Exploring masculinity interactively online

Last week saw the publication online of the interactive resource ‘Being a boy’, which I had a hand in developing. The resource can be found on OpenLearn, the Open University’s free learning site, whose stated aim is to ‘break down barriers to education by reaching millions of learners each year, through free educational resources.’ Those resources provide bite-sized learning experiences which offer a taster for The Open University’s main programme of courses and qualifications, while also being complete in themselves. They also constitute a channel for showcasing the university’s research and making it accessible to a broad audience. I’ve contributed to the development of a number of these resources during my time with the university, a full list of which you can find here.

‘Being a boy’ is the third in a series of interactive learning resources on the topic of men and masculinity that we’ve developed over the past year. The ideas for the series originated with colleagues in the OpenLearn team, and it was our faculty media fellow at the time, Mathijs Lucassen, who suggested me for the role of academic consultant on the project. The way the process works is that the designated academic sketches out some content ideas, based on their own and others’ research, and the OpenLearn team then organises that content into a basic structure for the interactive resource. In the case of the masculinity series, we decided to begin each episode with a brief animation, followed by an interactive quiz, and then some pages summarising key research on issues related to the topic. The media company Damn Fine Media was commissioned to develop the animations, for which I wrote the scripts, which were then voiced by the actor Sanjeev Kohli

Sanjeev Kohli (via imdb.com)

The first resource in the series, titled ‘What makes a good father?’ , was launched to coincide with Fathers’ Day in 2022. The animation posed a series of questions about where shared notions of fatherhood come from, while the quiz asked learners to select what they thought were the key characteristics of a good father, the feedback suggesting how these reflected traditional or modern views of fatherhood. There were no ‘right’ answers to the quiz: the aim was to encourage people to think about how ideas about fathers’ roles have changed over time and how they vary between cultures. The web pages that followed the quiz focused on three key issues surrounding contemporary fatherhood: absent fathers, young dads, and identity and loss, each of them drawing either on research we’ve conducted at The Open University, or on prominent studies from elsewhere.

The second resource in the series, ‘What does it mean, to be a man?’ appeared earlier this year and took a broader focus, exploring changing and diverse notions of masculinity. Once again, the animation posed a number of questions, while the interactive quiz asked learners to select the characteristics they associated with being a ‘real’ man, the feedback indicating whether the qualities selected reflected traditional, modern, or even ‘toxic’ notions of masculinity. Despite the controversy that often surrounds the latter term, I was keen to tackle it head-on and to suggest that, although masculinity is not in itself ‘toxic’ (a common misunderstanding of the term), my own research, particularly with young men, suggests that some aspects of male identity can be harmful to women, and indeed to men themselves. Building on this, the topic pages that followed explored men’s mental health and wellbeing, men’s attitudes to gender equality, and the difficult issue of men, abuse and violence, again drawing on recent research in which I’ve been involved, as well as other landmark studies of these topics.

‘Being a boy’ is the third and final resource in the series, the animation taking as its starting-point the media rhetoric around the so-called ‘problem’ of boys. This time the quiz was slightly different, being a test of learners’ knowledge of some of the key facts about boys’ experiences of issues such as education, health, violence and family relationships. The three linked topic pages that followed focussed on boys and education; role models; and boys, sexism and gender equality. This time, I made more use of work by other researchers and writers, including Richard Reeves’ important book Of Boys and Men, which I wrote about in this post.

This latest resource is the one I’m happiest with. It took me a while to get used to the novel way of working that producing this kind of interactive resource entails. I was worried to begin with about the danger of simplifying the findings from research, or giving the impression that there are straightforward answers to the questions we were posing. I also became more confident, as time went on, about suggesting improvements, or highlighting things with which I wasn’t completely happy. Looking back on the first two episodes in the series, I’d certainly want to do a number of things differently now. In the case of ‘Boys will be boys’, I think we got the tone about right and mostly resisted falling into simplistic representations of the issues. Even so, at least one Twitter user has already responded critically to the animation, suggesting that it denies the important role that fathers play in boys’ lives: in fact, the video simply poses the question as to whether positive male role models are essential for boys’ wellbeing. The purpose, once again, is to encourage learners to challenge their own thinking and to consider all the evidence before making up their minds.

Despite my concerns about over-simplification, I believe that interactive resources of this kind can play a useful role, opening up bodies of knowledge and ways of understanding to those who are usually denied access to them, encouraging people to reflect critically on their own beliefs and why they hold them, at the same time hopefully promoting a more nuanced and informed debate about contentious issues such as masculinity, identity and equality.


‘To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.’

John Henry Newman

‘Time may change me
But I can’t trace time.’

David Bowie

I thought I’d write something about the ways my thinking has changed during my time as an academic. This will probably be of little interest to anybody besides me, so feel free to scroll past this post, if you find the intellectual navel-gazing of an ageing academic a less than appealing prospect. However, since I’ve always believed that one of the purposes of a blog is to provide its author with a space to work out what he or she actually thinks, I won’t be too bothered if the main (or indeed only) audience for this post is me. At the same time, I feel I owe it to the readers of this blog (and I know there are one or two, from time to time) to explain the thinking behind the things I write here: to clarify where I’m coming from intellectually, as it were.

Another reason for wanting to clear the intellectual decks, so to speak, is that I feel I’ve held back from writing about some of the things that currently interest me, for fear of alienating or alarming my (few) readers. I want to be more honest, going forward: there are some issues I want to write about here, and some debates I want to engage in more openly, which require me to come clean about my intellectual opinions and how they’ve changed over time.

So, where to begin? I was reflecting recently, in a conversation with some colleagues, that it’s an astonishing thirty-one years since I became an academic. I joined The Open University, back in January 1991, as a Lecturer in Community Education, after a decade of frontline work organising and teaching in education projects with marginalised groups and communities. Before that, I’d been a student of English Literature, first at Cambridge University and then at Manchester, with a year’s break in between doing full-time voluntary work (see this post), which, arguably, turned out to be more influential than my academic studies in determining my future career.

