Notes on: Connell, R. and Messerschmidt, J. (2005 Hegemonic masculinity . Rethinking the concept. Gender and Society. 19 (6): 829 – 59. DOI: 10.11 77/0891243205278639.

Dave Harris

The original concept was formulated two decades ago and has been useful in studying gender and various applied fields. It has also attracted serious criticism although the issues are important.

It originated in reports from a field study of social inequality in Australian high schools and in a discussion of men's bodies and the role of men in labour politics in Australia. There seem to be multiple hierarchies in gender as well as class, and 'active projects of gender construction' and that led to a model of multiple masculinities and power relations, as a synthesis of ideas and evidence: feminist theories of patriarchy, class differences in the expression of masculinity, race biases. The Gramscian term hegemony 'was current at the time', but there was a risk of 'a significant misunderstanding' with the focus on 'the mobilisation and demobilisation of whole classes' — without this background of historical change, not an issue in debates about gender, 'the idea of hegemony would be reduced to a simple model of cultural control'.

Issues have been discussed earlier via the notion of '"the male role"' as embodying oppressive behaviour, but this notion homogenised the idea of role. It was the gay liberation movement that introduced power and difference and talked about the oppression of men as well as by men, a hierarchy of masculinities, an ambivalent relationship to patriarchy. Empirical social research was also showing local cultures of masculinity in schools, workplaces or communities. There was also an input from psychoanalysis, showing that 'adult personality was a system under tension' which led to 'the concept of "gender identity"' and its variations, which could lead to transsexualism or other contradictions in conventional masculinity (832).

Hegemonic masculinity emerged 'as an analogue' to research in political sociology, as 'a pattern of practice that allowed men's dominance over women to continue'. It might be enacted only by a minority. It 'embodied the currently most honoured way of being a man' and required other men to position themselves as well as women: those who received the benefits were 'showing a complicit masculinity' as were heterosexual women. In this sense hegemony meant 'ascendancy achieved through culture, institutions and persuasion'. These were abstract concepts assuming that gender was historical, and so hierarchies were capable of change. There could be a struggle, an element of optimism.

The concept was soon used in education studies to grasp resistance and bullying, pedagogy, teacher strategies. It was used in criminology, including specifically male crimes such as rape or football hooliganism. There were media representations, including sport and war imagery, and different representations of masculinity, sport sociology found a use. There were social determinants of men's health, again using multiple masculinities and hegemonic masculinity to understand '"playing hurt" and risk-taking sexual behaviour… Difficulties in responding to disability and injury' (834). There was the gendered characteristics of organisations, especially the military, or professional practice like psychotherapy, even wider discussions such as discussions of art, academic disciplines like geography and law.

The concept was becoming increasingly expanded: it documented consequences and costs, mechanisms, greater diversity, changes in masculinities. Costs and consequences for example to victims in terms of emotional and physical damage, in crime and sport. And this led to explorations of mechanisms such as 'masculine pageants' in television sports broadcasting and media reporting [which sometimes deliberately avoids masculinity]. Researchers confirmed multiple masculinities varying by class and generation, in countries like Chile or Japan, or in institutions such as the military. Even machismo in Mexico is complex, and so are masculinities in a particular working class urban settlement. (835). Changes are also common, for example in southern Africa after apartheid, or in Ireland where the celibate priest and a hard-working family man has been replaced by 'more modernised and market oriented models' or in Japan where the 'salaryman' has been eclipsed.

This expanded range in turn led to criticisms, including that the underlying emphasis of masculinity was too general, and blurred, essentialist, paying insufficient attention to discursive construction of identities, over concerned with male-female difference, a dichotomy based on biological sex. However, this does not affect all the examples considered where there has been 'tremendous multiplicity of social constructions' including 'masculinities enacted by people with female bodies', or discovery of multiple masculinities. One concerns observations of British elementary school which found different constructions of masculinity with different effects, where the boys demonstrated 'complex relations of attachment and rejection to these categories' (837). Nor is biological essentialism justified, since there has long been an emphasis on 'the interplay between bodies and social processes… The construction of masculinity', for example in discussions of disability or men's health. There is indeed a tendency to dichotomise the experiences of men and women, but 'the cure lies in taking a consistently relational approach to gender'.

There was an issue about who actually stands for hegemonic masculinity, since 'many men who hold great social power do not embody an ideal masculinity' (838), nor do popular examples of sports champions do things like get drunk or get into fights. Some studies show inconsistent application and ambiguities. For the authors, this only goes to show that ambiguity 'may be important to recognise as a mechanism of hegemony'. There may be a circulation of models, which still distort everyday reality and don't correspond to actual lives but rather 'express widespread ideals, fantasies and desires', including gender relations. Actual people might well exhibit contradictions. Local requirements might also impose their own patterns, such as local patterns of 'managerial masculinity… [Or] family masculinity' turning on domestic work or child rearing: changes are also visible in Hollywood films.

