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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.
August 20, 2005
Fifty and a figure of fun?
Follow-up to Domestic provision and disempowerment from L'Etrangère
Part 3 and conclusion to 'masculinities and unemployment' chapter
Simon: I’ve noticed that there’s less respect for the older, for the older person. We used to have retirement dos when a guy got his retirement cheque from a company at sixty five. They don’t make it any more. They either die, or get made redundant at fifty. To be fifty is to be a figure of fun, to be considered old, out of touch.
Thomas: I’m not sure I agree with that… I don’t think it’s so much that in olden days, or early days, when we were younger, there was any extra respect really. But we’ve now got a situation, if you are to believe the media, if, big if, that life ends at thirty five or forty, and the rest is just garbage.
It can be argued that youth is considered another dimension of hegemonic masculinity in the workplace, with older male workers being forced away from ‘centre stage’ to make room for upcoming ‘Young Turks’ (Arber, Davidson and Ginn 2003: 5). This is implied by Simon’s construction of the older worker as an obsolete ‘figure of fun’, associating the ageing process with loss of power, social status and respect. In doing so he expresses nostalgia for a bygone age, suggesting that in the past there was an intimate connection between men and their work throughout the life course. This discourse constructs the employer-employee relationship as one characterised by loyalty, respect and mutual dependence, retirement providing a source of celebration of a man’s working life rather than cause for concern. Although Thomas challenges this idealised representation, at the same time he acknowledges the persuasiveness of media and public discourses in formulating negative conceptions about older workers, a theme echoed by other participants:
Ben: Employers don’t want older workers. It’s as straightforward and simple as that…
Simon: There’s an inbuilt prejudice in the interview system that you start to lose skills when you’re about forty or your brain slows.
Although the men actively resist such discourses that position them as obsolete or unnecessary, they seem acutely aware of their pervasiveness and influence in formulating conceptions about the older worker and prejudicing ‘the interview system’:
Thomas: There’s this great super-duper advanced technology that we have now that’s directed towards a cult of the young… There’s a belief that younger people are more flexible and adaptable and can cope with change.
Joe: It’s a completely different environment to what it was forty years ago. I mean, there’s no more manufacturing now. Now I find myself in a world I don’t understand. I feel like a dinosaur. To be honest, if I had any skills I wouldn’t be sitting here.
Ben: Technology has taken over quite a lot more. In any type of industry, you’ve got the computers… I can get by and I’m quick enough to learn, but you never get a chance… you never get the opportunity.
The men position themselves as marginalized in an age of increasing technology that favours a 'cult of the young' rather than 'dinosaurs' like themselves. Thomas refers to a powerful contemporary discourse that represents ‘younger people’ as more adaptable and able to cope with change and the complexities of a system of ‘great super-duper advanced technology’. Joe’s assessment of his gendered value is couched in the rhetoric of disuse and obsoleteness, situating him as anachronistic in the context of technological advances that leave him bewildered. Ben argues that he’s ‘quick enough to learn’ new skills, but locates himself and other male manual workers as fighting a losing battle in which they are denied the opportunity to accrue cultural capital through retraining and re-skilling, resulting in an inability to re-negotiate alternative identities and escape ‘the situation’.
The men also take up an alternative discourse relating to older workers, which paints a picture of wisdom, experience and maturity. In adopting this discourse they position themselves as superior to ‘young upstarts’ who may understand computers and new technology, but are often found wanting in terms of interpersonal skills and knowledge accrued over time:
Sam: A lot of the time we don’t realise how au fait we are with so many things until we encounter a younger person who’s got that gap in their knowledge. And it comes as a surprise.
Simon: Younger people waste time, we don’t photocopy our buttocks.
Ben: The young ones that used to come to us’d lack the practical knowledge.
Simon: When you were sixteen, you think you know everything. I mean it was ridiculous.
This alternative discourse implies that they have invested heavily in their identities as working men, accruing cultural capital in the form of experience and practical knowledge and enabling them to recognise themselves as respectable, responsible workers. However, these investments can only work if others invest in them, and constant rebuffals in the recruitment process serve to devalue the cultural capital accrued through experience:
Alex: I’ve got more valuable skills than knowing how to use a computer.
Ben: The main skill we’ve got is experience and practical knowledge… You don’t get a nineteen-year-old mentor.
Simon: Amongst the people here we have more skills and qualifications than we know what do with. The question is how to utilise these.
Alex: Age is a skill in a way. The question is how do we make people in the personnel department, who are often half our age, recognise that experience?
