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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research N° 44 - February 2005   
 The double life of a citizen physicist
 European science – from Nobel to Descartes
 A helping hand for fledgling firms
 The hidden face of violence
 Dialling the 112 lifeline

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Title  What makes a man?

It used to be simple. Too simple. Men and women represented two opposite but complementary poles. They undertook different tasks and were seen to possess few interchangeable physical, intellectual and emotional characteristics. Then the feminists came along and upset this duality. By attacking gender privileges, women destabilised men and forced them to seek other terms of reference. So what happened to the masculine? Should one speak of masculinities? Researchers – of both sexes – from ten EU countries have analysed these notions in relation to four themes: work and family, violence, social exclusion and health.

What makes a man?
In the past, those who blurred or crossed the gender divide were seen as deviants and rarely accepted by society. There was the feminine and femininity, on one side, and the masculine and masculinity, on the other. By believing they had the same rights as men, women broke out of their traditional roles, overturning patriarchal structures and campaigning for equality. At the same time, by remaining and wanting to remain women, they introduced the notion of gender ambivalence, i.e. the mixing of traditionally male and female characteristics. This new notion is equally applicable to men and, over recent years, it has come to be a part of the questioning of masculinity. 

Masculinity or masculinities can be viewed as the common characteristics that, independently of a biological identity, go to mark out men as men in a given society. Masculinity has to do with ‘gender’ or ‘social sex’, a concept that has become essential to obtaining a relatively clear picture of the nature of our mixed societies. The use of the plural originated in the work of the sociologist Robert Connell. It reflects the complexity of the masculine and the recognition of the different ways of being a man, in both time and space, and in terms of different cultures and of the individual. Masculinities reveal cultural stereotypes, conformity to roles and images, and ethnic and generational identities. 

Approaching the social and the societal
To more systematically define this reality on the basis of international comparisons, human science specialists from ten countries (Estonia, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, the Russian Federation, and the United Kingdom) decided to set up the European Research Network on Men in Europe. They approached their subject at a social level (through difficulties relating specifically to the “masculine gender” in terms of health, sex crimes, exclusion, etc.) and at a societal level (through the legislation, media, research subjects, statistics).

“We analysed the social problems created by men, and also the ways in which some men experience these problems. The link between these two aspects – which in reality are not easy to separate from each other – is fascinating. But we also looked at the societal problem of man and of masculinities, that is, the way situations of masculinity are posed in different societies. Again, the interactions – this time between these two social and societal approaches – added to the interest of the project,” explains the British sociologist Keith Pringle, a professor at the University of Aalborg (DK) and the network’s coordinator.

The Network on Men is mixed, the importance of which is stressed by the partners. “Clearly, it is impossible to define the results that would have been obtained if the project had been carried out solely by men or women researchers. But it was essential for the network to be mixed, as men must not ‘colonise’ this field of study in which women were, in a sense, the pioneers,” continues Pringle. “They have been viewing the practices of men with a critical eye and from various angles for much longer than male researchers. We also wanted to work with the very best specialists, men and women, in the various countries.” 

© Michel vanden Eeckhoudt
© Michel vanden Eeckhoudt
Themes of daily life
Network partner Jeff Hearn, a professor at the Swedish School of Economy in Helsinki and at Huddersfield University in the UK, believes that “the feminists carried out important theoretical research on men by highlighting, in particular, relationships of power. Masculine domination continues at many levels in social life and there is certainly a need for changes to the practices of men – this is not something that is always easily accepted.”

The network concentrated on four areas of daily life, each one very specific but ultimately inter-related: work and the family; social exclusion; violence; and health. These areas lie in different socio-economic and political contexts, traditions and cultures depending on the country studied. Relations between men and women also vary from one country to another, in particular by virtue of the legislation and social structures. “Our work studied the socio-economic aspects very closely and showed just how important they are to the gender issue. This point of view is different to the majority of current theories that focus on masculine power and domination, especially at the political level, as factors in segregation,” believes Øystein Gullvåg Holter, philosopher at Oslo University (Norway). Alongside these aspects, and patriarchal traditions, the imbalance between production and reproduction – between work and the conception of the family – seems to be a central issue in the question of equality between the sexes. In the past, for example, among the middle classes, it was the man alone who was the breadwinner. That is no longer the case and it marks a radical new departure. 

