which their
[member’s] own sense of their worth is being re-built through
this process.
Traditional male-role socialization encourages men to control others, attain
Masculinity and the men’s group experience 17
power, achieve and compete. In men’s groups, these behaviors are
discouraged, and the notion of equality and honoring members is promoted
in men’s peer mutual support groups that share leadership and give
feedback when asked. This ideology fosters personal empowerment and a
sense of mattering to the group and to other members.
Data showed a need to conform by adhering to group protocol, and
adapting to a new community narrative where an alternative way of
viewing masculinity is taught. This involved changes in attitude and
behaviors towards other men. Some members reported difficulties in
adapting and one felt “quite traumatized and unsettled by having physical
contact with other men....” This is further illustrated by the following
comments: “so I am not used to hugging men...there was no doubt at all I
was homophobic. ”
These responses reflect a traditional male role trait – homophobia,
a feature of hegemonic masculinity. Although challenging, data suggested
showing affection became an accepted way of relating to other men. This
was noted across transcripts including the domestic violence group.
Integration and Fulfillment of Needs
Integration and fulfillment of needs relates to reinforcement and
rewards for members, and is central to sense of community. Needs are
determined by values and goals, and if shared by members, need-fulfillment
is facilitated. In turn, people are able to meet their own and other people’s
needs (McMillan & Chavis, 1986). Data analysis reflected several
important needs being met through membership in these groups. Common
Masculinity and the men’s group experience 18
to most transcripts were shared goals, such as; “personal growth”, “lifestyle
change”, and “the fellowship of other men.” Joining a men’s group gave
members “new life skills” and “structure.” Other respondents reported the
benefits of learning new ways of behaving towards other men. For
example: “ learn to relate to men and to learn to see men as friends….
who can actually nurture me rather than being competitors....”
Most participants reported a “crisis” or “turning point’ in their life
which triggered a need to seek some form of emotional support. This was
reflected in comments such as: “I was in a state of pretty deep despair.”
Another respondent said: “I found that first group quite an anchor within
my life, a life-buoy at that time.” A common theme was relationship
breakdown, where a lack of emotional support was felt. This created a need
to re-structure their lives: “It has given structure to the week, and if I didn’t
go I would feel a bit lost I think,” and: “.... it’s community, it’s family.”
A need for lifestyle change was also apparent in many transcripts,
where conflict between family, work and social relations was realized. The
following comment reflects this: “I worked very long hours and didn’t have
a good social network.” Data suggested membership offered emotional
support at three levels including social, psychological and physical.
Physical support came from contact, such as “hugging,” “holding hands”
and “linking arms.” Emotional support was reflected across transcripts, and
was offered formally in the group and informally (outside the group
structure). When participants were asked about their greatest gains the
following words were echoed by many: “The feeling of support. Feeling of
Masculinity and the men’s group experience 19
not being alone....” Strong friendships and bonding were reflected
throughout all transcripts. The following comment illustrates this well:
The greatest gain would be the close relationships I have
developed from it. And the people in the group for a long time are
my friends, and they are people I know that I can depend on - and
they can depend on me, and we will always be friends because of
our joint experience.
Another rewarding experience was learning the value of ‘talking,’
expressing emotions and sharing problems through personal story-telling.
One respondent described this by: “...and I didn’t talk about that to anyone
before that, and it was like a pressure valve - a real release.” Although self-
disclosure and “emotional release” held personal risk, this need was
reflected in many transcripts. For example, “So, I need to talk…,” and from
another: “....and the words…. if someone just listens to me get it out.....”
Many participants acknowledged the personal growth and improved
lifestyles they had experienced with comments such as: “’s been
basically a big learning curve...” and: “ has improved my relationship
with my family....the awareness has improved.” Generally, this growth
referred to learning to relate to, and respect, women and other men, express
feelings, listen, empathize and increase self-knowledge.
