Sincronia Summer 2007

Theorizing ‘Masculinity’ in Modernity

Dr. Jason L. Powell University of Liverpool, UK

Dr. Tim Owen University of Liverpool, UK

Introductory context

The notion of ‘masculinity’ is both an essentially contested concept and praxis of everyday human existence and social relations yet its understanding is complex. Bob Connell (2000), a major protagonist of masculinity studies, claims in the past 15 years there has been an increase of concern with issues about men – a ‘Men’s Studies’ movement has gained momentum in which Connell’s (2000) work is bound up. Indeed, men in general remain the principle holders of economic and political power. Men make up a large majority of corporate executives, top professionals and holders of political representation and mandate. Globally, men held 93% of cabinet-level posts in 1996 and most top positions in international agencies (Powell, 2006).

In Western culture in particular, men continue to control most technology such as the Internet (consider the major corporate ‘owners’ of Microsoft and Netscape – the two owners are men with a combined personal wealth of £97 billion – an amount which outstrips the combined GNP of most non-western nation-states) and weaponry (Powell, 2006); with only very limited exceptions it is men who staff and control the agencies of military force and judicial systems such as armies, intelligence agencies, police, prison and court systems (Connell, 2000).

There is also a clear connection between men and violence. In the USA, for example, men are 90% of those charged with aggravated assault, murder and manslaughter (Stanko, 1999). Men are much more likely than women to bear weapons: In the US, researchers have found rates of gun ownership among men running four times the rates for women, even after a campaign by the arms manufacturers to get women to buy guns (Connell, 2000). In the USA, UK and Europe, though both men and women can be involved in domestic violence, men are far more likely than women to be the perpetrators of serious injury against their partners (Stanko, 1999).

Men are also more likely than women to be the targets of certain kinds of violence. They are more likely to be casualties in combat such as war. They are more likely to be the victims of assault in public violence such as ‘brawls’ and ‘fights’, and victims of what might be called ‘business violence’ such as the intimidation and murder associated with the illicit drug trade especially in USA (Connell, 2000). Men are also more likely to be arrested and imprisoned (Sim, 1996). In Australia and USA, for instance, 94% of prisoners are men. Men as a group gain real and large advantages from current system of gender relations; the scale of this dividend is indicated by the fact that men’s earned incomes, world-wide, are about 180% of women’s (Connell, 2000).

Such power, control and male involvement in the complex web of major systems of domination are often thought to be "natural" either prescribed by God or a consequence of biology (Connell, 2000) – the insights of science were vocal in articlulating ‘truths’ about gendered behaviour concerned with shaping who gets what, when and how in contemporary society. Indeed, essentialist views of gender are still popular and are constantly reinforced in the media on a daily basis. However, they are increasingly under challenge: the rise and consolidation of the ‘women’s liberation movement’ and the many feminisms that have manifested from it have produced a disturbance in the popular imagination concerning ideas about gender and behaviour. Such acceleration and impetus of sociological work has focused on the social construction of masculinity.

The idea that masculinities are socially constructed goes back to early psychoanalysis and in social science research first took the shape of a social-psychological concept, the ‘male sex role’. Such an approach emphasised the learning of norms for conduct and has been popular in social areas of concern such as educational studies (Connell, 2000). However, sex role theory is inadequate for understanding the power and economic dimensions in gender. Further:

‘It is telling that discussions of 'the male sex role' have mostly ignored gay men and have had little to say about race and ethnicity. Sex role theory has a fundamental difficulty in grasping issues of power.’ (Connell, 2000, 27)

Connell (2000) points to an explosion in masculinity studies which focus on: marital sexuality, homophobic murders, body building culture, insurance industry, public and private violence, professional sports, criminal justice and literary genre. Connell (2000) calls such an array of research an "ethnographic moment" in which the local and the specific are emphasised.

What is Masculinity?

The modern term of ‘masculinity’ assumes that a person's or groups behaviour is a result of the type of person/group they are. It presupposes a belief in individual difference and personal agency. It builds upon the concept of individuality developed in early-modern Europe with colonialism and capitalism (Connell, 2000). It exists in contrast to ‘femininity’. This idea that men and women are qualitatively different did not exist until the 18th century and bourgeois ideology of separate spheres.

