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The aim of this research proposal is to gain an insight into how men feel about the narratives of fatherhood and masculinities in family studies. What is a father? What does it mean to be a man? At present the general consensus is that the mother-child bond has always been the focus in family studies, disregarding the role of the father (Mckee and O’Brien, 1982), which is perhaps why researchers tend to focus on female participation when thinking of their study sample. When men are taken into account, it is usually on the grounds of the influence they have on child development, rather than their experience of being a father. Moreover, when men are involved in discussions around family life, it is usually nothing more than their financial contribution to the family or their absence that is noted, leading to discussions of how women cope with lack of support emotionally and financially if the family breaks down, reinstating the focus on the mother-child bond.
This research is important because there has been a transition in family life, with new ways of doing family (Chambers, 2012) due to the breakdown of societal expectations for men and women, and a major consequence of this is that in contemporary society, throughout their course of life fathers are now more likely to experience multiple family forms in comparison to former generations (Featherstone, 2009). It is therefore interesting that the mother-child bond remains the focus of family studies – even more so considering that the traditional breadwinner role of the father has somewhat disintegrated as a result of the feminist movement of the 1960s and its success of introducing women into the labor force (Mckee and O’Brien, 1982). In 2013 Diane Abbott discussed in a lecture her fears that prompt social and economic transformation has had a negative impact on male identity (Roberts, 2014). This is what has been referred to as the crisis of masculinity. The idea is that as women no longer need men for financial stability, it is no longer clear what role men need to fulfil, and as a result of this, many men feel a sense of shame if they are out of work (United Nations, 2011), since the traditional role of the breadwinner is linked to ideas of family formation.
In an attempt to answer the question of what it means to be a man, Heilman et al (2017) coined the term ‘man box’, referring to a set of views, shared amongst members of society – family, friends, the media etc – that put a pressure on men to behave in a particular way. These pressures included being tough, heterosexual, handsome and self-supporting. In this study, it was the men who adopted these messages and pressure that were in the ‘man box’. By conducting surveys and focus groups with over a 1000 respondents each for the US, UK, and Mexico, this study found that the ‘man box’ is indeed prevalent, with some men believing that it provided them with a sense of safety. Having said that, however, it was also expressed that greater gender equality is a good thing and that men should be encouraged to be involved in what has always been seen as female activities, like childcare.
Although there is no specific way of being a man or woman, in society it has been made clear how stereotypes of femininity and masculinity underpin the notions of how we should be (Jackson and Scott cited in Miller, 2011). However, in recent years this has started to be challenged, and there has been a rise in events and support groups for men. Coinciding with this, with the use of social media, more efforts are being made to open up discussions around sexuality. For instance, in an attempt to redefine what it is like to be a man, the Campaign Against Living Miserably – formally known as CALM, a charity committed to putting an end to male suicide – created a campaign encouraging men to use the hashtag #mandictionary on various social media platforms (mainly Twitter) where they could challenge popular stereotypes, resulting in thousands of mentions on social media, bringing to attention the concern that these stereotypes can, in fact, have a negative impact on how men identify themselves (CALM, 2016).
In our current thinking of single-parent families, the assumption is that it is female-headed, and in recent times, we have even shifted this thought from single mothers as a consequence of family breakdown, to single mothers by choice. But how about men? Men’s Health published an article called ‘You don’t need a woman to have a child’, discussing single men who are choosing to be single fathers using surrogate mothers and egg donors (Golombok, 2015). This highlights the need to consider issues of family planning amongst men who, like women, have not yet met their lifelong partner, but have that yearning to start a family so much so that they are actively considering alternatives. Furthermore, more attention should be made to fatherhood amongst homosexual men. Blincoe (2013) interviewed two men who had decided to end long-term relationships with spouses that did not want children, and so decided to go it alone through surrogacy clinics in America since the UK laws are restrictive. One of the men interviewed was homosexual and described how at the time, the hardest part of coming out was coming to terms with not being able to have children. He also expressed that now that he had children, it was difficult to meet someone and expect them to accept that he was a single parent father, a concern commonly shared by divorced women. The growth in interest amongst childless men of wanting to have a family emphasizes the need for policy to recognize that fathers matter, and that men actively trying to engage in a more caring role is a positive and beneficial move for society (Burghes et al, 1997)
But who is a father? The father figure is faceless. In comparison to women, it has been noted that it is difficult to gather data on who is or is not a father. Government statistics provide us with a clear picture of which women are and are not mothers, the age of their children, and how many children a mother has (Burghes et al, 1997). The same, however, cannot be said for men as the Office for National Statistics only records a women’s fertility history when a birth is registered (Mail Online, 2017). Perhaps this is why Lamb (cited in McKee and O’Brien, 1992) claimed that fathers are ‘forgotten contributors to child development’. And yet, fathers are generally considered as important in regards to child development, with socialization theorists like Talcott Parsons maintaining the belief that children need stable gender role models inside the home in order to demonstrate the appropriate behaviors related with their gender (Hicks, 2008). If that is the case, we need to engage men in the politics of fatherhood (Featherstone, 2009), but this raises the question: why is it so difficult to gather data on them? The aim of this research proposal is to present a platform for adolescent boys and men to contribute to understanding fatherhood with them voicing their own opinions on the matter. In doing so, this will enable policymakers to improve their strategies as to engaging men in the politics of family life.
