Eu fpv thematic Network: The Social Problem and Societal Problematisation of Men and Masculinities uk national report on research on men’s practices workpackage 1

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EU FPV Thematic Network: The Social Problem and Societal Problematisation of Men

and Masculinities


Keith Pringle (with the assistance of Alex Raynor)

  1. The conceptual separation of “the social problems which some men create” from “the social problems which some men experience” is often simplistic and there is a need to study the intersections more carefully.

  2. In the previous ten years there has been a massive amount of research and scholarly activity in Britain devoted to men as a social phenomenon, particularly in the fields of (a) home/work/organizations and (b) men’s violences. The latter repesent a massive social problem and permeate all other issues related to men’s practices in society. From a European perspective, the body of work on violences represents one of the most distinctive and valuable contributions made by British researchers.

  3. Nevertheless, there are significant areas urgently requiring further research. Perhaps the three most important are: the intersections of gender with other social divisions clustered around dimensions such as culture/ethnicity, sexuality, age, disability, class; how to promote a concerted national programme necessary to challenge men’s violences; the promotion of further transnational and comparative research in relation to all the themes addressed in the report.

NOTE: Gaps in the literature/areas for future research development are highlighted in the text which follows in bold italic type.

This survey focuses on academic writings specifically about “men” as a social category produced in the United Kingdom since about 1990. However, before the survey is undertaken that statement needs to be qualified and amplified in a number of important ways:-

(i)Most of the material produced in the United Kingdom has drawn largely (though of course not exclusively) on various forms of study focused on England, often without any explicit (or indeed implicit) acknowledgement/awareness of that fact - or its potential significance. One gap in the academic literature on men has been a lack of interest in how the different cultural contexts of Scotland, the north of Ireland, Wales, England and the regions of England may have framed the social relations associated with men.

(ii) Compared to most other European countries, the amount of academic literature relating in a concerted way to the issue of “men” as a social category has been massive since 1990. One practical outcome of that situation for this report is that I have probably been both more broad in my analysis and more selective in my choice of texts than some of my colleagues in other countries. I have therefore tended to focus mainly (but not exclusively) on (i) recent texts, (ii) material written from critical perspectives and (iii) that which I could access most readily with the restricted time and resources available to me.

Having made these preliminary observations, I want very briefly to comment on the overall

situation of academic debate currently in the United Kingdom:-

(a) The reasons for the profusion of material in the United Kingdom since 1990 are complex and I mention only two here: first, the strong and continuing growth of waves of feminist activism and writing in the United Kingdom since the 1960s – along with a proliferation of other social and sexual movements (Hearn 1999a). second, the cultural (or at least linguistic) proximity between the United Kingdom, and the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia - other countries with an ongoing relative “tradition” of an explicit social focus on men. However, more underlying and broader cultural factors would need to be explored if a convincing explanation for the extent of writing on men in the United Kingdom was to be provided. In particular, we would need to think more generally about why social discourses oppositional to the “political” status quo (for instance around issues not only of gender but also racism, heterosexism, disablism, classism and ageism) have developed more extensively in Britain than in most other European countries (see Pringle 1998a, Pringle and Harder 1999).

(b)Another important contextual point to make is that the discussions about men are now taking place at a time of major economic and social change for them (Hearn 1999a). This is one reason why many of the debates in the United Kingdom involve to a greater or lesser extent a consideration of whether there is a “Crisis in Masculinity” (Horrocks 1994). Generally speaking, commentators adopting a “Men’s Rights” approaches (Dench 1994; Dennis and Erdos 1992,1999; Lyndon 1996) and a “Men’s Studies” perspectives (for instance Seidler 1991, 1994, 1997) are both likely to subscribe (though for very different reasons) to such a crisis thesis; whereas those writing from positions more influenced by radical feminist perspectives (for instance Hanmer 1990; Hearn 1996d, 1999a; Pringle 1996) are less likely to subscribe to it.

