Monday, April 6, 2009

Larry Barnes - Influences and Challenges of Male Gender Construct

Here is an academic paper on the Influences and Challenges of Male Gender Construct, by Larry Barnes, Assistant Professor, West Texas A&M University. The article provides a good look at how gender identity is formed as a collision of interpersonal and environmental influences, but it seems to reject a psychological formation approach.

As usual, academics miss the wholeness that constitutes gender identity and consciousness. Still, this is an interesting look at one quadrant of how boys become men.
Influences and Challenges of Male Gender Construct
Larry Barnes, Assistant Professor, West Texas A&M University,


Adolescent males face a variety of challenges and influences regarding male identity. Environments and activities that suppress the testing of various roles complicate negotiating conflicting messages about what it means to be a man. Positive and negative influences on male construct identified by current research are discussed. Specifically, influences of peer groups, leisure activities, and the classroom are examined. The experimental process of identity construct for males is identified. Challenges to role experimentation are recognized and a theory of diverse experience is established as guidance for caregivers in helping adolescent males through the identity crisis.


Identity development is a critical and complicated process for adolescents. Erikson (1959) maintained that the formation of a healthy sense of identity was crucial in transitioning from adolescence to adulthood. This important step in maturing is challenged from many sources. Prior research has identified both psychological stress and anti-social behavior as adversaries to identity development (Wires, Barocas, & Hollenbeck, 1994). However, new research has implicated lifestyle, classroom dynamics, peer interactions, and parental influences to be associated with identity development as well. In addition, public image as transmitted through media services plays a role in determining an adolescent’s acceptance of gender roles and expressions (Shaw, Kleiber, & Caldwell, 1995). With the increasing understanding of multi-factorial influences on identity development, how are adolescents coping with the deluge? The problem is adolescents are struggling with managing the myriad of identity contradictions resulting in increased violence (Goodey, 1997), harassment (Murnen & Smolak, 2000), sexual deviance (Bogaret, 2003), and self-destructive acts (Beautrais, 2003). Understanding the people, places, and associations related to identity development will assist caregivers to distinguish healthy approaches for adolescent development.

Gender identity differences are considered to be interpersonally and environmentally influenced (Pollack, 1995). This is attested to, in part, by the questioning of the meaning of masculinity that typically occurs during periods of social and economic tensions (Kimmel, 2005). Because gender identity is significantly influenced by environmental factors, seeking combinations of diverse experiences would provide an adolescent male with the opportunity to find himself, given time. The purpose of this research article is to discourage the formulation of a complicated psyche for purposes of identity construct and encourage a carefully and individually planned activity schedule that maximizes the opportunity for healthy construct. The theory is that given appropriate diversity in social engagements the adolescent male will discover himself with fewer complications or stereo typical behaviors. This article will attempt to provide the reader with a framework from which to contribute proactively to adolescent male gender identity.

Exploring Identities

In an attempt to clarify the process of identity development, Marcia (1980, p.156) identified three periods of transition: identity diffusion; moratorium; and foreclosure. During the identity diffusion stage an adolescent begins confronting their identity predicament and becomes confused with little or no examination of alternatives and no commitment to a particular identity. The moratorium stage is characterized by an exploration of alternatives without any commitment about self. Foreclosure is marked by a premature commitment to an unsatisfactory identity without any prior consideration of alternatives. True identity is only achieved when alternatives have been fully explored and a commitment made to a particular role and image. It is important to note, however, that adolescents may go through multiple stages of development, switch from one developmental period to another, and even get trapped in a particular period of growth (Waterman, 1985, p. 73). Each of the periods identified allow adolescents to experiment with different skills, evaluate different outlooks and test different identities in a variety of contexts (Kleiber & Kirshnit, 1991). Multi-factorial influences shape the process and responses to experimentation often determine the next step in discovery (Bracken & Lamptecht, 2003). These influences and responses warrant closer consideration and deeper understanding if caregivers are to identify methods of coping during these sensitive periods.