With the rise of ‘Enlightenment’ saw consolidation of embedded images of ‘white masculinity’. It was at this point that notions of reason, science, progress, and masculinity were merged into a unified concept of ‘manhood’. Reason and objectivity also provided the moral legitimacy for the rise of capitalism and the modern organisation of society. For philosophers such as Kant reason tempered by science could overcome feelings and intuition. At the time of Enlightenment, utilitarian doctrines were gaining momentum enshrined by ‘success is happiness’: As industrial capitalism and the world of machines grew and flourished, this rationality included competition, planning, and goal attainment.

Further, Powell (2005) makes point that men also learned to see themselves as extensions of the industrial world around them. They learned to see themselves in both body and mind as machines, which included rigorous discipline, precision, and self-control. For some men, fear of losing control also applies to sexuality such that emotional responses to sexual experience are seen as signs of weakness. Sexual expression becomes performance, with outcomes to be ranked and rated. Sexuality itself is related and shaped to what Connell (2000) refers to as ‘social structure’.

From this, Connell (2000) argues that the structures of power in our society create different forms of masculinity for different groups of men. The dominant masculinity Connell calls ‘hegemonic masculinity’, which includes the expectations of ‘manhood’ held by White upper-middle and upper class men (‘Hegemony’ derives from Gramsci which translates ‘dominant ideology’). Below hegemonic masculinity are several forms of subordinate masculinities. These include White working-class men and racial backgrounds. Subordinate groups of men carry out the work of dominant men (e.g., physical labour, subordination of women, upholding masculine imagery), but they do not reap the benefits of social dominance and political-economic control.

Furthermore, Connell (2000) identifies four main themes that have been used to characterise ‘masculinity’: firstly, essentialist definitions pick a feature that defines masculinity (risk-taking, aggression, responsibility, irresponsibility, and more) and describe men's lives according to it.; secondly, positivist definitions define masculinity as that which men actually are in terms of psychology, biology and physiology; thirdly, normative definitions offer a standard for what men ought to be like (aspirational standards) The problem with this is that we cannot define masculinity according to a standard that only a minute, if any, number of men actually meet; fourthly, semiotic approaches define masculinity through a system of symbolic difference between masculinity and femininity. Masculinity is defined as that which is not feminine. This definition uses masculinity as the master signifier, the place of symbolic authority, femininity is defined by lack. This definition has been very effective in cultural analysis.

Connell's argument is that rather than attempting to define masculinity, we should be focusing on ‘the processes and relationships through which men and women conduct gendered lives’ (2000, 78).

Indeed, when we refer to masculinity and femininity, we are talking about configurations of gender practice. Masculinity and femininity are gender projects which are ‘processes of configuring practice through time, which transform their starting-points in gender structures’ (Connell, 2000, 72). Connell (1995) claims these three projects can be used to study culture and society:

1) Individual life-course, personality or character

2) Discourse, ideology or culture

3) Institutions such as the state, schools, or workplace

To consolidate this, Connell describes a three-fold model of the structure of gender:

a) Power relations: in western society, the subordination of women and the domination of men, often referred to as patriarchy. It persists despite resistance.

b) Production relations: the gender division of labour and its consequences, the benefit that men gain from unequal shares of the product, and the gender character of capital.

c) Cathexis: the gendered character of sexual desire and the practices that shape that desire which are aspects of the gender order. For example, the relationship between heterosexuality and men's position of dominance.

Connell (2000) notes that gender, as a way of structuring social practice, is unavoidably connected to other social structures, ‘race’ and class for example. Gender intersects with ‘race’ and class. For instance, white men's masculinities are constructed in relation to black men as well as in relation to white women. White masculinity is fused with institutional power. Also class masculinities, for example. Working class masculinities depend on class as much as they do gender relations. The argument behind this is that to understand gender we must constantly go beyond it. We must not only recognise multiple masculinities, we must investigate the gender relations between them – historically, inter-personally, locally, and globally in order to explain the manifestation of dominant ideas which centre on ‘masculinity’.