(c) At the conceptual/theoretical level (though vitally connected to material issues (Hearn 1992)), there have been some important contributions to discussion about the terms of debates about men. These contributions have focused for instance on the potential limitations of the concept of “masculinity/masculinities” compared with “men’s practices” (Hearn 1996c). Moreover, Hearn has recently fore-grounded possibilities of eventually abolishing “men” as a theoretical social category (1998, 1999a). One gap in the UK literature is further consideration of these theoretical issues which have important material implications: What does “being a man” mean both in terms of practices and discourses? Indeed what is the relationship between practices and discourses in the context of this field of study. And what are the precise inter-relationships between macro level systems of power relations which contextualise men’s practices and the micro level of individual men’s day to day engagements and understandings of their worlds? (see Butt & Hearn 1998 for some interesting responses to some of those issues).

Finally in this section I want to select several key contributions on the social category “men” from within the British context. Jeff Hearn has made the outstanding British academic contribution to the critical study of men: a contribution which has been of the utmost importance transnationally as well as nationally. Moreover, his contribution has embraced theoretical and material concerns – as well as the intersections between them. At the theoretical level, Hearn (1998a) is now the key text. As regards the current “state of play” in the broader field of critical studies on men, the best overview is again by Hearn (1999a). A contextualisation of British work within a transnational frame is offered in a series of publications by Pringle (1998a,1998b; Pease and Pringle (forthcoming). In the specific but broad area of men’s violences, Hearn has again been the major academic figure with his “The Violences of Men” (Hearn 1998b) the key text. In the field of social welfare broadly, the standard work remains Pringle (1995), though now supplemented in important ways by Cavanagh and Cree (1996), Newburn and Mair (1996), Wild (1999) and Christie (2000) – as well as by the ongoing contributions in the journal “Working With Men”. Finally, the law extends its influence to, and is itself influenced by, a wide range of social issues related to men. This field has produced two key texts by Richard Collier (1995, 1998) the scope of which extend well beyond legal issues both programmatically and theoretically.


The issues of work, home and the intersections between them have provided the foci for the largest corpus of work on men in Britain. One (though by no means the only) explanation for this is that “fatherhood” has become a key theme for virtually every perspective on the study of men – and for policy-makers at both national and European levels (Pringle 1998a). So, in this section I want turn initially to this issue of fatherhood.


(i)As noted, “fatherhood” has attracted the attention of commentators from a wide spectrum of perspectives. At one extreme, it has been the focus of several writers whom one might categorise as being broadly within a “Men’s Right” perspective. Perhaps the most well-known of these are Dennis (1993), Dennis and Erdos (1992, 1999), Dench (1994, 1996) and Lyndon (1996). Such approaches which tend to attribute a wide range of social problems to the relative absence of fathers in families (physically and/or emotionally) have been heavily critiqued for a series of reasons relating to methodology and theoretical approach (Campbell 1993 and Williams 1998). However, in recent years there have been a very large number of more mainstream academic British studies and reviews (drawing largely on socialist feminist and profeminist perspectives) concerned with to what extent and in what ways men are becoming more “involved” as parents in the home (Bradshaw et al. 1999; Burgess et al 1997; Burghes et al. 1997; Burton et al 1998; Clarke and Popay 1998; Corden 1999; Dench 1996; Doucet 1995; Ferri and Smith 1996, 1998; Ghate et al. 2000; Kearney et al. 2000; Kiernan 1999: Lewis et press; Lloyd 1999; Neale and Smart 1997; Oakley and Rigby 1998; Smart and Stevens 2000; Speak et al.; Sullivan 1997; Warin et al. 1999). Recent useful overviews of this burgeoning literature, offered from different perspectives, are by Williams (1998), Daniel and Taylor (1999), Hester and Harne (1999), Smart (1999), Lewis (2000). Perhaps not surprisingly, these studies fail to achieve total unanimity on what men are doing as fathers. Nevertheless, the basic message on the whole is clear: though a considerable number of men may be playing a more active part in the home than previously, women are still mainly responsible for the management and/or performance of the majority of household and child care tasks. Whilst many studies in the past have found/assumed that “middle class” men tended to take a larger role in the home, several of these more recent studies suggest that “working class” men may be equally active in terms of material performance (as opposed to verbal intentions): Ferri and Smith (1996), Clarke and Popay (1998), Kearney et al. (2000). Some recent research also suggests the assumption that unemployed men tend not to play a greater part taking responsibility for their children may at least need to be re-examined: Kearney et al (2000) which looked at men still “in” families and Neale and Smart (1997) whose study focused on men who were separated/divorced.

