Grappling with Continuity and Change in the History of Masculinities

Alexandra Shepard and Garthine Walker wrote a thought-provoking introduction to their edited volume Gender and Change: Agency, Chronology and Periodisation (2009).


One of the things they consider is that women’s history still struggles to reconcile the long view of continuity with local particularity. They also reflect:

Neither have questions of chronology and periodisation been at the forefront of the history of masculinity since its dramatic growth out of the ‘new men’s studies’ of the 1980s. Some of the blame can again be laid at the door of the ‘new’ cultural history. Emerging alongside the cultural turn, the history of masculinity has emphasised the multiplicity and contingency of male identities, rather than a category that might be traced in a singular way across a linear time scale, and has prioritised representation above the material and subjective realities of men’s lives which provide the key to understanding historical agency and the link to questions of causation.


Alex and  Garthine make some important points here, which I’ve tried to think about when I write on the history of masculinities. I think that everyone who works in this area are all very well aware how difficult it is to produce long term chronologies, though Mark French and Henry Rothery’s book A Man’s Estate: Landed Gentry Masculinities, 1660-1900 has approached this by adapting a social-class analytical model.

Still a lot of us are still grappling with the problem that John Tosh pointed out a decade ago: how do we integrate ‘tidal change and deep continuity?’

To take the period I’ve worked on recently [England c. 1760-1830] as an example, there are two [fairly incompatible] hypotheses of continuity and change in masculinities available. The first, becoming less popular, is that the period saw considerable change with the advent of the polite gentleman, serious [Evangelical] manhood, and a nascent domesticity. The second, more popular, I think, promotes continuity, largely through the sense of ‘enduring’ or ‘resilient’ masculinities, usually male household authority and youthful irresponsible behaviour.

So, is it ‘new cultural’ history’s fault? Maybe. As Alex and Karen Harvey observed in The Journal of British Studies in 2005, the picture of change in the long eighteenth century is perhaps itself illusory, the result of incompatible methodologies [cultural and social] and the patchy nature of research on men in the home and family. Until just recently, there has been far more on early modern, Victorian, and Edwardian men, say, than on men’s lives in the home in the long eighteenth century.

ImageYet, even where there are micro-studies of men in the home across the period, the findings are of greater diversity in cultural and social expectations and experience than the hypothesis of enduring masculinities suggests. Of course, perhaps the two are not as incompatible as I suggest. It may simply be that what appears to be continuity can mask considerable differences in form. Just to take male authority as an example – at one level it is a dominant feature of manhood but its status and expression varies enormously over time and according to class, race and ethnicity.

But I don’t really think the emphasis upon multiplicity and contingency of male identities is a problem. This complexity is at the heart of the consensus that has emerged right across masculinity studies. We can’t really ignore it. In fact, recognising the ‘layering’ and ambiguities within all practices that construct masculinities doesn’t necessarily prevent us charting the rise and fall of masculinities over time. Though the sense that masculinities are always in flux and development also means that we have to be aware of an individual’s life-course as well as the bigger picture and find some way to think about how the two correspond.

I also think that analysis of representations remains a useful pursuit and is not intrinsically wrong. Indeed, for example, more could be done on ‘representations’ of men in the eighteenth-century home. But of course Alex and Garthine are right in that most of us aim to link representations with the ‘material and subjective realities of men’s lives’. I have found this really difficult to do – and even more difficult to offer really solid evidence when I think I’ve made connections.

One of the ways to move forward, it seems to me, is to be very clear about methodology. ImageMy own attempt to do this has led me to use a qualitative research software package, NVivo, which lets me code data with attention to the language, concepts, and understandings expressed in them – precisely in order to connect the broader cultural framework, ideals, and values with personal reflections, memories, and behaviours. This has given me the confidence that I know at a glance how much data I’ve based my findings on and I can’t wander down my own obsessional blind alleys! I researched and wrote my book using this software, and now can’t do without it.

I’m an evangelist for using qualitative research software! It seems to me that it helps me chart what modern empirical data concludes: that constructions of masculinity may not correspond exactly with men’s lived experiences, but ‘express ideals, fantasies, and desires’ that nevertheless interact with them. I can glimpse the slippage and negotiation in the relationship between ideas and experience. For me it goes some way to facilitate an examination of the interaction between discourse and subjective experience as Alex and Garthine propose.

And as for formulating patterns of continuity and change, and causation? Well, I’ll get back to you on that. I’m now attempting to look at the meanings of ‘manly’ and ‘manliness’ in Britain between 1750 and 1918. Yes, it is a big ask! It is very much a work in progress – but I’m fascinated to see where it takes me.


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