Friday, April 16, 2010

Male Studies: investigating the force of "maleness"

Last Wednesday, Wagner College announced the creation of The Foundation for Male Studies as well as a proposal for a new discipline of Male Studies. Inside Higher Ed reports:

“Lionel Tiger, a Rutgers Anthropology Professor and co-chair of the Foundation for Male Studies said, “the field takes its cues ‘from the notion that male and female organisms really are different’ and the ‘enormous relation between ... a person’s biology and their behavior’ that’s not being addressed in most contemporary scholarship on men and boys.

I am concerned that male-averse attitudes are widespread in the United States and that masculinity is becoming politically incorrect,” said Christina Hoff Sommers, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men.”

The announcement provoked a range of reactions many of which negative:

Sally Benz at Feministe wrote, “The people advocating for this seem to believe very strongly in it, but really, their arguments just make me laugh.”

Amanda Hess at The Sexist wrote, “Apparently, Male Studies was formed in order to study [the phenomenon of maleness] without the distraction of also occasionally thinking about women.”

Much of the discussion has also focused on the distinction between the discipline of Male Studies and the discipline Men’s Studies, which began in the 1980’s as a counterpart to Women’s Studies.

In response to the Wagner College announcement, the President of the American Men’s Studies Association, Robert Heasley said, “Men’s studies came out of feminist analysis of gender, which includes biological differences….[The Male Studies] argument is that they’re inventing something that I think already exists.”

As I have followed this story, I have tried to get clear on what precisely is the difference between Women’s Studies, Men’s Studies, Gender Studies and Male Studies. The main difference seems to be that while the first three listed disciplines share certain basic concerns, methodological principles, and general ideological orientations, the founders of Male Studies define it in opposition to those concerns, principles and ideological orientations.

Gender Studies, which perhaps can serve as an umbrella term for both Women’s and Men’s Studies, investigates gender as a historically constituted concept, which differs temporally and geographically. It examines the political and social implications of diverse conceptions of gender and sexuality for society today. One of the central goals of the discipline are to unearth, examine and critique the subtle interconnections between gender (and sexuality) and power and privilege.

Male Studies could not be more different. Instead of critically examining the extent to which society is shaped by historically relative conceptions of masculinity, Male Studies seems to focus entirely on grounding male behavior biologically. Lionel Tiger explicitly stresses the “enormous relation… between a person’s biology and their behavior.”

I read “grounding male behavior biologically” as “justifying male behavior biologically.” Tiger and his colleagues are formulating an argument that male behavior is fixed. The natural conclusion of this line of reasoning is that men cannot be held accountable for their behavior because, after all, there is an “enormous relation… between a person’s biology and their behavior.” Men certainly can’t control their biology, can they?

Given the recentness of Male Studies, it is too soon to tell what direction it may take. However, I can think of potentially disastrous consequences for an “academic” discipline of this kind. Would Tiger attempt to defend a rapist by arguing that rape is a natural (and therefore justified) means of production? Some evolutionary psychologists already have. Can we justify the overrepresentation of men in certain professions by appeal to biological predestination?

What are the potential consequences of a discipline that attempts to place men, who have monopolized social power for millennia, as an oppressed minority?


  1. I agree with you about the danger these kinds of theories might bring about, due to the easy lack of nuance in understanding the ideas in the context of actual human society. However, I could imagine a legitimate study of these connections between male biology and behavior, if one keeps in mind that humans (of both genders) have developed an existence in a complicated and structured society. This means that we are regularly called on and expected to resist and manage our biological urges as part of the social contract. We don't steal our neighbors food when we feel hungry, even if being fed at that moment would satiate that biological need.

  2. "Given the recentness of Male Studies, it is too soon to tell what direction it may take."

    No direction because Tiger is a tool. I did, though, go to preschool with Prof Sommer's son- he convinced me to be a tomboy.