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.

Video tutorial on sensitive research with men

I’ve recorded a video tutorial for Sage Research Methods, on ‘researching sensitive issues with men’. The video is now live on the Sage website. You’ll need to subscribe to watch the whole thing, which lasts about 20 minutes, but you can view a brief preview, and get a sense of the main issues covered by the video, here. I’m waiting for Sage to send me a longer clip that I can post as a taster.

Sage Research Methods is a website run by the academic publisher of the same name, aiming to support research by providing material to guide users through every step of the research process. As the website states:

Nearly everyone at a university is involved in research, from students learning how to conduct research to faculty conducting research for publication to librarians delivering research skills training and doing research on the efficacy of library services. Sage Research Methods has the answer for each of these user groups, from a quick dictionary definition, a case study example from a researcher in the field, a downloadable teaching dataset, a full-text title from the Quantitative Applications in the Social Sciences series, or a video tutorial showing research in action.

I was approached by Sage about a year ago, following the publication of my article ‘“Men, we just deal with it differently”: researching sensitive issues with young men’ in a special issue of the International Journal of Social Research Methodology, which was later included as a chapter in an edited collection. As I wrote in a blog post at the time:

[The article] reflects on my personal experience, as a male researcher, of discussing gender identity and relationships with young male participants. Using examples from two of the research studies in which I’ve been involved, the article argues that the nature of masculine identities, and the way that masculinity ‘works’ in the research process, mean that research with young men on issues of this kind is always inherently sensitive and brings with it considerable challenges for researchers. 

Adopting a psychosocial approach to issues of gender identity, and to conceptualising the research process, I also contend that it’s important to understand the research encounter as an intersubjective process in which the identities of both researcher and researched influence each other in dynamic though often hidden ways. The article discusses these challenges in detail and makes some practical suggestions as to how researchers might respond to them.

I drew on some of this material in my video tutorial for Sage, though I widened the scope to discuss research with men generally, rather than just young men. 

Screenshot via methods.sagepub.com

The process of recording the video was interesting. At the time (June 2022), Sage were still working mostly online and asked me to record the video at home, rather than in the studio. This entailed sending me some simple recording equipment and, on the day, connecting with me online to provide instructions. I had to record the video on my phone and then send a copy to the Sage recording engineers, who checked it for sound and vision quality. We had to do a few ‘takes’: as you’ll see if you watch the final product, I found it difficult to simultaneously refer to my approved script (I’m not capable of doing a twenty-minute recorded talk from memory – at least, not one that will be viewed potentially by hundreds of people) and at the same time maintain eye contact with an imagined viewer. 

I think the final product is OK. I hope the video will be useful to other researchers who are thinking about exploring sensitive issues of gender, identity and relationships, with men.

Understanding boys

Last week ‘The State of UK Boys’ report was launched at an event in London which was also streamed online. The report, which can be downloaded here, summarises the findings of a research project led by Dr Sara Bragg and Professor Jessica Ringrose of University College London. The project was part of the Global Boyhood Initiative, co-founded in 2020 by the Kering Foundation and Equimundo.

In the words of the report’s Introduction:

From education and achievement to mental health and well-being to violence and aggression, the ‘state of boys’ has long been a feature of UK (and global) educational, societal and political debate. Against this backdrop, a raft of evidence-based research has not only contested the notion of a singular ‘state’ of boys, but also complicated the category of ‘boy’ and, therefore, what it means to be a boy today…Understanding the multiple ways that boys, boyhoods and masculinities are constructed and produced in contemporary societies, and how these relate to other gender formations, is fundamental if we are to support and respond meaningfully to the diverse experiences of boys.  

Work on the project consisted of two streams: a literature review, drawing on a database of more than 400 sources, and 15 key informant interviews with ‘experts on gender, masculinities and boyhood’. I was pleased to be asked to participate in the project, as one of the key informants. 

This wasn’t my first experience of working with Equimundo – or Promundo as it used to be known. In 2016 I was invited to attend a seminar in Vienna to discuss Promundo’s IMAGES (International Men and Gender Equality) survey (see this post), and arising out of that discussion, Gary Barker, the founder and CEO of Promundo (and now of Equimundo) invited Sandy Ruxton and me to lead the UK strand of what came to be known as the ‘Man Box’ study, a three-country project (in the US, Mexico and the UK) on young men’s attitudes and understandings of manhood and masculinity. Together with our co-researcher David Bartlett (who was also one of the researchers for ‘The State of UK Boys’), Sandy and I organised a series of focus groups with young men and published our findings in a report on ‘Young men, masculinity and wellbeing’ in 2017. Sandy and I also wrote a chapter about our research for an edited book, as well as an article for The Conversation, which you can read here,

I drew on the experience of that Promundo research, as well as our earlier ‘Beyond Male Role Models’ study with young men using social care services, when I was interviewed for ‘The State of UK Boys’ project. A couple of direct quotations from my interview were included in the final report:

The launch event itself featured a compelling line-up of speakers, including academics, campaigners, representatives from the main sponsoring organisations, and practitioners working directly with boys around issues of gender equality. You can watch the recording of the whole event below:


‘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.

