Monday, August 23, 2010

Social Construction of Masculinities in College-Aged Men

This is an interesting recent article on the ways in which college-age men conceptualize masculinities. I am largely sympathetic to his social constructionist approach to masculine identity. This is highly relevant to my own in developing a masculine identity developmental model.
Harris, III, F. (2010, M/J). College men's meanings of masculinities and contextual influences: Toward a conceptual model. Journal of College Student Development; 51, 3; ProQuest Psychology Journals, p. 297-318.
The whole article can be read for free here.

College men's meanings of masculinities and contextual influences: Toward a conceptual model

By Frank Harris, III

Based on a grounded theory study involving 68 male undergraduates, a conceptual model of the meanings college men ascribe to masculinities is proposed in this article. The participants equated masculinities with "being respected," "being confident and self-assured," "assuming responsibility," and "embodying physical prowess." Contextual factors that influenced these meanings are also reflected in the model. Using the model as a guiding framework, recommendations for supporting the gender identity development of college men and implications for future studies of masculinities in college contexts are offered.

Recent behavioral trends involving male students on college campuses have led to increased scholarly attention to masculinities in higher education. For example, recent inquiries have concluded that college men comprise the majority of students who are cited for nonacademic violations of campus judicial policies (Harper, Harris, & Mmeje, 2005) and more than 90 percent of students who are accused of sexual assault, relationship violence, and sexual harassment on college campuses (Foubert, Newberry, & Tatum, 2007; Hong, 2000). Others report academic underachievement (Kellom, 2004; Sax, 2008), disengagement in campus programs and activities (Davis & Laker, 2004), alcohol and substance abuse (Capraro, 2000; Courtenay, 1998; Kuh & Arnold, 1993), homophobia (Harris, 2008; Rhoads, 1995), depression (Good & Mintz, 1990), and poor coping (Good & Wood, 1995) among college men. Similarly, Sax's longitudinal quantitative study revealed that, in comparison to women, men reportedly spent more time watching television, playing video games, consuming alcohol, and partying while in college.

The widening gender gap in college student enrollment has also been an area of focus in much of the recent scholarly discourse concerning college men. In 2003-2004, men comprised 42 percent of the total undergraduate enrollment in the United States (King, 2006). The college enrollment gap widens when these data are disaggregated by race/ethnicity where the largest percentage gaps are among African American, Native American, and Hispanic students where men accounted for 36 percent, 39 percent, and 41 percent of 2004 undergraduate enrollees, respectively (KewalRamani, Gilbertson, Fox, & Provasnik, 2007).

Despite this recent scholarly attention, college educators still know little about the gender identity development process for college men. Consequently, educators who aim to implement theoretically based interventions to facilitate college men's healthy and productive gender identity development must rely on frameworks that were not created for this purpose. Theories and frameworks have been proposed to explain the identity development of women (Josselson, 1987); persons who are lesbian, gay, and bisexual (D'Augelli, 1994); African Americans (Cross, 1995; Taylor & Howard-Hamilton, 1995); Asian Americans (Kim, 2001); Latinos (Torres, 2003), multiracial persons (Renn, 2003); and students with learning disabilities (Troiano, 2003); to name a few. Yet, models that seek to explain college men's gender identity development are largely absent in the published college student development research. Even recent studies that aim to understand men as gendered beings (e.g., Davis, 2002; Harris, 2008; Hong, 2000; Martin & Harris, 2006) focus primarily on describing gender-related conflicts and challenges among college men rather than a process of masculine identity development in college. Classic theories of identity and psychosocial development (e.g., Chickering, 1969; Erikson 1968; Marcia, 1980) were based largely on the experiences of men (Evans, Forney & Guido-DiBrito, 1998). However, the construct of gender was not purposefully explored in the research used to develop and validate these theories (Davis; Davis & Laker, 2004; Evans et al.). Thus, the extent to which these theories, in and of themselves, provide insight into the gender identity development of college men is questionable.

Harper et al. (2005) was one of the first studies in which a model describing the interactions between masculinities and college environments was proposed. Yet, despite the model's utility in understanding the developmental experiences of men on college campuses, it is limited in two respects. First, it focuses exclusively on male judicial offenders. Therefore, the extent to which the model accounts for the experiences of college men who are not cited for violations of campus judicial policies is unknown. Second, the model was developed theoretically and has yet to be empirically validated.

Edwards and Jones (2009) offered much-needed insight into the experiences of college men by proposing an empirically derived model of men's gender identity development. Based on multiple interviews with a diverse sample of 10 undergraduate men, Edwards and Jones used grounded theory to explore "the process by which the participants came to understand themselves as men" (p. 214) and proposed a three-phase model that described the participants' gender identity development. Edwards and Jones described masculine identity development as an interactive process involving men's awareness of society's expectations of performing masculinities, challenges men experience in meeting societal expectations, and men's efforts to transcend societal expectations by redefining what it means to be a man and performing masculinities according to their own beliefs and values. Given that Edwards and Jones's study was situated at one large public university on the East Coast one question that emerged was: How might these findings transfer to other institutional contexts, such as a large private university or a campus in another region of the country? In addition, Edwards and Jones called for more studies of masculinities involving a larger group of men "representing other social group identities and college experiences" (p. 226).

