Prior to the advent of the women’s movement, anthropological research tended to focus on men’s lives, rituals, and interactions, but without articulated awareness or remark. The majority of early anthropologists were men; they had more access to men’s than to women’s lives, and gender had not yet emerged as a salient problem within anthropology. Early feminist writing within anthropology advocated for an anthropology of women to counteract this imbalance, and in the beginning, the anthropology of gender was a series of representations of women’s daily lives. Later, the focus shifted to one of gendered studies (the study of women and men, transgenders, and gender-making social processes) and most recently has considered men’s identities and masculinity as important topics in their own right. These studies define men and masculinity in a variety of ways, as thoughts, behaviors, or traits of men; thoughts or behaviors that make men into men; and that which is opposite of female and femininity.
The anthropology of men has started to look at the closely connected relationships between men’s and women’s identities; has focused on the particularities of men’s daily lives; has continued to address issues surrounding male sexuality; has looked at the connections between gender and society; and has raised the question of a possible “crisis in masculinity.”
Interconnections Between Men’s and Women’s Identities
The notion that gender is something that is created and negotiated within specific social spaces is widespread within anthropological studies of men. Some of men’s most influential social situations arise through their interactions with women, and anthropologists now argue that gender is best understood as a relational construct, meaning that cultural understandings of what it means to be a male or female cannot be reached without taking the connections between men and women into account.
Anthropologists studying masculinity—Matthew Gutmann’s research on men in Mexico City, Anne Allison’s work on corporate masculinity in Japan, and Stanley Brandes’s study of folklore and gendered relations in Spain, for example—all provide evidence that shows that men use women as points of reference as they develop and maintain masculine identities. Work that takes a relational view of gender, therefore, strives to show that the idea of completely separate men’s and women’s worlds is an idealized one.
Anthropologists have broadened their research to move beyond focusing on these connections between men and women and argue that one’s social environment and interactions also impact the creation of gendered identities. This research emphasizes that there are ongoing negotiations present in men’s lives as masculinity is constructed and transformed through everyday interactions, and it is clear that there are multiple meanings of masculinity from which men can choose based on the social situations, relationships, or contexts in which they find themselves.
Focusing on the Particulars
Across cultures, all men live and interact within contexts such as the family, household, and workplace, though the particular characteristics of these spaces vary in different cultural contexts. By focusing on these locations, the anthropology of men has also examined ideas such as men’s and women’s roles and the division of labor and resources within the family, the effects of work outside of the home on men’s lives, and ideas about fatherhood and parenting.
The image of the male-headed household with a clearly delineated division of labor is one that many gender studies have promoted. Other research, such as sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s The Time Bind, has begun to complicate and flesh out this supposed ideal, however. Hoschschild writes about family life among middle-class families in the United States and examines the ways in which traditionally held views about men’s and women’s roles are changing as a result of practical demands and personal desires of spouses in dual-career families. Anthropologist Irene Casique looks at similar questions in her studies of working-class Mexican families as she examines changes in the division of labor within families where women work outside of the home, noting that men’s participation in housework continues to be rather low and sporadic.
Many anthropologists have also focused on the ways in which work itself—male and female, paid and unpaid, inside and outside of the home—impacts men’s relationships with their wives, families, and other men in the community. With the powerful economic changes that started in the 1980s, studies such as Elizabeth Brusco’s The Reformation of Machismo: Evangelical Conversion and Gender in Colombia have highlighted the ways in which economic transformations and gendered relations are intertwined, and the connections between financial situations, social change, and how an increasing number of multi- and transnational employment opportunities affect men’s lives.
With changes in ideas about men’s and women’s work, as well as in the types and availability of employment, come shifts in men’s responsibilities, and studies have looked at the ways in which parenting and fatherhood play into the negotiation of masculine roles and responsibilities. For example, José Olavarria examines the deep transitions regarding notions of fatherhood in nuclear, working-class families in Chile, arguing that a hegemonic masculinity and patriarchal fatherhood still serve as reference points for fathers, but that the growing autonomy of women, changes in economy, and the requirements of a nuclear family create new demands and dilemmas for men that make it difficult to fit the standards of what he calls “modern fatherhood.”
Men and Sexuality
A third focus within the anthropology of men is the connection between men and sexuality. In this context, sexuality can refer to the wide range of sexual practices, beliefs, and taboos, as well as the cultural values and meanings assigned to men’s sexuality.