Hegemonic masculinity has been accused of reification, mixing up patriarchy 'the long-term structure of the subordination of women', and "gender", a specific system of exchange that arose in the context of modern capitalism' [attributed to a critic called Holter] (839). Further, there may be gender identities of men that do not map directly onto 'equality related practices.' Gender inequalities have been institutionalised and they interact with 'race, class and region'. However research on hegemonic masculinity has indeed shown this [and some is cited]. They do admit that 'hegemonic masculinity can become a scientific synonym for a type of rigid, domineering, sexist "macho man'.

[For me this is the problem with hegemony  -- there are so many studies of resistance cited to deny determinism that you wonder exactly what is left of the concept of hegemony and why we bother with it. There is for example a 'negative type'  hegemony here — 'for instance in "saying that not defending gun ownership is a defence of hegemony masculinity"'. Hegemony has numerous configurations', and it is possible to be a man 'in certain local contexts' by demonstrating 'one's distance from a regional hegemonic masculinity']

Positive behaviour, that serves the interests or desires of women might be excluded. However, most accounts include them, such as bringing home a wage, sustaining relationships, keeping a family together and so on. Hegemony after all 'embody certain notions of consent and participation by the subaltern groups' (841). Again it is a popular concept that is usually being discussed, while 'sophisticated research' usually discloses 'mismatches,… Tensions,… Resistances'

It is practical relationships to collective images or models that counts, never simple reflections of them.  For example 'different crimes are used by different men in the construction of masculinities'. 'There is nothing conceptually universalising in the idea of hegemonic masculinity… It is a means of grasping a certain dynamic within the social process'.

There may be an unsatisfactory theory of the subject, assuming 'the settled character structure' of a group of men, while admitting that no actual group men fully embodies it. Again, the authors argue that there are multiple meanings and that actual men can 'dodge among' them, sometimes distancing themselves, so '"masculinity" represents not a certain type of man but, rather, a way that men position themselves through discursive practices'. The individual is not interpellated as some critics have suggested, which would deny fluid masculinity, nor is there a unitary subject rather than a divided one, an over-socialised one: Jefferson has suggested that people could choose 'discursive positions that help them ward off anxiety and avoid feelings of powerlessness'. The authors say this is shown in the research, which includes 'identity talk of young Muslim men in Britain showing how they use a specific model of hegemonic masculinity ("powerful patriarchal") to position themselves in relation to Afro-Caribbean men, white men, and Muslim women', both constructing and using them and discourse: one use is to promote self-respect in the face of racist denigration.

Discursive perspectives emphasise the symbolic dimension, but hegemonic masculinity has a multi dimensional understanding, and is not just about culture. It focuses on nondiscursive practices like wages, violence, child care and so on, and these must be recognised as well as limits to flexibility. There is embodiment, history, economic forces and existing relationships which limit discursive choices. Choices can bring costs anyway because people like to think of themselves as being unitary. Hegemonic masculinity was apparently always aware of this, 'the layered and contradictory character of personality', and they disagree that the concept mean structural determinism that marginalises the subject.

Gender relations are often explained in functionalist terms, as 'self-contained, self reproducing', driven by internal elements only, but there is a historical process as well which means that masculine domination constantly faces challenges and is not easily self reproduced. Men have to be policed as well as women excluded and discredited. For example soft options have to be dismissed in various fields, from the military all the way down to school.

There may be internal and external forms of hegemony — external meaning institutionalisation of men's dominance, internal referring to the ascendancy of one group of men over all other men. This might not have been clear in the original formulation. Internal hegemony has normally been understood in terms of elitism, but this will miss what Demetriou has called '"dialectical pragmatism "' where hegemonic masculinity takes from some other masculinities, whatever appears to be pragmatically useful, leading to a weaving together of different patterns, a hybrid form, 'a constant process of negotiation, translation and reconfiguration' (844). This is not just adaptation. As an example, gay masculinity is now more visible and has been appropriated in various ways to create a new hybrid configuration — it 'blurs gender difference but does not undermine patriarchy' (845). The authors see this as similar to hybrid styles where white working class boys adopt hip-hop, but they have doubts about whether hybrid forms are ever hegemonic, at least 'at the regional or global level' [there is always a weasel]

Some critics have insisted on multiple hegemonic masculinities, usually because ethnographies have discovered distinctive gender cultures or unique trajectories, many variations of masculinity or masculinity politics. However despite this empirical diversity, 'gender hierarchy does not have multiple niches at the top'.