However, such perspectives may well be useful in conceptualising ‘masculinity’ as a form of gender identity, but they contain shortcomings in relation to the conceptualisation of male sexuality. As Ridley [1999] has suggested, after over twenty five years of research into behavioural genetics it is impossible to deny that genes do influence behaviour. However, environmental influences are equally important too, if not more so. We need to recognise the mutuality between ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’ and avoid reductionist and essentialist forms of theoretical reasoning. Tim Owen [2005, 2006 [forthcoming]] cautions against the use of two illicit form of reasoning in bio-social theoretical analysis, which he terms ,’the oversocialised gaze’ and ‘genetic fatalism’. ‘Genetic fatalism’ is the equation of biological determinism with inevitability, and ‘the oversocialised gaze’ refers to strongly ‘environmentalist accounts which seek to deny biological variables in causality [instincts etc] altogether. Surprisingly, in the age of the Human Genome Project and rapid advances in the field of genetics, many such ‘oversocialised’ accounts may be found within social science. For example, as Owen [2006, forthcoming: 19 ] shows, ‘ Giddens [1993: 57] suggests that, ‘human beings have no instincts in the sense of complex patterns of unlearned behaviour’’. Owen [2005:16] also identifies Foucault’s [1980] suggestion that sexuality is purely a socio-cultural creation, ‘ that sexuality as we know it is the production of a particular set of historical circumstances and obtains only within the terms of a discourse developed since the seventeenth century’ as another example of ‘the oversocialised gaze’. Owen [ibid] has argued that Foucault’s position is very similar to that of the symbolic interactionist writers, Gagnon and Simon [1973]. The latter authors adopted a ‘radical form of social construction theory which is extremely oversocialised’, in arguing that there is no ‘natural’ sexual drive in human biological make-up’ [Owen, ibid: 17]. Sexual drive must, under their terms, be regarded as a cultural and historical construction. As far as Gagnon and Simon [ibid] were concerned, not only do we learn what ‘sex’ means, and what is sexually arousing to us, but we also learn to want sex. The authors acknowledge that the human body has a repertoire of ‘gratifications’ [including the capacity to have an orgasm] , but this does not mean that we automatically, instinctively want to engage in them. Certain ‘gratifications’ will be selected as ‘sexual’ through the learning of ‘sexual scripts’. From Gagnon and Simon’s perspective, socialisation is not concerned with controlling innate sexual desire so that it is expressed in ‘civilised’, acceptable ways, but the learning of these complicated ‘scripts’ which serve to specify circumstances which elicit sexual desire. From this standpoint, similar as it is to Foucauldian conceptualisations of sexuality, ‘sexual drive’ is a learnt social goal.

Contradictory evidence, as Owen [ibid] suggests, can be found in the work of Hamer and Copeland [1999: 163] who have cogently shown how genes influence our sexual desire, how often we have sex etc and, ‘help make us receptive to the social interactions and signs of mutual affection that we feel instinctively and now call love’. Importantly, the authors, alongside providing evidence for ‘emotional’ and sexual instincts, also provide evidence that genes are not fixed instructions, but rather ‘take their cue from nature/ the environment’ [Owen, ibid]. Hamer and Copeland [ibid: 179] investigated whether there was a ‘correlation between the D4DR gene and number of sexual partners’ in male subjects. They had previously established that ‘novelty seeking’ and sexual behaviour are linked, and that ‘novelty seeking’ is in part mediated by the D4 dopamine receptor gene. The authors found that there was indeed a link between D4DR genes and the number of sexual partners in men. Looking first at heterosexual men, Dean Hamer found that the men with, ‘the long form of the D4DR gene, the high novelty seekers’ , had slightly more female partners than those with the short form, ‘the low novelty seekers’ [ibid]. It should be emphasised that the trait referred to here as, ‘novelty seeking’ means, ‘finding pleasure in new, varied and intense experiences’ [Hamer and Copeland, ibid: 178]. It was the study by Bogaert and Fisher [1995] at the University of Western Ontario which probably did more than any other towards establishing the idea that a novelty seeking score was a better predictor of the number of sexual partners than the other variables such as masculine age, physical attractiveness etc. ‘The more a person was a thrill seeker, the more partners he had] [Hamer and Copeland, ibid]. Hamer and Copeland’s study became rather interesting when they asked how many other men had the respondents slept with. Despite the heterosexual orientation of the respondents, ‘some had slept with another man, usually just once and when they were young’ [ibid: 179]. Here was a strong correlation to the D4DR gene. ‘Straight’ men with the long form of the gene, the high novelty seekers, ‘were six times more likely to have slept with another man than those with a short gene’, and, ‘about half of the long gene subjects had ever had a male sexual partner ‘ compared with only eight per cent of the short gene males [ibid]. The reverse was true for ‘gay’ men. As Hamer and Copeland expected, the homosexual respondents, ‘had more male partners than the straight men did female partners’, and ‘the D4DR gene had the expected effect’ [ibid]. However, the effect of the gene was much stronger for the number of female partners of the gay men. Those with the long, high novelty seeking form of the D4DR gene had sexual intercourse ‘with more than five times as many women’ as did those with the short, low novelty seeking form [ibid]. Although, as the authors acknowledge, the gay men may have had sexual relations with women in part because of social pressure, ‘it seemed that a desire for new experiences also played a role’ [ibid]. According to Hamer and Copeland…