Respondents expressed a need to address issues around male
sexuality more, suggesting this topic had been neglected in the past.
Comments such as, “I was surprised how little sex was talked about,”
Masculinity and the men’s group experience 20
and from another, “it [sex] was just never brought up.” One
participant explained: “It is a real confronting issue, especially for
men, more than women. For blokes it is really confronting. The
macho part - the lack of sensuality that men have ....”.
Personal Change and Identity Transformation
Although the sense of community framework was useful to
understand some of the experiences men have in their groups, it was only by
viewing each transcript in its entirety that a clear picture of the process of
personal change was revealed. Personal change is a key function of these
groups and was a strong theme evident in the data. According to
Mankowski and Rappaport (1995), “identity represents self-knowledge
about the past, present, and future” (p.215), and may also be conceptualized
to include two levels of analysis -- personal identity (the individual), and
group or shared identity. In the present study, personal change and identity
transformation relates to the process these men have experienced in the
groups, and the outcomes that result from group involvement.
Data indicated many gains from membership, however a consistent
gain across interviews was emotional support. The development of this
support helps these men through their transition phase. The group provides
a community narrative and this is adopted as a new masculine ideology or
narrative that facilitates personal growth and reduces gender role conflict.
Numerous responses related to identity transformation were categorized as
personal growth and gender role conflict.
Masculinity and the men’s group experience 21
Personal growth. Personal growth refers to increased self-
understanding and knowledge that these men acquired (Markus & Nurius,
1986). Personal story-telling and sharing a community narrative were
important aspects of this process, and also facilitated identity
transformation. Participants reported positive learning outcomes such as: will be exploring all sorts of different ways of expression.
The other aspect of that is learning perhaps through words, or the
use of words to even find out what feelings are inside, so for me
part of my claiming manhood, or finding manhood, is actually
getting in touch with feelings, so talking….
The findings showed that these men had learnt new ways of relating to
other men and to seeing themselves. During this process they had also
attained an increased realization of their own needs and values. However, in
discussing personal growth, some participants expressed a need to seek
outside help in conjunction with group work, suggesting, “men’s groups are
not enough”, and that, individual therapy, family of origin work or couples
counseling may be required (Meth & Pasick, 1990). Again, this reflected
the divergent needs of members with some content to “stay where they
were”, and others needing more “challenges”.
Gender role conflict. For many of these men, this psychological
state operated at two levels. Firstly, it served as a motivation and catalyst
for joining groups, as one respondent explains: “....there hasn’t really been
any rights of passage for men, in our Western society, no pathways. You
Masculinity and the men’s group experience 22
know where am I learning what is a man?” Secondly, gender role conflict
was often experienced during the transformation process, and caused
confusion. Numerous responses reflected this experience during the initial
process, and were illustrated by the following:
I thought I was losing it [identity]. I felt in the early days of the
group I really was losing it a bit there. I was really confused, and I
didn’t know where I was going. A bit lost.....but [now] I feel I can
still be a bloke, but I don’t have to be a man’s man though. Yeah,
I’m more myself. I am myself.
When asked, “In terms of being a man, have you found your identity has
changed,” one participant responded: “For me it has blurred the boundaries
between the genders a lot more so I feel more like just a person. And I used
to feel I had to adopt the role in the past of a male.”
Many respondents discussed identity transformation in relation to
personal change, for example: “I have softened. I no longer consider myself
like an island.” However, it became apparent that these men did not
perceive an identity ‘change’, but rather a sense of their identity re-
surfacing (Colling, 1992; Horrocks, 1995). For example: “I don’t think I
had an identity a few years ago. So now I can accept and know more who I
am...”. Data analysis revealed this realization of ‘true identity’ was a
positive outcome, and was embraced by these men. This is clearly depicted
in the quotation:
[the question] implies there is a knowledge of what my identity
Masculinity and the men’s group experience 23
was and that has changed from what it was to what it is now. I
probably wouldn’t respond to that [question], but it would be far
closer to the truth to say that a far greater and clearer sense of my
identity as a male has emerged. It’s great to be male. But an
identity of who I am has evolved out through, sort of, the part of
the whole process I have been through has included the Men’s
Group. But in becoming increasingly happy with the person I am,
and part of that is me as a man, and there are still challenges to that
at times.
