Being a Man I: Social Construct

my 1960s wedding suit

Apparently some men are having trouble figuring out what it is to be a man. There are various groups and individuals that purport to be able to teach men how to be men (or at least dress like the male actors on the show Mad Men).

Before a person can become a man, it must be known what it is to be a man.  There are, of course, many conceptions about what it is to be a man.

One option is to take the easy and obvious approach: just go with the generally accepted standards of  society. After all, a significant part of being a man is being accepted as a man by other people.

On a large scale, each society has a set of expectations, stereotypes and assumptions about what it is to be a man. These can be taken as forming a set of standards regarding what one needs to be and do in order to be  a man.

Naturally, there will be conflicting (even contradictory) expectations so that meeting the standards for being a man will require selecting a specific subset. One option is to select the ones that are accepted by the majority or by the dominant aspect of the population. This has the obvious advantage that this sort of manliness will be broadly accepted.

Another option is to narrow the field by selecting the standards held by a specific group. For example, a person in a fraternity might elect to go with the fraternities view of what it is to be a man (which will probably involve the mass consumption of beer). On the plus side, this enables a person to clearly  be a man in that specific group. On the minus side, if the standards (or mandards) of the group differ in significant ways from the more general view of manliness, then the individual can run into problems if he strays outside of his mangroup.

A third option is to attempt to create your own standards of being a man and getting them accepted by others (or not). Good luck with that.

Of course, there is also the question of whether there is something more to being a man above and beyond the social construction of manliness. For some theorists, gender roles and identities are simply that-social constructs. Naturally, there is also the biological matter of being a male, but being biologically male and being a man are two distinct matters. There is a clear normative aspect to being a man and merely a biological aspect to being male.

If being a man is purely a matter of social construction (that is, we create and make up gender roles) than being a man in group X simply involves meeting the standards of being a man in group X. If that involves owing guns, killing animals, and chugging beer while watching porn and sports, then do that to be a man. If it involves sipping lattes, talking about Proust,  listening to NPR  and talking about a scrumptious quiche, then do that. So, to be a man, just pick your group, sort out the standards and then meet them as best you can.

In many ways, this is comparable to being good: if being good is merely a social construct, then to be good you just meet the moral standards of the group in question. This is, of course, classic relativism (and an approach endorsed by leading sophists).

But perhaps being a man is more than just meeting socially constructed gender standards. If so, a person who merely meets the “mandards” of being a man in a specific group might think he is a man, but he might be mistaken. But, this is a matter for another time.

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  1. I will be watching this set of blogs carefully, I have been thinking about this for some time. My son is dependent on me to teach him what it takes to be a man. One characteristic that I feel may be universal is “integrity”. A man keeps his word. At least that is something that I want to instill in the boy. . .

  2. cleary the notion of manhood is a subjective qualitative phenomenon there’s no intellectual merrit for one to assumew that they can actually be a man like it’s a static category manhood is a flexible dynamic symbolic category of thought it’s not some immutable a priori phenomenonlogical

  3. Kevin: “One characteristic that I feel may be universal is ‘integrity’. A man keeps his word.”

    But this characteristic — integrity — is (I would argue) desirable in both men and women; therefore it is not a characteristic of “a man” (it is a characteristic of “good people”).

    So the question is: Are there non-socially constructed characteristics that are (or should be) just associated with “men”?

  4. “Being a man” is a special case of the statue of Daedelus—when you’re not looking the concept changes position or appearance. What is more, for any statue, each of us sees a slightly different statue.

    And yet, and this is the philosophical thing that demands an answer, how is it that we can discuss with one another, and even understand, each other’s similar or dissimilar opinions? Imagine building a house where the measuring tapes in use are all slightly different and/or the foreman’s measuring tape changes from day-to- day.

    Other cases include “being a woman”, “being a boy who is becoming a man”, “being a (social | fiscal) conservative”, etc.