What I meant to say…

This week I made my podcast debut, as a guest on the first episode of ‘Now and Men’, a new podcast about men, masculinities and gender equality, hosted by Durham University’s Centre for Research into Violence and Abuse, and co-presented by Stephen Burrell and by my friend and former colleague, Sandy Ruxton. You can listen to the episode, and read the ‘show notes’ here.

My conversation with Stephen and Sandy lasted about 45 minutes and covered a wide range of topics, from fatherhood to family history, moving back and forth between the personal and the philosophical, and was mainly structured around the chapters of my recent book, Men, Masculinities and the Care of Children: Images, Ideas and Identities (Routledge, 2020). The interviewers could not have been more gracious or supportive, but some of their questions were quite probing. I found it particularly challenging being asked to reflect on the connections between my beliefs about masculinity and gender equality and my personal experience, both as a child and an adult. 

Our son James on ITV’s ‘The Voice’ earlier this year

The proud parents

The interview actually began on a personal note, with a question about my recent television debut, as a parent supporting our son James’ appearance on the ITV singing contest The Voice (if you haven’t seen it, you can watch the relevant clips here), and my reflections on the show’s portrayal of family relationships. It was a neat segue into a discussion of my analysis in the book of fatherhood and men’s care for children as reflected in popular culture. 

Listening back to the edited version of the interview, I wasn’t too unhappy with my performance, though I think I sometimes slipped into the irritating academic habit of answering every question with the caveat that there are no simple answers and the issues are incredibly complex and nuanced, etc.  

Inevitably, as I listen to the podcast now, there are one or two moments where I wished I’d said something different, or added something more. After the interview, Sandy commented that we hadn’t mentioned the work we did together back in the 1980s, organising an education project for mostly young male ex-offenders in an Essex new town. In fact, I omitted to say anything about the decade I spent as a community educator, before becoming an academic, despite the fact that it was certainly formative of my beliefs about gender equality, as it was about other issues. But maybe you can’t cover everything in a 45 minute interview.

I’m grateful to Stephen and Sandy for inviting me on to their new podcast, which I’m sure will go from strength to strength and become an essential platform for important discussions about men and gender equality.

I hope you enjoy the episode.

Researching sensitive issues with young men

I’ve contributed an article to a special issue of the International Journal of Social Research Methodology on sensitive research, co-edited by my Open University colleagues Sharon Mallon, Erica Borgstrom and Sam Murphy. In addition to an editorial unpacking the topic of sensitive research, and other articles co-written by Sharon , Erica and Sam, the special issue also includes contributions by other colleagues from the School of Health, Wellbeing and Social Care, including Lesley Hoggart, Liz Tilley, Kerry Jones, Peter Keogh and Tom Witney. All of the articles in the special issue can now be accessed online.

young men 2

(Image copyright (C) Diego Cervo via shutterstock.com, taken from http://wels.open.ac.uk/sites/wels.open.ac.uk/files/files/YMMW_report_02-17_email.pdf)

My own article, ‘ “Men, we just deal with it differently”: researching sensitive issues with young men’, reflects on my personal experience, as a male researcher, of discussing gender identity and relationships with young male participants. Using examples from two of the research studies in which I’ve been involved, the article argues that the nature of masculine identities, and the way that masculinity ‘works’ in the research process, mean that research with young men on issues of this kind is always inherently sensitive and brings with it considerable challenges for researchers. 

Adopting a psychosocial approach to issues of gender identity, and to conceptualising the research process, I also contend that it’s important to understand the research encounter as an intersubjective process in which the identities of both researcher and researched influence each other in dynamic though often hidden ways. The article discusses these challenges in detail and makes some practical suggestions as to how researchers might respond to them.

Fathers and forefathers: men and their children in genealogical perspective

I was asked recently to guest edit a special issue of the open access journal Genealogy, on fatherhood. I was very pleased to accept the invitation, since the proposal neatly brought together my academic focus on fathers with my personal interest in family history, though the journal defines ‘genealogy’ in the broadest sense, so that it also encompasses the Foucauldian meaning of the word.