Findings revealed that these men had rejected their socially
constructed male roles and were now discovering and confirming their ‘real
self’, which seems to be clearly transformed from Connell’s (1987; 1995)
hegemonic masculinity. Although a positive outcome, some participants
expressed difficulty integrating this “true” identity into their lives outside
the group. For example: “I still find I am guarded in my workplace, dealing
with all this corporate stuff and it’s a fairly macho type workplace. I guess I
don’t fit very well.” In some cases, particularly work places, there was still
pressure to conform to societal norms. However, the group provided a
context where authenticity could be enjoyed, an alternative to hegemonic
masculinity. For example: “It was a place to go where we took down our
normal society mask, so we could just be ourselves - be frail, just be
ordinary, don’t have to be strong, or whatever.”
General Discussion
The aim of this study was to investigate the experiences of men
participating in Australian men’s groups. McMillan and Chavis’ (1986)
sense of community model guided the inquiry. The findings showed that
the role and function of men’s groups could be fruitfully investigated using
Masculinity and the men’s group experience 24
the framework. Analyses also provided insight about process of personal
change and identity transformation resulting from group involvement.
Men join groups for different reasons in their search for
communitas (Schwalbe, 1996). Some join because of feelings of
dissatisfaction with life and the need for personal growth work. Others
experienced a crisis and this was the main motivation for joining. Life
crises included relationship breakdowns, divorce, custody battles or
personal loss, resulting in men questioning life choices and searching for
meaning (Rabinowitz & Cochran, 1994). Many of these men’s stories
reflected some of these characteristics, including a re-evaluation of
masculinity (Brod, 1987; Levant, 1992), with men asking themselves what
it is to be a man. These groups were made up of men who shared a common
goal of personal growth and identity redefinition (Levy, 1978). According
to Patience (1991), culture is a critical force in shaping consciousness.
Australia’s hard culture places a “high value on masculinist sexism” that
constructs maleness in rigid ways, expecting men to be stoic and in control
of their emotions, while bonding with their “mates”(p.33). All groups,
including the domestic violence group, used a model that draws upon
psychoanalytical analysis. This group structure and ideology was common
across all transcripts with data reflecting shared leadership, all-male peer
support, an openness to men’s experiences (Pence & Paymar, 1993), and a
focus on individual and psychological, rather than political, context
(Clatterbaugh, 1997).
An interesting finding was that data from the two men in the
Masculinity and the men’s group experience 25
domestic violence group was no different than the other men interviewed.
The results showed that social and emotional support is developed through
membership in men’s groups. The groups’ provide members with a safe
environment to exchange personal stories, and participate in the
reconstruction of notions of masculinity. The way in which the groups
operated to provide emotional support and reconstruction of masculinity
can be understood in terms of the sense of community model. For example,
membership provides these men with a sense of belonging and acceptance,
while boundaries and a common symbol system work together to foster
emotional safety and shared emotional connection (McMillan & Chavis,
1986). This creates trust and encourages intimacy, honesty and self-
disclosure (McMillan, 1996), which are not generally considered
‘masculine’ in Australian culture (Patience, 1991).
In these groups, common symbol systems (McMillan & Chavis,
1986) play a central role in helping to maintain boundaries, providing
structure, and creating unity amongst members. Certain social conventions
and collective representations such as rituals, rules, ceremonies (e.g., sacred
circle), and behaviors (hugging) are used in the groups and facilitate the
development of a group narrative. Thus, these symbols and processes can
be seen to perform an integrative and unifying function. This is a vital
feature of a context within which change can take place. It has been shown
that people seeking change often find it difficult to maintain change without
the support of a group that provides a communal narrative in which they
can sustain changes in their own personal story (Rappaport, 1993).