(ii)However, it is not only the question of precisely who does what household tasks in the home that leads to differences within the academic literature on fatherhood. Two other central issues enter into debates: first, how to interpret men’s greater commitment to parenting; the second is the issue of violences perpetrated to women and children by men who are fathers/partners. I will take each in turn.

The issue of how to interpret some men’s greater commitment to parenting itself has several aspects. On the one hand, some commentators from a mainly Men’s Studies/socialist feminist perspective (Burgess and Ruxton 1996; Moss 1994, 1996) regard men’s greater involvement with their children, particularly their sons, as having great (almost essential) significance for the children, for the men’s partners and for the men themselves. This approach parallels, and draws much of its inspiration from, powerful and positive discourses on fatherhood in the Nordic countries (Owen et al. 1998; Pringle 1998a). By contrast, other commentators (Hester and Harne 1999; Oakley and Rigby 1998; Pringle 1995, 1998b, 1998d, 2000; Smart 1999) have questioned the extent to which men’s presence in families is essential. Some (Hester and Harne 1999; Pringle 1998b) have drawn upon studies of children brought up within lesbian households (Golombok et al. 1983) to suggest that the value of fathering, as opposed to parenting, may be over-rated. Others (Oakley and Rigby 1998; Smart 1999) note that the impact of fathers when they are in families on children is anyway often heavily mediated by and dependent upon the efforts of their female partners. Some of these commentators (Pringle 1998b, 1998d) also suggest that the alleged benefits to women arising from some men’s greater childcare participation are not inevitable and largely depend upon broader anti-sexist changes in society occurring. These commentators also tend to critically frame men’s greater childcare participation in wider concerns about a reassertion of fatherhood rights and responsibilities in policy changes instituted by the Children Act, the Child Support Act and legislation associated with in vitro fertilisation: a reassertion which can be seen as patriarchal (Pringle 1995; Harne and Hester 1999; Smart 1999). One central element in this less positive interpretation of re-asserted fatherhood is the emphasis which a number of these writers (Hester and Harne 1999) place upon the extent of men’s violences in their roles as both fathers and relationship partners. It is to this central topic within British debates that I now turn.

(iii)A major piece of recent research on men separated/divorced from their partners and not living with their children has highlighted the men’s plight and attempted to explain why a considerable number want more contact and involvement in their children’s lives in return for financially supporting the children (Bradshaw et al. 1999). This research interviewed men and neither their ex-partners, nor their children nor the relatives supporting the men. This study is in line with much research (and policy) on fatherhood after separation/divorce which assumes that on the whole problematic issues which have occurred between men and their ex-partners will have no bearing on men’s potential as fathers. A similar point might be made about those few studies which have focused on single fatherhood such as Barker (1994) and Adams (1996). Once again, the research in each case was carried out with men only and therefore did not explore in detail what may have occurred between men and their partners prior to separation/divorce: men as fathers is a topic which is regarded as being mainly distinct from the topic of men as relationship partners. The same phenomenon can be observed in the analysis of groupwork in a family centre with men offered by Fleming and Luczynski (1999) – most of whose participants were single fathers. By contrast, research which has focused on women who are separated/divorced and/or on professionals involved in such cases has tended to tell a rather different story. In particular, an important series of studies carried out by Marianne Hester, Lorraine Radford and others (Hester and Radford 1996; Hester et al. 1997; Hester et al. 1998; Hester and Pearson 1998; Eriksson & Hester forthcoming; Hester & Radford 2001) has demonstrated vital linkages between some men’s violences to their heterosexual partners and those same men’s physical, sexual and emotional abuse of their children – both when men were living with partners and children and after separation/divorce (Harne and Hester 1999). These important linkages build upon a more general pre-existing research awareness in Britain that men’s violences to women and men’s violences to children, particularly sexual violences, are very common indeed (Dobash and Dobash 1992; Hanmer 1996; Hearn 1990,1996a, 1996b, 1999b, !999c; Kelly et al 1991; Pringle 1995; Hester et al. 1996). Thus, to summarise, for some commentators the assumption of fathers in families always being a “good thing” is simplistic and unwarranted because of (a) the amount of child abuse (especially child sexual abuse) perpetrated by some men in heterosexual families generally (Pringle 1995, 1998b); (b) the more specific connections now identified between some men’s violences to both their female partners and their children (Harne and Hester 1999).