The importance of heterosexuality as a means of showing men’s power and control (either over women or among one’s peers) has been extensively documented. Part of Phillipe Bourgois’s argument in In Search of Respect is that serial monogamy and blatant heterosexuality are ways in which the extremely poor, disenfranchised men in New York City with whom he works feel like they can exert dominance over others. In many studies of men in Latin America and the Mediterranean, the concept of machismo is also directly related to heterosexual practices and is a way in which men assert authority and control.
Works that focus on sexuality and eroticism between men have also been central to studies of men and masculinity. For instance, Gilbert Herdt’s Guardians of the Flutes and Ritualized Homosexuality in Melanasia were two of the earliest works that focused on men’s sexual practices as core to the ethnography, and examined how male youth in certain New Guinea societies engage in fellatio (generally, older youths inseminate or feed semen to younger youths) as a central and even necessary part of becoming masculine and adult. Other ethnographic studies on groups such as the “two-spirited ones” in Plains Indian societies; Lynn Stephen’s work on “third gender” roles in Oaxaca, Mexico; Annick Prieur’s Memas House: On Transvestites, Queens, and Machos, about male transvestites in Mexico City; as well as Don Kulick’s Travesti: Sex, Gender, and Culture among Brazilian Transgendered Prostitutes have all examined men’s involvement in what their communities view as alternative sexualities and the complicated ways that masculinity can be challenged, transformed, and/or reaffirmed through same-sex sexual practices.
For example, the work of both Prieur and Kulick focuses on biologically defined men who in complex and varied ways strive to become socially defined women. In Prieur’s work, the vestidos do not contest stereotypical gendered roles, but instead attempt to fit into them as closely as possible. They dress as women, get plastic surgery, inject their bodies with oil to create “womanly” curves, and prefer to take a passive role in sex. In Kulick’s ethnography, however, though the travestis fit into many female-gendered roles, they also embrace their maleness and are disgusted by biological women. These are just two among a number of diverse ethnographic studies that reveal the varied ways in which masculine and transgendered identities are created through bodily appearance (such as dress, hormones, oil injections), anatomy, sexual practices (active versus passive roles), as well as social interactions and behaviors.
Gender and Society
Images of masculinity have also proved powerful at higher levels of sociocultural integration, such as the nation. In many cases, the nation itself is conceptualized as female, while national protagonists and ideal citizens are masculinized, and threats to the nation are seen both as acts that violate the national (female) body and appropriate forms of masculinity. These processes, of course, take diverse local forms.
Octavio Paz explicitly connects gender to the Mexican nation in The Labyrinth of Solitude: Life and Thought in Mexico, where he discusses the ideas of the “macho” Mexican man and Spanish colonization. The conquistadors, he argues, violated the “passive” Mexican (female) nation through colonization, just as masculine “macho” Mexican men physically, sexually, and emotionally abuse weaker men and women. Eduardo Archetti also discusses the connections between masculinity and the nation. He describes the ways in which Argentinian (male) soccer players developed a different style of play from that of the British colonizers—a style of play that ultimately stood for both a model soccer player and an ideal, implicitly masculine, Argentine citizen who symbolized that which was opposite of the colonizer, as well as a faithful representation of the nation.
A Crisis in Masculinity?
Finally, following David Gilmore’s Manhood in the Making, some anthropologists have argued that men are culturally “made” and therefore have to achieve masculinity through complex processes. These processes, including insemination rites and group circumcision, as well as individual achievements such as finding employment, marrying, and having children, allow boys to be seen as men by their communities. This becomes more difficult when there are significant changes in men’s lives, leading to what some of the most recent gendered analyses of men label as a “crisis” in masculinity. These works use social factors such as declining economies, an increase in the percentage of women working outside of the home, a greater equality in the salaries of men and women, and an increase in education for women to provide background explanation for this “crisis” and the inability of men to achieve the socially acceptable and “appropriate” forms of masculinity and/or manliness.
The Importance of Men in Future Anthropological Research
The study of men in anthropology holds a complicated position. Whereas men were once the default focus of anthropological research and writing, gendered studies on the particularities of men’s lives and masculinity have been overshadowed until recently by a focus on women’s lives and femininity. As a result, the anthropology of men continues to be a key topic to explore further—especially taking into account the effects of factors such as globalization and migration, and the connected and dramatically shifting economic opportunities, social resources, and family relationships as men construct and negotiate their gendered identities.
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