Paulo Freire (via en.wikipedia.org)

I came to the OU, and entered academic life, fortified by a fairly familiar amalgam of philosophical and political opinions. My work in community education had been informed by a passionate desire to extend educational opportunities to adults who, for whatever reason, had been excluded from them. I’d been inspired, at least initially, by the de-schooling philosophy of Ivan Illich and more especially by the ideas of the radical Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, who criticised the dominant ‘banking’ model of education which regarded students as empty vessels to be filled, and proposed instead a dialogic model in which learning builds on the everyday knowledge and experience of those he called ‘the oppressed’. 

However, over time I had come to believe that a purely Freirean approach was inadequate for overcoming educational exclusion. Claiming to start from where people were in their lives, in my view it risked leaving them there, rather than helping them gain access to powerful bodies of knowledge. I’d also become increasingly concerned about a trend I’d noticed in adult education, in part inspired by Freire and Illich: a move away from its historic concern with widening access to knowledge, whether of the arts, or history, or science, and towards a more process- and skills-oriented approach, one that spoke about ‘learners’ rather than students, and appeared to devalue the role of the educator: in fact, it was becoming de rigeur to talk, not about teachers or tutors, but instead about facilitators of learning.

Raymond Williams (via en.wikipedia.org)

As someone from a modest socio-economic background, whose parents had made the transition away from their working-class roots when we moved from the East End of London to suburban Essex in my childhood, and as the first person in my family to go to university, I was deeply grateful for the possibilities that education had opened up for me, and as an educator I wanted nothing more than to extend similar opportunities to others. I was concerned that the new, ‘personal development’ orientation of adult education, with its implicit hostility to bodies of knowledge, smacked somewhat of privileged educators pulling up the ladder behind them. My own educational philosophy had been inspired by the long tradition of radical adult education in Britain, and particularly by the work of the cultural theorist Raymond Williams, who had been one of my lecturers at Cambridge, with his emphasis on culture as a common heritage which should be made accessible to all.

Stuart Hall (via open.ac.uk)

One of my jobs before joining The Open University was organising an education project in Stoke Newington, a poor, multicultural borough in north London. In my lunch break I used to browse the shelves of Centerprise, the community centre and radical bookshop close to where I worked, where I first came across the writings of Stuart Hall and his Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, becoming an avid reader of his articles on contemporary politics and culture in the magazine Marxism Today. (For my later reflections on Hall’s political thinking, and my encounters with him at the OU, see here). It was through Hall that I was introduced to the writings of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (I bought my copy of his Prison Notebooks in the Centerprise shop), whose ideas about education and its role in social change would be a major influence on my own thinking. Gramsci’s approach to education could be summed up in the title of Harold Entwistle’s classic book Antonio Gramsci: Conservative Schooling for Radical PoliticsThe Italian thinker pointed out that an emphasis on process and feelings had actually been a hallmark of Mussolini’s education policy and argued that the purpose of a truly radical education was rather to introduce students to the breadth of human culture and empower them to become critical contributors to it. Around this time, I also began to read the work of the Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, with its emphasis on dialogue and discourse as the key to understanding social processes.

Antonio Gramsci (via en.wikipedia.org)

These influences formed part of my broader political philosophy. I’d been a ‘soft’ leftist in my youth, identifying with the Tribunite wing of the Labour Party. I didn’t read Marx properly until much later, in my late twenties, around the same time that I also began to read feminist writers like Germaine Greer. I’d always felt personally constrained by conventional gender roles, so I was a natural and enthusiastic convert to a pro-feminist worldview. At the same time, my experience of working in multicultural north London had confirmed me as an avowed anti-racist.

On joining The Open University, I found a sympathetic mentor in my colleague Andy Northedge, with whom I worked developing the OU’s first pre-degree ‘access’ courses, firstly in social sciences and then in the arts and humanities. Andy, the author of the bestselling Good Study Guide, helped me to refine and elaborate my thinking about the role of discourse in learning, introducing me to the ideas of thinkers like Lev Vygotsky and Jerome Bruner. I distilled some of this thinking in a book chapter co-written with Andy’s partner, Ellie Chambers, in which we argued that the OU’s access model transcended the opposition between traditional ‘subject-centred’ and Freirean ‘student-centred’ models of learning, proposing instead a discourse-based model which brought ‘everyday’ and academic forms of understanding into critical dialogue.

When the OU’s community education programme was eventually wound up, and we were absorbed into our sister department of health and social care, I felt a need to re-equip myself intellectually for my new role, so I began studying psychology via the OU’s own courses in my spare time, working first for an Advanced Diploma in Child Development and then for a Masters degree in Psychology.  Via the latter, I became interested in critical social psychology, and particularly in discourse analysis: it helped that one of the doyennes of the subject, Margaret Wetherell, was a professor of psychology at the OU at this time. 

Margaret Wetherell (via theoryculturesociety.org)

It’s perhaps not surprising that someone whose original academic training was in English Literature should be attracted to a form of psychology that foregrounded language: engaging in discourse analysis did occasionally remind me of doing literary criticism as an undergraduate. However, my interest in discourse was also part of the generally social constructionist view of the world that I held at the time. I drew on these perspectives as I started working on courses designed for people working in health and social care, developing a particular focus on work with children and young people. At the same time, I began to develop my own research interests in men, masculinity and care, rooted both in my intellectual commitment to gender equality, and in my personal experience as a new, ‘hands on’ father. My first, small-scale research project involved interviewing men working in childcare, and was informed by a Foucauldian interest in how social discourses around masculinity and care framed these men’s experiences. I used a similar approach in my second study, interviewing ‘involved’ fathers about their care for their children. Over time, my research interests expanded to include the processes that led to men opting to be involved in ‘care’, which then prompted an interest in the shaping of young masculine identities. I led a team that undertook a major study of the role of gender in work with young men using social care services, and on the back of that, was invited to lead the UK strand of a three-country study of young men, masculinity and wellbeing. 

During the time that I was working on these research studies, my thinking was informed by the ground-breaking work on masculinities of writers like Raewyn Connell, and on gender more generally by theorists such as Judith Butler. I don’t think I was ever a fully paid-up poststructuralist, however. This was partly because my left-wing politics retained a humanist core and I was sceptical about what I saw as the anti-humanism of poststructuralism. To the extent that I was a Marxist, it was the humanist early Marx that I was drawn to, and the historian E. P. Thompson’s classic critique of Louis Althusser and his school, in The Poverty of Theory, remained an intellectual touchstone for me.