This was my first experience of guest editing a journal issue, and it certainly involved some interesting challenges, including persuading busy fatherhood scholars to contribute, finding willing academic reviewers, and working with an editorial team that was based in China and Switzerland and contributors from England, Scotland, Italy and North America.

However, the special issue is now complete and can be accessed online here. I’m really pleased with the diversity of contributions that we’ve been able to publish, which include three articles  reflecting on aspects of their authors’ own family history: Helen Scholar’s exploration of the ways in which DNA testing can ‘disrupt and unsettle’ notions of paternity; Sandy Ruxton’s discussion of a moving family memoir about losing a son in war; and my own analysis of my great grandfather’s wartime letters to his son. I would argue that these contributions both illuminate and challenge stereotypical understandings of fatherhood in the past, as well as contributing to deepening our understanding of the under-explored affective dimensions of fatherhood, and of masculinity.

One of my great grandfather’s letters to his son during the First World War (see this post)

Three other papers in the special issue are more broadly historical, with a timely article by Susan-Mary Grant and David Bowe exploring how stereotypical understandings of African-American fatherhood in the past continue to shape negative perceptions of black families in the present. Writing from Italy, Maria-Letizia Bosoni and Sara Mazzucchelli use a review of the academic literature on fatherhood, published in two time periods in the recent past, to explore generational differences and current debates about the changing nature of fatherhood. Gary Clapton’s paper focuses on the history of a particular form of fatherhood, that of a child given up for adoption, in the process problematising the concept of the ‘birth father’, and prompting a re-evaluation of the ways in which the identity of ‘father’ is conceptualised. Finally, I was particularly pleased that I managed to persuade Andrea Doucet, one of the pioneering scholars of fatherhood, to contribute a theoretical paper which sets out to provide a ‘Foucauldian-inspired genealogy’ of the notion of ‘father involvement’.

African-American slave family (via usslave.blogspot.com)

One of the bonuses of working on the special issue has been the opportunity to reconnect with people from my past, as well as forging new connections. Sandy Ruxton and I worked together thirty-five years ago, setting up an education project for ex-offenders in Essex: more recently, we discovered that we had both developed an interest in researching men and masculinity, and in the last few years we’ve worked together on a number of projects. Helen Scholar belongs to an even more remote era in my past: we were postgraduate students together in Manchester, she studying medieval literature and I modern poetry. Somehow we both ended up in the caring professions, before reinventing ourselves as social scientists.

It’s my hope that the articles in the special issue will encourage readers to look with fresh eyes at fatherhoods past and present, and the relationship between the two, and will help to inspire new directions and developments, both theoretical and empirical, in this important and developing field of research.

A new book for postgraduate students of childhood and youth

It always feels good to take delivery of a new book that you’ve been working on. A couple of weeks ago I received my copies of the newly-published second edition of Children and  young people’s worlds, a course reader that I co-edited with my Open University colleague Heather Montgomery. The book has been designed to accompany the new first stage module in the OU’s Masters in Childhood and Youth Studies, which will be welcoming its first students in September this year.

The book sets out the contexts of children’s and young people’s lives in the early twenty-first century and encourages students – and general readers – to explore their complexities. The first edition of the book, edited by Heather with Mary Kellett (now the OU’s Acting Vice Chancellor!) was produced in the very different context of the early 2000s. As we say in our introduction to the new edition, the landscape of children’s lives, and of policies affecting children and young people, as well as the scope of Childhood and Youth Studies, has changed enormously in the intervening years. In response to this, the new edition has been substantially updated in order to discuss and analyse new topics and issues that have emerged over the last ten years.

The new book, which is truly interdisciplinary, draws on insights from psychology, cultural studies, sociology, anthropology, geography and education, with each of the  seventeen chapters challenging students’ assumptions and examining crucial issues in the field – including race and ethnicity, sexuality, rights, the law, disability and transnational childhoods. The list of authors includes some of the leading names in the study of childhood and youth, mostly drawn from the UK, but with some international contributors, and a determination to make the content relevant to a global as well as a domestic audience.

One of the chapters, co-written by me and my fellow researcher Sandy Ruxton, focuses on the issue of young men and gender identity, and draws on the research that we carried out in 2016-17 on young masculinity and wellbeing, as part of a three-country study led by Promundo. In the chapter, we argue that, despite important changes in gender relations and significant progress towards gender equality, the lives of many boys and young men continue to be influenced by – and to some extent constrained by – conventional norms governing what it means to be a man.

