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September 05, 2005

Theoretical and conceptual frameworks

5. Theoretical and conceptual frameworks

The methods of analysis I employ throughout the dissertation are linked to the themes I discuss and rely mainly on three theoretical frameworks, using conceptual tools derived from the work of Connell, Bourdieu and Foucault. I chose these frameworks because they appeared to offer the greatest explanatory power for the phenomena I was witnessing. Furthermore, I wanted to build on research conducted by Willott and Griffin (2004), who use concepts from both Connell and Bourdieu as a way of explaining constraints on identity change for groups of men experiencing long-term unemployment. They suggest that it would be interesting to compare the discursive practices presented by the working-class men of their study with those of men from other social groups experiencing long-term unemployment, something that I am able to partially achieve in my own study.

I will now briefly outline the key concepts I employ as a theoretical framework, and explain why these theories are pertinent to my own research as an analysis tool to explain the discourses presented by the men in my study.

5.1 Hegemonic masculinities
As we saw in the literature review, early research into male unemployment tends to construct men as a homogeneous group, ignoring the dimensions of difference and social positionings that influence how men perceive and construct narratives around unemployment. Age, for example, is a dimension that is largely neglected by the burgeoning literature on masculinities, with older men omitted from masculinities literature about unemployment (Arber, Davidson and Ginn 2003).
Connell’s theory of hegemonic masculinity provides one way in which we may reintroduce age (and other social positionings) as an explanatory variable for the discursive practices employed by the men in my study. Far from viewing masculine identity as a homogeneous and unitary entity, Connell (1987, 1993, 1996) contends that definitions of masculinity are in fact multiple and shifting within any socio-historical context, dependent on the social structures that bind and confine individual experience and actions:

Definitions of masculinity are deeply enmeshed in the history of institutions and of economic structures. Masculinity is not just an idea in the head, or a personal identity. It is also extended in the world, merged in organized social relations. To understand masculinity historically we must study changes in those social relations (Connell 1996: 29).

Despite this discursive plurality, certain versions of masculinity are represented as hegemonic ideals, whilst opposing versions are marginalised or subordinated. According to Connell (1987: 184), ‘hegemony’ refers to ‘a social ascendancy achieved in a play of social forces that extends beyond contests of brute power into the organisation of private life and cultural processes’, with hegemonic definitions constructed in a complex and ever changing relationship to that which the definition excludes. For example, in the present socio-historical context, white, middle-class, heterosexual, employed males are considered to be the culturally ascendant ‘norm’ (Willott and Griffin 1996: 80).

It can be argued that youth is considered another such attribute of hegemonic masculinity, with older male workers being forced away from the ‘centre stage’ of the workplace to make room for upcoming ‘Young Turks’ (Arber, Davidson and Ginn 2003: 5). The ageing process does not merely involve an embodied, physiological process – possible loss of sexual potency, diminishing physical strength or ill health – though these factors do of course represent a challenge to masculine identity. Rather, it also incorporates altered life circumstances such as unemployment or retirement that pose a significant challenge to the traditional discourse of masculinity, which must ‘be realigned to accommodate the changing roles and relationships created by altered life circumstances’ (ibid: 5).

Although the social construction of a particular hegemonic masculine identity is arbitrary in one sense, it nevertheless forms a pervasive discourse that shapes how older men respond to and deal with unemployment, the ‘available’ discourses and structures constraining both issues deemed important to men and defining the way in which they position themselves in relation to those specific issues. However, Connell’s concept of hegemonic masculinity does not provide any explanation about why individuals select one version of masculinity rather than another, and Bourdieu’s concept of capital and habitus may offer one way of understanding the factors that come into play in the adoption of particular identities.

5.2 Capital and habitus
Willott and Griffin (2004) claim that a Bourdieuian concept of capital may aid our understanding of structural and ideological constraints that impede renegotiation of men’s gender identities following long-term unemployment.
Bourdieu (1986) proposes an understanding of society based on the movement of ‘capital’ through social spaces as it is accumulated or lost by individuals (Skeggs 1997: 8). The most obvious example of this is the Marxist concept of economic capital, a highly rationalised form of capital reified as material exchanges and financial assets. Bourdieu moves beyond this model, however, by proposing other metaphorical forms of capital (Bourdieu 1986: 243). ‘Cultural capital’, for example, exists in three different states: in an embodied state in the form of durable dispositions in the mind and body; in an objectified state existing in the form of cultural goods such as books or paintings; in an institutionalised state such as academic credentials (Bourdieu 1986: 243). ‘Social capital’ refers to ‘the connections and networks an agent may call upon in their effort to achieve a specified goal’ (Crossley 2001: 97), while ‘symbolic capital’ signifies ‘the form the different types of capital take once they are perceived and recognised as legitimate’ (Skeggs 1997: 8). Bourdieu develops these other capitals analogously with the structure of the economic variety, demonstrating how capitals may be accumulated, lost, invested, distributed and traded within a particular social field. The value of different capitals is tied to the context in which it is found; for example something that is greatly valued in an academic field may not be so highly revered in the world of theatre, or art, and may not afford the corresponding power and privilege.

5.3 Dividing practices
A further concept I employ as a theoretical framework is that of Foucault’s ‘dividing practices’. As discussed in the literature review, unemployed men’s private lives are opened up to official scrutiny through the bureaucratisation surrounding access to receipt of benefits, and through a variety of public discourses surround unemployment that position ‘the unemployed’ in particular ways. For example, unemployment may be constructed as equivalent to ‘scrounging off the state’, with the result that unemployed people may make strenuous efforts to resist this interpretation and reposition themselves within a more positive discourse. For example, unemployed men may attempt to negotiate alternative masculine identities not associated with work e.g. by taking up voluntary work, education or early retirement.

In this way unemployment appears to exemplify a process Foucault (1982: 208) labels ‘dividing practices’, in which ‘the subject is objectified by a process of division either within himself or from others’. Through a process of social objectification and categorisation that imposes preconceptions about the identity of the unemployed man on a more fluid situation, unemployment defines, excludes and stigmatises a distinctive ‘type’ of unemployed man (e.g. that of the ‘scrounger’).
I found that the men of my study were acutely aware of public discourses surrounding unemployment and the way in which they were positioned by others, as well as by institutions such as Job Centre Plus.

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