(iii)Nevertheless, Pringle (1998b, 1998d, 2000) has suggested that having men as fathers in families can be useful for a reason generally ignored in much of the literature: so they can work with their children to challenge oppressive attitudes/behaviours including sexism. In other words some fathers have particular opportunities, as fathers, to implement a profeminist agenda with their children, especially their male children. Hearn (1999a) and Pringle (1995, 1998b) have both emphasised the centrality of actively profeminist work with boys via informal and formal settings in the project of challenging patriarchal relations of power in society. Some fathers clearly have a potentially vital part to play in such an endeavour. However, of course, this can only occur where both women and children choose to have men living with them (Pringle 1995) – and there are a range of reasons why such a choice might not be made.

In terms of “gaps” in the literature/areas for future scholarly activity on the topic of fatherhood, the following seem a priority:-

(i)Making more sense of the (albeit limited) increases in parental activityon the part of some men in the home. To what extent do these changes represent real social “progress”? By contrast, to what extent may they sometimes represent re-creations of patriarchal dominance in relatively novel forms?

(ii)Using transnational comparison to explore some central debates. European comparative work has begun (Hester & Radford 1996; Harder & Pringle 1997; Pringle 1998a; Pringle & Harder 1999; Sainsbury 1999; Harne & Eriksson ; Hester 2000; Hester & Eriksson 2000; Kearney et al. 2000) but there is scope for much more –and beyond Europe (Pease & Pringle forthcoming).

(iii)Much greater consideration of fatherhood in terms of diversity: for instance cultural diversity (Marriott 1996; Wilson 1993; Mac an Ghaill 1999); sexual diversity (Carabine 1996a, 1996b; Weeks 1991, 1996; Weeks et al. 1999)

(iv)To undertake more studies of fatherhood including the “voices” of women – and where possible the “voices” of children.
(b)Home and Work

(i)The main structural features of the changing picture regarding gender relations, (un)employment, has been well-summarised by, among others, Hearn (1999a), Land (1999) and Oakley & Rigby (1998): numbers of men in overall employment falling accompanied by a shift from manufacturing to services such as financial, retail, catering, leisure; more women entering the labour market with particularly marked growth of part-time jobs in the financial and welfare sectors; more men experiencing unemployment, with unemployment prospects particularly bleak for young, working class and black men; long working hours for many men who are in employment.