Via Twitter

Over time, I became increasingly dissatisfied with discourse analysis as a tool for making sense of the data from my research. Around this time, in the early 2000s, there were some fascinating debates at the OU between Margie Wetherell and another professor of psychology, Wendy Hollway, whose own work had moved from an early emphasis on social discourses to a position increasingly informed by psychoanalysis. I recall conversations with Wendy in which she argued that it was important to understand what motivated particular individuals to invest in specific social discourses. For her the missing link was the work of psychoanalytic feminists such as Jessica Benjamin.  Influenced by Wendy, I began to read and draw on Benjamin’s ideas, and my shift to a psychosocial perspective was further enhanced by working with other Open University colleagues like Mary Jane Kehily and Peter Redman, whose research adopted a similar approach. Although I’ve since become more sceptical about the claims of psychoanalysis, Wendy Hollway’s book The Capacity to Care: Gender and Ethical Subjectivity remains a key influence.

Wendy Hollway (via open.ac.uk)

At the same time, my disillusionment with poststructuralism and move away from the relativism of social constructionism was part of a wider shift in my political outlook. I was becoming uneasy with some of the directions being taken by the contemporary Left, which in my view were inextricable from the influence of postmodernism. Two egregious examples were Michel Foucault’s lauding of the autocratic mullahs’ regime in Iran, and Judith Butler’s notorious claim that the misogynist, antisemitic terrorist group Hamas was part of the ‘global Left’. At the party political level, I had become disillusioned during the 1980s with the dogmatism and diehard oppositionalism of the Bennite ‘hard’ left, which I had once supported. I welcomed the election of Tony Blair as Labour leader: in fact, it prompted me to re-join the party, having allowed my membership to lapse during the long years of intra-party factionalism. I was a critical supporter of Blair’s ‘New Labour’, praising its attempts to make Labour electable again and relevant to the changed social and economic realities of the ‘New Times’ so accurately described by Stuart Hall and other reformists on the Left, though I was less enthusiastic about some aspects of Blairite social policy. 

Norman Geras (via theguardian.com)

I had also grown wary, particularly after the events of September 11th 2001, of the radical Left’s embrace of a kneejerk anti-Americanism and naive ‘anti-imperialism‘ which seemed to view authoritarian regimes elsewhere as preferable to our own admittedly flawed democracies: a perspective that would eventually go mainstream when one of its leading proponents, Jeremy Corbyn, became leader of the Labour Party. In 2007 I started a political blog, Martin In The Margins, and became part of a group of bloggers that gathered around the late Norman Geras, a retired Marxist professor and pioneering political blogger, who developed cogent arguments for an anti-totalitarian leftism which eventually coalesced into the Euston Manifesto, and also found expression in the short-lived online journal Democratiya

However, this post wasn’t supposed to be about politics, except as an adjunct to explaining the shifts in my intellectual position. For those who are interested, I’ve written more extensively about my personal political journey elsewhere. But perhaps I should bring the political story up to date, before moving on: suffice it to say that I’ve joined the ranks of the politically homeless, unable to identify fully with the platform of any single party, though I find myself in sympathy with many of the ideas of Blue Labour. And if a UK equivalent of the American Solidarity Party were to come along, I’d probably vote for it…

…which is kind of a neat segue into talking about (takes a deep breath) religion (if you look up the ASP’s platform, you’ll see why). Alongside my political journey, I’d been on a spiritual journey as well, and it’s impossible to write about the shifts in my intellectual perspective without bringing up the subject of religious belief. I acknowledge that some of my readers may tune out at this point. However, for me, it’s difficult to disentangle the religious from the intellectual and political.

I was brought up in a devoutly nonconformist Christian home: my parents are active Methodists, and as a teenager I underwent the standard evangelical conversion. At university, I went through a time of profound questioning, but instead of leaving Christianity behind altogether, I eventually found myself drawn towards Catholicism. The appeal was philosophical and aesthetic, as well as spiritual. In addition to the intellectual tradition of the Church and the beauty of its sacramental life, it was the radical faith of Catholic Worker movement founder Dorothy Day, of the Trappist monk and peace activist Thomas Merton, and of the Latin American liberation theologians, that appealed, and didn’t seem at all incompatible with my left-wing commitments. 

Dorothy Day (via en.wikipedia.org)

However, I drifted away from my new faith once I left university and started work: or rather, I simply stopped practising it, as I came under the influence of Marxism, feminism, and a whole host of other appealing –isms that seemed to leave no room for faith. I was never able to completely shake off my religious background, though. I remember, at the end of a course on literature and social history that I was teaching for the Workers’ Educational Association – a course which in my view had been solidly secular in its approach – a sweet elderly couple thanked me and told me how much they appreciated that everything I’d said had been inspired by a deeply Christian perspective. 

Despite the secular humanist socialist-feminist beliefs that animated my work in adult education, and later in academia, an interest in spirituality, and the search for a spiritual grounding for my life and work, never entirely left me (perhaps there’s a permanent god-shaped hole in everyone who has once believed) and in my middle years I experimented with Buddhism and eastern spirituality. I certainly gained a good deal from meditation and similar spiritual practices, but in time I concluded that the unworldliness of Buddhism was out of sync with my abiding interest in the social, the cultural and the historical. I wanted to celebrate the world, and maybe change it, but certainly not escape from it. I also came to believe that a good deal of western Buddhism was actually a stripped down, exoticised version of Christian spirituality, with the more difficult and challenging bits left out.

At an intellectual level, I also came to believe that many of the ideas we take for granted in western thought, and which in fact are foundational for ‘progressive’ thinking, such as a belief in the value of the individual human person, and the sense that history has a trajectory and purpose, rather than being an endless, meaningless cycle of events, have their roots in a Judaeo-Christian worldview and are inexplicable without it. Vestiges of these ideas remained after Christianity lost its historical influence and can even be seen as underlying the Enlightenment, despite its formal opposition to traditional religion. However, as even the Enlightenment has been increasingly undermined by postmodern thinking, those foundations have begun to crumble. Increasingly, I came to the view that only a religious, and specifically a Christian worldview, could provide a stable basis for holding on to a humanist perspective. This intellectual questioning, together with my personal yearning for a spiritual grounding for my life, would eventually lead me back to Christianity and to Catholicism, though the process of return has not been without its bumps along the way, with the secular humanist ‘me’ continuing to argue with my newly rediscovered spiritual self.

