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Keywords:

  • sleep;
  • body;
  • men

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Methods
  5. Understanding sleep
  6. Attitudes towards sleep
  7. Risk, reflexivity and sleep
  8. Discussion
  9. Conclusion
  10. Acknowledgements
  11. References

Recent literature has highlighted the sociological significance of sleep and has suggested that sleep offers a ‘window’ onto the gendered nature of our lives. Yet within this body of work men's sleep has been largely ignored. This paper seeks to rectify this omission and situates itself at the intersection between literature on the sociological aspects of sleep and social-constructionist-orientated writings on men's health. It draws upon qualitative data from 40 men to investigate male understandings of, and attitudes towards, sleep. At first glance, it could be suggested that men have little regard for sleep, and are prone to taking risks with their dormancy. Viewed in this way sleep becomes an instrument used in the negotiation of status and power and intrinsically bound up with the demonstration of masculinities. Yet, men's relationship with sleep is more complex than this. Amongst other things, the men within the present study were embroiled in a function/non-function dichotomy. Sleep was seen as needed for the praxis of ‘father’, ‘worker’, ‘husband’ and ‘mate’ but was also considered as something which should not get in the way of performing these roles.


Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Methods
  5. Understanding sleep
  6. Attitudes towards sleep
  7. Risk, reflexivity and sleep
  8. Discussion
  9. Conclusion
  10. Acknowledgements
  11. References

Recent sociological literature has highlighted how sleep involves both naturalistic and social-constructionist concerns, and is an irreducible and multifaceted phenomenon (Williams 2002, 2005, Meadows 2005). For example, Kroll-Smith and Gunter investigate the new ‘truths’ being told about sleepiness whilst acknowledging that sleep is a ‘brute fact’ and ‘essential for human survival’ (2005: 346). Similarly, Williams embraces the significance of biology whilst suggesting that issues of sociological import include the temporal dimensions, social patterning and ‘doing’ of sleep (2002: 173). There are, for example, ‘contingent influences on the meanings attached to sleep’ and the ways in which sleep is ‘commonsensically conceived will relate to an individual's social location and economic function’ (Taylor 1993: 468). Taylor suggests that those who see sleep as a leisure pursuit are liable to have attained a certain socio-economic status, whereas ‘hard-working peasantry’ are more likely to view sleep as respite from labour (1993: 468).

Although this body of work has convincingly illustrated that sleep is not simply a ‘perceptual hole in time’ (Dement and Vaughan 1999: 14), and has ‘woken’ sociologists up to the possibilities sleep offers (cf. Williams and Bendelow 1998), omissions can be noted. First, apart from Hislop and Arber's (2003) study of mid-life women's sleep, and Rosenblatt's (2006) study of couples’ sleep, there are few empirical studies that apply the sociological lens to our dormancy. Using a mixed-method approach to investigate the nature and social context of mid-life women's sleep, Hislop and Arber conclude that the manner in which sleep is done reflects the way that people do activities in their waking lives (2003: 709). Secondly, men's sleep has yet to be systematically explored. This paper aims to begin to address these gaps.

From masculinities and men's health to masculinities and men's sleep?

Popular culture appears to equate being male with a lack of regard for sleep. For example, the New Statesman suggests that ‘there is a macho culture of sleeplessness – sleep is for wimps who can't take the pace. The tough and the motivated like to brag about how little sleep they need’ (Appleyard 2002). Similarly, within his novel The House of Sleep, Jonathan Coe has one of his main characters (Dr Dudden) state that:

Napoleon was a light sleeper too. And Edison. You’ll find it's true of many great men. Edison despised sleep, we’re told, and in my view he was right to do so. I despise it, too. I despise myself for needing it (Coe 1997: 176).

This popular equation of sleeplessness and machismo resonates with more sociologically informed arguments. According to Courtenay, the resources available for constructing masculinities (in the West) are largely unhealthy (2000: 1397). Dominant men are required to undertake socially masculinised, physically risky behaviours. Thus, it has been suggested that men see health as women's business and responsibility, men know little about men's health, men tend to keep quiet about their health problems, and men tend to deny themselves a self-monitoring role (as doing health promotion is ‘female’) (cf. Cameron and Bernardes 1998). Within this paradigm, men are seen as unlikely to know much about sleep and are considered ignorant of health messages, such as those posted on the US National Sleep Foundation website:

Getting enough continuous quality sleep contributes to how we feel and perform the next day, but also has a huge impact on the overall quality of our lives. Getting enough sleep refers to the amount of sleep you need to not feel sleepy the next day. If sleepiness interferes with or makes it difficult to do your daily activities, you probably need more sleep. Although sleep experts generally recommend an average of 7–9 hours per night, some people can get along with less while others need as much as ten hours to feel alert the next day. Sleep requirements vary over the life cycle (National Sleep Foundation 2007).

In addition, within this paradigm men are construed as having little regard for, and taking risks with, their sleep, In essence, sleep becomes a tool used to demonstrate idealised forms of masculinity and to assume positions of power –‘relative to women and less powerful men’ (Courtenay 2000: 1397):

Men are demonstrating dominant norms of masculinity when they refuse to take sick leave from work, when they insist that they need little sleep, and when they boast that drinking does not impair their driving (Courtenay 2000: 1389).