‘These results show that the D4DR dopamine receptor gene does influence male sexual behaviour, but indirectly. For a straight man, sleeping with another man is about as novel as you get. For a gay man, having sex with a woman is equally unique. Does this mean that D4DR is a ‘’promiscuity gene’’ and that an errant husband can tell his wife, ‘’I couldn’t help it, it was genetic?’’ Of course not. A gene doesn’t make a person commit adultery. It simply determines the way certain brain cells respond to dopamine, which, in turn influences a person’s reaction to novel stimuli. How a person reacts to that stimuli is more a matter of character than of temperament’ [ibid].

Arguably, Hamer and Copeland provide evidence here that it is a mistake to engage in ‘genetic fatalism’; predisposition need not imply inevitability. Additionally, it is a mistake to deny the influence of genetic variables in relation to causality altogether, in the form of ‘oversocialised’ accounts of the person in the fashion of Gagnon and Simon [1973] and Foucault [1980]. As Owen [2005, 2006 [forthcoming]] has suggested, it is important to acknowledge the elegant mutuality between genes and environment, to recognise that genes take their cue from ‘nature’ and can be ‘switched on’ by environmental stimuli. In other words, we need to reject the ‘nature versus nurture’ paradigm in favour of what Ridley [1999, 2003] calls, ‘nature via nurture’.

Gender Relations, Masculinities and Violence

We must recognise gender as both a product and a producer of history. Structures of gender relations change over time, sometimes in response to external sources, even sometimes from internal. With the ‘women's movement’ in UK, the conflict of interests embedded in gender relations became obvious. The unequal structure placed men in a defensive position and women in an offensive position, seeking change. Such a battle is hard to imagine without violence and it is generally the dominant gender that has access to and uses the means of violence. Two patterns of violence emerged:

1) Members of the privileged group use violence to maintain their position (domestic violence, sexual harassment, rape, and murder)

2) Violence becomes important in gender politics among men. It becomes a way of asserting masculinity (See Afghanistan war and US Missile Defence System).

According to Powell (2006) violence is a part of the system of domination, while at the same time a measure of its imperfection. If the hierarchy were actually legitimate, violence would not be necessary to maintain it. Crisis tendencies - crisis presupposes a coherent system so we cannot talk about a crisis of masculinity, but we can talk about the crisis of a gender order as a whole. Across differences of class, ‘race’, sexuality, age, and disability one of the few commonalties that men share, as a distinct group is their gender privilege. Men, like women, are affected by gender power structures that are interwoven with other hierarchical structures such as those based on ‘race’ and class. Yet men, regardless of their positioning in other hierarchical structures, generally have a strategic common interest in defending and not challenging their gender privilege (Powell, 2006)

As Connell (2000) points out, gender order where men dominate women cannot avoid constituting men as an interest group concerned with defence, and women as an interest group concerned with change. The emphasis on the pressure that masculinity imposes on men to perform and conform to specific masculine roles (emotional and psychological as well as political and social) has highlighted the costs to men of current gender arrangements:

One of the significant achievements of feminist scholarship has been to name the connections between men, gender and power and give them visible expression in the term ‘patriarchy’ (Connell, 2000). In both the public and domestic spheres, patriarchy refers to the institutionalisation of men’s power over women within the economy, the polity, household and heterosexual relations. However, we regard the term ‘patriarchy’ as an example of what Sibeon [2004] calls ‘the cardinal sin’ of reification ; an illegitimate form of theoretical reasoning. ‘Patriarchy’, like ‘the state’ [ and taxonomic collectivities such as ‘white men’, ‘middle class men’ etc] is an ‘entity’ which is not an actor, in the sense of being able to formulate and act upon decisions.

Psychiatric social workers test, probe and hypothesise about women constructing and re-constructing quantifiable profiles of the bio-psychological and narrowly conceptualised sociological factors deemed to be lying at the root of their 'instability'. Such individualised responses generates intervention into women's lives and reinforces the view that it is their problem rather than the pressurised structures and policies of the state which are at fault .