Continuing research further defines the social contexts most beneficial to identity experimentation. Diverse gender interactions involving structured activity, non-sports related competition, and language rich interactions provide some of the most beneficial opportunities for experimentation (Sommers, 2000, p.128). However, such diverse contexts require careful review and planning in order to progressively build on previous self discoveries.

Bracken and Lamptecht (2003) determined that self-identity is progressive in the sense that behaviors and self-perspectives become increasingly refined within individual domains and differentiated between spheres of influence with age. They cite an infant as an example of limited experiential history or environmental exposure and thus expected to have no definitive self-concept. However, as children are exposed to a variety of settings and experiences they become more adept at differentially evaluating their individual characteristics and behaviors within those settings. Such an evaluation leads to a commitment of identity. However, Simmons, Rosenberg, and Rosenberg (1973) discovered consistent outcomes within similar environmental contexts and somewhat consistent outcomes across different environmental contexts are crucial in adopting an identity. They concluded that self-image diminishes at adolescence because of the mixed messages received during this age resulting from limited diversity in social engagements. Consistent and inconsistence response patterns among domains must then be considered when looking for ways to guide the self-discovery process.

According to Josselson (1980, p.12), exploring identities involves both individuation and social relatedness. Individuation refers to the need to separate self from others and social relatedness refers to the need of belonging to a group. Both needs are influenced by the unique gender roles explored by adolescents (Poole, 1986). In relation to both needs, Goodey (1997) discovered that the uniquely male “fearless fa├žade” is largely responsible for a male adolescent’s denial of vulnerability and the display of aggressive acts toward others. The popular understanding of ‘maleness’ is often reduced to that which is not feminine. As a result, Ghaill (1994, p.40) concluded a stable male identity has traditionally fallen into a stereotype of the strong, rational, and sometimes aggressive man and the contexts for experimentation traditionally promote these stereotypes. Boys experimenting with acts of recklessness (denial of vulnerability) or aggression towards others and receive consistent, positive responses are more likely to accept this identity and become part of a group with similar identities (Goodey, 1997). The dynamics of social influence are two-way, meaning the individual persuades the group and the group persuades the individual in identity development.

Goodey (1997) provides a specific example of the two-way sphere of influence on identity development by illustrating a young adolescent male avoiding confrontation with a rowdy group of his peers by crossing the road. The risk-avoidance individual will assign meaning to his action of crossing the road in the context of his own personal history of avoidance and fear assessment. The group will consciously and subconsciously interpret his action in relation to the influence their own masculine status and action as a group and as individuals who make up the group. Of course ‘fearlessness’ is a difficult task and just one of many roles an adolescent will attempt to play out in his young life. However, its focus on emotional expression gets to the heart of what so many adolescent boys struggle with in their search for identity. Emotional disconnect and the subsequent lack of language for emotional self expression is the result of separation from primary love objects (mothers) during adolescence (Pollack, 1995). This places many adolescent boys in a vulnerable developmental phase.

Following his interviews with boys, Ghaill (1994, p. 38) found two themes repeatedly surfacing: first, that boys perceived no safe space in which they could talk about their feelings of vulnerability and, second, boys lacked the emotional language necessary for expressing their feelings. As a result, boys adopt their own “macho script of cynicism” in order to hide their feelings. Research conducted by Broderick and Korteland (2002) suggested not only are boys hiding their feelings, rather they are expected to avoid such issues. The researchers distributed questionnaires to 205 school age girls and 191 school age boys. A significant number from both genders stated in their answers that males should not direct their attention inwardly toward negative feelings but should distract themselves from emotional problems. Further research suggests boys are doing just that. Studying gendered reminiscence practices, Thorne and McLean (2002) discovered gender differences in the emotional construction of life-threatening events. Evaluation of male narratives of threatening events showed prevalence in expressing tough, action packed descriptions that were noticeably lacking in compassionate language. Goodey (1997) stated, “herein lies the problem of the hegemonic masculine ideal….boys don’t cry, or at least, they shouldn’t be seen to.” Suppressing emotional expression can have a profound negative effect on discovery of identity. The impact of emotional suppression becomes pointed when examining peer group influences of the male gender.
Read the rest of this interesting article.

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