Edith Stein (via en.wikipedia.org)

As a tentative religious believer and recovering social constructionist, I began to look around for an alternative – and realist – intellectual grounding for my academic work. I became very interested in phenomenology, which I discovered initially mainly through twentieth-century Catholic philosophers, such as Edith Stein and Dietrich von Hildebrand, who had been shaped by this philosophical perspective, which is rooted in the work of the twentieth-century German thinker Edmund Husserl. According to Robert Sokolowski, author of one of the best introductions to the subject, ‘phenomenology is the study of human experience and of the way things present themselves to us in and through experience’ and, by contrast with postmodernism, ‘insists that identity and intelligibility are available in things.’ Also, by contrast with the dominant philosophical tradition that has come down to us from Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, et al, which assumes ‘that when we are conscious, we are primarily aware of ourselves or our own ideas’, phenomenology argues that ‘we are not trapped in our own subjectivity’, that the mind is not isolated from the world. Perhaps you can see the appeal of this kind of thinking to someone like me, recoiling from the relativism and anti-realism of postmodernism and poststructuralism, and searching for a philosophical correlate for a renewed spiritual intuition of the ‘givenness’ of the world. I should add here, though, that I am by no means a trained philosopher and that reading philosophical writings, still less making sense of them and applying them to my academic work, remains a struggle for me.

Via Twitter

I’ve found phenomenology a useful tool in my academic work: for example, the work of the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty on embodiment has proved helpful in my continuing quest to understand the relationship between gender and care, while the writings of the Finnish philosopher Sara Heinämaa have reframed my thinking about sexual difference more broadly. My interest in phenomenology seems to be part of a wider trend: I’ve noticed an increasing number of postgraduate research students opting to use Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis, or IPA (which some purists would argue is not ‘real’ phenomenology), for their research, whereas a decade ago their predecessors were all mad keen on discourse analysis.

At the same time that my intellectual outlook changed, so my academic research interests began to shift. Although I was writing a book on men’s care for children, and still working on research projects on aspects of fatherhood, I was also beginning to develop an interest in the field of care ethics. I corresponded with a number of care ethicists and contributed a paper on the development of caring masculinities to the inaugural conference of the international Care Ethics Research Consortium. More recently, I’ve written a chapter for a new book on care ethics, spirituality and religious traditions which is due out in the next month or so.

In time, my reading in phenomenology led me to personalism, a philosophical tradition which in part grew out of phenomenology, so that many phenomenologists – Stein and Hildebrand would be leading examples – were also personalists. Personalists draw on the philosophical resources of phenomenology, existentialism, and in some instances Judeo-Christian religious traditions, to emphasise what the American personalist philosopher John F. Crosby terms ‘the unconditional worth in all human persons’. As I wrote in a post last year, personalism offers a corrective to some of the depersonalising tendencies of contemporary society, and to the devaluing of the human person.

My research and writing continue to have two strands, one empirical the other more theoretical. In the former, I’m continuing to explore men’s involvement in care, for example, through my current project on fathers and perinatal loss (see the previous post). In the latter, I’m exploring the potential of personalist thought for developing an ethic of care. Although I’ve found the work of feminist care ethicists like Joan Tronto, Virginia Held and Eva Feder Kittay, enlightening, I also find myself arguing with some aspects of their work. Rather than remaining a perpetually negative critic, however, I’ve been casting around for alternative foundations for an understanding of care. I’m interested in developing a dialogue between personalism and feminist care ethics, identifying aspects in common, such as a shared relational view of the self, but perhaps supplying a normative perspective that mainstream care ethics currently lacks, as well as a deeper insight into the nature, and value, of the human person.  

My inner debates continue, and I’m sure there’ll be more ch-ch-changes in my thinking before I’m done. Now that I’ve set out some of the background to my current thinking, I want to use this blog as a space to work through some of the issues around care, gender, identity and personhood that continue to interest and exercise me.

Contract for a new book on men and loss

Back in January I wrote a post calling for expressions of interest in contributing to a new edited collection on men, bereavement and loss, which my Open University colleague Dr. Kerry Jones and I were planning. I’m pleased to report that we were overwhelmed with abstracts for possible chapters and were able to put together a robust book proposal to submit to interested publishers.

I’m also delighted to report that Kerry and I have now signed a contract with Routledge for delivering the book, with the provisional title Men and Loss: men, masculinity and bereavement, in 2023.

Dr Kerry Jones

As we argued in our proposal document, although bereavement and loss are unavoidable events in life and can be challenging experiences for anyone, regardless of sex or gender, in contemporary western cultures, men’s experience of bereavement continues to be framed by socially constructed ideas surrounding masculinity. Men who do not grieve in accepted ‘masculine’ ways can feel judged, alienated or disenfranchised. Men also tend to have fewer informal support networks than women, while formal bereavement support, in its focus on talking therapies, often fails to engage men or meet their needs. In addition, gendered social expectations may hinder men from expressing their feelings openly and from seeking help.

There are currently very few publications that explore men’s experience of bereavement in depth or discuss men’s specific needs for support following loss, and certainly no recent book-length texts on these topics. We argued that there is a need for a book which increases understanding of men’s experience of loss, drawing on recent research and cutting-edge ideas about bereavement on the one hand, and men and masculinities on the other, and at the same time contributing to improving support services to men following bereavement. The increasing focus, in policy and practice, on mental health issues affecting boys and men should also make this publication timely. We believe that our book will fill a definite gap in both the academic and professional literatures on bereavement, at the same time making a significant contribution to the literature on men, masculinities and wellbeing. We also believe it will have a significant appeal to researchers, educators and professionals working in a variety of fields.

