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Where Is "Manhood" Most Precarious?

A study of 62 nations suggests that beliefs about manhood are not universal.

Key points

  • The concept of "precarious manhood" refers to the idea that being a "real man" is hard to earn, easy to lose, and must be proven repeatedly.
  • A new study finds that beliefs in precarious manhood are widespread but not equally distributed around the world.
  • Beliefs in precarious manhood tend to be more prevalent in nations that are relatively less developed and more patriarchal.

Ethnographers tell us that, in tribal societies, initiations into manhood are much more common than initiations into womanhood. The transition from girlhood to womanhood is seen as an inevitable biological process associated with menstruation, pregnancy, and childbirth. A woman does not have to prove to others that she deserves the status of womanhood.

The transition from boyhood to manhood, however, is not marked by a major biological event. The status of manhood must be achieved; a boy must prove he is a man. The kind of proof needed varies widely across cultural groups. It may involve painful circumcision, a period of separation, a demonstration of sexual prowess, or a test of strength and endurance.

Precarious Manhood Theory

According to precarious manhood theory, the status of manhood is neither inevitable nor permanent. Manhood is an achieved social position that is hard to earn and easy to lose (Vandello & Bosson, 2013).

The theory states that, because manhood is elusive and tenuous, it must be proven repeatedly through public action. Playing competitive sports at age 16 is not enough. A man must demonstrate his manhood again and again and again. He may visit a brothel, engage in drunken brawls, ride motorcycles, choose a dangerous occupation, and eventually marry a much younger woman.

The result of this constant pressure to prove one's manhood is that men, as a group, experience more social anxiety than women do. They also are strongly motivated to compensate—with risky moves or aggressive posturing, for example—when they believe their manhood has been challenged (Vandello & Bosson, 2013).

A Cross-Cultural Investigation of Precarious Manhood Beliefs

Individuals who believe the status of manhood is difficult to earn and easy to lose are said to endorse the notion of precarious manhood (PM). Do people everywhere hold PM beliefs, or are such beliefs more likely to be found in some cultural groups than in others? Are men more likely than women to hold PM beliefs, or do men and women in a society hold similar beliefs about the status of manhood?

Jennifer Bosson at the University of South Florida and Natasza Kosakowska-Berezecka at the University of Gdansk in Poland recently organized a large multinational effort to examine the prevalence of precarious manhood beliefs around the world (Bosson et al., 2021). Their research team recruited more than 33,000 university students in 62 nations. Every participant completed a 4-item scale that measures Precarious Manhood Beliefs (PMB).

  • Other people often question whether a man is a "real man."
  • Some boys do not become men, no matter how old they get.
  • It is fairly easy for a man to lose his status as a man.
  • Manhood is not assured—it can be lost.

Students indicated their agreement with each statement on a 7-point scale, ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree).

The researchers observed large individual differences in PMB scores, with some students agreeing and others disagreeing with the statements. It seems there is little consensus, even within a single national group, about the degree to which manhood is hard to get and easy to lose.

The researchers also observed significant differences between nations. Beliefs in precarious manhood were strongest in Kosovo, Albania, and Nigeria, where the national averages were greater than 5 on the 7-point scale. PM beliefs were weakest in Finland, Germany, Spain, and Sweden, where the national averages fell between 3.0 and 3.5 on the scale. (The average score in the United States was 4.4, a bit higher than the global average of 4.1.)

Correlates of Precarious Manhood Beliefs

Across all 62 nations, stronger PM beliefs were associated with higher levels of gender inequality as indicated by gender-based disparities in education, wealth, and health. Stronger PM beliefs were also associated with lower levels of human development as indicated by years of schooling and standard of living. The nation of Finland, for example, scores very high on both gender equality and human development. Not surprisingly, Finnish university students in the study reported the lowest level of support (a mean score of 3.05) for the idea of precarious manhood.

The researchers found no consistent gender differences in PM beliefs. In 37 of the 62 nations studied, men and women did not differ from each other in the degree to which they endorsed PM beliefs. In 15 countries, men endorsed PM beliefs more strongly than women. In nine countries, women endorsed PM beliefs more strongly than men.

Women tended to endorse the idea of precarious manhood more strongly than men in countries that were higher in gender inequality and lower in human development. Bosson, Kosakowska-Berezecka, and their colleagues have offered an intriguing explanation: "Perhaps in more patriarchal and less developed countries, women—as the lower-status gender group—are especially attuned to men's need for social validation" (Bosson et al., 2021, p. 251).

In thinking about this last finding, I am struck by the fact that women in poor, male-dominated societies also lead precarious lives, albeit of a different sort. Their status as "a real woman" is secure, but for many, their economic and political positions are not. Perhaps women in these circumstances are especially sensitive to precariousness in all its forms.

References

Bosson, J. K., Jurek, P., Vandello, J. A., Kosakowska-Berezecka, N., Olech, M., Besta, T., ... & Van Laar, C. (2021). Psychometric properties and correlates of precarious manhood beliefs in 62 nations. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 52(3), 231-258.

Vandello, J. A., & Bosson, J. K. (2013). Hard won and easily lost: A review and synthesis of theory and research on precarious manhood. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 14(2), 101.

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