  5. ‘Are there non-socially constructed characteristics that are (or should be) just associated with “men”?’ – Keith


    # The social construct thing…
    Of course, some argue that language itself is socially constructed, leading to claims like: were there to be something about men that wasn’t socially constructed, it’s not something we are capable of saying (paraphrasing Judith Butler here). This seems to bring into question the point of even mentioning that something is socially constructed. If everything we can talk about is socially constructed in some sense, the implication that something is “less true” – or in some way more changeable – by virtue of its constructed-ness, begins to quickly fade into meaninglessness. After all, even the statement “that is socially constructed”, is socially constructed. I suppose I need an explanation of why saying “socially constructed” says anything at all about gender.

    # The logic thing…
    That aside, I think we’re onto something with “integrity”. People, I think, are, well, persons, and persons aught not to be merely the fulfillment of gendered expectations. But is this the case, or simply my desire? The fact that identity(woman) and identity(man) both happen to require “integrity” from their constituents, doesn’t necessarily mean that they are sharing in a type. Each might just happen to require the same characteristic. It might even be the case that girl-integrity is different than boy-integrity the way girl-shoes are different than boy-shoes.

    # The existentialist thing…
    I wonder if gender isn’t more about what it is to be judged by others. We fulfill expectations in order to be judged as we wish to be judged. Maybe it’s as simple as saying: if I want to be judged a man, then I need to act like man in the eyes of those judging me. This would raise two questions for me. Is it possible to fulfill all expectations, and – more importantly – is performing for judgement all there is to being? I suspect the answer to the former is no. So, pick and chose who you’re going to do your man-performance for. The later, I’m not so sure about, though I’d like to say “no”. It’s not so easy being a man.

  6. I’ve been thinking a bit lately about the chosen roles that tend to be associated with gender but are not strictly enforced, allowing people the freedom to participate in activities in which their gender will be the significant minority. Recently, this has included a look at women who are venturing into the territory of the lead rock guitarist, along with the mentors they encounter in that pursuit.

    Also, I’ve felt that our current culture is lacking in the rights of passage that encourage teens and young adults to actively choose the kind of person that they will become, which would clearly include some decisions about gender roles–not to mention respect for the gender role choices of others. Here again the music of teen culture seems to be relevant and provides clues about the topics of interest. This includes choices about gender roles, as well as coming into the age of being responsible for oneself, facing conflicts, and confronting death. The point of a formal right of passage would be to encourage a public declaration of these choices, not only to their peers but to the adult culture into which they are entering. This I would hope could provide better guidance and nurturing in these areas, and possibly alter the focus associated with simply putting on a cultural mask to satisfy peer pressure.

    Using the rock guitarist as an example, the symbolism that is portrayed in the parading nature of a public performance becomes representative of the role choices available as teens move toward adulthood. Some of these role behaviors are somewhat dubious or even dangerous. Separating from ones parents may involve a fair amount of defiance, and this seems normal. However, where defiance means abandoning one source of moral guidance, there is the danger of being left without any basis for selecting a moral framework. Note how the cultural revolution associated with the defiance of Rock And Roll was very much about the roles that teens were being asked to adopt, thus suggesting that there was something inadequate about the rights of passage that had existed at that time. It was in that defiance that many were choosing their moral frameworks and role choices, but most would agree that there were significant challenges faced by those that made the most radical choices. The cultural defiance of today doesn’t seem to have exactly the same meaning, but I don’t see that it is any less problematic then it was during the early decades of Rock and Roll. If anything, I should wonder if the direction is somewhat less well defined.

    So, being able to cross gender boundaries seems important to a healthy evolution of culture; but the more radical the choice, the more carefully considered it should be.

    I agree with the suggestion made in the preceding comments that integrity is a key element in choosing roles, but I would add that there should be a sense of purpose in the roles being selected. Otherwise, integrity would be directionless. From that, there should be a sense of responsibility to go along with any perceived benefit from a possible role.

  7. The idea that different genders can have different types of integrity is interesting and warrants further discussion. I consider the idea of integrity in motion or have a direction to be strange. My concept of integrity is steadfast. You either have it or you don’t. Maybe integrity can grow stronger. . .

  8. Philip Smith,

    Ah, but it could be just such a category. For example, I will be discussing using Aristotle and Plato in this matter. To be very brief, if Plato is right, then there would be a Form of Man. So, being a Man would be static and eternal. Of course, we might still want to distinguish between being a Man and being a man.