Our interdisciplinary and interprofessional edited collection will bring together authors from a wide range of backgrounds in research, teaching and professional practice, many with personal experiences of loss that have informed their thinking and practice. As co-editors, Kerry and I combine academic expertise in teaching and research on end-of-life care, on the one hand, and men, masculinities and care on the other. Our contributors are drawn predominantly from the UK, but also from Europe, North America and the Middle East. The collection will include theoretical analysis, reports of research findings, reviews of support and interventions, and a wealth of personal accounts, with many chapters interweaving the person with the academic or professional. 

The book will be loosely structured, beginning with theoretical and research-based chapters, followed by personal accounts and ending with chapters that reflect on practice and consider the implications for supporting bereaved men. However, the considerable overlap between these different categories makes a strict division between discrete sections impossible. The forms of loss discussed will include partner loss, childhood bereavement, perinatal loss and bereavement through suicide, as well as bereavement at all stages of the life course. Although the primary focus is on the ways in which the experience of loss is framed by gender identity, a diversity of experience and practice in terms of social class, ethnicity, culture and geographical location will also be represented in the book. 

Image via sands.org.uk

I’ll post more details of the book on this blog, including names of authors and chapter titles, when we’re a little further along in the writing process. However, I can state definitively that one of the chapters will focus on the research that Kerry and I have been undertaking recently, with our colleague Sam Murphy, on the experiences of fathers who have lost a child in the perinatal period, and specifically those who have formed themselves into football teams, under the auspices of the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death charity (SANDS), as a means of providing mutual support. We’ve now completed all the interviews for the study and have just begun the analysis phase: watch this space for further updates.

New book on sensitive research

The special issue of the International Journal of Social Research Methodology on sensitive research, to which I contributed an article, and which I wrote about in this post, has now been published as a book by Routledge (with a cover design startlingly similar to my own monograph on Men, masculinities and the care of children). More details can be found here.

My chapter is entitled ‘ “Men, we just deal with it differently”: researching sensitive issues with young men’, and it appears in Part 3 of the book, ‘The ideal sensitive researcher’: reflexivity, internalisation and the cost to self’ .

The book was edited by three of my colleagues from the School of Health, Wellbeing and Social Care at The Open University – Erica Borgstrom, Sharon Mallon and Sam Murphy – and includes a truly diverse range of chapters which, taken together, interrogate the notion of what we mean by ‘sensitivity’ when it comes to academic research. As the promotional blurb puts it:

The term ‘sensitive research’ is applied to a wide range of issues and settings. It is used to denote projects that may involve risk to people, stigmatising topics, and/or require a degree of sensitivity on behalf of the researcher. Rather than take the notion of ‘sensitive research’ for granted, this collection unpacks and challenges what the term means.

This book is a collective endeavour to reflect on research practices around ‘sensitive research’, providing in-depth explorations about what this label means to different researchers, how it is done – including the need to be sensitive as a researcher – and what impacts this has on methods and knowledge creation.

The book includes chapters from researchers who have explored a diverse range of research topics, including sex and sexuality, death, abortion, and learning disabilities, from several disciplinary perspectives, including sociology, anthropology, health services research and interdisciplinary work. The researchers included here collectively argue that current approaches fail to adequately account for the complex mix of emotions, experiences, and ethical dilemmas at the heart of many ‘sensitive’ research encounters. Overall, this book moves the field of ‘sensitive research’ beyond the genericity of this label, showing ways in which researchers have in practice addressed the methodological threats that are triggered when we uncritically embark on ‘sensitive research’.

Reflections on returning to campus

Open University campus, Milton Keynes: October 2021

Back in March, I wrote a post on this blog about missing my office – on the Open University campus in Milton Keynes. At the time, thanks to the pandemic, it had been a whole year since I was there. Well, it’s taken another seven months, but last week I finally made it back. It was just for one day, but at least it was a start.

Restrictions on visiting the OU campus have been lifted: we no longer have to get special permission to enter the site, and visits are no longer time limited. It’s by no means a wholesale return to normality: most meetings are still taking place online, and the University has introduced a ‘new ways of working’ policy, with an option for staff to choose hybrid or home working, if it’s appropriate to their role. 

Some of my colleagues have decided that they’ll work on campus one day a week – and a number of them have agreed to make it the same day each week, so as to maximise the chances of meeting up with others. As Wednesday seemed to be a popular day for these regular visits, I chose that day for my first foray back to the office. However, I overlooked the fact that the particular Wednesday I’d chosen was right in the middle of half-term week: when I arrived, mine was the only car in the car park, and it turned out I was the only person on our corridor that day.

My office: same as it ever was

It was an eerie experience walking along the silent, darkened corridor in the basement of the Horlock Building, past offices that had lain empty for a year and a half, one with a cardigan still strewn over the back of a chair, others with books and papers left unattended on desks. When I emailed the colleague with whom I share an office in ‘normal’ times, to let her know I was there, she said she imagined it as covered in cobwebs, like Miss Havisham’s bedroom. I replied that it was actually more like the Marie Celeste, or one of those other ghost ships that are the stuff of legend, with everything exactly as it was when it was suddenly abandoned. Post-it notes and meeting minutes from early 2020 were gathering dust on desks, as if someone had stopped the clock 20 months ago, and nothing had happened since.

The odd thing, of course, is that a lot has in fact happened in the interim, and we, the erstwhile occupants of the building, have actually been hyperactive during this period, continuing to work and meet and interact via the internet, that strange space that is both everywhere and nowhere. Speaking for myself, since the last time I was in my office, I’ve helped to produce two new Masters-level modules and, as co-chair of one of them, seen it through its first year of presentation; published two journal articles; submitted a major research funding bid (twice), with a team of people, most of whom I’ve yet to meet in person; successfully applied, as part of a team, for the joint editorship of an academic journal; spoken at one or two seminars; carried out interviews for a new research project; interviewed candidates for jobs; examined a number of PhDs; chaired a couple of exam boards; successfully applied to become a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy; and joined three external advisory boards. All of this without going anywhere near my place of work.

