Academic journal article Thymos

Boys, Boyhood and the Construction of Masculinity: Guest Editor's Introduction

Academic journal article Thymos

Boys, Boyhood and the Construction of Masculinity: Guest Editor's Introduction

Article excerpt

This introductory article explains the aims of the interdisciplinary conference "Masculinity and the Other" held at Balliol College, Oxford, August 29-30, 2007, at which all of the papers comprising this special issue of Thymos: Journal of Boyhood Studies were first presented. It points out the prominence which the notions of the "boy" and boyhood and the life-cycle enjoyed at the conference and seeks more generally to suggest the benefits a more fully integrated discussion of these topics might bring to the fields of masculinity and gender studies.

Keywords: boys, boyhood, masculinity

In the scholarship of the last twenty years, there has been a major move away from treating gender as an essentialist identity. In particular, men's studies, which developed in the 1980s in response to a predominantly feminist critique of male power structures, have undergone a veritable sea-change. Instead of stressing the idea of innate and fundamental differences between men and women (sometimes termed the "separate-anddifferent cultures" mode11), masculine identity has been increasingly treated as a highly contingent social construct. No longer is the study of masculinity restricted to a relatively small number of academic fields (primarily sociology, psychology and cultural studies), but has become instead one of the most vibrant areas of interdisciplinary investigation. R.W. Connell (1998) has referred to this change as the "ethnographic moment" of the 1990s, when history, cultural anthropology and other disciplines grounded in empirical research and focused on the importance of cultural context became increasingly interested in the formation of male identity. The emergence of a range of new sub-disciplines focused on the study of masculinity has been the result. Prominent among these has been the history of masculinity which developed under the auspices of scholars such as John Tosh and Michael Roper in the early 1990s (Tosh & Roper, 1991; Tosh, 1994), and has since become one of the most popular and innovative fields of historical inquiry.

The move towards interdisciplinarity in masculinity studies has been accompanied by growing scepticism about the predominantly structuralist analyses which informed men's studies in the late 1970s and 1980s. Increasingly, scholars have questioned the claim of writers such as Andrew Tolson (1977) and Jeff Hearn (1987) that socio-economic structures and power relations have been chiefly responsible for determining forms of masculinity. In the 1990s, R.W. Connell (1995), among others, argued for a multiplicity of masculinities which did much to undermine existing ideas of male identity as essential and universal, possessed by all men, regardless of age, class, ethnicity or any other cultural marker. In recent years, however, Connell's own work has been criticized for being too closely wedded to a neo-Marxist methodology which unduly privileges the role played by power relations in the formation of identity. With the increasing popularity of social constructionist theories in masculinity studies, scholars such as Chris Haywood and Mairtin Mac an Ghaill (1997) have questioned Connell's emphasis on hegemony and hierarchy, arguing that it underestimates the extent to which the formation of masculine identity is characterized by fluidity, fragmentation and contradiction. Clearly, the impact of power relations cannot be ignored in any study of masculinity; their role, however, must be problematized as part of a critical analysis which does not treat them as constant and immovable.

In addition, some have argued that Connell's pro-feminist stance and preoccupation with the concept of gender oppression has led her to overestimate the importance of the male-female binary in the construction of masculine identity. More recently, scholars have stressed the need to examine how a variety of cultural markers such as age, class and ethnicity, as well as gender, interact and combine in the complex process of identity formation. …

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