(ii)In the context of these changes, much of the material on the extent of men’s involvement in “domestic” or “house” work overlaps with that discussed above in the section on fatherhood. The general picture regarding how far men are becoming involved in sharing “house” work with women is more or less the same as that for parenting ie some indications of more involvement by men in some situations but overall women still bear the brunt of responsibility and “house” labour in heterosexual relationships. For instance the recent important study by Speakman & Marchington (1999) of men process workers confirmed a lack of any major re-configuration of “house” work responsibilities, despite the greater labour market participation of female partners and an overt recognition by the men that the structural situations of men and women regarding the labour market are changing. They document how men use covert means of resisting greater home activity such as appeals to their incompetence in this sphere. Speakman & Marchington urge abandonment of the concept of simplistic notions of “complementarity” as a means of analysing these issues. Instead, they focus on “the dynamic of negotiated patriarchy” which may “redistribute some aspects of housework while confirming men’s (and women’s) gendered identity” (p102), thereby leading to a “reconceptualisation of the rationale” (p101) for traditional gendered identities in the home. In other words, things may seem to change but the basic gendered inequalities remain intact. Consequently, Speakman & Marchington suggest that the proceses of negotiated patriarchy in the home are an urgent target for further research. This of course parallells the earlier suggestion above in relation to parenthood: that future research should explore whether men’s greater (though limited) involvement in parenting may sometimes represent a re-configuration of patriarchal relations rather than a challenge to them. Several recent studies have also demonstrated how, to varying extents, patriarchal relations extend into the lives of heterosexual couples when one or both of them loses employment through structural change, ill health or a combination thereby. For instance even in Dallas’ study of early retired chemical workers (1993), where she did find some positive renegotiation of domestic arrangements among a significant minority of her sample, more of them did not renegotiate. In addition, of those who did, a proportion simply “extended traditional gender divisions into retirement by maintaining the boundary between a ‘man’s world’ and ‘woman’s world’ in their leisure activities” (p.50). An even bleaker picture is portrayed in a similar study of early retired miners with employed female partners by Waddington et al, (1998). Indeed this study has many parallels with Speakman & Marchington’s (1999) summarised earlier. This time, if peace was to reign at home, the over-arching task for the woman was to re-confirm the man’s gendered identity in the absence of the bread-winner role and sometimes they achieved this by maintaining a mutual fiction with their male partner. Waddington et al also stress that throughout this process, the agenda was set by the man and the re-negotiation was not an equal one. Chillingly, Waddington et al. note that where the man’s patriarchal identity could not be maintained, stress would ensue in the home and the “trouble with men then becomes the trouble for women” (p.254).
(iii)However, from other research there are indications that as women and men move into older age, then in some respects the oppressive gender dynamics apparent in the above studies may in some cases alter. In Wilson’s large qualitative research project with men and women over 75 years of age (Wilson 1995), she found that in “advanced old age both men and women, but particularly men, appeared to be less concerned with the power aspects of gender relations than they had been in the past. The emphasis on survival and just keeping going did not leave much room for gender-based assertions of domestic power and there were virtually no power-based roles outside the household available to men in advanced old age” (p.111). We can link this with several studies which have now explored the hitherto under-researched issue of men as carers of their partners who are disabled and/or in older age (Arber & Gilbert 1989; Arber & Ginn 1990, 1992; Fisher, M. 1994; Parker 1998). This research not only demonstrates that older men and women provide equal amounts of co-resident care (albeit mediated by other factors such as class) but also that many men carers derive considerable satisfaction from this work. Having said that, elder abuse still has a strongly gendered quality even though it often relates to violence inflicted on elders by their children or formal carers rather than simply by partners (Holt 1993; Ogg and Munn-Giddings 1993; Wilson 1994; Pringle 1995; Whittaker 1996; Hearn 1999b).
(iv)Speakman & Marchington (1999) noted that sometimes the women in their study would actively collude with the men’s “negotiated patriarchy” and, similarly, the women in Waddington et al’s study (19998) often sought to collude with the men’s agenda of maintaining a gendered identity in the home, sometimes against all the material evidence. This is paralleled in Dryden’s recent marital study (1999) which encompassed both “housework” and parental issues. Dryden analyses in detail the way the women respondents in her study “leaked” their deep resentments about their male partners in the joint interviews but always sought to then “repair” the damage by providing a final positive gloss on the relationship which was often at clear variance with what had previously been said or implied. In this study, like the others, the researcher explains the women’s behaviour by reference to the gendered and unequal power relations within which their lives were framed – and in Dryden’s case she refers not only to economic power but also the underlying threat of violence from some of the men. Duncombe and Marsden (1995) have added to this analysis an emotional dimension. For they stress that not only are women generally responsible for most emotional work in relationships (as well as most physical work in the home) but that men routinely tend to deny women’s emotional needs in relationships by devaluing intimate emotions. Dunscombe and Marsden (1995 p.159) regard this denial of women’s needs as a form of emotional power held by men and a “carrier” of gender power. Moreover, they emphasise that women also tend to carry out emotional work on themselves, convincing themselves and the outside world (within a web of gendered and unequal power relations) of their relationship happiness “even against powerful evidence to the contrary” (p.162). Using a framework drawn from a “symbolic exchange” perspective, Layte (1998) also has sought to explore the oppressive dynamics underpinning many women’s acceptance of demonstrably unequal work arrangements between themselves and their partners.

From this and the forgoing discussions, another priority area for future research may well be further exploration of the complex dynamics surrounding negotiations between women and men in relationships regarding “housework”, parenting and emotional work.

Furthermore, most of the research in this area focuses on white heterosexual partners. There is a desperate need for exploration of the intersections of men, the “home” and the “labour market” in a diversity of family configurations including Black and Asian Families (Mac an Ghaill 1994, 1999) and gay partnerships (Edwards 1994; Mac an Ghaill 1996; Heaphy et al. 1998).
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