According to the work of Connell (2000) utilising a concept such as 'hegemony' is particularly useful in recognising the relationship between domination and disempowerment. Alternative definitions of realities and ways of behaving are not simply obliterated by power networks. Thus, while physical and psychological violence might be a cornerstone of female confinement which support dominant cultural patterns and ideologies, they are utilised within a balance of forces in which there is an everyday contestation of power and where there is always the possibility for individual, social and historical change (Connell 2000: 184). Connell's point is an important one. It is also one which is often forgotten when Gramsci's (Connell 2000) concept of hegemony is used theoretically. Domination is emphasised at the expense of contradiction, challenge and change both at the level individual identities (women) and social formations (staff/regimes).

The process of normalisation and routinisation underpins and gives meaning to the self-perception of the individual and the perceptions of the significant others in the power networks of the institution. As a comparison to the prison system, the work of Sim (1994) 49 makes the point that prisons sustain, reproduce and indeed intensify the most negative aspect of masculinity, moulding and re-moulding identities and behavioural patterns whose destructive manifestations are not left behind the walls when the prisoner (or even patient) is released. Disempowerment on the inside it seems can be mirrored on the outside.

A gendered reading of the social order and hierarchies of the female special hospital moves therefore beyond bio-psychological models and organisational imperatives or individualised profiles. What we need to point to is how the maintenance of order/security both reflects and reinforces the pervasive and deeply embedded discourses around particular forms of masculinity.

Rather in its very 'celebration of masculinity' (Connell, 2000) , the Special Hospital, like other state institutions such as prisons, materially and symbolically reproduces a vision of order in which 'normal womanhood' remains unproblematic, the template for constructing everyday social relationships between men and women prisoners/patients/professionals working with them.

‘Globalising Masculinities’

Indeed, power relations underpin gendered and inequitable division of labour and access to resources. The marketplace, multinational corporations, transnational geopolitical institutions and their attendant ideological principles (economic rationality, liberal individualism) express a gendered logic (Powell, 2006). The ‘increasingly unregulated power of transnational corporations places strategic power in the hands of particular groups of men’ while the language of globalisation remains gender neutral so that ‘the ‘individual’ of neo-liberal theory has in general the attributes and interests of a male entrepreneur’.

Gender inequality is responsible for, and expressed in, the different articulations of the global ‘feminisation of poverty’ (Powell, 2006). Women represent approximately seventy percent of the 1.3 billion poor people in the world. Compared with men, girls and women are most likely to be undernourished, and girls and women are most likely receiving less health care. Out of approximately 900 million illiterate adults in the world 66% are female (Powell, 2006).

Men’s violence at physical and symbolic levels is a key determinant of the inequities and inequalities of gender relations, both disempowering and impoverishing women. Yet, men’s ‘natural aggression’ is often invoked as a defining characteristic of an essential gender difference and as an explanation for the gendered hierarchical arrangements in the political and economic lives of richer and poorer countries alike (New Statesman, 2000, 14th Aril, p.22).

Understanding development as freedom and as a right means recognising that men’s violence restricts women and children’s development by curtailing their freedoms and restricting their rights. The ‘celebration of masculinity’ is the exercise of power over women to enforce subordination and maximisation of male power .


Bogaert, A. and Fisher, W.A. [1995] ‘Predictors of University mens’ number of sexual partners’. The Journal of Sex Research, 32: 119-30.

Connel, R (2000) Male Roles, Masculinities and Violence: A Culture of Peace Perspective,

Foucault, M. [1980] The History of Sexuality. New York: Vintage Books.

Gagnon, J.H. and Simon, W. [1973] Sexual Conduct. London: Hutchinson.

Giddens, A. [1973] Sociology. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Hamer, D. and Copeland, P. [1999] Living With Our Genes: Why They Matter More Than You Think. London: Verso.

Owen, T. [2005] ‘Towards a post-Foucauldian sociology of aging’, in J.L. Powell and A.Wahidin [eds] Foucault and Aging. New York: Nova Science.

Owen, T, [2006, forthcoming] ‘Genetic-social science and the study of human biotechnology’, Current Sociology, 54 [6], November.

Powell, (2006) Rethinking Social Theory and Later, Nova

Ridley, M. [1999] Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters. London: Fourth Estate.

Ridley, M. [2003] Nature Via Nurture: Genes, Experience and What Makes Us Human. London: Fourth Estate.

Sibeon, R. [2004] Rethinking Social Theory. London: Sage.

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