I hope that has whetted your appetite for the new book and that, if you’re a student of childhood and/or youth, or a course leader, or simply someone with a general interest in the ways that children’s and young people’s lives are changing, you’ll consider purchasing a copy.

Special issue of ‘Genealogy’ on fatherhood

I’m guest editor for a special issue of the open access journal Genealogy on ‘Fathers and forefathers: men and their children in genealogical perspective.’ The deadline for submissions is February 2019 and you can find more information here.

The journal defines ‘genealogical’ in the broadest possible terms, including ‘the use of genealogical epistemologies to examine social discourses and institutions’, and much more besides. I’m hoping that the special issue attracts articles from a wide variety of theoretical and disciplinary perspectives – understanding ‘genealogy’ as embracing everything from family history to Foucault!

Editing the special issue neatly brings together my academic research interests in fatherhood, masculinities and the gender of ‘care’, with my more amateur genealogical activities, which I’ve written about in a number of earlier posts on this blog.

So, whether you’re a family historian who has uncovered hidden histories of fatherhood among your recent relatives or distant ancestors, or a fatherhood researcher with thoughts about the relationship between present and past fatherhoods, I hope you’ll consider submitting an article for the special issue.

You can email me at martin.robb@open.ac.uk if you want to discuss your ideas further before submitting.

Article in ‘The Scotsman’

Here’s a copy of my article that appeared in yesterday’s Scotsman. Thanks to Louise Davison at The Open University in Scotland for making it possible.

Boys need help to find new ways of being men without using ‘traditional’ models

It’s not easy being a boy in 2018. Young men today face challenges that weren’t experienced by their fathers and grandfathers, including changing gender roles and the disappearance of many traditionally ‘male’ jobs, and with them many of the processes that once helped boys to make the transition to manhood. In this fast-changing context, there’s a growing awareness that not all boys are coping well. Boys are falling behind girls in terms of educational performance, are more likely to get labeled with conditions such as ADHD, and are experiencing an increase in referral for mental health problems.

A recent conference in Glasgow on ‘Supporting Boys’, organised by Policy Hub Scotland, heard from a range of speakers about some of the issues faced by boys today. I was there to present the findings from research that I’ve carried out, with colleagues at The Open University, on working with vulnerable and ‘at risk’ young men. One of our studies, with Action for Children, involved interviewing young male services users, and the professionals who work with them, at social care projects throughout the United Kingdom – including the West of Scotland. As part of my presentation, I showed the short film that we commissioned, which features workers and service users from Moving On, a support service in Kilmarnock for young men with experience of the criminal justice system. I also contributed to a more recent research study, as part of an international project exploring the impact of ideas about ‘being a man’ on young men’s mental and emotional wellbeing.

So what does all of this research tell us? Firstly, that despite the enormous changes in gender roles that have taken place in recent years, the lives of many young men are still straitjacketed in some ways by conventional notions of masculinity. Young men can feel trapped in what researchers have called the ‘man box’: a set of expectations that define, and limit, the kind of person they can be. The young men we spoke to as part of our research said they felt a pressure to act tough, hide weakness and ‘look good’. Some said they find it difficult to express their feelings, and as a consequence are less likely than young women to seek professional help for their problems. One said: ‘Men, we just deal with it differently … we’ve got other channels of expressing our feelings.’ This can have a negative impact on their mental health, and on their relationships with others.

We found that many young men, especially those from poorer communities, are caught up in patterns of what might be called hypermasculine behaviour. Violence is still a feature of many of these young men’s lives, with some regarding it as a way of maintaining status and as an inevitable part of becoming a man. ‘It shapes young boys into men,’ said one. But at the same time some resented being seen as a threat, simply because they were young and male, and felt targeted by the police when out in public in groups.

Despite the fact that they may have experienced fractured family relationships, most of the young men we spoke to aspired to be good fathers, and the experience of young fatherhood – though stigmatised by the wider society – can often be the catalyst for making the transition from reckless young masculinity to responsible manhood. That transition can also be aided by the kind of consistent care and support shown by staff at projects like Moving On. There’s a good deal of talk these days, in the media and from politicians, about boys today lacking positive male role models, but while there may be a grain of truth in this, the young men we spoke to said that the gender of their support worker wasn’t really important. What mattered more was their personal qualities: whether they showed them genuine care and respect.

It could be argued that our research presents only one side of the story, and that many boys and young men are doing just fine, and adapting well to the challenges of a rapidly changing world. But it’s important that we don’t overlook the needs of those young men – particularly from poor communities and marginalised social groups – who risk getting left behind by change. For them, the traditional models of masculinity are no longer working. It’s important that we help them to find new ways of being a man, and support them to realise their full potential.