The Mulberry Lawn, with the Hub in the background

Because most of my colleagues have yet to take the leap of faith and return to campus, and also due to my poor choice of the day for my first return visit, I could easily have spent the whole day last Wednesday without speaking to a living soul. However, when I ventured out to buy a cup of coffee at the Hub – our main campus restaurant – it was a pleasant surprise to be greeted warmly and welcomed back by Mario, one of the two Italian baristas. I’d been worried that Hub staff would have been let go during lockdown, so it was a relief to see them still there. The last conversation I remembered having with Mario was back in February 2020, when I’d just returned from a few days in Florence, with news just beginning to emerge of a spate of coronavirus cases in the north of Italy. Mario hadn’t been too bothered by the news: his family, he said, lived in a different part of the country, so they would probably be unaffected. Little did any of us know…

On the way back from grabbing my coffee, I ran into one of my admin colleagues, who was also making a tentative return to the office. She told me that, although she valued the new freedom to work from home, she wanted to get over the feeling of apprehension surrounding that first return visit. It was a feeling I shared: it’s surprising how the experience of lockdown has made many of us nervous about doing things that were once part of our daily routine. Driving to Milton Keynes that morning, I reflected that this was the furthest I’d been, and the longest time I’d spent away from home, without another member of my family, for nearly two years.

Despite the fact that I only spoke to two people while I was there, and despite the fact that, as I said in my earlier post, it’s really the people more than the place that I’d missed, I found the mere fact of being on campus somehow stimulating and energising. I know it’s going to be a while before things really return to ‘normal’, and it’s likely that the new normal will look nothing like the old pre-pandemic normal. But something about just being there and seeing the old familiar landmarks, and of course, the beautiful autumn colours on campus, put a spring in my step. It felt good to be back.

Trees on Walton Drive

Only connect

Mulling over what I wrote in my last post, and the conversations with colleagues that it prompted, has led me to some further reflections on the pros and cons of ‘remote’ working. In that post, I described my sense of missing my office on the Open University campus in Milton Keynes and the in-person interactions that go along with being there, after a year of enforced working at home due to the pandemic.

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An online meeting (image via https://zoom.us/)

While my post focused on what has been lost during this year of lockdowns and social distancing, it’s also important to acknowledge some of the positive things that working online has made possible. For example, as I mentioned in another recent post, in January I was appointed as one of the new co-editors of the journal Children & Society. Our editorial team is dispersed around the UK, with the exception of one member who’s based in South Africa. We came together and planned our joint application for the editorship via Microsoft Teams, were interviewed for the post using the same method, and we now meet regularly online, with our South African colleague playing as full a part in the discussion, and appearing as ‘close’, as if she were (like other members of the team) in London or Sussex. Just last week, we attended our first annual general meeting, as editors, of the journal’s editorial board: it was held online and brought together board members in England, Ireland, Denmark, France and Germany, many of whom wouldn’t have been able to attend if the meeting had been held face-to-face in London, as it is in ‘normal’ times.

What’s more, although the pandemic has meant the cancellation of many academic conferences over the past year, it has also meant others moving online for the first time, in the process extending the possibility of ‘attendance’ to people who might not otherwise have been able to participate. For example, last summer I was able to take part in an American conference that I probably wouldn’t have had the opportunity to attend under normal circumstances. On a more personal level, I’m thankful that Facetime and Zoom have made it possible to continuing ‘seeing’ members of my family who have been separated for more than a year by distance, lockdown regulations and concerns about the health of older relatives.

At the same time, though, I have some sympathy with the American journalist Christina Cauterucci, who wrote a piece last year for Slate about the ‘Zoom fatigue’ that she was beginning to experience. While admitting that she was grateful, at least initially, for the opportunity to see the people whom she missed via her laptop screen, Cauterucci soon reached a stage where, in her words, ‘Zoom hangouts drive me nuts’. In trying to work out why she finds video chats so exhausting, Cauterucci identifies the lack of normal eye contact as a key factor:

Talk to someone over FaceTime or Zoom, and they’ll never quite meet your eyes. They’ll spend the call looking at their screen, a few inches below or to the side of their camera, giving you the perpetual feeling of trying to get the attention of someone who’s ever so slightly preoccupied.

But paradoxically, Cauterucci argues, the opposite is also true: there’s actually too much eye contact in online conversations. She’s writing here about social gatherings, but what she says could also be applied to work meetings:

You have to look at each other’s faces the entire time! There are rarely natural breaks in conversation on Zoom, as there might be during a typical group dinner or coffee date, and it’s much harder to have a comfortable silence (or manage an uncomfortable one) when all parties are staring at one another nonstop. There’s no peeking out a window, no studying a menu, no people-watching, no helping out in the kitchen or asking about a host’s record collection. There’s only talking, and in a video chat with more than two participants, striking a normal conversational rhythm is nearly impossible.

What’s more, she adds, communicating via Zoom or Skype or Teams also means constantly having to look at an onscreen image of yourself:

In real life, entire minutes can pass by without my thinking about the angle of my chin, the texture of my skin, or the shadows under my eyes. It’s much harder to feel fully immersed in the company of family or friends when my attention is split between the content of a conversation and a moving image of my own face. Each glance to check whether I’m properly framed in the video feed takes me out of the exchange, redirecting some of my scattered focus back toward myself and inhibiting the ego suppression that marks moments of true intimacy.


Social interaction in the margins of the American Men’s Studies Association conference, Ann Arbor, Michigan, April 2016

One might add to Cauterucci’s criticisms of meetings via Zoom or Skype or Teams the absence of random social interaction. If you share a common space with a lot of people on a regular basis – on a university campus, for example – then every day you’ll have unplanned encounters, some brief and others longer and more consequential, which can take your work off in new and unforeseen directions. One of the best things about being at an ‘in person’ academic conference is the opportunity to chat to people outside the formal, planned sessions. At the online conference I attended last summer,  the organisers did their best to replicate some of this, with online ‘social’ sessions and a ‘chat’ function that enabled participants to converse with each other in the margins of the formal presentations. But you can’t really organise spontaneity, and as soon as a session ended, all of this networking came to an inevitably abrupt end, and I was left on my own with a blank screen, cut off from the people that I’d been happily chatting with a moment before.

I also find myself in at least partial agreement with what Peter Colosi, who teaches philosophy at Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island, wrote in another article that was published last year. While expressing relief that technology had made it possible for his teaching to continue during the pandemic, he is reluctant to describe this as ‘an unalloyed blessing’. As Colosi argues:

The positive feeling of being together during the live synchronous classes happened because of the two-thirds of the semester we had already spent together in each other’s physical presence getting to know each other so well; in other words, this was a surprising instance of the truth of the dictum: absence makes the heart grow fonder, and we are lucky to have had modern technology to provide this bit of connectedness during such a trying time. But it was a connectedness that had been formed in the classroom, not online.

