Research Question n°4: Ethics of Internet Research

Please note that this sequence will not pertain to ethical concerns for research that I might conduct in person, such as interviews, observation, etc.

Ethics for Internet research mostly revolves around privacy. What can be disclosed about online users? Should they be considered as informants? As authors of public texts? Can a pseudonym be disclosed? Can a post be quoted verbatim? How about a comment? This pertains to Data Protection and Copyright Law which will need to be respected.

Another issue I might encounter is what to do with potentially shocking or sensitive content such as pornography, hate speech, calls to violence or suicide etc. (all of which are present in my corpus).

Last thing to consider is my personal safety, which must of course be guaranteed as well.

I need not concern myself for now with ethical guidelines on how to approach, communicate with, or potentially infiltrate online groups, since I am in the corpus analysis phase of my work.

Here all the issues I will need to address in this sequence:

  • What are the requirements of the Universities of Lille and Kent?
  • What are the guidelines of learned societies?
  • Are there competing approaches and theories in the literature?
  • What were the choices of the researchers in my field?
  • How were those choices justified based on their research objects and questions?

Once all these questions are answered, I will then need to define my own rules (submitted to supervisors’ approval) and to justify them with the needs of my PhD research as well as with existing academic literature, guidelines, legislation, and university requirements.

Then, I will submit this ethics protocol to my universities’ Ethical Review Boards for approval.

Once this is cleared up, then I can start my actual study.

Manosphere News#1: 2021 Frightens the Manosphere

Browsing the manosphere these days, one gets the impression that its websites and members feel more and more beleaguered.

Joe Biden’s election

The title of this incel blog article could not be clearer: “Joe Biden Would Be a Terrible President for Incels”.

In it, the author details the Biden proposals that seem to pose a threat to the incel community, most notably the “Biden Plan to End Violence Against Women”:

“If this task force materializes, we will see censorship of incels in all forms. From social media shadowbanning and suspensions to more takedown attempts of incel forums, we are looking at a possible real threat to our survival online.”

“Funding will be indirectly allocated to fund more law enforcement monitoring of incels online, which is very concerning and scary. “

An incel commenter sums these fears thus, “Soon, we won’t be allowed to express any views online opposing the liberal-feminist ideology”.

More generally, there is a growing fear that the new Democrat administration will attack Internet Free Speech, as a way to weaken the Alt-Right.

The Trump Twitter and Facebook bans

After these major social media platforms banned Donald Trump’s account, the manosphere is seething with indignation and outrage about these Free Speech limitations. But it is also fearful of the potential shutdown of their own platforms. Several posts and comments mention the fact that the manosphere had been somewhat shielded by the attention directed towards the Alt-Right/MAGA activists.

Now, that the Trump administration is coming to a turbulent end, these activists fear for themselves, as expressed by one of The Red Pill’s chief administrators in a current post,

“The Trump era and the populist movement that occurred in the past 4-5 years is most likely the only thing that got the targets off the back of men and masculine issues.

You see, once upon a time, TRP was the boogeyman of reddit. We were the big bad guys looking to free men and exchange ideas without oversight. And that was really fucking scary to the powers that be. But with the rise of the donald subreddit, we were temporarily shielded by something even more dangerous to the powerful.

Well, as it appears the entire system has now activated to rid the nation of Trump and co, there’s only one place the system can focus its sights back onto. And that is, once again, men. It should scare you how coordinated the efforts were. Left, Right, Center, all politicians came together to damage actual conservatives. Domain Registrars, hosting platforms, social media- youtube, twitter, facebook, discord, etc, google play, apple app store, they all colluded to remove an element from the internet they do not like.

And now that we no longer have this shield, I believe it is a matter of time before the fight comes back to our doorstep.”

In fact, Facebook and other such social media giants have long been shunned by manosphere activists, who preferred more libertarian platforms like Reddit. However, since their presence on Reddit is also compromised, either by quarantines or outright bans, most communities are actively debating migrating to other smaller but safer platforms.

They are thus faced with a difficult choice: going underground and losing access to the platforms with most viewership, or remaining on mainstream platforms with the ever-present risk of seeing all their content deleted in a blink.

Moreover, individual users are also worried about FBI investigation and protecting their privacy through various means, although their hopes of escaping any thorough investigation are quite low, as expressed by an incel,

“There is no way to escape an investigation by the FBI, CIA or NSA. Absolutely no way. The Snowden precedent shows that”

The European Union is joining the fray

The European Commission will be holding a webinar and an expert session on the “violent incel movement”, which has not gone unnoticed on incel forums either.

Whether the most pessimistic predictions of these activists will prove true or not is yet unclear. However, their fear is very real, and seems quite justified, given the formidably powerful coalition that is emerging against their platforms: the Biden administration, the EU, and Big Tech giants.

I will keep updates on this in this blog, and on the consequences for Internet researchers interested in the manosphere.

Research Report n°3: Constituting a Manosphere Corpus

My last post explained the principles guiding corpus selection. This one will sum up all the decisions taken on the subject.

1) Constitution of the corpus
Each of the five major branches of the manosphere will be
granted equal space in the corpus. Each of these fifths will be composed as follows:
– Quality content: 70%
– Random Sample: 15%
– Other Relevant Material: 15%

Quality Content
When I refer to “quality”, I do not intend to pass judgment on the value of the beliefs and ideas expressed. What I mean by “quality” is that I seek to analyze the most articulate, eloquent, well-known, documented, and popular texts of the manosphere. It only makes sense when studying an ideology or belief system to start by studying its founding texts and chief thinkers, whether one agrees with them or not.

To select quality discourse, I do not want however to rely on my own arbitrary judgment. Every inclusion in the “quality” section of the corpus needs to be justified by a recommendation, or by a quantitative metric. Such recommendations can come from manosphere members themselves, and I will be on the lookout for “primers”, “halls of fame”, “essentials”, “manosphere 101” and other similar content. Fortunately, these activists do tend to curate their favorite texts, and gather them in specific places. I will also rely on research by other social scientists: if a particular book, site, or forum is constantly referred to as central to a movement and studied extensively, I will consider adding it to the corpus. Lastly, I can select popular content based on criteria such as number of sales, views, retweets, shares, hyperlinking, etc.

However important it is to gather quality content, this might also entail biases. What if all the popular ideologists in a movement took care to produce a carefully tailored and palatable discourse while the rank and file were more virulent? What if there were some discreet but significant trends that did not have any key speaker or writer? In order to make sure that my corpus is somewhat representative, it will feature a randomly selected part.

Random Sample
A random sample of user-generated posts and comments will be selected through yet to be determined methods over a three-year period.

Other Relevant Material
Throughout the course of my browsing the manosphere, I am bound to encounter some content that is particularly relevant to understand the links between life sciences and masculinism. Yet, this content might not have any claim to be considered as “quality”. What should I do if I encounter a minor manosphere blog or forum dealing specifically with genetics or evolutionary biology? Or an out-of-print book that did not sell particularly well?
If this is particularly germane to my field of inquiry, I allow myself to add relevant material to the corpus as I see fit. This section I call “Other Relevant Material” and will make up 15% of the corpus.

2) How to deal with the passage of time? Updating the corpus?

Things go fast in the manosphere. Since writing a PhD dissertation takes a minimum of three years, there is a risk that my research will be outdated very quickly if I do not keep up to date with recent online developments. Yet, I do need to determine a somewhat fixed corpus to conduct my study. Here is how I intend to address this issue:

Firstly, the Quality Content section of the corpus will not be updated, for I hold that it is not bound to become drastically outdated over the next few years. Indeed, it is composed of texts that have withstood the passage of time and have been consistently hailed as must-read manosphere discourse. Moreover, it would be difficult to refer to extremely recent productions as “quality texts” because there might not be enough time for people to recommend them, or
for researchers to study them. Thus, the Quality Content section will be fixed as of the beginning of 2021.

The Random Sample section will be constituted over three years. A first random selection will be conducted in early 2021 and will contain content spanning the last two decades up until 2021, representing 90% of the section. Then a second random selection will be conducted in early 2022, with content from the past year, and amounting to 5% of the section. A third and final similar one will be done in early 2023, for the remaining 5%. Even though by 2023, I should be well within the final stages of my PhD work, I believe that this 5% sample can easily
be incorporated in the research, for it represents only 95 pages overall.

The “Other Relevant Material” section is by nature the most flexible of the three. Thus, it will remain open to new documents for as long as possible. Since the goal is to incorporate any material especially relevant to my PhD dissertation, I will make sure to frequently browse manosphere sites, which will keep this section naturally updated. At the end of the work, I will however need to “close” it, deciding which documents belong to it or not, in order to indicate
its exact content in the appendices of the dissertation.

Thus, if the Quality Content section of the corpus might not feature the most recent discourse, considerable attention will be devoted to the 2020s in the other two sections, guaranteeing that no gross oversights or anachronisms occur.

Figure 1: Corpus Constitution, in percentage of total

Figure 2: Corpus constitution, in number of pages (+/- 5%)

 Quality ContentRandom SampleOther Related Material
Men’s Rights Activists1260270270
Pickup Artists1260270270
The Red Pill1260270270
MGTOW1260270270
incels1260270270

Thanks for reading this. This was a crucial step towards conducting my study! But before going further, I will need to devote some time to Internet research ethics.

Research Question n°3: Constituting a Manosphere Corpus

To investigate the role of science in contemporary manosphere discourse, I need to constitute a corpus to analyze. It must be:

  • Readable: that is, of a length that would make it possible to read in about six months (holidays included), with 15 hours of weekly reading – so as to make sure that reading my corpus does not devour all my research time. A quick calculation: twenty weeks x 15 hours x 30 pages[1] = 9000 pages (or equivalent in blog posts, video speeches, etc.).
  • Justified: ideally, my selection would not be arbitrary, but based on other scholars’ work, on recommendation by manosphere activists themselves or other objectively defined criteria such as number of sales, views, retweets, shares, hyperlinking, etc… Fortunately, these activists do tend to curate their favorite texts, and gather them in specific places, such as the Red Pill’s sidebar[2]. Using these types of criteria (based on quality of texts) would mean that I get access to an articulate and thorough version of these ideologies.
  • Representative: it must be representative of the different branches of the manosphere, as well as of the ideas within each of those branches. I may thus define specific criteria for each group. I will also resort to random sampling, so that a fraction of my corpus would be randomly selected discourse rather than carefully tailored and spin-doctored ideology[3]. To ensure that Pickup Artists (PuAs), Involuntary Celibates (Incels), Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs), Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW), and The Red Pill (TRP) are all evenly represented[4], they will be attributed equal shares of the corpus (i.e 1800 pages/i.e 60 hours of reading).

Constituting this corpus is in itself a valuable contribution to research, for these texts are unknown to mainstream society, are dispersed all over the Internet, and some of them even come from banned or defunct websites. It is going to take months to constitute, but after this, I will be able to delve into my primary sources and actually start the analysis which will be the core of my PhD work. Stay tuned!


[1] 30 page/hour is my ordinary reading speed for texts requiring heavy notetaking

[2] “The sidebar” is a collection of the best texts from the Red Pill subreddit.

[3] This fraction should be no lower than 10% and no higher than 20%.

[4] This five-way taxonomy of the manosphere is the one that seems quite correct to me, and is used by the most recent research on manosphere groups such as that of Manoel Horta Ribeiro et al., “The Evolution of the Manosphere Across the Web,” ArXiv:2001.07600 [Cs], May 18, 2020. I will present all these movements with a Power Point presentation in our next meeting.

Donna Zuckerberg: Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age (2018)

Book Note | Not All Dead White Men — ANCIENT JEW REVIEW

While the publication of books studying the Manosphere is good news, this one is unfortunately an example of poor scholarship.

Summary

Most regular visitors of the Manosphere have encountered the fascination exerted by the Greek and Roman Classics on male ideologists and their followers. This phenomenon is the one studied more closely by classicist Donna Zuckerberg in this book.

After describing the Alt-Right and Red Pill online environments, she divides the analysis in three chapters.

The first one deals with the place of ancient Stoicism in Red Pill ideology; the second with Ovid’s Ars Amatoria and its role as an alleged ancestor to the Pickup Artist movement; and the third one with parallels between ancient rape myths and contemporary Manosphere beliefs.

Throughout the book, she emphasizes the shallow readings that online contemporary misogynists make of the Classics, and contends that they mostly use them to project their own practices, beliefs, and desires. Moreover, drawing on the huge cultural capital of these authors lends credibility to the movement – especially when invoking the trope of defending Western civilization and its legacy from the attacks of Social Justice Warriors and multiculturalism.

Some of the discussions in this book are compelling: was all sex in ancient Greece and Rome rape? Was none rape? Does the contemporary term of “rape” even make any sense when applied to these ancient societies? What should feminists do with the misogyny ingrained in most ancient texts? Why do contemporary misogynists find it so easy and attractive to invoke those texts?

However, as a sociological work, this books lacks the necessary rigor. While Zuckerberg is herself a trained literary scholar, the object of her book is sociological, and thus should be judged accordingly.

Criticism

  • The definitions are incorrect

On page one, the author defines her investigation field,

“These online communities go by many names—the Alt-Right,
the manosphere, Men Going Their Own Way, pickup artists—and
exist under the larger umbrella of what is known as the Red Pill, a
group of men connected by common resentments against women,
immigrants, people of color, and the liberal elite.”

This is, I believe, a definition that both researchers and members of the Alt-Right/Manosphere would disavow. Throughout the book, Zuckerberg uses the phrase “Red Pill” to refer to different movements, from Pickup Artists to the Alt-Right. She unambiguously asserts that “Red Pill” is an “umbrella” term for all of these. However, this is incorrect. The umbrella term for online men’s movement, both recognized by scholars and by activists, is “Manosphere” and not “Red Pill”(1). “The Red Pill” is just a branch of the Manosphere, mostly centered on the r/TheRedPill subreddit and various related blogs (2).

Even graver is the conflation of the Red Pill with the Alt-Right that is widespread in this book. Even though there are some links between these movements (3), and ideologists which belong to both, these terms are far from synonymous or completely overlapping. Most Manosphere activists or sympathizers are very remote from the focus on race or immigration of the Alt-Right. They are mostly concerned with seduction and sexuality, gender relations, or countering feminist narratives and legislation.

Yet, as in the above excerpt, Zuckerberg keeps conflating antifeminism with white supremacy. To my knowledge, this has not been borne out by any quantitative research yet. For example, a recent quantitative study of online Twitter harassment by MGTOW (Men Going Their Own Way) found that only 1% of harassing tweets were racist, and 2% antisemitic, as opposed to the 51% that were labeled as sexist and misogynistic (4).

Finally, after discussing Pickup Artists and Men’s Rights Activists, she writes on page 19 that “the third and final internal fraction of the manosphere is Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW).” This is again contrary to the established taxonomies of the Manosphere, both from research and from Manosphere men themselves (5). Indeed, she forgets Incels, which is especially surprising given the recent focus on Incels both in the press and in research.

  • Cherry-picking evidence and lack of sources

Too few Manosphere sources are quoted at length in this book. A few vocal men, most notably Daryush Valizadeh alias “Roosh V”, are given a lot of importance, as if they represented what the author calls “Red Pill ideology”. Of course, given the sheer scope of the Manosphere, which gathers hundred thousands of men, it is always possible to find a blog post to suit one’s narrative. Here, it is the narrative conflating Red-Pill/Manosphere/Alt-Right in a unified ideology.

Yet, as someone who has read and studied Manosphere material extensively, this felt rather artificial. This is a pity since Zuckerberg justly describes the way radical feminists such as Andrea Dworkin and Catharine McKinnon are used as “straw feminists” by the Manosphere. Yet, she does the same thing with “Roosh V” as her “straw masculinist”, which is convenient for his views are notoriously violent, sexist and politically incorrect.

This cherry-picking and lack of extensive evidence leads to a third criticism of this book.

  • The scope of the phenomenon is never mentioned

Zuckerberg studies a social phenomenon: how ancient ideas and writings are appropriated by groups of men online. Yet, nowhere in the book does she give any assessment of the breadth of this phenomenon. It is something systematic? Occasional? Rare? Are there type of men who tend to do it more than others?

The bare minimum when studying a social phenomenon is trying to at least estimate its scale and extent. While the best would have been a basic quantitative study – for example, on a random sample of blog posts, how many mention the Classics? -, an estimate should at least have been produced. Otherwise, the reader is led to think this phenomenon is pervasive, hegemonic.

Yet, this is clearly not the case. Manosphere activists occasionally refer to the Classics, just like they also sometimes refer to nihilism, self-help, evolutionary biology, neurochemistry, economics, etc. While she did not have to explore all these sources to make a valuable contribution (this is after all a monograph), there should at least have been a discussion of the frequency of the phenomenon, to avoid presenting an altogether biased view of the situation.

Conclusion

This is a thin book, which can be read in a few hours. Yet this unfortunately mirrors the depth of its content. The author does not present a lot of evidence about the studied phenomenon. This content would have made a fine research article, but it is stretched very thin through an entire book. If the reader thinks that Manosphere forums abound with references to Seneca or quotes from the Tusculan Disputations, they will be quite surprised when discovering the truth…

Perhaps more disquieting is the disregard for established definitions and classifications, and the haphazard conflating of various groups under the same “umbrella”. This type of bias is commonplace in the media, but unusual for serious research. Let us attribute this to the date of writing of this book: the author says she submitted it in 2016, at a time when research on the Manosphere was still nascent. This still signals a lack of knowledge about the primary sources, which were already available at the time.

Notes

(1) Mary Lily, “‘The World Is Not a Safe Place for Men’: The Representational Politics of the Manosphere” (Ottawa, University of Ottawa, 2016), university of Ottawa Research, http://dx.doi.org/10.20381/ruor-5184. For masculinist primary sources on the matter see https://incels.wiki/w/Manosphere or https://www.mgtow.com/manosphere/https://www.mgtow.com/manosphere/, both consulted November 19, 2020.

(2) This is made clear in Manoel Horta Ribeiro et al., op.cit. See also Shawn Van Valkenburgh, “Digesting the Red Pill: Masculinity and Neoliberalism in the Manosphere,” Men and Masculinities, December 4, 2018, https://doi.org/10.1177/1097184X18816118.

(3) Pierce Alexander Dignam and Deana Rohlinger, “Misogynistic Men Online: How the Red Pill Helped Elect Trump,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 44, no. 3 (March 1, 2019): 589–612, https://doi.org/10.1086/701155.

(4) Callum Jones, Verity Trott, and Scott Wright, “Sluts and Soyboys: MGTOW and the Production of Misogynistic Online Harassment,” New Media & Society 22, no. 10 (October 1, 2020): 1903–21, https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444819887141.

(5) See the taxonomies of Lily, op.cit or Ribero et al., op.cit.

A Few Thoughts on “Adversarial Collections”

My research deals with several controversies such as nature/nurture, essentialism/constructionism, or feminism/postfeminism. Therefore, I encountered several books that dealt with those controversies in a specific way: these books I will call “adversarial collections”.

Definition

Adversarial collections are books which contain a selection of articles and essays on the same topic, hence the noun “collection”. However, they try to gather scholars and thinkers from opposite paradigms and disciplines, usually across one or several very clear dividing lines, hence the adjective “adversarial”.

During my research, I read three adversarial collections:

In all three books, feminist activists, scholars and ideas where confronted to other approaches. In Buss and Malamuth’s Sex, Power and Conflict, the competing explanations for rape or sexual violence were exposed – is it a structural act of oppression as defended by feminist Susan Brownmiller? Or is it linked to the male psyche in general, and could thus be explained by evolutionary processes? In Kimmel’s Politics of Manhood profeminist men criticized the 1990s Men’s Mythopoetic Movement, and prominent “mythopoets” then answered. Rhode’s collection on sexual difference was initially a conference which gathered scholars from opposite paradigms on the matter: from strictly constructionist, to psychoanalytical and evolutionary.

1. Analysis

There are some recurring patterns that I found in these adversarial collections. Although I do not claim this is the case in all books of that nature, it seems reasonable to assume that these tendencies are quite widespread.

  • There is a spirit of conciliation, of “building bridges”

The principle of such collections is to fruitfully build bridges between opposite paradigms. In the introduction, the editor writes that it is finally time to concile opposite views, to go beyond sterile and dogmatic bickering, and that everyone is actually working for the same goals – social justice, understanding gender differences, etc. They also examine the respective merits of the competing approaches. Then, each scholar in the collection starts by paying lip service to this conciliation, before embarking on the usual criticism…

  • There is no actual collaboration between scholars of opposite disciplines

Although everyone acknowledges the “opposition” , the bridge-building seems to stop at the door of the lab. Bringing together scholars of various horizons is a laudable first step, but one regrets the absence of co-authored “avdersarial” papers.

  • The collection is skewed towards the editors’ discipline

Michael Kimmel is a stalwart feminist, and David Buss is one of the most prominent evolutionary psychologists. Despite all their efforts and intentions to appear conciliatory, the reader will find quite soon that the collections they edited are heavily skewed towards their own approach. For example, in the Politics of Manhood collection, the profeminist articles outnumber the mythopoetic ones 18 to 8. Plus, the inevitable Preface and Afterword written by Kimmel. Why not aim for equality if the goal is to really build bridges?

In Sex, Power and Conflict, at first sight, the sharing looks fair and balanced:

Part I: Evolutionary Perspectives (4 articles, 106 pages)
Part II: Feminist Perspectives (4 articles, 69 pages)
Part III: Integrating Evolutionary and Feminist Perspectives (4 articles, 140 pages)

Yet, looking at the “integrating” articles of part three, it is quite clear that they are mostly produced by evolutionist scholars and are evolutionary-minded. The bridge-building usually stays in the realm of wishful thinking, and the scholars from the dominant approach in the edition give a nod to the other approach while always maintaining the superiority of their own.

For example, here is how Rhode’s collection ends, in an overview by Estelle Freedman, “The argument for a biological basis of gender difference had been the one most easily dismissed by feminists , yet it is clearly important for us to confront this model, since it remains compelling for the larger audience beyond our ranks.”(p.258)

It seems here that the only reason to “confront” the opposing model is its popularity outside of feminist circles (“our ranks”), but not its merits. Also, why “confront” and not “understand”?

To put it shortly, one does not feel that these adversarial collections are balanced, for the perspective of the editors runs through all the pages. Reading Rhode’s collection feels like reading a typical feminist social-constructionist book while Buss and Malamuth’s book feels like traditional evolutionary psychology. One gets the impression that the “contenders” are just invited in the arena for the show, but are then promptly dismissed. Furthermore, these “contenders” also tend to be weaker than those on the editors’ side.

  • The scholarly imbalance between sides

Indeed, another reason why these adversarial collections are not balanced is that the scholars on the “editorial” side tend to be more prominent in their fields than the contenders. I do not think this is deliberate, maybe it is just that the editors have more connections in their discipline and thus manage to invite the best and the brightest. But the result is that the match does not feel very fair.

For example, the only person invited to defend evolutionary approaches in Deborah Rhode’s collection is not even an evolutionary scientist but a historian! In Sex, Power and Conflict, one would have loved seeing Susan Brownmiller, whose thesis is constantly criticized throughout the book, defend her own ideas.

2. Criticism

All in all, these adversarial collections are very pleasant to read. Indeed, the invited scholars make sure that their ideas are clear and concise, for they know that they are not only writing for specialists in their field. There is also a more combative and argumentative tone to the articles, which makes them less dreary than ordinary academic prose.

There is also undeniable drama when reading an article that directly opposes one read just before. This was most notably the case in Politics of Manhood, when, after two hundred pages of criticism against mythopoetic leader Robert Bly, he answers these criticisms himself in an article soberly entitled “Thoughts on Reading this Book”. After all, an adversarial setting is part of what makes sports and games pleasant to watch, and this is no different here.

However, the articles tend to repeat themselves A LOT. This is probably bound to happen in collections of articles by several people on the same topic, but the reader ends up reading the same introductions, arguments, qualifications over and over. This was the case in all three books, and these are big books…

3. Suggestions for improving the genre

  • Have the book be co-edited by people from both sides with co-authored prefaces and conclusions. Otherwise, the editorial clout of the editor looms over the whole collection.
  • Make sure that both co-editors use their connection to invite the best and the brightest in their field to defend their position.
  • Try to have some co-authored adversarial papers.
  • Each side should have strictly the same number of pages.
  • Edit out the repetitions, think about the reader who will go through the same arguments over and over.

All this should make these books more enjoyable for the reader, as well as more balanced!

I hope you enjoyed this article, please do not hesitate to tell me if you would like to read more analysis of this kind.

Michael Messner: Politics of Masculinities: Men in Movements (1995)

A serious and concise book on US men’s movements in the late 20th century

Summary

In this short book, Michael Messner examines eight different men’s movements, ranging from Gay Liberation, to the Christian fundamentalist Promise Keepers[1]. He reviews the history, ideology, and future perspectives of each of these movements. He also criticizes their ideas based on their prejudices, contradictions, or biases, as well as their potential for achieving greater equality and social justice.

Finally, he places these activist groups on a political spectrum composed of three axes: (1) emphasis on the costs of masculinity, (2) focus on differences and inequalities among men, and (3) willingness to combat institutionalized privileges. This triangle he calls the “Terrain of the Politics of Masculinities” and it is used throughout the book to ideologically locate these movements relatively to one another.

Criticism

Although Messner is definitely not neutral or value-free, this is quite standard in profeminist gender studies writings. He acknowledges from the start his membership in NOMAS (National Organization of Men Against Sexism) and his commitment for gender equality and social justice. However, I must salute his willingness to scrutinize each movement honestly, even the ones he feels closest to. For example, he deconstructs and criticizes the arguments of Gay Liberationists and Black separatists without a hint of political correctness, as he does for Right-Wing activists. This is refreshing scholarship in a field where value judgments abound.

Moreover, I find the “triangle” model he uses to represent the politics of men’s groups to be particularly helpful and intuitive. This shows how serious political science research can shed light on complex ideological issues, and men’s issues are definitely a complex intersection of political, religious, sexual and epistemological clashes. I will therefore keep in mind Messner’s model as a potential way to represent manosphere groups.

Since the book is twenty years old, I would not recommend it to everyone, but if you are interested in one of the eight groups under study, this should prove very valuable. Indeed, it helps locate those groups inside the political and ideological landscape of the time in a way that a traditional monograph would not.


[1] The eight groups are Men’s Liberation, Men’s Rights Activists, Promise Keepers, the Men’s Mythopoetic Movement, Gay Liberation, Socialist feminist men, Radical feminist men, and African-American Men.

E. Anthony Rotundo: American Manhood (1993)

A fantastic example of American men’s social and cultural history

Today, it is my pleasure to write a first entirely positive and enthusiastic book review! I read Rotundo’s work with great pleasure and interest, and would love to share this with you.

Summary

Inspired by scholars of Women’s History, Rotundo set out to study American masculinity “from the Revolution to the Modern Era”. Drawing on letters and personal testimonies of the time, he carefully describes and analyzes vast cultural trends surrounding Northern middle-class white masculinity in the 19th century United States. To him, the period can be divided into three eras, each corresponding to a type of manhood:

  • Communal manhood: In the New England colonies, a man’s identity was subsumed by his activities as head of household, religious and civic leader. One’s manhood was then measured by his contribution to the community.
  • Self-made manhood: The 19th century saw the advent of the republican experiment, as well as the explosion of industrial capitalism. Underlying these trends was the birth of the individual. While a man’s self was not a factor in the colonial era, it became increasingly relevant as a public and personal definer of worth. Thus, manhood was redefined in terms of personal achievement, unrelenting work and ambition, and pursuit of self-interest. To counterbalance this trend, women tended to be more and more seen as wardens of the moral order, and of the home where manly passions were tamed and children nurtured. Interestingly, Rotundo shows this doctrine of separate spheres is a product of that era, since 18th century men worked mostly at home and spheres were far from separate then.
  • Passionate manhood: As the nineteenth century drew to a close, a new model of manhood emerged. Somewhat stifled by the moral stewardship of women, as well as threatened by their increasing political demands, men redefined their identity. Manhood was traditionally seen as aggressive, assertive, competitive, physical and passionate. Yet, following leaders such as Theodore Roosevelt, these male traits were now seen as positive. They were a remedy to the effeminacy of a new pampered and affluent society. This was the era of gym clubs, organized sports, Boy Scouts, frontier heroes, militarism and American colonial wars.

Four reasons to read this book

  • Social History is Great

While we all know that traditional history is too focused on politics, great men and wars, it is rare to actually delve into social history. This is a book about the everyday life of people in the United States: what were the lives of boys? Of young men? How did courtship work? How about sexuality in the marriage? etc. This is a fantastic addition to traditional history, for it allows the reader to have a finer understanding of the social order, and the actual lifestyles of common folk. It feels as though one learns more about the 19th century by reading this book than if one were to read five books of political history.

  • An Immersive Journey Through the 19th Century

The book is suffused with letter excerpts, small quotes and anecdotes of the time. Thus, the reader is able to travel deep into Victorian language, ideas and situations. This almost confers the immersive appeal of a novel to this book. Moreover, following the history of men and manhood throughout the century is akin to following the history of the country and its culture through that period – especially since the white Northern men studied wielded most of the power in the country.

  • Simple Style

There are no complex theories or social science jargon in this book. It is all straightforward, simple and clear, as Rotundo prioritizes putting his primary sources under the spotlight. This makes for a pleasant read, and marks Rotundo as a humble and shrewd scholar, who prefers foregrounding historical sources rather than flexing his academic muscle.

  • Serious Scholarship

In scientific terms, the premise of such a book seems particularly perilous, in that Rotundo tries to make grand generalizations based on a completely nonrandom, partial sample of letters and other writings. Thus, there is a high risk that the author cherry-picks some of their sources to fit their particular theory or reading of history. Yet, Rotundo proves throughout the book that he is highly cognizant of all the risks and weaknesses of his method. Whenever he feels that his sample might be biased, or that his statements get too normative, he takes a step back to nuance his ideas or justify them further. Even though he proposes a grand narrative – roughly dividing the century into three historical eras -, he does not try to force his theory onto the sources. He always reminds us that cultural phenomena take time, that they often overlap, and that his periods should be just taken as rough indicators.

Purely qualitative research does not get much better than American Manhood, and this might just be the best reason for history fans to read it.

See you soon for another book review!

Research Question n°2: History of the Manosphere

Men’s Rights Activist leader Paul Elam speaking at a Men’s Rights rally

The Manosphere did not emerge spontaneously with the advent of the Internet. Indeed, its roots can be traced back to the 1970s Men’s Liberation movement. Interestingly enough, this movement started out as an ally of feminism, yet lay the theoretical groundwork for what would become stalwart antifeminist groups and organizations.

In this second research sequence, I aim at exploring the various Men’s movements and their legacy in the current Manosphere. Some of them have vanished and are just curiosities from the past – such as the 1980s mythopoetic Men’s movement -, while some of them have successfully adapted to the digital era, as with the case of pickup artists.

The goal of this sequence is to establish a clear chronology and genealogy of the wider Men’s Movement in the USA for the past fifty years.

I will moreover attempt to answer the following questions:

  • Are there any theoretical/ideological founding principles underlying all these Men’s movements? Which ones? What is their origin?
  • How did they construe and relate to feminism?
  • What was their relationship with notions of human nature, and to life sciences in general?
  • How did the older masculinist groups transition to the digital era?
  • How about the newest groups, such as Incels, whose origins are digital only? Do they differ significantly from their forebears? In what ways?

I will draw mostly on primary sources to answer these questions, since historical scholarship on the Men’s movement is extremely rare. The goal, however, is not to get a definite idea of how all these movements operated, but rather to get a feeling of the ideological filiation, ruptures or continuity between all of them. I will also be specifically attentive to the role of life sciences in those various ideologies.

Michael Kimmel: Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era (2013)

In this book, Michael Kimmel studies groups of angry white men located all over the US: masculinist activists, neo-Nazis, the Tea Party, high school rampage killers. Behind all these lies a growing malaise, a specifically male anguish. All these men grew up believing in the American Dream, and now they feel betrayed. Betrayed by a society that does not care about them anymore, by a neoliberal economic system that leaves them on the sidelines, by Liberal politicians who only talk about “diversity”.

To Kimmel, their anger is real and legitimate. These men grew up believing that they were entitled to everything: professional success, climbing the social ladder, providing for a family. Yet, now that they realize this does not work anymore, they are angry. This is what Kimmel calls a feeling of “aggrieved entitlement“, i.e the anger felt when one is deprived of what one felt entitled to.

Cunning right-wing pundits and radio hosts have managed to channel this anger onto the wrong targets, Kimmel argues: women, gays, Jews, black people… Thus, these men have veered to the Right, while their economic interest would be to cater to the Left. This is the paradox brilliantly exposed in Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? [1] – a book which Kimmel cites often, while unfortunately not bringing anything new to its thesis.

Thus, Kimmel writes, the anger of these men is legitimate, but its the diagnosis, the worldview they build in response which is wrong. They imagine feminist or Jewish conspiracies and they prepare for apocalyptic race wars. Rather than forming alliances with the other victims of neoliberalism (black and Latino middle and working classes for example), they accuse them of every ill in the country. This is old news to anyone familiar with American – and world – history. And unfortunately, this book does not goes much further than the description of this well-known phenomenon.

Kimmel’s writing is more that of a journalist than of a researcher. Compared to Susan Faludi – a journalist writing on the same trends and topics-, it feels like he is the one whose arguments are anecdotal, while hers are rigorously documented. Kimmel mixes quotes, pop song lyrics (as if they were solid sociological arguments) and wide socio-economic trends. This makes for a very pleasant read, but the explanations lack rigor, and the arguments sometimes seem to go round in circles.

He always goes back to the same trends and explanations, and it is hard to determine his actual scientific added-value. For example, he says he went all over the country to meet neo-Nazis and White Supremacists: why not use these interview to build a finer and more thorough analysis? He just mentions the forty interviews he has conducted, barely exploits the data thus obtained, then goes on spewing grand truisms. Whoever thinks this book will be a true immersion inside American Extreme-Right groups will be disappointed: maybe Kathleen Blee’s books are more suited for this ?

Ultimately, I think that Kimmel provides interesting ideas, and that his analyses are generally right. But this book is more the work of an essayist than that of a sociologist. There is a lack of figures and solid data, as well as a lack of logical reasoning and rigorous argumentative thesis building. It will prove a valuable starting point to delve into specific hypotheses for my PhD work, but it is a far cry from being an actual reference book on the topic, for it lacks data-based explanatory solidity and veers into opinion too often.

Still, I must salute the foresight of Kimmel, who, in the midst of the Obama years, embarked on a journey to understand the seething electoral basis that would later go on to elect Donald Trump, making this book crucially relevant today – and indeed, one would appreciate an updated version of the text, or at least a postface on Donald Trump.

I also appreciate the attitude of Michael Kimmel towards these right-wing activists. While he stands for everything they hate – being a Liberal New York Jewish feminist sociologist himself – he still tries to talk to them and understand their plight. He is sometimes compassionate, even sympathetic to the testimonies he collects. Even though he does not agree with their worldview, he gets where they are coming from and never denies their anguish and frustration – even when he is targeted by their antisemitic slurs. This leads to better-quality analysis and somewhat eschews simplistic partisan paradigms. This is both courageous (for meeting these people is certainly risky) and scientifically laudable (for where can one find better data than on the field itself?), and will prove a great model for my own interactions with Manosphere activists.

[1] Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives won the Heart of America (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2004).