But this new departure takes a different direction depending on the context, sometimes encountering surprising setbacks. On the production side, in Ireland – a country that has seen rapid growth over recent years – many men work 50 hours a week to bring home a single wage that is enough for the household, with questions about their role as spouse and father left unanswered.

On the reproduction side, it is the Nordic countries that have, no doubt, made the most success of promoting a balance. The debates in these countries over the past 20 years have brought about social changes in the organisation of couples and of families, as well as the organisation of paid employment. “Although equality between the sexes is becoming increasingly concrete, it remains relative,” continues Professor Holter. “One recent study found that 80% of individuals holding positions of power were men. The challenges facing our countries are not so different to those facing the rest of Europe.” 

The seeds of gender ambivalence
Nevertheless, “paternity leave” has proved a resounding success in Norway. When introduced in 1993, it was thought that between 10% and 20% of qualifying fathers would make use of it. A decade later, almost 90% of Norwegian fathers are taking paternity leave. In Iceland, a system was introduced in 2000 that gives nine months of parental leave on 80% of the normal wage for each child born. Three months of this are reserved for the mother, three months for the father, and three months optional for either of the parents. In practice, men and women have taken up this last period equally.

So how do these men feel who decide to allow themselves a little gender ambivalence? “When the possibilities for men are matched with good policy reforms or support measures, the results are positive,” says Keith Pringle. “Men, then, have objective interests that enable them to campaign in favour of gender equality. They need to be encouraged to venture into feminine territory, just as women need support in many masculine fields. Although the principal problems of men and women may seem incomparable, they often have a common core – gender segregation, a combination of power and difference. Women are discriminated against in terms of wages and public responsibilities. For men, the right to be feminine, or different, is still quite difficult to acknowledge compared with the right of women to be masculine.”  

Masculinity and the media
These many changes have certainly not escaped the attention of the media. The researchers sought to identify the differences in the ten countries between media commentaries on “man”, “masculine practices” and “masculinities”. “In Finland, although men clearly have social power, there is considerable media attention given to masculine problems, such as depression, solitude or isolation,” explains Jeff Hearn. “It is a country with low immigration and, therefore, little multiculturalism, and people still wonder what it is to be a man. In the United Kingdom, the media focus more on the ‘uncertainties’ of masculinity and the problems these can pose for young men.” 

Nevertheless, in most of the countries studied, the tone of the general press is neutral and free of any “gender approach”. If articles are aimed principally at a male readership (sport, cars, business, etc.) or are looking at their role and presence in a family, they are then addressed at the male population, but not at their masculinity. As for violence, this is widely covered in several countries, but in short articles often lacking analysis. 

At the end of the project, Hearn, who has long made gender a subject of study, identified four elements that were highlighted by this major comparative study – the first of its kind carried out by the network. Firstly, the significant variability in the murder rate in the different countries. Secondly, the general lack of attention paid to sexual abuse, especially that of children. Thirdly, the need to look at forms of violence that do not arise in a gender context, such as racist attacks. Finally, the need for a more in-depth study of the links between the violence and sexuality of men.

Printable version

    This comprehensive site gives access to information on the network, its publications, a databank and documents used in the study. It also contains many useful links for further exploration of the subject. 
    The network ...




      This comprehensive site gives access to information on the network, its publications, a databank and documents used in the study. It also contains many useful links for further exploration of the subject. 
      The network operates through the Coordinated Action on Human Rights Violations programme, supported by the Sixth Framework Programme, which, among other things, is making it possible to compile new databanks of interest to the Czech Republic, Denmark and Sweden.