  9. One matter well worth considering is that being a man is often presented as short for “being a good man.” Presumably there would be considerable overlap between what it is to be a good man and a good woman. There might be some moral distinctions between the genders as well, or perhaps not.

  10. A person could be a man without the plumbing. For example, a person could lose his penis, yet still be a man. It also seems to make sense to consider that someone could be a man without having a human male body (a woman for example or in sci-fi a machine or alien).

    The existentialist thing seems to be the easiest one. To use an analogy to cool: if you want to be cool, find out what being cool means to the group you wish to appear cool. Do that successfully and you are cool. Likewise, if you want to be a man, just find out what the means to the group in question. Do that successfully and you are a man.

    Of course, who takes the easy way? Not men, that is for sure. 🙂

  11. “For example, a person could lose his penis, yet still be a man.” – MIKE LABOSSIERE

    Could they? I suppose, if that’s the case, then one could also have a penis and not be a man. Can one be neither a woman nor a man? Probably. Does one even have a choice in the matter? Is subterfuge necessary, and if so, what does that say about authenticity? The existential thing is not so easy. The problem is authenticity.

    If one is to be authentically a man, one should have an idea of what a man is. Some kind of man-content. However, different groups, even different individuals, will have different ideas about what man-content should be. You could find yourself viewed as a man in the morning, but not at night, or by those on the left side of the room but not those on the right. So, I guess the question is: is it more authentic to adapt yourself to dynamic expectations of manhood, or to present a performance whose man-content is consistent? Can one be authentically inconsistent, and what does that say about integrity?

    If the later, what does it mean to be authentically inconsistent? And this is where it gets really weird. If everyone is walking around performing man-content that dynamically changes according to the perceived expectations of other man-content performers, who likewise, are trying to do the same, well, I just don’t know what that would be like. Here’s a question: do man-content performers through the act of performing, broadcast an expectation of the same man-content?

  12. TesserID,

    Your point about the rite of passage is an interesting one. I recall reading about people who are concerned that kids today lack such a passage and are thus often stuck in an ongoing adolescence. That is, they either are delayed in becoming men or never actually make it. That is a point well worth considering.

  13. Another concept that I have been batting around is competence. A Man would need to be capable and competent to get whatever needs doing, done. This is certainly a characteristic that is shared by many women, much like integrity.

    Maybe there is no truly “Male” characteristic. Suppose being a man is in the mix of many traits, in just the right proportions. This is starting to sound like a recipe. . .

  14. This is probably a very shallow reply. The answer for me is that I was born a male human and I just do mainly what male humans do. I have never sought to question this. I just am, as I am. I would not understand what is to question my manhood or that of anybody else. Again people are what they are. Acting a part to become a member of some sort of approved group has no appeal for me whatsoever. I am aware that for instance some men have effeminate characteristics and some women have masculine characteristics; but so what? they are notwithstanding still men and women, in the same way that men accused of unmanly grief are still men, but perhaps a little more sensitive than others. There cannot possibly be one standard of manhood or womanhood on which human beings are to be judged. The constraint to adhere to some set of behavioral rules such that others may be impressed with manhood or womanhood seems to me both artificial and nonsensical. So far as advice to children is concerned I would give, and have given, the same advice to either sex. Be upright honest and caring. Do neither harm to oneself nor to others. Make the best of yourself both mentally and physically. Be true to yourself than you can be false to no-one. This done I would hope the gender pressures of genetic composition would flourish in the best way possible.

  15. A few additional points…

    Mike, thank you for the response. Your point fits with my conclusions, though my original interest was driven by a curiosity about why so much of teen culture is preoccupied with death and what kind of guidance may be needed in that area.

    Regarding other comments, I’ve avoided the plumbing discussion because I think that could decline into a nature versus nurture debate.

    I sometimes think that discussions about traits ends up placing too much emphasis on the static and not enough on the process of becoming. And, this where I tend to add traits that imply some degree of change, such as “direction” or “purpose” (in that there would be some concept of a goal not yet attained).

