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Masculinities: Knowledge, Power, and Social Change 
by R.W. Connell (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995).

by Joel Morton
(American Studies Program, The University of Kansas)

To date there is no better model for sustained, progressive scholarship in critical studies of masculinity than the work of Australian sociologist Robert Connell. His latest major work, Masculinities (1995), builds upon the more strictly theoretical Gender and Power (1987) which spells out his oft-cited theory of hegemonic masculinity begun in the ground-breaking essay, "Towards a New Sociology of Masculinity"(1985). Connell deepens this earlier work both theoretically and historically by including chapters on "The Science of Masculinity," "Men’s Bodies" and "The History of Masculinity." Most significantly, however, Masculinities goes beyond the earlier works by including fours chapters of empirical work based on life-history interviews with distinct groups of Australian white men. In effect, then, Masculinities is a cultural studies text combining historical, theoretical, and empirical analyses of how the global, patriarchal social order is produced and maintained, and how it may be challenged.

Organised in three parts, Masculinities begins with a critical review of the "science" of masculinity as it has developed in clinical, academic, and social contexts over the last century. Although not genealogical in the Foucauldian sense, the review reveals the inherently political character of all attempts to define masculinity as a coherent object of knowledge. Thus, Connell’s approach embraces the political, designating "the objective possibility of justice in gender relations" as the ethical baseline for a new "critical science" not of masculinity itself, but of "masculinities" as "configurations of practice structured by gender relations." Furthermore, in chapter two of Part One, "Men’s Bodies," Connell calls for a strong view of agency that includes men’s "body-reflexive practice" as crucial to their engagement with, or disengagement from, hegemonic masculinity, including a startling example of the social effects of one man’s "sphincter agency."

Connell ends Part One with a concise statement of his analytics of masculinity, the limitations of which become apparent in Part Two, which reports the results of his field study of four groups of Australian men. The sample itself-- irregularly employed young working class men; feminist men in the environmental movement; straight-acting gay men; and professional men--is suggestive of one major oversight: it discludes men of color, perhaps unsurprising given an analytic that describes "power, labour, and desire" as the three primary structures of gender. Connell's empirical method is the "life-history" interview (conducted, according to a footnote, in one or two hours). Drawing on Sartre's Search for a Method, he points out that the "life history story is itself the relation between the social conditions that determine practice and the future social world that practice brings into being." Thus, the interview explores "crisis tendencies" in the life-long production of an interviewee's masculinity, as filtered through the theoretical focus on power, labour, and desire. Substantial as such a method is, it fully neglects power relations at work between researcher and subject, ignoring altogether, for instance, the knotty question of whether and how the interviewer affects the subject's telling of his own life. Indeed, Connell is enough of a realist to assume (at least temporarily) an objective stance in relation to his subjects, an assumption which many ethnographers (including this one) find problematic.

Nonetheless, the results of the field study are eye-opening. Despite wide class, sexual, and political differences, all of the men share a youtful "moment of engagement" with hegemonic masculinity, yet their subsequent paths, even within groups, are strikingly divergent and suggestive of the potential for progessive change among men of whatever social standing. To cite just one example, within the group one might expect to find most open to change, feminist men, Connell finds the shared experience of "gender vertigo," or the simultaneous desire for and fear of "annihilation of masculinity" seemingly required of them by feminism, to be a major stumbling block in their efforts to radically transform their lives as men. One man's involvement in eco-feminism "seemed to have left him adrift or out of focus. He had not found a way of refocusing through identification with women or with feminist men"(139). Such ambivalence among even progessive men may help begin to explain why the anti-sexist wing of the men’s movement has drawn so few adherents in recent years.

Indeed, in Part Three of Masculinities, where Connell broadens out his discussion to include chapters on "The History of Masculinity," "Masculinity Politics," and "Practice and Utopia," he argues convincingly that the social movement-model "cannot be the main form of counter-sexist politics among men, because the project of social justice in gender relations is directed against the interests they share." Nonetheless, as he demonstrates throughout the book, men’s interest in sustaining patriarchy is neither homogenous nor inevitable. Recent challenges to the hegemonic gender order deepen the contradictions upon which patriachal power operates, and the strategic problem, in Connell’s view, "is to generate pressures that will culminate towards transformation of the whole structure; the structural mutation is the end of the process, not the beginning. In earlier stages, any initiative that sets up pressure towards that historical change is worth having." Masculinities, finally, is a book which identifies likely pressure points, and for that reason alone, it is worth incorporating in future studies of gender politics.