Patriarchy in Practice book coverPatriarchy in Practice: Ethnographies of Everyday Masculinities

Edited by Nikki van der Gaag,

with coeditors Amir Massoumian and Dan Nightingale

Bloomsbury Academic Publishing, London, 2023

268 pages


Patriarchy, bell hooks observed, “is the single most life-threatening social disease assaulting the male body and spirit in our nation.” In a world threatened by the hypermasculinity inherent in warmongering, and as country after country experiences the toxic effects of the resurgence of patriarchal values, it’s never felt so urgent to tackle the questions with which this book is concerned. Violence against women continues unabated.

The gains feminism claimed in the last 30 years are being threatened with the rise of neo-populism and its associated masculinisms. Even the term feminist is contested, as questions of gender identity have driven hard wedges between those who once saw themselves as sharing core values and purpose. It is a time to regroup, to rethink and to reconstitute forms of progressive politics that can suture the fissures that have appeared across and within movements inspired by the ideals of feminism and gender justice.

Patriarchy in Practice brings together papers initially assembled to address the possibility of post-patriarchal masculinities. But, as the editors observe, to talk of post-patriarchy at a time when the resurgence of noxious, repressive patriarchal views, practices and behavior is so evident may imply—wrongly—that we’re beyond the worst of it.

Like a virus, patriarchy replicates, mutates, infects and spreads faster than attempts to dispatch it or repair its effects. To talk of post-patriarchy is to conceive of a world that is difficult to imagine now; such a possibility appears to be fast receding the world over. Instead, the editors refocused on identifying and documenting a panoply of practices that, together, might give succor—and inspire hope—in a time of backlash. They and the other contributing authors explore how documenting the contemporary expression of masculinities, in all its particularity in different instances and locales, can provide an entry point for thinking in a more complex and nuanced way about the relationship between masculinity and patriarchy, and where and how that relationship can be redressed and reimagined.

The collection of cases in Patriarchy in Practice offers a dynamic constellation of contexts and possibilities for closer inspection, seeking to bring them together to identify alternative ways of being a man and performing masculinities. Doing so can aid in the possibility of imagining a post-patriarchal social order. The book takes a common research approach: using ethnography to examine the practices of everyday life. Ethnographic research produces fine-grained, contextually rich descriptions of life as lived. They offer powerful challenges to preconceptions and norms as they take the reader into worlds that they may never have encountered or imagined, enabling them to “see” and “hear” perspectives and experiences that might otherwise lie out of reach.

Through these ethnographies, in all their diversity, we are transported into the lives of a diversity of subjects and gain some fascinating insights into the very different worlds that are evoked through these studies. Annie Kelly’s “Alpha and Nerd Masculinities” looks at performative masculinities in anti-feminist digital cultures. “Phantom masculinities” is another variant of contemporary masculinities introduced by Amir Massoumian in his account of men in pubs in London’s borough of Walthamstow. It draws on reveries that are nostalgic and xenophobic by turns as they reflect on immigration in a time of Brexit. Alvi A. H. and Hendri Yulius Wijaya write of the “tenuous masculinities” of Indonesian transmen, who feel that it is only through constant reenactment that they can mitigate the risk of rejection and denial.

Others write of masculinities gained and lost, emerging and embodied. Shannon Phillip’s essay on “new male heroes,” “new thinking,” and “new men” in New Delhi offers another trope, one familiar from the cultural contexts in which the global elite circulate, and one that can serve to entrench male privilege and misogyny. And Chris Haywood’s chapter on dark rooms in sex clubs in the UK speaks of the “loss of masculinity” as those who frequent them relate how they lose themselves in the pursuit of pleasure in these liminal, dark spaces.

Chapters by Christina Oddone, Ceri Oeppen, Elisa Padilla, Lucy Clarke and Debarati Chakraborty tackle a diversity of manifestations of masculinities—from the attitudes towards women in the accounts of French perpetrators of sexual violence, through the masculinities of drag icons, through the “moral-existential reconfiguration of masculinity” in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, through participation in sports, gaming, and role-play. They examine all the disabling ways in which patriarchal masculinities intersect with the bodies of the physically disabled, and the ways in which testosterone users reflect on the way the “masculinizing” hormone alters their bodily experiences.

Bringing together such an unusual and varied constellation of masculinities in the wider context of the struggle for gender equality, this collection complicates any straightforward association between men, masculinities and power. Together, these studies offer a rich contribution to the wider anthropological and sociological literature on masculinities. In their focus on the practice of patriarchy in such very disparate settings, they open windows into lesser-studied worlds and attest to the value of ethnography in surfacing voices and perspectives that are rarely heard.


photo of a woman wearing a purple shirtAndrea Cornwall is a professor of global development and anthropology at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, specializing in the study of democratic innovative citizen engagement, gender justice and sexual rights.