    There might also be some discussion about the role of the mother in the nurturing of positive masculine traits. While some might point out that there is some importance in providing a father figure in the raising of a boy, I think it’s just as important for a culture to adequately deal with the loss of a father during the formative years of a child’s life. As such, I think that both parents must have some capacity to effectively guide a child in adopting cultural roles. And, as much as children learn by example, I think that when both genders are present in the parenting roles the child should be exposed to healthy gender interactions. For those cases where either gender is not represented among the immediate guardians, there is a need for the existing guardian(s) to draw on others to stand as healthy examples.

  16. The problem with the “rights of passage” is that while in the past a 13 year old was ready to work the fields or become an apprentice or sell goods in a store, we require that child to stay in school, so none of their responsibilities realistically change. When it is time for a young man to really become a man and assume responsibility for himself AND OTHERS in the modern world he is somewhere between 16 and 22. Not that he is not capable at earlier ages, it’s just that our society isn’t constructed to make practical use of a 13 year old boy.

    As for some of the other comments here where people can’t seem to differentiate between the expectation and responsibilities of a man vs. a woman, does it makes me less of a man that I feel the urge to weep?

  17. Kevin,

    Aristotle would argue that being a man is just that-being competent (preferably excellent) at being a man.

    We do have the recipe for boys:

    What are little boys made of?
    What are little boys made of?
    Frogs and snails
    And puppy-dogs’ tails,
    That’s what little boys are made of.

    But not for men. At least not yet. Any poets out there?

  18. Don,

    That is the easiest way to handle the question: just follow what most males do. Of course, there is still the challenge of sorting out what most males actually do. Limiting this to one’s specific culture would make this even easier.

  19. TesserID,

    Good point. Being a man is probably not a fixed thing but an ongoing process with changing norms and standards. Obviously, the view of what is to be a man has varied across time but it also probably changes for the individual as they age and change their life situations. For example, being a man at 18, being a married man, being a man at 44 and so on might be very different things.

    Mothers can, I think, help nurture positive male traits. After all, some women are more manly than some men and can serve as good role models. Then again, it might not be a matter of being more manly-it might be (as some have suggested) that many positive traits are gender neutral.

    Much has been said about the importance of a male figure or father figure. Of course, whether this has to be an actual man can be debated.

  20. Doug,

    Good points. It might be the case that since our society is more complicated it takes longer to learn the skills needed to achieve the status of being an adult. Or perhaps (as some have argued) our education system has been dumbed down so much that it just takes longer to reach that level of competence.

    It is fine to feel the urge to weep, but there are only a limited number of occasions when man tears are acceptable. If, for example, your team has won a major sporting event and the local pub is handing out free beer, then you can shed manly tears (but only after drinking at least 3 beers). It is all spelled out in the manual.

  21. Mike,
    Yeah, but enough of those beers often leads to an “I love you man”, which brings us ’round to square one…but I digress. To your point to Tesserid about how mothers nurture positive male traits, I believe one way they do this by their sincere approval and disapproval of other grown-male (I’ll avoid “men” here) behaviors. I believe boys can differentiate the level of sincerity by observing the kind of approval a woman can show that contrasts with her own. I am speaking here of behavior that she either can not or chooses not to model herself as it is not a part of herself. Say, by how other men dress or present themselves, or if she herself is not an athlete, how other men handle themselves in athletic contests. This the child can see as definitively “male” and this works with or without a father-figure actually being present in the household.

  22. Mike,

    My comment on competence was not intended to relate just to being a man. I anticipated the poem, but did not really expect you to be the one to recite it. I find your reply playful and wonder if you are implying that such a characteristic is MANLY. I certainly do not see playful as a strong component of manhood.

    The rite of passage discussion is something that I have encountered before. Native Americans have/had such traditions and they served a powerful purpose. Modern Americans would be wise to invent or adopt such a passage to manhood in order to help assuage the angst of being a teenager.

    In the line of thought regarding the “recipe” of manhood, I have suggested two main ingredients: Integrity, and Competence. Wisdom seems to be a natural choice, but I would like to ask the readers what else belongs. Does the soup need salt?

  23. This is a rather one sided discussion so far. It would be interesting to have some viewpoints from Women. How to stimulate this I do not know, other than to suggest man may be the superior sex.

  24. On the point of playfulness, I had started to write a comment yesterday about role playing in the development process, but it didn’t gel.