Masculinity and the men’s group experience 26
The value of personal story telling and expressing emotions for
identity change was highlighted in the present study. The need to be
expressive and self-disclose was strongly reflected across interviews and
viewed by participants as a positive cathartic experience. This is in contrast
to socialization of men to be emotionally inexpressive. Past studies have
shown that self-disclosure is an important aspect of emotional intimacy
(Lewis, 1978), and story telling fosters empowerment and identity
development (Rappaport, 1995). The exchanging of personal stories helped
men to realize that other men think and feel the same way, and having a
common group narrative gave them an alternative masculinity to work
towards. One of the key findings in this present study was that a process of
‘self-discovery’ had been experienced. These men reported finding their
‘true’ identities, or reclaiming their identities, through group involvement
and group process, rather than changing their identities. Others (e.g.
Horrocks, 1994) have alluded to the masculine gender acting as a ‘mask’ or
disguise, using the psychotherapy term ‘false self.’ Several participants
referred to the idea of the ‘mask’ when discussing their real ‘authentic’
Markus and Nurius (1986) proposed the concept of possible
selves, which describes a person’s ideal self, and also pertains to how one
would think about their potential. The idea of possible selves functions as
Masculinity and the men’s group experience 27
an incentive for future behavior and compliments the notion of self-
knowledge. It could be that men’s groups operate on this principle, using a
group narrative to provide an idealized version of masculinity. Although
these men’s groups were not identified as mythopoetic groups, it was noted
that their group narratives (common symbol systems) were based in a
particular set of ideological belief systems and expectations. As such, these
groups share similar characteristics with mythopoetic groups. For example,
rituals such as forming a sacred circle, storytelling, and using a talking stick
(Mankowski, 2000; Wilson & Mankowski, 2000), have been borrowed
from other cultures, and are based on mythology. This implies that
masculinity can be viewed as a cultural construction (Pleck, Sonenstein &
Ku, 1993).
Similar to Wilson and Mankowski (2000), this research
emphasizes the importance of social support and meaningful same-sex
friendships for men. Even though men are less likely than women to
develop social emotional support networks, and when faced with a life
crisis they are often isolated and depressed, the emotional and social
support is a key factor in promoting self-development and helping men
through crises (Meth & Pasick, 1990). In addition, past studies suggest that
men are less likely to seek counseling, preferring alternative forms of help
such as seminars, workshops and group interaction (e.g., Good et al., 1989;
Masculinity and the men’s group experience 28
Robertson & Fitzgerald, 1992). Findings from this study indicated that
these all-male groups were well suited to dealing with gender role conflict
and men’s issues.
Several participants from the present study stated that the
interview process had reinforced the value of group membership, and
increased motivation for them to continue. Hence, obtaining information by
attempting to understand a person’s own construction of their social world
can provide valuable information regarding men’s successful coping and
adaptation. This knowledge may have implications for developing
strategies and interventions aimed at improving men’s social and emotional
support systems, and provide the foundations for future research. Such
strategies might involve building on existing structures and integrating
some of the effective strategies used within men’s groups into other
settings. These could be developed as information evenings for introducing
men to their emotions (Meth & Pasick, 1990). This would also involve
encouraging them to use the available support systems and learn the
importance of emotional support. These forums may attract men who are
not ready for a men’s group experience, or individual counseling, but are
seeking some direction, personal change and emotional support. An
important strategy for encouraging participation should involve breaking
down the stereotypes about men who join men’s groups through
Masculinity and the men’s group experience 29
community education campaigns. An earlier intervention could also be
developed for secondary high school students to help dispel the dominant
myths created by society. These could be held in schools in a seminar series
and could teach young males the importance of self-understanding,
expressing emotions and the role of emotional support.