Ben: It’s very difficult, unless you do a PhD or something, or you’re a lecturer, that to me is something irrespective of age. Age is no barrier there.
Maturity is thus a form of cultural capital, but it is only activated and valued within particular social fields such as academia. The value of maturity is tied to the context in which it is found, and may not afford the corresponding power and privilege outside that field. Ultimately, participants tend to see themselves as ensnared by a system characterised by ageist attitudes and structural inequalities, in which age is considered a negative quality rather than a form of capital that is valued by employers:
Ben: As soon as you put your age down on the application you can guarantee that you are not going to get anywhere, unless you’re already part of the place, or they specifically want someone with a bit of experience.
Joe: They always ask for it. You’re honour-bound to put it down. Even if you take it out and they interview you, you still won’t get anywhere once they see how old you are.
As we have discussed, traditional discourses that link masculinity with public life and domestic provision are challenged by unemployment, changes in employment patterns and age, and it could therefore be argued that it is potentially in men’s interests to deconstruct them. As we have seen, the men actively resist discourses that position them as obsolete or marginalised, employing tactics such as humour to undermine dominant discourses and deny the representations of their positioning, employing alternative discourses and adopting an active role in constructing alternative subjectivities. However, questioning previous assumptions does not necessarily determine the nature of the transformation. As Willott and Griffin point out, ‘merely because normative assumptions about masculinity are under some degree of challenge, it does not necessarily follow that any consequent change will be politically progressive’ (1997: 121). Furthermore, subjectivity is linked tightly with the social conditions in which it is forged, which thus makes it difficult to conceptualise, let alone implement, a politics of transformation.
We will now begin to explore how the men respond to the challenges posed by long-term unemployment and attempt to reconstruct their masculine identities. In doing so we will examine the importance of a Bourdieuian notion of capital as a resource for renegotiating masculinities and consider the structural constraints that impede change.
August 17, 2005
Domestic provision and disempowerment
Follow-up to Public life and scrutiny from L'Etrangère
Part 2 of 'Masculinities and Unemployment chapter
Simon: Nature – and this is what people don’t take into account sometimes – nature of a man is to defend a woman… There’s something inbuilt, there’s a gene there… in general it’s the man who looks after her…
Ben: There’s something inside men that makes them want to provide for his wife. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying women are soft, because they’ve got things to do, things like having a baby – but the thing is it’s nature that the man protects her and the children.
Simon: It goes back to the caveman days – a woman would stay at home while the guy goes out with his spear to fight the sabre-toothed tiger and the vagabonds or whatever.
Traditionally, employment means that a man will earn a wage and bring this back to the home. Simon and Ben employ a traditional discourse in relation to the sexual division of labour: that men belong in the public arena and women in the private, domestic sphere, and that men should provide for and protect their wives and children. In presenting this traditional version of masculinity, they draw on arguments about a ‘natural’ sexual division of labour – it is “something inside men” that “makes them want to provide”, “something inbuilt”, a “gene”. Ben evades criticism and accusations of sexism by asserting “I’m not saying women are soft”, but simultaneously constructs both the categories of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ as inflexible and essentialist. Through his reference to “the caveman days”, Simon uses ‘history’ as a further rhetorical device to establish the authority of the ‘provider’ discourse, implying not only that this gender order is natural, but also immutable throughout time.
In adhering to an essentialist construction of gender relations, unemployment may be interpreted as an assault on masculine pride, for this discourse not only links the position of (male) breadwinner to economic independence, but also to social status and ‘respect’. A sense of disempowerment and emasculation manifests itself in patterns of discourses around domestic provision, with the men voicing feelings of anxiety, guilt and resentment as a direct response to their inability to provide. Furthermore, the connection between failing to provide and feeling less of a man coincides with talk of losing ‘your’ woman:
Ben: Relationships are more insecure nowadays… the missing word’s trust. When you’re unemployed, don’t forget that you are then at a low, a low point in your life, so anything that your wife does – when she’s out at a job, you wonder who’s she seeing, who’s she talking about, somebody talks to her. And then you get paranoid.
Sam: Yeah, for men, there is a guilt associated with unemployment.
In voicing these feelings, however, they consciously position themselves outside discourses that equate unemployed masculinity with vulnerability and insecurity, speaking about the situation in abstract rather than personal terms:
Sam: It’d stick in my throat. If I was unemployed and couldn’t get work, to rely on a woman earning on my behalf.
Simon: An awful lot of husbands don’t want their wives to have a career because they still want to be the biggest wage packet in the house.