    Generally, I think there is much to say about the way that play is involved in aspects of our awareness, acting as a means to explore hypothetical ideas or explore and learn from the experiences of others.

    The point I was going for yesterday involved the ability of, for example, a mother to playfully mimic masculine traits during play time. The same goes for anyone who might mimic the behavior of others when engaging in nurturing play.

    While play may diminish as we mature, the ability to mentally put ourselves in other people’s shoes should not go away. Otherwise, we would lose the skill of empathy.

    Along with this, I was thinking about the tendency to focus too much on the thing to which traits and behaviors are attributed and not so much on relationships to others. With the challenges that the sexes face in understanding each other, we might consider what it means to understand our roles in terms of how it affects those who are not in our roles. That is, there needs to be some understanding of how a particular role fits into the big picture.

    Though, I’m still looking for a way to get these ideas to gel a bit better.

  25. Don,

    I have this odd feeling that women might be inclined to respond to discussions about what it is to be a man with a skeptical roll of the eyes.

  26. TesserID,

    That is an excellent point. Being a man might be more a matter of how one fits into various social relations. That is, it is more like being a friend(having a certain relationship) than being a triangle (having certain properties).

  27. I just listened to an NPR radio program that I think I should call staggering. While the nature of the program was primarily concerned a biological aspect of masculinity, it did have something to say about the choices that we face regarding our manhood.

    But, before I get into the specifics of that program, let me mention another news item that I think goes along with it. A recent study has shown that women tend to prefer and choose men who have less masculine traits during times of plenty, while women tend to prefer the more masculine during hard times. Such research is generally taken as biological science trying to explain sociological trends and cultural shifts. My point in mentioning this here is that there is already a natural mechanism that influences and perhaps regulates the degree of masculinity in a society–at least through the recognition of secondary sex traits, which are affected by levels of testosterone.

    So this radio program I just heard featured an interview with a man who had gone to the extreme measure of having himself castrated… with the sole intent of eliminating the testosterone fueled distress in his life. He had suffered extreme bouts of rage along with an unrelenting sex drive and other alpha-male behaviors. Now that his testosterone is only about 50% greater than that of a women, uncontrollable rage is no longer a problem, and others can see that he no longer seems tortured. While, he had inflicted this treatment upon himself–without medical supervision or advice of mental professionals, he is quite satisfied with the results and does not regret it in any way. He said that aside from the peace that this has brought him, this dramatic reduction in testosterone has not changed the person that he is at all.

    Still, he does not recommend the irreversible method that he used to anyone–since the chemical castration that is now available is just as effective–and reversible.

    Along with this news comes the discussion about how law makers are considering making such chemical castration mandatory for certain kinds of crime. Note that current law allows for some legal options to those who voluntarily choose chemical castration.

    So, while science is now showing that there may be biological mechanisms that influence a society’s tolerance of masculine behavior, we now have a legal and medical culture that is seeking to codify the regulation of testosterone.

    I’ve been noticing that the thread of discussion that we’ve been having here does not do much to define masculine roles or behavior–virtuous or otherwise. Biology, or at least what Science seems to be preoccupied with, seems to be say that tough times call for tougher men, while women have a role in choosing more civilized men during more civilized times.

    Is it that Philosophy must defer to Science and culture for the specifics, or is there anything purely Philosophical that can be said on the subject?

  28. tl;dr again lmao

  29. TesserID,

    You raise an excellent question. I think that philosophy should accept input from science and culture, but philosophers still have an important role in assessing these inputs. I tend to see the search for truth as a cooperative event.

    That said, I would tend to go with the biologists when it comes to the matters that relate to biology. However, I would contend that addressing the normative aspects of being a man seem to fall nicely within the realm of philosophy. Unless, of course, all there is to being a man is biology.

  30. I am taking a Human development course, and have been introduced to the notion, posited by the female triumverate that authored the text, that “fatherhood is a social construct.” Does anyone find this as instinctively sexist and offensive as myself? I’d like to calm down. Can anyone help?