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... A recent study on Australian perceptions of traditional masculinity reveals that some of these social pressures around what it means to be a man continue to prevail which, in turn, have resulted in aversive consequences for many men (Irvine et al., 2018). This is because such views traditionally position those who don't conform to social stereotypes as outsiders which, in turn, encourages social exclusion and marginalisation (Reddin & Sonn, 2003). ...
Full-text available
This qualitative exploratory study focuses on understanding meat-eating practices in urban Australia and urban India, with a view towards encouraging a reduced-meat diet in both countries.
... Without fail, groups of men like this small group -as others before them -take advantage of the healing that becomes accessible through talking and sharing stories, breaking with the societal taboo against the expression of male vulnerability. Conventional male competitiveness is set aside in favour of the usually disavowed narratives of sorrow and unpleasant emotions (Reddin & Sonn, 2003). ...
... Greater intimacy and emotionality between men in some post-industrial societies has also been explored by those drawing on inclusive masculinity theory (see for e.g. McCormack 2012;, as well as in research by , though with the boundaries of heterosexuality strictly policed in these interactions (see also Reddin and Sonn 2003). ...
This chapter investigates the emergence and valuing of more progressive, positive or open forms of masculinity, while keeping continuing harmful expressions of masculinity in mind. One route towards openness emerges as masculinity, mobility and paid work are reconfigured in connection with one another, though this constitutes a privileged form of work towards openness, and by no means the only one. The chapter also teases out potentials for masculinities emerging from greater scope for men’s expression and a lessening of discourses of stark differences between men and women. Positive developments in terms of men’s caring in friendships and work lives are highlighted too, even if this caring contrasts to the forms of care work women are obligated to perform. The narratives explored in this chapter highlight that while there is still much work to be done, it is possible for more advantaged men to move towards greater egalitarianism.
... Greater intimacy and emotionality between men in some post-industrial societies has also been explored by those drawing on inclusive masculinity theory (see for e.g. McCormack 2012;, as well as in research by , though with the boundaries of heterosexuality strictly policed in these interactions (see also Reddin and Sonn 2003). ...
This chapter draws together the book’s focus on ongoing harmful expressions of masculinity amongst more advantaged men alongside emerging openness, suggesting a focus on both is important in efforts towards change. A key argument is that individual attitudinal and behavioural change is important and possible, but this must be in conjunction with wider efforts and change and broader structural shifts in configurations of gender, work and relationality. In a cultural moment where harmful forms of masculinity have been put under the spotlight, an opportunity exists for change and redirection, and it is thus imperative that open, feminist alternatives for masculinity be offered to men. Revolutionary pathways towards equality are being fostered by those in the margin, pathways towards which more privileged men can move on the terms of those in the margin.
... Greater intimacy and emotionality between men in some post-industrial societies has also been explored by those drawing on inclusive masculinity theory (see for e.g. McCormack 2012;, as well as in research by , though with the boundaries of heterosexuality strictly policed in these interactions (see also Reddin and Sonn 2003). ...
This chapter takes an intersectional lens to explore privilege and the necessity of ‘studying up’. It initially delves into the concepts of open and closed masculinities, based on a framework of margin-centre. These concepts provide useful devices for considering privilege in terms of men and masculinities, but also situate the margin as a site of openness and possibility, following the work of bell hooks. The chapter then explores intersections of whiteness, class privilege, heterosexuality and masculinity. Key concepts in the field of critical studies on men and masculinities are investigated as well as newer theoretical and conceptual advancements, and overviews of the hegemonic forms of masculinity in Australia and Germany are presented. The chapter concludes with a profile of structures of work and gender in both countries, focusing on the mediating effects of privilege on rising precarity.
... Greater intimacy and emotionality between men in some post-industrial societies has also been explored by those drawing on inclusive masculinity theory (see for e.g. McCormack 2012;, as well as in research by , though with the boundaries of heterosexuality strictly policed in these interactions (see also Reddin and Sonn 2003). ...
