Reviewed by Katherine Williams,
Postgraduate student of International Security and Development at Swansea University
You can follow Katherine on Twitter – @polygluttony
Masculinities and Place is an impressive body of work which brings together a range of high profile and emerging researchers. The contributors to the text aim to consolidate and expand new spheres of interest regarding men, masculinities, and their intersection with a range of key themes, including: the home, family, domestic labour and work, health and wellbeing, and the relationship between the study of masculinity and its relationship with academic feminism.
In their introduction, Gorman-Murray and Hopkins begin by giving the reader an insight into the emergence of masculinities research and how the ‘discipline’ converged through two interconnecting fields: (feminist) human geography, and men’s studies. The field of masculinities owes its existence, in part, to the work of feminist geographers that has drawn attention to gender hierarchies through an examination of unequal structures, processes, and spaces. Men’s studies, then, works to advance understandings of men’s lives, and how these understandings connect with, and work alongside, academic feminism. As Gorman-Murray and Hopkins note, academic feminism has lain much of the groundwork for researchers to undertake emotionally sensitive (i.e. subjective), and politically engaged analyses about issues which affect both women and men. It goes without saying, however, that the discipline of human geography has been one traditionally dominated by men and in the past, feminist geographers had excluded men from their analysis because of the way in which masculinists construct knowledge frameworks. In other words, masculinists assume that no-one else can contribute to their knowledge field because their privileged position in society (by virtue of being male, predominantly white, and often middle-class) means that their worldview, and the status quo, has not been challenged.
Despite the differences between feminist geography and masculinities studies, the editors believe that the two are relational; the establishment and subsequent growth of feminist geography has allowed the latter discipline to develop into a subject in its own right. However, Gorman-Murray and Hopkins believe that methodological, ethical, practical, and political issues are under-explored in masculinities research, and need further articulation within academia. The question, then, of whether men can undertake feminist research, is a theoretical yes; a feminism that does not accept the possibility that men cannot be active in the reconstruction of masculinities is both practically and theoretically problematic, according to the authors.
Masculinities and Place explores the construction of gender identities, and how these identities are constructed, negotiated and contested across different spaces, and how they intersect with notions of race, class, ethnicity, and so on. The book itself compromises of seven different sections with 3-4 contributors apiece. Sections cover a broad range of issues from the relationship between neoliberalism and masculinity, the leather community, ageing masculinities, and masculinities and mental health, to name but a few. For the purposes of this short review, I will focus on two contributions to the book.
In ‘The Geographies of Military Inculcation and Domesticity: Reconceptualising Masculinities in the Home’, Stephen Atherton attempts to challenge traditional conceptualisations of militarised masculinity by examining domesticity as a concept, and providing an analysis of the development of domestic skills during military service and how these skills are used outside of military spaces. Generally speaking, the armed forces are a ‘significant reservoir’ for the construction of masculinities within a given society at large. Institutions such as the armed forces work to then deconstruct existing masculine identities and reconstruct them according to entrenched societal expectations. However, the author has found that there is a shift in men’s relationships to domesticity within militarised spaces. On one hand, the author notes that many men interviewed during the course of his research noted that they felt feminised by army routines which utilised domestic chores as punishment. On the other hand, performing domestic tasks helped to reaffirm a man’s identity and masculinity, especially in the wake of the financial crisis which left many men questioning their traditional role as breadwinner. A hegemonic masculinity is one which has been predominate in the armed forces; military spaces contain strict routines and command the highest levels of cleanliness amongst troops; this is, in part, representative of the control that the armed forces has over its men. Through analysing domesticity within military spaces, the author hopes that researchers can better understand the ways in which the armed forces control men within military environments.
In ‘Representations, Respect, and Resentment: Labour Market Change and Discourses of Masculine Disadvantage’, Linda McDowell, Esther Rootham, and Abby Hardgrove investigate the marginality of working-class young men in Britain; a country with a service-dominated economy and high levels of youth unemployment, especially amongst young men. The authors trace the historical continuities in the construction of these men as being somewhat dangerous, or out of control. Since the 2008 financial crisis, youth unemployment has risen exponentially; thus the social construction of young men as failures, not only as employees, but as citizens, is significant. Negative representations of young men as failures, unemployable, and without any life prospects tend to dominate popular media; such representations are also reflected in government legislation and thus have the potential to influence potential employers. However, as the authors point out, ethnographic research undertaken in deprived areas in the UK has revealed something of a complex truth; the lives and experiences of young men from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are extremely diverse. The authors themselves draw on interviews with two, white young men in Swindon as part of their own ethnographic research for the purposes of their chapter. Despite Swindon being located in the relatively wealthy south of England, and having a reasonably successful local economy, the fastest expanding jobs for young people are predominantly service jobs in fast food, hotels, and retail. The author’s interviews with ‘Tom’ and ‘Darren’ reveal the difficulties in being young and seemingly unemployable. As the authors make implicitly clear throughout their chapter, the binary distinctions surrounding the identities of young men struggling in the margins of society obscures the complexity of individual circumstances.
Masculinities and Place stands as testament to developments in the field of masculinities, and provides the reader with an insight into the lives and experiences of diverse groups men across the globe. The intersections between gender, race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, amongst many others, are deftly explored in this impressive collection.