  31. Re: Dave May 26th
    For goodness sake Dave cool-it. It is just someone’s hypothesis. I personally do not know if Fatherhood is a social construct. Yes possibly, it may have some elements of social construction in it but I don’t think one can eliminate the natural instincts in a man towards being a father. When as an undergraduate I studied the Philosophy of Social Science at University I seem to remember reading of some for whom scientific theories were, either wholly or in part, social constructs, which many interpreted as diminishing the claim of science to representing objective reality. I am very rusty on all this now but as I recollect some claims concerning social constructs were preposterous. It appears that today the phrase is still often bandied about to make a cheap and most likely insubstantial point.

    This business of being sexist, racist and any old -ist you can think of including Fascist has resulted in these silly words becoming loaded with emotion such that the recipient should feel justly chastised. But this is not an argument. Again what ever is the other business these days everybody getting offended by something or the other? What nonsense; at one point some infant schools were advised to teach their children to sing ‘Baa baa rainbow sheep’ Just in case some black child there became offended. OK so you are offended, nothing is going to happen you will not die. Forget being offended it is not important. What is important is that you have been presented with an Hypothesis which on the face of it looks somewhat faulty to me. What you should do is quietly to think about it, and muster what evidence you can to attack it and how best to present the evidence. Above all keep calm even when others do not. Also respect the so called offending parties and never loose your temper, you may even gain their respect eventually.

    Do I find what was said instinctively sexist and offensive? No of course I don’t, so what-?
    You asked for help Dave and the foregoing is my suggestion; perhaps others my have alternative ways for you to deal with the problem.

  32. Dave, sometimes it’s just a matter of how things are defined, and the definition of “instinct” would seem to be relevant. So, I took a quick glance at the Wikipedia entry and found this:

    “… the term ‘instinct’ cannot be used in reference to human behavior. When terms, such as mothering, territoriality, eating, mating, and so on, are used to denote human behavior they are seen to not meet the criteria [defining instinct]…” (Keep in mind that is is for a very specific definition of “instinct”.

    So, even “mothering” can be picked apart at this level.

    Virtually all conscious human behaviors can be said to be culturally influenced. Claiming that any one of them is purely a social construct is easy enough, simply because it’s difficult to narrow down an underlying commonality. But, that also makes it very difficult to prove that anything is purely a social construct. It’s barely worth a roll of the eyes.

  33. Dave,

    I don’t find the hypothesis sexist or offensive. Of course, I don’t have the entire context of the claim. If it was put forth in a derogatory way, then I would have issues with the authors. But, if it is a mere academic hypothesis, then no.

  34. TesserId,

    I suspect that humans do have instinctive behaviors, but (as the quote points out) much depends on what counts as instinct.

    Good point-all human activities/behavior seem to have elements arising from “social construction.” Even if a wicked experiment was conducted involving something like a single person being raised in isolation by machines, it would be hard to determine what behavior is “natural” and what the person constructed (as a society of one).

  35. Well, here’s an odd logical connection. I admit that this is a bit thin, but that point about the the idea of being raised by machines brought to mind all the theory, speculative science fiction, and the very important recent research regarding those who a raised with too little human contact. And, I think that recent research is the part that warrants the most attention, because we now have mounds of data on the kinds of social problems that arise when infants are raised with too little human contact. In fact, it’s now so common that these maladjusted children are now showing up on the learning channel, with clear explanations of the problems they have.

    So the influence of human contact, with all of its variables, begins even before language develops. That certainly makes it more difficult to separate the inborn traits from those influenced by human contact.

    But, it’s clear that the human animal, with an over-sized brain that develops outside the womb, is utterly dependent upon nurturing.

    So, one might argue that primary source of nurturing be associated with the owner of the womb. However, the need for nurturing is so great that there would be an advantage to having multiple secondary nurturers, and I think we can see just that sort of nurturing behavior in the majority of the population, regardless of role.

    So, while the specifics would vary greatly across cultures and within cultures, I don’t see a problem with expecting that there is an inborn urge to nurture.

    I would even take this to explain why some would be offended by the suggestion that they are without the capacity to nurture.

  36. TesserID,

    Good point. A human raised without social interaction would be, to use the technical term, a mess. Doing such an experiment would probably not tell us much about natural human behavior, except the impact on humans of a lack of such interaction.

    How much is innate (genetic or metaphysical) is an interesting matter and certainly a challenging one to sort out.

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