The Social Construction of Masculinity

Man of colour being measured by a Black male tailor across the chest

Let’s quickly dip into Raewyn Connell’s influential research on masculinities. While she’s been writing on masculinities since the 1980s, her seminal work on the hierarchy of masculinities shows that there are several competing models of masculinities at any given point in history. These models have changed over time and vary across cultures. As with all other studies on the sociology of gender.

Connell explores how societies are structured to replicate social inequalities among different genders, but also within genders.

In the case of “Western” societies, masculinity is primarily defined through ideals of dominance and physical power over women, men and children. Cultural institutions such as education, the media, the economy and politics uphold a singular and view of the way masculinity “should be.” We come across this constrained view of masculinity throughout our socialisation and it becomes accepted as “normal” and “natural” (“hegemonic masculinity”).

Movies are one example of this rigid dominant model of masculinity, by holding up white, heterosexual, able-bodied men who exert their authority using violence and sexual dominance. The epitome stereotype might be action heroes, such as James Bond, who is socially unattached, largely devoid of emotion, executes violence with impunity, and who acts as if sex is a competition. He does not behave as if other people are his equals who require respect and empathy. Another dominant model of masculinity is embodied by sports stars, whose physical progress makes them worthy of cultural and institutional esteem, while other occupations, such as teaching, are undervalued relative to the cultural esteem and economic rewards heaped upon athletes.

Competing models of masculinity, such as those found within the feminist and the environmental movements, challenge such ideals. They focus on human rights  and gender equality  among genders and amongst different groups in society. Connell makes it clear that her work is not a condemnation of men; but rather she explores and critiques the institutional processes that shape how societies talk, think and act out masculinities and gender relations. For example, Connell’s other empirical studies have focused on how the educational system rewards certain types of masculinities (amongst middle and upper class schools) while punishing other types of masculinities (such as in working class neighbourhoods). Connell is interested in expanding how we understand the impact of masculinities not just in the way men relate with women, but also how different masculinities reproduce inequalities among boys and men.

Connell’s work has informed hundreds of empirical studies around the world, which have, in turn, critiqued and expanded upon Connell’s original premise. More contemporary researchers examine how ethnicity, race, culture and other intersecting social demographics can represent alternative hierarchies of masculinity. Connell’s work has made an important impact on educational and social policies, through educational programs aimed to create a space to help men better communicate their personal experiences; as well as improving educational and economic outcomes amongst working class men.

Connell argues that all too often we focus on the problems of men who are disadvantaged, but we need to do more ethnographies of men in power:

“Research on men and masculinities is not a separate field spun off from feminism. It is, rather, part of the feminist revolution in knowledge that has been opening up in the last generation. Indeed it can be seen as a strategic part of feminist research, the moment of ‘studying up’, the power structure research that we need to understand the gender order. Therefore, a key part of the enterprise is researching institutions in which masculinities are embedded and which have weight in the social order as a whole: the state, armed forces and security services, corporations, and international capital markets.” 

My post today was inspired by Tuki Clavero on Google Plus, who reshared a quote from Role Reboot:

To answer the question, “What is good about masculinity?” we need to remind ourselves that:

Masculinity doesn’t exist. At least not in the way we think it exists. There is no timeless definition of manhood. It varies from culture to culture, era to era. It’s simply how we define manhood and how we define the relations of power among men and between men and women.

That means that masculinity (like femininity) is a collective hallucination.

4 thoughts on “The Social Construction of Masculinity

  1. “That means that masculinity (like femininity) is a collective hallucination.” – It’s a little strong.  Gender is an intersubjective ideational structure.  Intersubjective, because it’s a subjective idea about how the world is that is shared by more than one person (inter-), ideational because it’s not based on a material reality, and a structure because it shapes our agency, or how we go about doing things, generally through imposing social costs on  non-conformity.  It’s in the same category as money (otherwise just a piece of paper unless we all agree it has value), nationalism (we are taught to be part of an imagined community of millions of people we will never meet yet are supposed to have special duties towards), and many other social phenomenon.  

    The problem with arguing that it’s a hallucination is that underestimates the relative permanence of these structures to this type of critique.  Just because I note that money doesn’t have any intrinsic value outside of the fact that we all think it does doesn’t automatically collapse our monetary system.  I think that if you were going to go about undermining gender (which I personally think is a good idea), a better approach would be to consider what social functions it provides, what power it grants, and then consider whether there are feasible alternatives to put into public discourse.


  2. Agree Vincent Keating The blog post overstates its claim. I don’t quite agree that gender is, as you put say, an intersubjective ideational structure. Gender more than inter-personal relations, it is more than ideology. Gender is a social structure in and of itself because it is legitimated by all the major social institutions, including the law which defines who can call themselves a man and a woman and under what circumstances, as well as who can’t. Then there are other major social forces at play, such as economics, racial and class relations and so on that affect how we “do” gender at the interpersonal level. Nevertheless, I think we are saying the same thing.

    I really like that you pulled this line out for such a great critique. Noting the social construction of reality does not take away the very real and material consequences that follow on from social concepts such as gender (or race or class and so on). Just as with the Thomas Theorem, when a situation is perceived as being real, it is real in its consequences. People think that gender is preordained and immutable; they think it is all about biology. This makes it hard to do anything about gender inequalities. Social science evidence shows that gender is constantly in flux and under negotiation; therefore inequalities are not fixed. They are there because, as you note, they confer power to some groups over others. Thanks for your thoughtful response. I’m looking forward to reading more of your posts!


  3. So all we have to do is pass a law requiring XY-males to be impregnated with 50% of all babies, and carry them for 9 months inside their bodies, and breastfeed them for 2 years, and we will prove once and for all that biology has nothing to do with gender and achieve equality. Or an alternative is to outlaw all pregnancies, and within a century all social constructs of human gender will disappear (along with the human race).


  4. Illarion Bykov Sex and gender are not the same thing. Sex describes biology. Gender is the social expression of masculinity, femininity and various queer and alternative genders. Chromosomes don’t determine the social construction of gender.


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