This chapter explores continuing expressions, practices, beliefs and discourses of masculinity amongst advantaged men that constitute barriers to greater equality, considering these as examples of closed masculinities. It investigates the ways in which some men deploy discursive distancing as a means of balancing contemporary contradictory requirements for men to be both hard and softer. Older discourses of women as ruled by emotions, and as therefore less suited to career and friendships, are also unpacked and problematised, as is the salience of worries amongst some heterosexual men that they will be perceived as gay. These worries equate socially unacceptable male forms of homosexuality with femininity, but can exist alongside accepting and inclusive attitudes towards LGBTQIA+ people, as this chapter illustrates. The chapter concludes with an exploration of stories about fathers as traditional, distant and unemotional, contrasting with the more reworked or open expressions of masculinity emerging amongst some contemporary young men.
... Greater intimacy and emotionality between men in some post-industrial societies has also been explored by those drawing on inclusive masculinity theory (see for e.g. McCormack 2012;, as well as in research by , though with the boundaries of heterosexuality strictly policed in these interactions (see also Reddin and Sonn 2003). ...
This chapter explores contradictions, challenges and possibilities of contemporary masculinities. It considers how young, more advantaged men challenge the boundaries of harmful forms of masculinity in some ways, but draw on them in others. A key focus of the chapter is the ability for more privileged men to utilise mobility and flexibility in service of career and personal life advancement. Pressures of masculinity are investigated too, such as the threat of violence, expectations of men’s behavior—particularly surrounding alcohol consumption—and proscriptions against men showing emotions or seeking help. Contemporary young men are in many cases searching for more fulfilling ways to be men. Without accessible feminist guidelines for change, a search for ‘true’ or ‘essential’ masculinity can ensue, as this chapter explores. This search draws on discourses of men as having lost their place and identity in late modernity, overlooking structural challenges in terms of gender and work under neoliberalism.
... Greater intimacy and emotionality between men in some post-industrial societies has also been explored by those drawing on inclusive masculinity theory (see for e.g. McCormack 2012;, as well as in research by , though with the boundaries of heterosexuality strictly policed in these interactions (see also Reddin and Sonn 2003). ...
This chapter turns to possibilities and openness of masculinities being fostered in the margin. Drawing on the work of bell hooks, the margin is positioned as the site where open possibilities for masculinities are fostered, openness towards which men with greater privilege can move. This chapter highlights the biography and narratives of one man in the margin, considering some of the ways in which he deconstructed masculinity, gender, sexuality and power and modelled what might be considered a form of caring masculinity. The chapter rejects the glorification of disadvantage, while simultaneously illuminating the possibilities for those outside the privileged centre to model or be the vanguard for more open forms of masculinity.
We present a conceptual framework for relational interventions focused on helping boys and men navigate harmful socialization occurring in U.S. dominant culture, one which upholds a restrictive image of manhood that gives rise to health problems and social injustice. Drawing from relational-cultural theory, we frame the crises linked to hegemonic masculine socialization as shaped by interpersonal and sociocultural disconnections that keep boys and men in rigid confines of what is expected of "real men," which are detrimental to their well-being and operate to maintain oppression and violence. To work against the relational and societal ways that hegemonic masculinity is taught and reinforced, we view boys' and men's experiences in connection with others and in community as the central context in which healthy masculinities develop. Experiences in growth-fostering relationships of empathy, mutuality, and empowerment can help boys and men reject hegemonic relational dynamics and promote human capacities for vulnerability, connection, and compassion into healthy and flexible ways of being men in the world. We view these relational experiences as critical to prevention, health promotion, and social change efforts at the social, community, and systems levels. To that end, we offer recommendations for interventions to engage boys and men in collectively dismantling hegemonic masculinity and developing healthy masculinities. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2022 APA, all rights reserved).