Nevertheless some review is necessary. They think they should retain 'the combination of the plurality of masculinities and the hierarchy of masculinities', to explain multiple pattern. Some masculinities will be more central, more associated with authority and social power. Non-hegemonic masculinities will be subordinated. The hierarchy is not just based on force but requires some cultural consent 'discursive centrality, institutionalisation, and the marginalisation or de-legitimation of alternatives' (846). It might not be the commonest pattern, but rather be expressed in 'exemplars of masculinity'. There are possibilities for change, from women's resistance, or from alternative masculinities in men. There are possible changes over time and there have been redefinitions in the past.

Some formulations need to be discarded, such as the notion of a global dominance of men over women, used originally to prevent 'the idea of multiple masculinities from collapsing into an array of competing lifestyles' [what does it now? --see weasels about material constraints above]. Now they want to stress 'an interplay of costs and benefits', challenges from protest masculinities, appropriation of aspects of hegemonic masculinity by women who construct corporate careers. They depended far too much on trait psychology, 'masculinity as an assemblage of traits' which led to the idea of masculinities a fixed character type, even essentialism.

They need reformulation in four areas: 'the nature of gender hierarchy, the geography of masculine configurations, the process social embodiment, and the dynamics of masculinities'

Gender hierarchy. Contemporary research shows the complexity, and the existence of practical alternatives. The local context might provide motivation towards specific economic versions. There may be dialectical pragmatism as above, with the incorporation of elements from different versions. Subordinate and marginalised groups also have a role, as in '"protest masculinity"', for example — like that created among local working class people, sometimes among ethnic or marginalised people: they claim power but lack economic resources and institutional authority. There are also surviving non-hegemonic patterns 'which may represent well crafted responses to race/ethnic marginalisation, physical disability, class inequality, or stigmatised sexuality' (848). They might be incorporated rather than oppressed, or both as with contemporary game masculinities. They also want to revive 'hegemonic femininity' if only as a real or imagined remodelled as a distinction to masculinity. Generally the role of women in these to be restored, not least as a form of compliance to patriarchy, but as constructing masculinity in general.

The geography of masculinities. There are local specific constructions, including transnational arenas, including the influence of 'white supremacists in the United States and Sweden, and… Al Qaeda from the Middle East, "protest" masculinities' (849). They should complement local face-to-face and regional including nation state levels as providing cultural materials and models of masculinity. Media representations are important as well to provide 'on hand material to be actualised, altered, or challenged through practice'. Sport is an example providing 'hegemonic masculine models'. Secondary schooling is another example, where successful participation in sport is also 'a salient hegemonic masculine practice', as some studies have shown. The different levels are not just linked hierarchically, and it is easy to overestimate the determining power of the global. Yet factors like economic restructuring and long-distance migration might be reshaping local patterns, because of the commonalities in women's practices as well: 'local plurality is compatible with singularity of hegemonic masculinity' [juggling] producing a '"family resemblance" among local variants'. (851).

Social embodiment. For male youth, skilled bodily activity is a prime indicator of masculinity, leading to links with sexual experimentation or sport, but also 'eating meat and taking risks on the road'. Bodies as entirely matters of social construction have been recently criticised and bodies are now seen as participants. This is made clear by transgender practices and queer theory, although it remains a contested sphere. Transsexuals need not be 'inherently counterhegemonic' however, and they can pursue gender equality or oppose it. They have certainly challenged the usual circuits of social practice and agency. It is common for these circuits to constantly reinforce masculinity, as a study of ruling class men shows — sports, leisure and eating practices reinforce their position -- and there is potential for research on computer systems, global air travel, secure communications as well (852).

The dynamics of masculinities. They are internally complex and that has just been recognised. They are layered and have potential internal contradictions, and 'compromise formations between contradictory desires or emotions, or the results of uncertain calculations about the costs and benefits', There are also the effects of ageing and life history. There may be emotional conflict, such as relationships with fathers, the '"long hours culture" in professions and management'. 'Any strategy for the maintenance of power is likely to involve a dehumanising of other groups and a corresponding withering of empathy and emotional relatedness within the self… Hegemonic masculinity does not necessarily translate into a satisfying experience of life'. There may be intentional change over the life, where men deliberately reshape their masculinity. They think a good example is new public management with more family friendly employment policies. Generally, 'gender relations are always arenas of tension' and there will always be challenges and contestation, not least between generations — 'the process is historically open. Accordingly hegemony may fail'. The conceptualisations should allow for 'democratising gender relations, of abolishing power differentials' as one outcome, as well as social reproduction, the establishment of a version of masculinity which incorporates equality with women, something that is 'thoroughly "positive"'.

So concepts originally formulated have travelled and acquired new meanings, partly as a result of being taken up by so many academics in so many different fields. The original authors are not responsible for some of the ambiguities. They reject attributing problems to the original usage and insist that suitably renovated [!] , hegemonic masculinity is still relevant, not least at the global level.