In response to the aforementioned knowledge gaps in the published research on college men and masculinities, I conducted a qualitative study to: (a) examine shared masculine conceptualizations among college men who represented a range of identities and experiences, (b) understand how contextual factors (e.g., socialization, campus culture, peer group interactions) shape and reinforce college men's gender identity development and gender performance, and (c) propose a conceptual model of the meanings college men make of masculinities. The primary research question that guided this study was, "What are the shared meanings of masculinities among men who represent diverse backgrounds, experiences, and identities?" Additional questions that informed this study were: (a) How do these meanings influence college men's genderrelated attitudes and behaviors? and (b) From the participants' perspectives, what are the dominant and negotiable boundaries of masculinities on a university campus?

The purpose of this article is to present the conceptual model that emerged from this study. Before presenting the findings and the conceptual model, I briefly discuss the study's theoretical underpinnings and research methodology. Please note that although this article focuses exclusively on the social construction of masculinities, I use the terms "male" and "man" interchangeably. Therefore, it's important to acknowledge that the term "male" applies specifically to a biological sex role whereas "man" is a socially constructed concept that encompasses the social and cultural meanings that are associated with the male sex role.


I approached this study from a constructionist epistemological perspective. Constructionist epistemology is fundamentally concerned with the meanings individuals derive from their lived experiences and social interactions (Arminio & Hultgren, 2002). Constructionist researchers also challenge the objectivist assumption that a "knowable, singular reality" exists independent of human experiences and can be captured empirically (Broido & Manning, 2002, p. 435). As such, a major theoretical assumption of constructionist epistemology is that empirical knowledge is produced in partnership between researchers and participants through their collective involvement in the inquiry process (Arminio & Hultgren).

Consistent with constructionist epistemology, an interdisciplinary conceptual framework comprising theories and perspectives regarding the social construction of masculinities and the identity development of college students informed the design and execution of this study. Key assumptions of the two theories that were most influential in guiding this study are discussed in the sections that follow.

The Social Construction of Masculinities

The social construction of masculinities - a perspective that was proposed by pro-feminist men's studies scholars (e.g., Connell, 1995; Kimmel & Messner, 2007; Levant, 1996; Pleck, 1981) - emphasizes the influence of social interactions, social structures, and social contexts in producing and reinforcing so-called normative expectations of masculine behavior. This perspective challenged the earlier research on men, which assumed that biological differences between men and women were explanatory factors for men's aggressiveness, toughness, competitiveness, and other stereotypically masculine behaviors.

Scholars who examine masculinities from a social constructionist perspective view gender as a performed social identity and are fundamentally concerned with the consequences of traditional patterns of male gender socialization and of performing masculinities according to prevailing societal norms. Another key assumption of this perspective is that no one dominant masculine form persists across all social settings but rather multiple masculinities that are situated in sociocultural contexts. In addition, although acknowledging that men occupy a privileged space in society, this perspective also recognizes that some masculinities (e.g., White, heterosexual, able-bodied) are prioritized and situated as dominant above others (e.g., gay, feminine, racial/ethnic minority, physically disabled, working class). Lastly, as Kimmel and Messner (2007) noted in their discussion, because gender is a performed social identity, one can assume that the ways in which individuals conceptualize and express masculinities will change as they "grow and mature" throughout their lives (p. xxii).

Multiple Dimensions of Identity

The social construction of masculinities perspective described in the previous section recognizes the existence of multiple masculinities among men. Issues of race/ethnicity, class, religion, and sexual orientation interact and influence the development of these multiple masculinities - some of which challenge dominant and traditional social constructions. A framework that has proven useful in making sense of the intersection of identities is Jones and McEwens (2000) multiple dimensions of identity (MDI) model. The main components of the MDI model are: (a) the core sense of self, (b) identity dimensions, and (c) contextual influences.

At the center of the model is the core sense of self, which is derived from an individual's personal attributes, characteristics, and personal identity. The core comprises a person's "inner identity" and internal qualities, such as intelligence, kindness, loyalty, compassion, and independence (Jones & McEwen, 2000). Surrounding the core are intersecting dimensions that contribute to an individual's overall identity. These include: sexual orientation, race/ethnicity, culture, gender, class, religion, and other socially constructed dimensions. The concept of "salience" is used in the model to describe the proximity of an identity dimension to the core. Identity dimensions that are positioned closest to the core are deemed to be more salient or important to the individual at a particular time. Jones and McEwen noted, "the salience of identity dimensions [is] rooted in internal awareness and external scrutiny" (p. 410). In other words, individuals are typically more internally aware of their marginalized identities, such as being a woman in a male-dominated setting or a racial/ethnic minority. Thus, these identity dimensions are usually more salient than are those that are often privileged in society. Contextual influences make up the third component of the MDI model. Because individuals interact in a larger social context, the model accounts for factors such as family background, significant life experiences, and the sociocultural conditions that influence identity development and expression.

In sum the social construction of masculinities perspective and the MDI model recognize the fluidity of gender identity, highlight the ways in which gender intersects other identity dimensions, and emphasize the influence of social contexts on identity development and gender performance. Collectively, these theories provided a heuristic conceptual framework for examining masculinities in college environments from a social constructionist perspective.
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