What Is Masculinity? Historical Dynamics from Antiquity to the Contemporary World

Written by John H. Arnold (ed.) Sean Brady (ed.)
Review by Hannah Lavery

This five-part book collects essays arising from a conference held at Birkbeck College, University of London in May 2008, asking ‘What is Masculinity? How Useful is it as a Historical Category?’. This interdisciplinary conference was ambitious in scope, bringing together academics from a range of disciplines- from history to anthropology, literary criticism to art history – including non-Western research fields, and considering evidence from ancient to contemporary times.

These scholars consider the challenges faced when attempting to write the history of masculinity. Gesturing toward Pierre Bourdieu’s ‘certain idea of manhood’, the editors note in their introduction his emphasis on similarity when defining what it means to act as a man. However, by bringing together a range of diverse voices, the collection demonstrates instead the important nuances in the historical and cultural construction of ‘masculinity’. Readers can thus explore the challenge this poses to patriarchal claims of social and political authority.

Readers should not turn to this edition expecting to find a neat answer to the titular question. In keeping with the conference’s exploratory approach, the essays here explore both the similarities and important differences revealed in a cross-disciplinary exploration of the theme, and the richest reading of this collection recognises the value of the dialogue between the pieces as much as the internal reasoning of the individual essays.