Seidler, V.J. Transforming Masculinities: Men, Cultures, Bodies, Power, Sex and Love , 2006 . New York : Routledge xxvii +180pp £21.99 (pb) ISBN 0-415-37074-4

I found this book, the most recent that Victor Seidler has written on issues of men and masculinity, a frustrating read. On the one hand, it contains some interesting and unfamiliar material and some important arguments. Seidler seeks to sustain a critique of universalistic, rationalistic models of men and masculinities which conduct their theoretical analysis purely in terms of power relations between men and women and between men and other men. The main target here is, of course, Connell's highly influential elaboration of the idea of ‘hegemonic masculinity’. Seidler uses examples from all over the world and at different historical periods to argue that such rationalistic models fail to do justice to the range of ways in which masculinities are expressed and experienced. In particular, such models perpetuate a deeply embedded (in the Western Protestant tradition, especially) division between structures and emotions. In contrast, there is a need, he argues, ‘to open up complex relationships between power and emotional life’ (p. 65).

There is a generational theme running through Seidler's argument. The power-based models of masculinity were developed in the 1970s and 1980s, largely in response to feminism's elaboration of the core concept of ‘patriarchy’. Understandably, much of the writing by men on masculinity saw masculinity itself as the problem, the source of women's sufferings especially in terms of violence and abuse. Such accounts cannot, Seidler argues, speak to young men and women of today who have already experienced some degree of loosening in the areas of gender and sexuality. Somewhat differently, but of equal importance, there are also the young working-class men for whom work is a very different experience from the more stable employments of their fathers and whose experience is predominantly one of powerlessness. ‘We have to engage with the lived experiences of the men themselves’ (p. 51) rather than imposing rational, abstract and moralistic frameworks on to their lives.

All this, together with his plea for his readers to ‘think masculinities across different cultures’ (p. 20) is provocative, and Seidler illustrates his arguments from a wide range of literature as well as from his own experiences and encounters. A key word to Seidler is ‘listening’, opening up communication across cultures and generations and it is difficult to dissent from this ambition. Unfortunately, and this is what makes the book such a frustrating read, the discussion is poorly structured, often repetitive and sometimes assertive, showing evidence of the kind of moralism that he finds in discussions using the concept of hegemonic masculinities. This lack of structure is partially indicated by the list of words in his sub-title, a practice repeated in several of the chapter headings. The repetitiveness is illustrated by the number of separate occasions (eight in my reckoning) where he is critical of Connell's distinction between ‘the therapeutic’ and ‘the political’. While some support for his claims might be found in the extremely useful 17 pages of notes, there is little evidence of any critical engagement with, for example, some of the recent sociological discussions of emotions or of the kinds of narrative approaches to masculinities demonstrated, in rather different ways, by Tony Jefferson and Andrew Sparkes.

More generally, I was not wholly convinced by his critique of the idea of hegemonic masculinity(ies). I feel that the idea can serve as an important point of departure in an analysis that is sensitive to cultural differences and to trans-national trends. But it is clearly not the whole story. Masculinities are not to be equated with hegemonic masculinity and masculinities are not simply stories about power. But what else are they about? Seidler provides some hints – mostly focusing on relations between fathers and sons and on the impact of war – and takes us tantalisingly to the point where some exciting insights might be developed. I found myself wanting more, more perhaps in terms of a more sensitive analysis of cases, of narratives or of ethnographic data, and it was here that I found my expectations frustrated.

Some chapters, however, are better than others. I am happy to recommend the last three or four where we have sensitive discussions of Seidler's own Jewish background, fairly extensive and acknowledged use of the work of a graduate student and counsellor, Dean Whittington, and other more or less first-hand accounts of worklessness, drug use and the impact of the experience of war over the generations. In addition here, as elsewhere in the book, we have brief but useful discussions and re-assessments of Foucault, Gramsci and Weil. It is worth persisting with this book, despite the occasional irritations and annoyances. If you do you may find some echoes of your own experiences, some useful references or good material to use in a group discussion. But I wish that an editor (if they exist any more) had taken Seidler to one side sometime before the final submission, if only to iron out the repetitions.