Academic journal article The Journal of Men's Studies

Masculinities, Change, and Conflict in Global Society: Thinking about the Future of Men's Studies

Academic journal article The Journal of Men's Studies

Masculinities, Change, and Conflict in Global Society: Thinking about the Future of Men's Studies

Article excerpt


Discussions about the nature of masculinity, the character of men as a specific group, and men in a context of gender relations have a history of a little more than a hundred years. Though the word "masculine" as a synomym for "male" is a very old word (it was used by Chaucer in the 14th century), the terms "masculinity," "masculinize," "masculinism," etc. only came into common use in English in the last two decades of the 19th and the first two decades of the 20th century.

They were part of the cultural work then being done, in the bourgeois society of the industrialized countries, in response to the women's suffrage movement and its challenge to "sexuo-social inequalities," to borrow the term used by the great U.S. sociologist Lester Ward (1883/1897). The concept of masculinity then had a slightly conservative flavour, suggesting that these inequalities were rooted in permanent differences of character between men and women.

From the start, however, this idea was contested. Ward himself was a strong supporter of equality between women and men and was convinced that social progress would iron out most of the differences between men's and women's lives. In the next generation, the pioneering German educator Mathilde Vaerting produced, in her now-forgotten book The Dominant Sex (1921/1981), perhaps the most revolutionary theory of gender ever written. (Among other things she predicted the men's liberation movement.) She argued that masculinity and femininity, far from being fixed characters, basically reflected power relations. In societies where women held power, she argued, men showed the very characteristics that Western bourgeois society saw as quintessentially feminine.

This thesis of socially constructed gender character moved across the Atlantic, was taken up by Margaret Mead, Mirra Komarovsky, and Talcott Parsons in the mid-20th century, and turned into the concept of "sex roles." In this form it gained great popularity and became part of the common sense of social science, but also lost its original connection with the idea of gendered power and social inequality.

In its first generation of use, the term "masculinity" not only had anti-feminist overtones, but it had a clinical flavour as well. Femininity in men was seen as a source of sexual crime, especially (though not exclusively) homosexuality. Masculinity in women was also seen as a kind of pathology, especially threatening to the capacity to bear children. There are texts from health authorities of the day on the medical dangers of women's emancipation, so earnest it is hard to know whether to laugh or cry.

Simple notions of masculinity and femininity were also contested from within European medicine, especially from the developing field of psychiatry. Sigmund Freud, who insisted that notions of "masculinity" and "femininity" were among the most obscure in science, showed the internal complexity of personality, the co-existence of contradictory desires, and the dialectic between conscious and unconscious process. Alfred Adler, in the first important synthesis of psychoanalysis and feminism, showed how social power relations structured the development of personality and embedded gender hierarchy in individual desire. His notion of the "masculine protest" as a source of neurosis and social conflict is eerily relevant in the era of George W. Bush and Tony Blair. Over time, however, psychoanalysis became more conservative, increasingly committed to conventional concepts of masculinity and femininity as markers of mental health.

Against this background, the revived "sex role" research of the 1970s, the academic consequence of the women's liberation movement, could well appear radical. It suggested that gender behaviour patterns could change if role norms and expectations changed. The notion that the "male sex role" was a straitjacket for men, as the female role was for women, followed easily and provided the main theory for the progressive men's movement of the early 1970s. …

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