Ben: This doesn’t apply to everyone but my wife goes out to work because she wants to go out to work… no man likes a woman going out to earn for him. And if they’re honest enough he’ll tell you. They might tell you otherwise…
Sam utilises the conditional tense when talking about unemployment – it would stick in his throat if he had to rely on a woman to provide for him. Ben consciously constructs his situation as ‘different’ from the experiences of other unemployed men whose wives may be forced to work to support the family by employing the language of freewill and choice – his wife “goes out to work because she wants to go out to work” (my emphasis), not because it is necessitated through circumstances beyond his control.
They discuss the issue in abstract, generalised terms and refer to their situations in the third person. This partially serves a rhetorical function, suggesting that ‘other men’ who are perhaps less honest or self-aware “might tell you otherwise”, but it also forms one means of coping with the social objectification that occurs through the process of being categorised as unemployed. This is an attempt to reconstruct themselves as legitimate ‘knowers’ and subjects rather than objects lacking agency and volition, a means of resisting and refusing the potentially emasculating effects of unemployment. However, this represents only an individualised coping strategy, rather than collective and co-operative action, and therefore poses little challenge to the prevalent discourse of masculine provision and the sense of disempowerment this may entail for men who are unemployed.
Unemployment is not the only way in which hegemonic discourses of masculinity may be challenged, and indeed the challenges posed by material changes in the labour market – an increase of women in particular labour markets and subsequent transformation in meanings surrounding men’s and women’s work – intersect with male unemployment to produce changes in subjectivities. Ben and Simon employ the language of pragmatism and necessity when talking about the entry of women into the workplace, constructing it as an economic necessity and suggesting that men and women alike are ensnared by social structures that pervade and influence daily existence:
Ben: Necessity. A lot of it’s to do with necessity. A woman has children, she’s got to work and get employment and she’ll take the job that men won’t take.
Simon: Yeah. Now women have got to work.
Ben: Yes. The thing is now what’s changed that is, is the house market. Because they now need two wages, they don’t need one. It’s a reality… They both need to work – both man and wife need to work to live.
Ben positions women in an inferior section of the labour market to that inhabited by men (“she’ll take the job that men won’t take”), which diminishes the threat that such changes in employment patterns pose to hegemonic versions of masculinity. Thomas takes up this point in a pro-feminist discourse, arguing that feminisation of the labour market does not necessarily represent true gender equality, but rather that sections of the job market where women are mostly concentrated tend to be those where people are underemployed and undervalued:
Thomas: That might be exploitation of a group i.e. women who are fifty one percent of the population. And they desperately need to earn money, and therefore they’ll take a job that we as males would not take…I think there is an awful lot of pressure on women from their husbands to take a non-career job, such as a checkout, rather than be a professional manager. I suggest that that happens, and is widespread.
Whereas attributing changes in gendered employment participation to the ‘reality’ of economic necessity does not unduly upset the traditional gender order, a greater threat is posed by women moving into sections of the labour market traditionally viewed as male, especially given that men do not feel that they can afford to move into traditionally female areas:
Ben: The nurses were resenting because the men – if you look at the nursing professions, most of the managers on the nursing side of it were women. They resented men coming into their profession – women don’t like men infiltrating their area. Likewise, I’ll never agree with a woman coming into a more physical job. What’s a woman want to be a welder for?
Here Ben represents the shift as an invasion of one sex into the other’s domain, adhering to traditional symbolic values that construct ‘men’s work’ as physical and ‘women’s work’ as caring and nurturing. Some of the other men expressed resentment at changes in the nature and content of men’s employment, reflected by accusations such as “women bring the salaries down”. It is thus not only unemployment but also changes in the labour market that threaten hegemonic discourses of masculinity, blurring a gender order hitherto perceived by many as clearly demarcated and irrevocably separated.
August 11, 2005
Public life and scrutiny
Part 1 of masculinities and unemployment chapter
Ben: You can’t meet other people, and if you do then you feel as though everyone’s looking at you, like you’re reliant on other people’s charity.
Sam: You can’t go to the pub because of lack of money, and that restricts a lot of what you do when you’re unemployed.
Philip: It’s lack of money, the hardest part.
Sam: Money. Yeah it is.
These men claim that their lack of wage restricts their participation in the public sphere, particularly in the social arena of leisure. As Willott and Griffin (1997) argue, there is an association between traditional masculine identities and belonging in the public rather than the domestic sphere both in terms of waged work and leisure activities such as the pub. Traditionally, the pub has been understood as a crucial site for both the expression and reinforcement of traditional masculinities and gendered consumption (Morgan 1992). Yet employment not only provides the financial means of ‘paying your way’ in public places such as the pub, but is also viewed as an important site within the public sphere in itself, providing freedom from the private sphere and a potential source of social interaction:
Thomas: The hardest part of being unemployed for me is the reduced social group. The fact that basically, through work, I think our social groups often come out of work.
Philip: I agree. I tend to think that a lot of our social contacts do come out of work. When I worked at [name of company] we’d have one or two social events a month. I didn’t go to them all the time.
Simon: If you’re unemployed you tend to be in a little box on your own. You’re not related to somebody, you’re not part of a company, you’re not part of a corporation, you’re very isolated. It’s difficult to find jobs to do when you’re unemployed.
Unemployment can thus result in reduced social capital and isolation from life in the public sphere, leading to a reduced sense of purpose and lethargy. While some of the men constructed work as an unpleasant necessity or duty ‘forced’ upon them, a ‘nine-to-five grind’ that was necessary to ensure their continued existence, others contested this interpretation by suggesting that work can in fact form an integral part of their identities and provide a source of personal fulfilment or stimulation. The implication here is that there is a direct connection between the type of work that the men do with the types of men that they are, that work provides a means of sustaining and enacting particular values and subjectivities within the domain of public life:
Thomas: I would say work has to be something we passionately care about, and not just a meal ticket. Sure we live in the real world, yes we have our bills to pay, etcetera etcetera… But we’re not working just for that, because we’ve got to be working for something. It’s got to be for ourselves.
Sam: We have a set of needs to fulfil, everybody does, and work plays a part in fulfilling those needs, and creates needs of its own. Whether we view work as a means in itself or as a means to an end.
Ben: That sounds like a nice idea, a utopia. I don’t have a problem with that idea. But the reality is sometimes you’ve got to do a job you don’t want to do.
Although this representation of work may only embody an unrealistic ‘utopia’ in some ways, the trappings of full-time employment are still understood to be infinitely preferable to full-time entrapment within the domestic sphere. This realm is construed as stagnant and dull, offering little in the way of mental stimulation or structure. The lethargy, boredom and reduced motivation understood to result from unrelenting positioning within the domestic sphere contrasts strongly with traditional discourses of working masculinities characterised by vigour, strength, competitiveness and activity. Furthermore, the prospect of recovering these former identities appears bleak while stuck in a domestic ‘rut’ that offers meagre access to economic and social resources:
Simon: The biggest problem I’ve got at home is that my brain has always been active… The trouble with all that time is boredom, and when I don’t have anything to push myself with my mind spends all its time spinning.
Sam: Yeah, you whiz.
Simon: That’s very very tiring. It also drives people up the bloody wall… I don’t think I’m a stronger person, I think I’ve gone backwards… my brain doesn’t work as quickly cos I’ve had nothing to pit it against.
Ben: I agree with you that your motivation diminishes… With your motivation, once that drops, you just can’t get up – you just go to yourself ‘I can’t be bothered’. And that reflects on everything.
Simon: Yeah. Everything drops.
Not only is employment understood to be an important anchor for hegemonic masculine identities in terms of making money and escaping the domestic sphere, but it also plays an integral role in the construction and enactment of public masculine identities. The men showed acute awareness of the ‘policing’ of a judgemental external other who ‘assesses’ them (“you feel as though everyone’s looking at you”), positioning them according to the kind of work in which they engage and enabling them to be recognised as respectable, responsible men. Paid employment is not only a means of accruing cultural capital such as a home or car, but it is a form of cultural capital in itself that may be called upon to reinforce public enactments of masculinities:
Ben: People ask questions about what you do and you can’t always answer those questions. It’s like you don’t exist.
Joe: First thing people ask, to assess you, like where you live, what car you drive.
Thomas: In society’s mind your own identity is linked to the professional work you’re doing or not doing. People ask ‘who are you?’ If you’re at a party or at a function people will ask you what you do, and so forth.
Unemployment has the dual effect of making them feel invisible “like you don’t exist” and under scrutiny. Although keenly conscious and resentful of this external surveillance and judgement, as they do not necessarily passively accept it, but rather make strenuous efforts to negotiate alternative masculine identities and resist the interpretation that they have been somehow sidelined. Thomas, for example, insists upon a post-modern concept of subjectivity, in which individual identities are slippery, fragmented and multiple, never absolute but rather context-dependent, resisting an essentialist conceptualisation of masculinity:
Thomas: I say, well, it depends which day it is or which head I’ve got on, and then I list a whole bunch of, various stuff that I’m involved in. You can shut that line of enquiry right off.
Ben and Joe, on the other hand, employ humour to manoeuvre their own social positioning and throw their imagined interrogators off balance, a small act of defiance that provides the means of fighting back against perceived injustice and regaining some self-respect as men in a world that has rendered them and their industrial skills redundant:
Ben: I say I’m a pole-dancer.
Joe: I say I live in a bail hostel.
Ben: You should see the faces on them when they ask me what I do and I say ‘pole-dancer’ and you can see them picturing it, a real vivid picture.
Ben’s proposed method for contending with external scrutiny contains a strong performative element reminiscent of the exploration of the relationship of men to looking and being looked at in the 1997 film The Full Monty (Cattaneo 1997). Rather than passively accepting the gaze of a society that constructs unemployed masculinities as fragile and uncertain, suspended in a state of subjective uncertainty, he toys with the idea of reasserting his own masculinity as an embodied performative construct, a means of recovering some self-esteem in a world where the nature of work and gender roles have been forever transformed.
July 20, 2005
Lit review intro
The literature review is composed of two main parts, one dealing with research that investigates barriers to employment for older male workers, and the other dealing with research into the effects of unemployment on masculinities. By reviewing empirical and theoretical research relating to these two key areas I aim to map out a space amidst the intersecting dimensions of age, masculinity and unemployment in which my own research may be situated. The sources I have used are from a variety of academic disciplines and differ greatly in terms of depth, length, date of publication and critical quality. While the research linking unemployment and masculinities is mostly sociological, the section covering barriers to employment comprises literature relating to policy, employment law and government commissioned research.
Limitations of existing research
Haywood and Mac an Ghaill (2003: 36) warn that ‘examining the impact of unemployment on masculinity can unintentionally reinforce the notion that unemployment is simply a problem for men’, noting that the issue of unemployed women remains academically unexplored across Western Europe. Ginn and Arber (1996) concur with this point, claiming that focus has tended to fall on men’s early exit from the employment, while the exclusion of older women from the labour market is regarded as uninteresting and unproblematic. Conventional definitions of unemployment tend to be founded on the employment experiences of men, disregarding involuntary joblessness amongst women (Russell 1999: 208). Bruegel (2000) argues that although late 20th century commentators have increasingly described the issue of unemployment as a ‘male problem’ in Britain, women are still the losers in the workplace and suffer both lower wages and poorer working conditions. Although employment may be feminised in the sense of an increasing presence of women in work or even changes to the intrinsic nature of work itself, this does not necessarily imply a corresponding feminisation of power (Bruegel 2000: 79 – 80).
Focussing on the issue of male unemployment not only risks disregarding or obscuring the experiences of women in presuming men to be the 'implicit norm', but also constructs unemployed men as a homogeneous group, underplaying social and economic differences between men arising as a result of differing class, skill and educational positionings (Bruegel 2000: 81). Age is a further dimension that has been neglected by the burgeoning literature on masculinities, with older men largely omitted from literature about masculinities and unemployment (Arber, Davidson and Ginn 2003). In writing of a ‘crisis in masculinity’ in the world of work, commentators risk constructing masculine identity as a monolithic and unitary entity, failing to adequately problematise or deconstruct it (Willott and Griffin 1996: 78). Rather, there are many dimensions of difference that cut through the debate surrounding age, masculinities and unemployment, and in outlining relevant literature I aim to touch on as many of these as possible.
July 19, 2005
Unemployment and Masculinities
(a.k.a. Second half of a literature review – draft)
Beynon (2002: 86) argues that the changing nature of employment and the labour market over the past thirty years has influenced masculinities at a variety of levels, leading to an alleged ‘crisis in masculinity’. Changes such as deindustrialisation and corresponding job loss, the transition from an industrial to a post-industrial economy, de-layering and downsizing, the effects of an increasingly global economy and the advent of equal opportunities have all impacted on the way in which men perceive and respond to ideas concerning employment and the workplace (ibid: 87). Economic restructuring, for example, triggered the decline of employment closely linked with masculine notions of strength and hard physical labour, while the entry of women into and alleged 'feminisation' of the labour force represented a challenge to the close connection that had been forged between employment and masculine identity (Morgan 1992: 99).
Masculinities, work and the hegemonic ideal
In recent years, researchers have adopted a more critical approach towards masculinities and unemployment, refuting the notion of a single masculine identity seen to exist ‘as the property, character trait or aspect of identity of individuals’ (MacInnes 1988: 2), and questioning commonly held assumptions such as the centrality of the breadwinner role for men. 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). Although the social construction of this particular masculine identity is arbitrary in one sense, it nevertheless forms a pervasive discourse that shapes how 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.
Morgan (1992) employs a notion of gender symbolism to make sense of masculinities and work, examining the gendered nature of work and its symbolic value. Employment and unemployment have been frequently constructed as oppositional and hierarchically situated in western societies, a construction concurrent with other polarities such as skilled-unskilled, heavy-light, dangerous-less dangerous, dirty-clean, interesting-boring, and mobile-immobile. Although in recent years feminist projects have challenged some of these binaries by showing how women have been excluded from analyses of work and critiquing studies of work as a public exchange of labour power for payment (??), employment, both as a means of making money and getting out of the house, remains an important anchor for hegemonic masculine identities (Morgan 1992: 99).
The symbolic opposition to employment, unemployment, exemplifies a situation where masculinity is ‘put on the line’, providing a ‘paradigmatic example of masculinity under challenge’ (Morgan 1992: 100). Beynon (2002: 87) maintains that ‘nothing has proved more damaging to [working men] and their sense of the masculine than unemployment, which took away independence and control over family finances’. Unemployment decreases a man’s ability to provide for himself and his family (if he has one), and often influences where and how he spends his time, disrupting spatial divisions between the domestic and the public sphere and problematising assumptions about the gender order.
Challenge to the ‘breadwinner’ role
As Morgan (1992: 101–2) puts it, the role of ‘male breadwinner’ assumes an underlying gender order, that of the bourgeois nuclear family and the notion of working for dependents located in the domestic sphere. In this way paid employment assumes a central role in the maintenance of the wider social order, and the presumption arises that ‘long-term unemployment deprives a man of his sense of social worth largely through the removal of this role’. In an early study McKee and Bell (1986: 141) investigated the gender-specific consequences of unemployment and its impact on the family, and found that ‘the loss of the male economic provider role struck deep chords among both wives and husbands and a passionate defence of men’s right to provide was invariably raised’, with both men and women voicing issues concerning self-esteem, self-image, pride, views of masculinity, respectability and authority.
Willott and Griffin (1996: 85) found that discourses such as that of domestic provision were salient to working-class men experiencing long-term unemployment, with the men in their study adhering to expectations that a ‘good’ family man should provide both necessities and luxuries for ‘the missus and the kids’. As such, the men of their study found it difficult to relinquish the breadwinner persona, and their inability to provide resulted in feelings of disempowerment, emasculation, shame, feelings of inadequacy in relation to cultural expectations, loss of respectability and fear of losing female partners. Unemployment thus has the potential to disrupt hegemonic masculine ideals as well as discourses of domestic provision and public masculinity (Haywood and Mac an Ghaill 2003: 38).
Convergence of public and private spheres
Masculine identities have traditionally been associated with the public rather than the domestic sphere both in terms of waged work and leisure activities such as the pub (Willott and Griffin 1997). This ideological separation between men and women in terms of spatial location has a long cultural history fundamental to the definition of hegemonic masculinities in the west, with the public sphere traditionally associated with men and masculinity, and the private sphere with women and children (Willott and Griffin 1996: 82). Not only are unemployed men officially denied access to the workplace, but their participation in the social arena of leisure activities is often restricted because of financial restraints. Willott and Griffin (1996: 82) depict the home as a female-dominated place that is not welcoming to or appropriate for men, with participants speaking about ‘needing’ the freedom to escape to the public sphere and feeling ‘out of place’ at home. Unemployment thus entails ‘spatial convergence’ between men and the domestic sphere, consequently producing conflict between public and private enactments of masculinity.
McKee and Bell (1986: 139) posited that this convergence of male and female social worlds might occur in a more positive way, with men taking on more domestic work and responsibility in the home. However, their hypothesis was found to be an unrealistic ideal, with notions of active agency and choice rejected as ‘inappropriate and stultifying’ when confronted by the reality of unemployment. Rather than increasing men’s participation in the private domain, paradoxically male unemployment in fact reinforced the polarisation of ‘gendered’ marital activities, with both male and female participants adhering to traditional gender scripts (ibid: 144). Both male and female participants described women as more efficient at domestic tasks, while men were seen to have a public purpose and profile to maintain, failing to contribute in the home because of their engagement in the public realm of job search, interviews or informal labour market activities (ibid: 144).
The ways in which unemployed men’s private lives are opened up to public scrutiny and observation offer a further critical challenge to the division between public and private spheres: ‘Unemployed men are squeezed out of the public realm – but their retreat into the private realm becomes public business' (McKee and Bell 1986: 147). As benefit-recipients, their private lives are subjected to public scrutiny and surveillance both actual and perceived, resulting in anxiety, fear of investigation and self-policing, with respondents feeling that ‘their private actions are always liable to be held to public account’ (ibid: 148). In this way a discursive gulf opens up amongst the unemployed as a group, with many unemployed respondents making distinctions between the ‘respectable’ unemployed and the ‘scroungers’, between the ‘genuine’ unemployed and the ‘idlers’ (ibid: 148). Similarly, Willott and Griffin (1996: 80) found that the unemployed men of their study spoke of unemployment as equivalent to ‘scrounging off the state’, locating themselves negatively in relation to this discourse and resisting the accusation that they too might be scroungers.
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, that of the scrounger. Both state and self surveillance separates and pathologises the ‘scrounger’ as a category separate from the undifferentiated mass of the unemployed. As Foucault (1977: 188) observes, ‘Discipline “makes” individuals; it is the specific technique of a power that regards individuals both as objects and as instruments of its exercise’. In this way, 'the unemployed have no universality of experience… but they are further divided against and amongst themselves' (McKee and Bell 1986: 149).
Renegotiating masculine identities
Given that unemployment provides both economic and cultural challenges to traditional (hegemonic) masculine identities, we might question whether unemployed men are forced to renegotiate their gender identities, and if so what form this renegotiation might take. A key organising principle for the construction of many unemployed men’s identity is that of ‘respectability’, with the male breadwinner role interpreted not only as a source of economic independence, but also as a means of achieving social status and respect (Willott and Griffin 1996: 85). Morgan (1992: 108) also argues that unemployment may entail a loss of respectability, one that is linked to the stigma of lacking finances, loss of privacy through public scrutiny of finances, and inability to support a family. Respectability may not be an issue solely for unemployed men, and rather its loss may injure unemployed men and women alike, involving ‘a complex set of attitudes and orientations that links and gives meaning to a variety of important everyday situations and serves as an important basis for social status’ (ibid). Nevertheless, the concept of respectability may be dependent on key discourses that are highly gendered such as that of domestic provision or public masculinities (Haywood and Mac an Ghaill 2003: 38).
Alternatively, men may reassert their masculinity through domestic refusal, dissociation from the private sphere, or performance of a public masculinity (Segal 1990). Such performative masculinity might entail occupation of public space such as the urban street area, as in the case of Jahoda’s Marienthal study (1933) which depicts women hurrying through the streets, a public space rendered unfamiliar by the presence of unemployed men (cited in Morgan 1992: 110). Alternatively, it might involve class-based spectacular performances as a form of ‘protest masculinity’. Campbell’s account (1993) of the young unemployed men during the English urban riots of the early 1990s depicts the assertion of a different mode of masculinity – that of civil unrest, irresponsibility and violence – as a means of re-presenting their perceived powerlessness and asserting a different mode of masculinity. In a similar manner, Connell (1995: 116) describes unemployed working-class men’s exaggerated claims to masculinity, resulting in a ‘spectacular display’ of masculinities focussed around sexuality, violence and bohemianism.
Although unemployment may result in discursive repositioning or reconstruction of masculine identities at both a micro- and a macro- structural level, such responses tend to pose little significant threat to hegemonic forms of masculinity (Willott and Griffin 1996: 88). Willott and Griffin found that the most common strategy used by their participants in response to the debilitating effects of long-term unemployment was to re-establish traditional forms of masculine identity and make recourse to familiar and traditional ‘powerful’ patterns of discourse, an exercise in damage-limitation that restricted the harm that assailed individual masculine pride without posing any great challenge to traditional gender or power relations (ibid).
Constraints on identity change
In recent years researchers have claimed that social and cultural capital may aid our understanding of the ways in which unemployed men respond (or fail to respond) to the challenge that unemployment represents to their masculinities (Russell 1999, Willott and Griffin 2004). In a quantitative study linking sociabilility, gender and unemployment, Russell (1999) found that unemployed women, particularly those who had worked part-time in the past, were better able to capitalise on and maintain strong social linkages that provided emotional, instrumental and informational support during periods of unemployment than men.
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. 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.
The working class unemployed men of Willott and Griffin’s study were trapped in ‘a domestic place with meagre access to capital resources’, a positioning that challenged their masculinity by defining them as inferior men (Willott and Griffin 2004: 59). These men had limited resources available to construct masculine identities that reflect the changing structural and ideological demands of the current socio-historical period. Rejecting proactive discourses about change or revolution, they instead depicted themselves as defeated, passive victims, constituted as ‘older’ and ‘less of a man’ (ibid: 58). Although the men paid lip service to a ‘slightly tongue-in-cheek picture’ of a ‘collective and violent uprising against the state’, ultimately they understood themselves to be ensnared by unjust social structures and believed that they lacked the power and agency to instigate change and escape restricted social roles, discursively positioning themselves as ‘stuck in a rut’ (ibid).
Like Skeggs’ study of working-class women (1997), who were born into structures of inequality with access to limited amounts of capital, working-class unemployed men may attempt to ‘put a floor’ under their economic and cultural circumstances by using and trading the scanty amounts of capital to which they have access to stop things getting worse (Skeggs 1997: 161). For Willott and Griffin’s participants, this entailed adherence to a traditional construction of themselves as family breadwinners, resorting to (illegal) work that offered limited capital in restoring their self-images as ‘proper’ men capable of earning money in the public sphere (Willott and Griffin 2004: 63). Education was also constructed as one possible escape route out of this apparently hopeless situation, simultaneously increasing cultural capital (through formal qualifications) and social capital (through social networks) and providing the necessary resources to renegotiate gender-class identities and possibly increase economic capital in the long-term. Ultimately, however, social structure impedes the ability to trade and capitalise upon already meagre forms of capital, and the breadwinner persona was seen to offer greater symbolic capital to this group of men than it would to other, more socially privileged groups.
July 05, 2005
Focus group Friday
Okay time to panic. Am running my focus group on Friday. That's in 3 days time. Eeeek. Eeeeeeeek. Eeeeeeeeeeek. Am going back to my room to panic and bury head in a pot of basil.
Anyway, this is my discussion guide, my attempt to write something meaningful and coherent to justify this entry's 'academic related' classification…
Comments and suggestions very welcome! I have already run this by my dissertation supervisor, my parents and my colleagues at Leeds uni, and all the feedback has been helpful in some way or another, not least because I am fairly inexperienced and unsure of myself when it comes to conducting empirical social research.
This focus group will be conducted in two 45-minute sessions with a 10–15 minute break in between. There should be 8 participants – men aged 45–60 who are mostly long-term unemployed, who recently participated in a week-long training scheme at Leeds University. Through the scheme the participants know each other and me (because of my role as administrative assistant within the department and presence at the training sessions). The focus group will take place in a seminar room at the university and I will record the discussion as well as take notes. I haven't worked out the exact timing yet, but I will allocate a certain amount of time to each section of the discussion to ensure that we cover all areas in sufficient detail.
Barriers to employment
- Have you noticed any particular changes in the job market since you first entered it?
- What kinds of changes? (possible prompts: feminisation of job market, new skills, new technologies, shift from manufacturing to service industries etc.)
- How do you feel about these changes? Have they made it more or less difficult for you to find employment?
- Tell me about particular problems or barriers that you’ve had in seeking employment.
Experiences of ageism
- What skills and knowledge do you think older people can offer employers that younger people might lack?
- How do you think employers perceive older workers?
- Do you think that employers discriminate against older workers?
- If so, why? If not, why not?
- What do you understand by the term ‘ageism’?
- What changes do you think could be made to improve the employment situation of older workers by employers? and by the government?
Men and unemployment
- What does the word ‘work’ mean to you?
- Is work important to you? Why? Do you think that your reasons have anything to do with being a man?
- Do you think that men and women see work / employment differently?
- Do you think that society/employers view unemployed men differently from unemployed women? If so, how?
- What do you think is the main role of a man?
- How do you think unemployment affects the role of men?
- Do you see your role as the main breadwinner? Do you think this should be a man’s main role?
- If you have a wife or partner, has (s)he had to go out to work or increase his/her working hours as a result of your unemployment?
- Has this changed the division of labour in your home, for instance, do you do more housework or child-care?
- How do you feel about these changes e.g. about your wife / partner having to work?
Coping with unemployment
- Has unemployment affected your relationships with other people (partners, family, friends etc.) and your social life? If so, how?
- What part of being unemployed has been hardest for you?
- Why has it been so difficult?
- How do you cope with these particular problems?
- What kind of support do you have to help you deal with these problems?
Alternatives to employment
- How important do you think it is to have a job?
- What are the alternatives to re-entering the job market?
- How do you feel about these alternatives?
- Do you think there are any benefits to unemployment? If so, what? (possible prompts: more time for self, family, friends, more time to learn new skills or travel?)