On 11th May, Sandy Ruxton and I organised a seminar at The Open University in Milton Keynes, with the title ‘Questioning masculinities: policy and practice with boys and men’. Sandy is an independent researcher specialising in issues relating to men and masculinities, and his most recent publication was the report Man Made: Men, masculinities and equality in public policy for the Coalition on Men and Boys. I’ve known Sandy since the early Eighties, when we worked together on a NACRO education project for offenders in Basildon, Essex.

The seminar was funded by the OU’s new cross-faculty Children and Young People research fund. It was the first stage in a new research project by Sandy Ruxton and myself, which plans to bring a critical or questioning perspective on masculinities to bear on issues around work with boys and young men. But the seminar also had the aim of showcasing some of the innovative research around men and their relationships with children currently being undertaken both at The Open University and elsewhere.

The morning kicked off with a paper presented by Sandy and myself entitled ‘Wanted men? Male role models in popular and policy discourses’, in which we questioned the assumptions underpinning a range of current policy and practice interventions around boys and young men. We took issue with claims that the ‘problem’ with boys (whether anti-social behaviour or supposed educational under-achievement) was the consequence of absent men (whether fathers or positive mentors), arguing that this ‘male role model’ discourse tends to reinforce gender stereotypes and underestimate the important part played by mothers and other women in young men’s development.

The other paper in the morning session was given by Simon Forrest, from the School of Medicine and Health at Durham University. In a fascinating paper – headed ‘Heterosexual young men in love: the role of paternal influences on expectations of intimate relationship with young women and relationship practices’ – Simon presented detailed case studies from his individual interviews with a small group of young men about their ‘serious’ intimate relationships.

This focus on the way that intimacy is enacted in everyday practices anticipated the first paper of the afternoon, which was given by Jacqui Gabb, from the OU’s Department of Social Policy, and Esther Dermott, senior lecturer in Sociology at Bristol University. Like Sandy and myself, Jacqui and Esther are in the early stages of developing a new research proposal, and their paper – ‘Relating to risk: fathers, intimacy and parenting practice’ – set out some of the ideas around fathering and ‘risky practices’ that they are currently exploring, as well as some creative methodological approaches to investigating everyday family practices.

By contrast, the last two papers of the day reported on completed research projects. Sue Higham, a lecturer in Children’s Nursing with the OU, presented some of the findings from her ethnographic study of fathers’ experiences during their children’s stay in hospital. This was an intriguing glimpse of the ways in which institutional practices are gendered in a way that, despite claims to equality of treatment, appears to marginalise men and their care for their sick children.

OU Youth Justice lecturer Rod Earle’s paper, on ideas about fatherhood in prison, was also based on ethnographic research, in a very different kind of institution.  Based around the experience of young male prisoners attending a parenting course, the paper provided intriguing insights into the ways in which penal institutions deploy ‘fatherhood’ as a concept, and how their role as fathers is experienced by inmates.

Despite the range of topics covered in the seminar, the commonalities of themes, issues and methods were striking. Discussion, among the mixed audience of academics and practitioners, OU people and invited guests, was lively and extremely productive. The day ended with several calls for a repeat event, perhaps later in the year.

If you would like to be kept in touch with plans for similar events at the OU, or you’re interested in finding out more about the research that Sandy Ruxton and I are planning (especially if you working in a similar field), please email me.