In order to understand men’s opinions of what it means to be a man and a father, this study will be using qualitative methods. As previously highlighted, the male perspective is often ignored in family studies. For this reason, focus groups will be conducted as a safe and welcoming space – a different kind of ‘man box’ – for men to engage in discussions around male identities and fatherhood. Focus groups explore a specific subject matter or phenomena amongst several participants, which allows the research to gain an insight as to how participants respond to each other’s perspectives (Bryman, 2004). Two sessions will be held, with the first session discussing what it means to be a man and public perceptions of the male figure, including discussions about expressing sexuality. Following on from this, the second session will discuss fatherhood, involving discussions around personal childhood experiences, relationships, and family planning.
To gain an understanding into men’s opinions on being a man and fatherhood, the sample will aim to include a variety of men in regards to age (16+), ethnicities, religions, occupation, relationship status and sexual orientation, in hope to encourage discussion. In regards to finding participants, the initial thought had been to contact a men’s support group, but given the nature of this study, that could be problematic. There are a few methodological issues that have to be taken into account when conducting focus groups. In this instance, the main issue to consider is the influence of participants on each other’s views (Gomm, 2008). The purpose of a focus group is to encourage participants to vocalise their beliefs, but with more than one participant involved, some participants may be intimidated by other overpowering participants, and therefore not all views expressed during the focus group would necessarily reflect the truth, and it is possible that this was more likely to occur using a men’s support group for the sample. Moreover, using a men’s support group would not have been representative of the male population, given the likelihood that they may have very strong views on the matter. Alternatively, to find men to participate in this study, advertisements will be placed in various environments – family planning units, gyms, pub, libraries, local newspapers and community centers in hope that this will indeed attract a variety of men. The research shall be conducted in London. The aim is to get roughly 20 participants, and splitting them into 2 groups to enable a great level of depth in the discussions. Participants of each group will be randomly selected to encourage diversity. Before the group discussion begins, participants will be required to fill in a form providing socio-demographic information about themselves.
Focus groups have been praised for not only providing an insight into the actions and motivations of the individual participants involved, but also for encouraging other members of the group to question each other as well as explain themselves, something that comes naturally and allows the researcher to sit back and observe the interactions and dynamics of the group (Morgan, 1996). However, there is one particular issue that may affect the group dynamic of this study. As a female researcher, for the nature of this study, it may be that some men do not feel entirely comfortable sharing their views in my presence in fear that it could be offensive to my gender, or in fear that they are being judged based on my gender. In order to avoid this, it will be reiterated to the participants that the purpose of this study is to gain an insight into their true opinions and that although I am female, they should not let this prevent them from expressing their most honest thoughts.
There are also ethical considerations to be taken into account. To ensure that ethical guidelines are followed, all participants will be provided with a consent form and information sheet that will clearly outline the purpose of the research, the data collection process and to who will be making use of it. Furthermore, the consent form will assure participants that should they wish to participate in this study, their information will be kept confidential and anonymous – in the report, they will be identified by a number rather than their real name. The consent form shall also ensure participants that should they wish to stop, they will be able to withdraw from the focus group, and their contribution to the discussions shall not be included in the report unless they permit it. This is of particular importance as each session will be audio recorded and transcribed for the analysis. Should participants wish to ask further questions before giving their consent to participate, my contact details will be provided.
The data from the focus group sessions shall be analyzed using Nvivo in order to produce a thematic analysis, whereby the focus is on what has been said (Bryman, 2004).
Broader real-life experience.
In summary, the aim of the research is to present men’s perceptions of fatherhood and what it is like to be a man and father in contemporary society, where traditional gender roles have fragmented and in doing so have transformed family life (Chambers, 2012). This research is important because, in discussions around family, the opinions of men have tended to be overlooked, and when men are spoken about, it is merely the acknowledgment of their financial contribution to the family or their absence. For policy-makers in the area of family, the insight gained from this study could, in fact, change the direction/priorities of future policies – whether that be in child development or strategies in how to support fathers as well as mothers – particularly single parent fathers. Moreover, academically speaking, from this study we can consider the ways in which gender and ‘doing’ doing is constantly changing, continuing the current debates around intimacy as a way of conceptualizing personal relationships in contemporary society.
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