American men experience worse outcomes on a wide range of health and well-being variables compared to women, including disease, educational problems, violence, addiction, suicide, unemployment, and life expectancy. Because of this, organizations have created programs that focus on helping men both psychologically and spiritually; however, it is important to assess the effectiveness of these programs. The Crucible Project, founded in 2002, attempts to facilitate the development of integrity, courage, and grace in men using a weekend retreat format. The purpose of this pilot study was to explore the effect of the weekend retreat on participants’ authenticity, assertiveness, and willingness to forgive (i.e. empirical constructs analogous to integrity, courage, and grace, respectively). Participants ( N = 22) completed measures before the weekend retreat (Time 1), immediately after the weekend retreat (Time 2), and at a 1-month follow-up (Time 3). Results indicate that weekend retreat participants demonstrated a significant increase in scores on measures of authenticity and willingness to forgive and a trend toward increased scores on the measure of assertiveness over time. We conclude by discussing limitations of the study, areas for future research, and implications for spiritual and character development.
Full-text available
Tested theory that adherence to the traditional male gender role and help-seeking attitudes and behaviors are related. Ss were 401 undergraduate men who completed measures of help-seeking attitudes and behaviors, attitudes toward the stereotypic male role, and gender role conflict factors (i.e., success/power/competition, restrictive emotionality, and restrictive affectionate behavior between men). Canonical analysis and regression indicated that traditional attitudes about the male role, concern about expressing emotions, and concern about expressing affection toward other men were each significantly related to negative attitudes toward seeking professional psychological assistance. Restrictive emotionality also significantly predicted decreased past help-seeking behavior and decreased likelihood of future help seeking. The implications of these results for theory, research, and counseling practice are discussed.
A common way for researchers to think about mutual help organizations is as alternative treatments for people with problems in living. This approach, illustrated here in the context of a series of empirical studies conducted by the author, views people as service seekers. Although much can be gained from research in which there is collaboration between professionals and the self-help community, there remains a need for work that uses theories and methods consistent with the experiences of the members and the ethos of the organizations. A different way to understand mutual help organizations is to view them as normative narrative communities where identity transformation takes place. This approach forces us to listen to the personal stories that people tell about their lives. It has several advantages, including the reduction of professional centrism and the explicit linking of individual lives to community processes. A narrative studies framework also has the advantage of tying mutual help to a great deal of cross-disciplinary research, including cognitive psychology, anthropology, sociology, and literary analysis. General features of models for understanding the role of narratives, autobiographical memory, and personal change through identity transformation are described in the context of mutual help organizations.
In recent years, the development of an apparent `crisis' in male well-being (and, more specifically, in male mental health) has become a focus of media and academic interest. This crisis has been linked to disruptions in the traditional system of gender relations, with men being problematically positioned within a changed social context, especially in relation to issues of emotion. In this study, articles on men's health in a British broadsheet newspaper are subjected to discourse analysis to examine the ways in which the crisis in male mental health has been rhetorically constructed. The analysis suggests that it is constructed as arising from the enactment of a traditional, hegemonic masculinity (seen as militating against emotional expression), gender role changes in the employment and sexual domains and the advance of women. Despite an apparent acknowledgement of a need for change, alternative enactments of masculinity are undermined. The implications of these analyses are explored.
While recent research has indicated that men's social support resources may be inferior to women's due to societal sex roles, the literature on the consequences of this disadvantage has been mixed. This study explored the hypothesis that men have developed methods of obtaining support which do not conflict with their masculine values. It was proposed that (1) men prefer to receive nurturance from women, and (2) social drinking may facilitate supportive exchanges involving males by easing restrictions against traditionally feminine behaviors. The results were consistent with these hypotheses. It was found that the level of the 205 male subjects' belief in traditional sex-role values was negatively related to a number of social support variables. The subjects also reported a clear preference for females as primary sources of emotional support. Finally, social drinking was found to be a significant positive factor in supportive exchanges particularly when they occurred between men.