Commenting on proposals to continue with online teaching in the coming academic year, he adds:

Starting classes online cold from day one will be nothing like what we just experienced. We will not have had time in each other’s physical presence to develop relationships vital enough to be sustained in the less fertile ground of online learning. There will have been no preceding presence which is necessary for the fondness of absence to come into existence.

Now, as someone who works for a distance learning organisation, I have to take issue with some of Colosi’s assumptions here. After all, even in ‘normal’ times, most or all of our teaching at The Open University is undertaken ‘remotely’. We central academics develop study materials – texts and audiovisual assets – which for the most are presented to students in digital format via a website, while our courses are mediated by an army of tutors or associate lecturers, mostly via synchronous or asynchronous online tutorials. When I started work at the OU thirty years ago (see the previous post), tutors would meet their students regularly for face-to-face tutorials held at locations around the country. Indeed, at the beginning of my Open University career, partly in order to gain some hands-on familiarity with the OU system, I took an additional part-time job as a tutor, teaching the Arts Foundation course at a centre close to where I lived in the Midlands. I also taught at one of the annual summer schools (mine was at Royal Holloway College in London) where students, tutors and central academics could all meet in person. However, over time and often for very good reasons, this face-to-face element has almost completely disappeared from OU teaching. For example, the modules for which I’m currently responsible, as part of the MA in Childhood and Youth, are taught entirely online. We stopped offering face-to-face tutorials, in part because our students are thinly spread throughout the UK and even beyond, so finding a suitable location that a significant number of them could travel to was difficult, and in part because our students are busy people, often struggling to fit their study around their working and family lives: all of which meant that attendance at tutorials was often sparse, to say the least.

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Face-to-face Open University tutorial (via http://masterfacilitator.com/)

While it’s difficult to deny that something has been lost in this wholescale shift to online tuition, I would take issue with Colosi’s conclusion that the educational process necessarily mandates personal presence. And I’m not sure I agree with him that it’s necessary for student and teacher to be physically in the same space for the former to ‘catch’ the latter’s passion for his or her topic, or that ‘genuine emotions’ cannot be present in online teaching and learning.

However, I do think that much of what Colosi writes holds true for other interpersonal activities besides education: for example, working together as part of an academic community. He is surely right to call attention to the importance of ‘the communal experience of place’ in sustaining any working community, and to remind us that we humans are inescapably embodied beings:

Imagine if you yourself were told that for the rest of your life you would have to relate to your family members from a different location and only through a computer screen. Why is such a thought so painful? It is because of the importance of our embodiment for human relationships.

And Colosi echoes Cauterucci when he writes that ‘in online relating, direct eye contact is not possible.’ He adds: ‘You also do not see the whole body of the other, losing thereby fully embodied gestures.’ Colosi concludes: ‘We human persons are embodied and communal by nature, and experiences between human beings are not fully personal unless they are embodied in a physical communal setting.’

It’s difficult to disagree with that. As the philosopher Edmund Husserl argued, human beings are ‘expressive bodies’ or embodied souls. As the Finnish feminist philosopher Sara Heinämaa puts its, ‘the living body forms an expressive whole’, an insight that is developed extensively in the work of the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty. We are inescapably embodied beings who express ourselves and interact with others through our bodies in shared physical spaces.


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On missing my office

(or Horlock: a history )*

Room 016, Horlock Building, January 2016

I miss my office. 

I never thought I’d write those words. One of the many good things about being an Open University academic is having the freedom to work from home when you need to. In a typical week (though there’s really no such thing as ‘typical’ in this job) I might work at home for three days and travel to my office – in the Horlock Building, on the OU’s Walton Hall campus in Milton Keynes – for the other two. Home is where I feel I’m most creative and where I do most of my thinking and writing. However, thanks to the pandemic, it has now been a whole year since I was last in my office, and I’m experiencing definite withdrawal symptoms.

Of course, it’s not really the physical office that I miss, so much as everything that goes with being there: the chance meetings, the corridor conversations, going for coffee or lunch with colleagues, and the unexpected ideas and synergies that are often sparked by those in-person encounters. Meeting people virtually for pre-planned meetings via Skype or Microsoft Teams just isn’t the same.

Being away from the Horlock Building for so long has prompted me to reflect on the time I’ve spent there over the years, and to recall some of the people who’ve passed through it. It has also prompted the realisation that, in a building housing a couple of hundred staff members, I’m now one of only two people – and the only member of academic staff – who was there when we originally moved in, thirty years ago. 

The history of the Horlock Building is also the history of an academic community – the OU’s School of Health, Wellbeing and Social Care (to use our current title). Over the three decades of its existence, the building has been the site of an incredible wealth of groundbreaking research and innovative curriculum developments, producing studies and courses that have influenced the lives and professional practice of tens of thousands of people. Writing this post is my small contribution to ensuring that its history is not forgotten.

I arrived at The Open University in January 1991, originally as a Lecturer in Community Education, having spent the previous decade organising education projects with marginalised groups and communities: managing a scheme for ex-offenders in an Essex new town; setting up a day centre in a residential project in Hackney; developing opportunities for residents on a poor housing estate outside Oxford; and finally running the adult literacy and numeracy provision for the Milton Keynes area. I was initially employed by the OU to work with Andy Northedge (perhaps best-known as the author of The Good Study Guide), developing the University’s first ‘access’ programme.

When I started work at the OU, my office was in one of the Wimpey Huts, prefabs located roughly where the car park for the Mulberry Bear Nursery now stands. The Department of Community Education shared the building with the fledgling Department of Health and Social Welfare: ‘ComEd’ was at one at end of the hut, ‘HSW’ at the other. But it wasn’t long after I arrived that we were told we’d all be moving into the brand new Horlock Building across the campus. The day duly came and there was an official opening ceremony with Virginia Bottomley, Minister of Health in the then John Major government (that tells you how long ago it was).