Yet, there are points of debate here. For example, Riska (2006) re-examines the ‘male as victim’ thesis which underpins much of the above discussion. She suggests that the victimisation argument is represented by two interpretations, both of which point towards men's lack of agency: the first suggests that the behaviours men engage in to prove traditional (that is white, middle-class, heterosexual) masculinities, influence their life expectancy. This argument identifies a ‘dark side’ to masculinity; a side which leads men to engage in life-shortening behaviours. The second interpretation of the health costs of masculinities highlights how men are ‘trapped’ because of primary economic responsibility. As Riska suggests, here the traditional (white, middle-class, heterosexual) male role is seen as oppressive, as ‘modern men want to change, but they are trapped in a narrow economic role in the public sphere and with few opportunities for human growth and for participating in the care of their children’ (2006: 15). Riska (2006) challenges both of these conceptions; emphasising instead how masculinities have been medicalised and ‘dealt with as unmarked by gender’ by the medical profession (Riska 2006: 22, see also Rosenfeld and Faircloth 2006).

Recent research which has focused on men's everyday experiences certainly calls into question the accuracy of ‘victimisation’ models or, at the very least, suggests some form of change. For example, Robertson (2003) notes that the historical suggestion that men do not take their health seriously can no longer be sustained (see also Williams 2003: 60). Rather, men face a dilemma between showing they do not care and realising that they should care and, as a result, caring for health needs to be legitimised or explained in some way by men (Robertson 2003). Men's ‘need’ to show indifference to health sits in direct conflict with the late modern requirement that ‘good’ citizens manage their own health and minimise risk taking (the ‘don't care/should care’ dichotomy). As Robertson states:

it is not just caring too much about health that puts hegemonic identity at risk. Not to take enough care with one's health, particularly through indulging in excess, also moves one away from hegemonic ideals. It suggests irresponsibility and lack of control, which then becomes representative of transgressive (male) behaviour (Robertson 2006a: 184).

In similar vein Mullen (1992) suggests that men perform ‘balancing acts’. Drawing upon data pertaining to mid-life men's perceptions of the health effects of their occupations, Mullen suggests that tobacco and alcohol are often used as a means of coping with the self-perceived strains and pressures of work. Although the men in his study were aware of the negative effects of smoking and drinking, they ‘often saw themselves as involved in a trade-off between conflicting priorities’ (Mullen 1992: 82). In essence the men were consciously attempting to ‘balance both sides of the dichotomy’, between control and release or between moderation and excess, in order to maximise the possibilities for good health. Lifecourse events, such as marriage and fatherhood, may play a key role in this balancing act; drawing ‘people towards responsible conviviality’ (Mullen 1993: 177 quoted in Watson 2000: 39).

Adding to this, Watson (2000) suggests that men have to ‘manage ambiguity’ between how they define others’ health and how they engage with their own health. He proposes the ‘male body schema’. This schema involves four different modes of embodiment: Normative embodiment, which is closely related to body ‘stereotypes’, Pragmatic embodiment, which relates to the idea of having a ‘normal everyday body’, (Watson 2000: 119) and Experiential and Visceral embodiment. Experiential embodiment is the primary site for experiencing emotions or the ‘blood tingling’ after a work out, and is the space in which the social and physical boundaries of the body touch. Visceral embodiment relates to the ‘unseen’, ‘body you are born with’. Here reside perceived ‘biological imperatives’ such as genes and ‘losing your hair’, or bodily behaviours you can do nothing about. According to Watson, in defining healthy and unhealthy others, men focus heavily on bodily form. Yet, on an individual level, the focus is on pragmatic embodiment; that is on having a ‘normal everyday body’ (Watson 2000: 119) and with maintaining a ‘healthy’ functioning body (Robertson 2006b). Men are concerned with sustaining a ‘fit’ between achieving everyday tasks and having the right amount of physical fitness to achieve these tasks (Watson 2000: 122). It is the incompatibility of the tools used to evaluate others’ and their own health which prompts the need for ‘ambiguity management’ (Watson 2000: 121).

What this leaves us with, then, is a series of questions: (i) Do men know little about sleep? (ii) Do men have a negative attitude towards sleep? (iii) Do men take risks with their sleep? And (iv) can these behaviours be situated within discussions of masculinities? This paper attempts to answer these questions. After outlining the methods used, the paper turns to describe the core assumptions underpinning men's discussions of their sleep. From here the paper offers a description of men's attitudes towards sleep and unravels aspects of risk-taking through a focus on driving whilst sleepy. Finally, in the discussion, we return to notions of ‘victimisation’ and masculinities.

Two further points need to be noted here: First, the discussion of ‘victimisation’ and masculinities is offered tentatively. The under-explored nature of men's sleep requires distance to be kept from generalised statements, especially those concerning dominant forms of masculinity. In this respect, the paper spends more time describing and unpicking men's relationship with sleep; we follow Hearn's (2004: 61) agenda for research on men which includes the suggestion that ‘we may consider the description and analysis of men's various and variable everyday, ‘natural(ized)’, ‘ordinary’, ‘normal’ and most taken-for granted practices to women, children and other men and their contradictory, even paradoxical, meanings – rather than the depiction of the most culturally valued ideal or the most exaggerated or over-conforming forms of men's practices’ (emphasis in original). