Popular forms of postmodernism are arguably a feature of many forms of current journalistic analysis of social behaviour, in both main stream and social media, with a current “crisis of masculinity” being a firm media narrative. Locating such arguments in their historical context may, however, be a more-sociologically useful way to understand them at a-level.

There’s an implicit tendency in contemporary journalism (in both mainstream and social media) to explain changing concepts of masculinity and femininity as a product of “postmodern uncertainty”, a condition that develops, it’s frequently argued, through a potent combination of two things:

1. An overabundance of choice relating to, in this instance, how to perform male and female social roles that leads, in turn, to confusion over both the distinction between – and content of – these gender roles.

2. A progressive loosening of the moral order, such that male and female identities that were once highly centred – “everyone” knew how they were expected to behave as “men” and “women” – have increasingly become decentred: the disappearance of a clear moral authority dictating “how to be” a man or a woman in contemporary societies leads to different people interpreting their different roles in different ways.

While there’s nothing particularly wrong in constructing this type of analysis to explain the fragmentation of both gender categories and gender roles (you’d very probably score good marks for it in an exam…) one criticism we can note about journalistic arguments focused around “the postmodern condition” is that they tend towards an ahistorical view of social development in two main ways:

Firstly, “historical development” is seen as a linear process – a straight line between “the past” and “the present” – that involves an evolutionary progression from “the simple” to “the complex”.

Secondly, ideas and events are interpreted and reinterpreted in such a way as to remove them from their historical context. Rather than locating “the past” in its own particular and peculiar social context, ideas and events are “ripped from history” to be understood solely in terms of the meanings and motivations of those living in “the present”.

While both of these ideas arguably represent a form of Functionalism in shiny new shoes, this is not to suggest popular ideas and debates about “a crisis of masculinity”, “toxic masculinity” or, moving further afield, concepts like “post-truth” are imaginary, unimportant or the product of that most-misused of ideas, “moral panics”. Rather, it’s to argue that these conditions need to be explained sociologically, with a clear eye on historical details and contexts.

As a case in point, you can use the following article by Ellie Cawthorne (“How to be a Man: tips from 1930’s agony aunts”, 2018) to show how ideas about “changing masculinity” can’t be simply and easily explained by reference to the kind of nebulous references to “postmodernity” favoured by contemporary journalists and commentators. The article can be read online at the BBC History Magazine website or offline by downloading it as a Word document I’ve very thoughtfully assembled for your viewing pleasure. Because online documents have a habit of disappearing into the ether.

The reference is, of course, only illustrative and suggestive (building a picture of masculinity using only a single historical source is not definitive). If you want a more-fully-researched example, you might find Pearson’s “Hooligan: A History of Respectable Fears” useful, albeit in relation to a different topic (crime and deviance) and perception of masculinity…

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