Researchers Joe Vandello and Jennifer Bosson discuss “Precarious Manhood”
What is “Precarious Manhood” and how did you become interested in it?
Joe: Several years ago, I was conducting research on “cultures of honor,” cultures in which masculine honor is a central organizing theme of social life. In many places around the world, male honor has to do with defending one’s reputation, with violence if necessary. When Jennifer joined our psychology department, I was very excited because she had some interests in role rigidity, exploring the consequences of stepping outside of one’s social roles, including masculine gender roles. And I think we both immediately saw potential overlap and connections between our interests. So, we developed some studies to explore how people think about manhood. Briefly, our main thesis is the idea that manhood, more than womanhood, is widely seen as a status that is both elusive (in that it must be earned) and tenuous (in that once earned, it is not permanent, and can be lost or taken away).
Jennifer: Before I moved to USF, I was doing research on men’s reactions to their own gender role violations. I didn’t use the terminology of “precarious manhood,” but my thesis (that men are more anxious about violating gender norms than women are) was very consistent with the idea that manhood can be lost more easily than womanhood. Almost as soon as Joe and I started talking about our mutual research interests, all of the ideas behind precarious manhood started falling into place very rapidly.
What are some of the most important messages you want readers to remember about “Precarious Manhood”?
Jennifer: I’d like readers to have a more explicit understanding of the ways in which social beliefs – whether or not they’re “accurate” or “true” – can shape our experiences. Most people raised in this culture (and many others) will immediately resonate with the idea that “manhood is precarious,” but probably not many of them have articulated it quite so clearly in their minds. I believe that identifying and articulating something can help us gain power over it. I guess I hope that, armed with knowledge about precarious manhood beliefs, people will be able to cope more effectively with unrealistic expectations for what it means to “be a real man.”
Joe: Echoing Jennifer’s comments, I think a main contribution of our paper is to make the point that these widely held beliefs about manhood are prescriptive and they create expectations that men feel they must live up to. Even men who might otherwise reject traditional masculine gender roles may still feel that they must earn manhood status. That is, men’s behaviors may be driven as much or more by a belief that manhood is a precarious status than by internalized individual attitudes about masculinity.
Tell us briefly about yourself and your interests in the Psychology of Men and Masculinity.
Joe: I have been interested in questions of manhood and masculinity since my training in graduate school. I was interested in questions of social and cultural influences on violence early on, and I realized that in order to understand the problem of violence, I needed to understand the psychology of men.
Jennifer: I’ve always been interested in gender, and even though it wasn’t my primary research focus in graduate school, it makes a lot of sense that I would end up studying gender as a social psychologist. What’s especially interesting to me about the male gender role is that men, on the one hand, typically have more status and power than women, but on the other hand, men’s lives are in some ways a lot more restricted than are women’s. The conundrum of being both powerful and powerless is a fascinating one to me.
How do you see this topic moving the science forward in the psychology of men and masculinity?
Joe: We see our work building off of a lot of important previous work in the area of psychology of men and masculinity. A number of scholars from different disciplines (sociology, anthropology, psychology) have looked at manhood as a problematic or anxiety-provoking social construct. One contribution is that we have provided some experimental evidence for this idea. We are now exploring consequences of this belief that manhood is a precarious status for things like physical and mental health, diet, financial risk-taking, religious belief and participation, and relationship functioning.
Jennifer: Also, I think a lot of scholars view masculine anxiety as an individual thing, a tendency or reaction that’s located within men and that interferes with their ability to live healthy, well-rounded, emotionally gratifying lives. As social psychologists, Joe and I are interested in masculine anxiety as an externally-driven thing. We want to understand how widely-held, socially-shared beliefs about gender, in combination with specific situational cues, elicit certain feelings and reactions in men. I think that this “situational” focus can help to move the psychology of men and masculinity forward. Ultimately, people’s experiences are always shaped by both internal and external processes, and so our “external” focus adds an important element to the whole picture.