Plaque commemorating the official opening of the Horlock Building (apologies for the reflection)

Entrance to the Horlock Building, August 2016

In those days Horlock looked out on the original Geoffrey Crowther Building, standing between us and the medieval church and housing the Arts Faculty, to which we were joined by a ‘spur’ which was home to the Institute of Educational Technology (IET). Both of those buildings have since been demolished, following the discovery of asbestos, to be replaced by a green open space and a beautiful wild garden.


The view from outside Horlock, August 2014

ComEd was given the top floor of Horlock while HSW occupied the middle floor and basement. David Howie, director of ComEd, had an office at the campus end of the top floor, while Professor Malcolm Johnson, director and later the first dean of HSW, occupied a suite of offices on the middle floor, which would eventually become the deanery. To begin with I shared a large office on the top floor with other members of the access team, before Andy and I moved around the corner into the ‘spur’.

Community Education was in the business of producing packs of learning materials, on topics as varied as parenting, healthy lifestyles and community development, for use by informal groups, while Health and Social Welfare was in the process of developing its first taught courses for practitioners. Over the next few years ComEd died a slow death, as the University lost interest in providing learning materials that weren’t supported by tuition: some colleagues retired, others moved on, and the rest of us were absorbed into HSW. Based on his experience of developing materials at pre-degree level, Andy Northedge was asked to chair the production of HSW’s first Level 1 course (K100 in OU jargon) and I was invited to join him. Over time, I re-invented myself as a health and social care academic, studying for qualifications in psychology and child development via the OU and, as a new father myself, developing a research interest in the topic of men’s care for children.

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My OU ID card from the 1990s: ‘SHWCE’ = School of Health, Welfare and Community Education

I forget the precise chronology, but at some point we transitioned from being a department, to an institute, and then a school, finally becoming a faculty, before reverting to a school again when we were merged into the new mega-Faculty of Wellbeing, Education and Language Studies five years ago. Along the way, we dropped community education from our name and decided that ‘welfare’ had too many negative connotations, changing it to ‘care’. Over time the School/Faculty grew exponentially, adding accredited programmes in social work, nursing and youth justice, and extending into all corners of Horlock: there was even a period when growth was so rapid that some of us had to be out-housed in the neighbouring Gardiner Building.

From such a rich, thirty-year history, it seems invidious to pick out particular individuals and achievements, but perhaps mentioning a few names from the School’s early years will give a flavour of that history, for those who may be unfamiliar with it. Malcolm Johnson was (and indeed still is) a leading gerontologist, and he gathered around him a talented team who made a substantial contribution to research and teaching on ageing, including Joanna Bornat, Pam Shakespeare, Sheila Peace, Julia Johnson and Bill Bytheway. Meanwhile Vic Finkelstein and Sally French were doing pioneering work on the social model of disability, Jan Walmsley and Dorothy Atkinson and others were working to change perceptions of learning disability, and Wendy Stainton Rogers was doing groundbreaking work on child abuse. From its inception the School had a particular strength in teaching and research on death and dying, with the groundwork being done by Moyra Sidell and Jeanne Katz, among others. The School’s pioneers in health studies included Tom Heller, who combined his academic role with maintaining a GP practice. Others, like Ann Brechin and the late Jill Reynolds, made important contributions across the spectrum of health and social care practice. Then there were our first externally-recruited professors, Hilary Brown and Celia Davies, with whom I worked on K100…I could go on, but to do justice to all of the talented colleagues who have walked the corridors of Horlock over the years, including all the brilliant course managers, administrative staff and regions and nations colleagues who have passed through the building, would take much more than a single blog post.

In time Malcolm Johnson moved on to Bristol and others took his place as dean, among them Linda Jones, before she went off to become Pro Vice Chancellor, Jan Walmsley, then two lawyers, Lesley Ann Cull, and finally Jeremy Roche.

My own history in Horlock divides into a number of phases: those early days in the 1990s, working with Andy and collaborating with the Social Science and Arts Faculties on the access materials, then joining the K100 team, followed by a period in the late ’90s when I divided my time between chairing the pre-degree Openings programme in the new Centre for Widening Participation, and contributing to the immensely popular course on working with children and families (K204); then, in the early 2000s, being asked to chair a new course on communication and relationships in health and social care (K205); followed by a first experience of joint work with colleagues from Education on the OU’s first course on working with young people (KE308), which was good preparation for a more extensive collaboration developing the Masters in Childhood and Youth. Fond memories, too, of leading my first externally-funded research project, on gender and identity in work with young men using social care services, alongside Brid Featherstone, now at Huddersfield, and a team of young researchers who have all gone on to greater things.


The course team for K205 Communication and Relationships in Health and Social Care, c. 2004 (L to R: Jenny Douglas, Janet Seden, Sheila Barratt, Linda Finlay, Val O’Connor, me, Carol Komaromy, Caroline Malone, Liz Forbat, Anita Rogers)

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The course team for KE308 Youth: Perspectives and Practice, celebrating its launch c.2009 (L to R: Rachel Thomson, Jo Dyer, Andy Rixon, me, Mary Jane Kehily)

Over the years I’ve had a number of different offices in Horlock. At one stage I was stuck in a dingy corner at the far end of the building, then I shared an office with Carol Komaromy, before she needed her own room as head of department, precipitating a move to my current office in the basement, which I shared for some years with Rachel Thomson, until she went off to Sussex. I’ve been in the same office for about fifteen years now. I never thought I’d like it in the basement: but it’s cosy in winter and cool in summer, and these days it’s home to a dynamic and friendly bunch of younger colleagues, most of whom would have been mere infants when the Horlock Building first opened. Oh, and the view from my office window is pretty cool too:


The view from my office: February 2015


The view from my office: April 2015

At the time of writing, I have no idea when I’ll be back in my office. There’s talk of doing things differently in the post-pandemic world: of more hot-desking and home-working. But whatever gets decided, I hope the powers-that-be don’t overlook the importance of embodied, face-to-face interaction, and the role of place and co-location in sustaining the sense of academic community that helped to make possible the groundbreaking developments in research and teaching that the Horlock Building has witnessed over the past thirty years.


Lights burning late in the Horlock Building, as seen from outside the Hub (OU café), early evening, 7 December 2017.

*with apologies to J.K.Rowling