Sunday, February 28, 2010
MALE STUDIES AND MEN’S STUDIES: NOT SIMPLY A MATTER OF WORDS
By MILES GROTH, Ph.D.
A number of people who are following preparations for the upcoming conference on “Male Studies: A New Academic Discipline” have asked about why the discipline is called “male studies” and is not a relative of “men’s studies.” This is an important question: So isn’t male studies simply a further development within men’s studies, which have been around since the early 1970s?
Male studies is a discipline, not a series of loosely related courses designed to support and promote a social cause or reform movement. A discipline is a department of knowledge. It does not originate in reaction to a social concern—unless one defines matters such as the numinous, the rules of social comportment, illness and restless reflection on ultimate things social concerns. For these latter are the 17th century’s the first disciplines: theology, jurisprudence, medicine and philosophy. They were not reactions to perceived injustices or the presumption to do nature one better.
That disciplines are characterized as objective is vital. This means their subject matter is thought to be of interest apart from what is at stake for anyone or any particular group. Of course, everyone knows quite well that scholars are not free from their prejudices, but when engaged with a discipline, they are careful to monitor the possible intrusion of their biases into the field of study. They attempt to abstain from beginning their work from commitments to political and social causes. Social policy and other applications of the knowledge gained are certainly important, but they may be used for good or ill and that will not be in the hands of scholars. This is what accounts for the relative scarcity of scholars. The proliferation of advocates for causes posing as scholars merely reflects the fact that not everyone with a PhD and a university post is a scholar. In fact, sadly, today most academics are not scholars. Look at the range of courses they teach over a period of ten years or the scope of their syllabi.
After the four principal disciplines came the Enlightenment’s sciences: physics, chemistry and biology. These were by the beginning of the 20th century by the social sciences, including economics, sociology, anthropology, political science and psychology—to name some of the best known. Most had their roots in Aristotle’s taxonomy of what is worth knowing. They are still found in college and university catalogs as the headings of academic divisions and departments along with the humanities, literature and history, and the fine arts.
Our disciplines are the heirs of the seven liberal arts that originated in the Middle Ages: the trivium—grammar, logic, and rhetoric—and the quadrivium—geometry, arithmetic, music and astronomy. Again, their source was Aristotle matchless distinctions. What made the liberal arts and their descendants, the disciplines, notable was their autonomy form political agenda and causes.
Pseudo-disciplines, of course, arise form time to time and eventually are unmasked for failing to have a basis in direct observation (alchemy and astrology) or unmasked as the justification of programs of control and domination by the powerful of the less powerful (phrenology and gender studies). Women’s studies, gender studies and men’s studies originated for the most part in support groups. It is not surprising, then, that sociology and social work departments typically house them.
A moment’s consideration makes clear the status of these studies and their failure to qualify as disciplines. Briefly, gender was never and in principle cannot be an area of study. It is a euphemism for sex. A discipline cannot be based on a euphemism. What is said about gender studies can be said about women’s (womanhood) studies and men’s (manhood) studies. Can one study animal organisms? Yes, and for that one has the discipline called zoology. Can one study the human body in health and when its systems fail? Yes, and this we call medicine. A topic of both of these disciplines is sex (and sexuality), which can be studied by zoologists and physicians, from similar although decidedly different perspectives.
In either case, as Donne wrote, for such disciplines “the body is his book.” But what of gender? What is its object of study? The human body? No. Much as intelligence is defined by what intelligence tests measure, gender is defined by what a given society assigns as roles to the two sexes. Roles are cultural inventions. These is nothing to discover about them. They are what they are. There is nothing to discover when one is presented with an invention, but that is what a discipline sets out to do: to discover the properties and features of something real. Used by the society that invented it, an invention is evaluated in terms of its utility. That is the case for gender. To try to define it as a the basis of a discipline would require using the term to define it, and that is logically impermissible—and meaningless. So it goes for the meaningfulness of gender studies and its offspring.
Are there human females? Yes, and so there can be a discipline called female studies. It will be part of biology. Women’s studies mistakenly takes the notion of a woman (properly speaking, womanhood) as the matter of its study, yet what makes for a woman is variable by culture and time. The female body remains essentially the same. As it evolves over millions of years, there will undoubtedly be subtle changes in its structure and functioning. Altered by technology, it may begin to function in bizarre ways. But that does not mean it has changed. The same holds for femininity. Womanhood (women) and femininity can be constructs studied by a particular discipline (anthropology, the study of humankind), but they cannot be disciplines unto themselves. Like its predecessor, men’s studies has nothing real to study. Essentially about the “rights” of a euphemism, it is incoherent. As interests of social activists and reformers, it may have a kind of life. But it cannot be a discipline.
Are there human males? Yes, and so there can be a discipline called male studies. The term “men’s studies” parses much like “priesthood studies,” or “lawyerhood studies”—and make about as much sense. No wonder this “field” of “studies” has produced so little understanding of males. In fact, as we now know so well, the net result of nearly 40 years of such “studies” is a worsened situation for boys and fully grown males. A discipline such as male studies (or female studies) does not study a characteristic. It studies something that has characteristics—in this case the human male.
We can expect women’s studies, gender studies and men’s studies to go the way of the pseudo-sciences, in this case organized around a social reform movement and driven by a political ideology. Let there be female studies (a discipline studying the human female in her uniqueness). And let there be male studies (a discipline studying the human male in his uniqueness). Both are needed. A beginning has been made for the former in works such as Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex or Helene Deutsch’s Female Psychology. To meet the need for equivalent scholarship about the male, the present initiative has been undertaken—Male Studies: A New Academic Discipline.
Gender reconciliation is not an issue of male studies. It would be as silly an idea as expecting zoology to bring about peace between panthers and gazelles. Gender difference is one of the inventions of women’s studies to provide it with one of its basic themes. Another of its inventions is the notion of gender equality (on the presumption of there being gender inequality). There is (euphemistically speaking) a question of gender equity, which essentially means not favoring one person over another based on his or her anatomy and physiology (and perhaps psychoneurology, as some neuroscience shows) and this is something desirable if we are not to lose the opportunity for good work from anyone with talent. Equity for the sexes, however, is a meaningless idea. Males and females are different. Let us see what we can understand about each. Then let us try to fathom the mystery of reproduction. Biologists and other scientists have been working at this for quite a while but they are just beginning to understand the phenomenon.
The male studies program initiative and a degree in the discipline as proposed would give serious attention for the first time to the unique experience and history of human beings who are male. As noted, something equivalent for females got off to a promising start in the 1940s and ‘50s, but has been limited by feminist ideology. Consider the confusions generated by the remarkable notion of “female masculinity” (Judith Halberstam). Here something real—the female—is conflated with a euphemism—masculinity. Scholarly work consciously attempting to avoid ideological commitments is a tenet of male studies.
Institutions such as the nuclear family, which are the most recent setting in which the sexes interact in powerful ways, will need to be rethought on the basis of what we learn about being male (and being female). New institutions will appear. At this point, given the 68% divorce rate and unprecedented numbers of young males and young females being raised outside of the so-called nuclear family, we have children raising each other. In what Robert Bly has called a “sibling society,” this is not surprising. But it does not work. It cannot work in any mammalian species. The creation of a new institution for rearing the young reflects overall social changes that are more comprehensive than relations between the sexes. What the new form of the “family” will be remains to be seen. It will surely be a topic of interest in male studies.
Another central theme of male studies is boys and young men, who have been given very little attention in men’s studies. Its motto is G. Stanley Hall’s now century-old insight that “the boy is father to the man.”
Yet another purpose of male studies is to “save the phenomenon” (Aristotle); that is, to permit us to see what the male’s experience (not only his behavior) is and has been through history. This means freeing males as objects of research from the grip of the sociological perspective which has dominated most writing in men’s studies, which is necessarily limited to behavioral data. The sociological approach, while important, is limited. Male studies will also include the perspectives provided by psychology, anthropology, history, economics, medicine, literature and the fine arts (including cinema). Sociologists have long since said the study of experience is to be abandoned. It forced psychology to redefine itself as the study of human behavior, not human experience. This led to the enervation of psychology to the pale statistical analyses of social psychology. To have done so is to have left behind the individual human male or female as a feeling being, each of which is a unique experiment of nature.
Miles Groth is a professor of psychology at Wagner College, Staten Island, New York and author of Thymos: Journal of Boyhood Studies. He is editor of The International Journal of Men’s Health and is hosting the upcoming Symposium of Male Studies- A New Academic Discipline on April 7, 2010 at Wagner College.
The conference will be available through streaming media online for a cost of $15. For individuals under economic stress, free attendance is available by contacting Paul Elam.
Prof. Miles Groth explains need for men’s studiesMarch 29, 2010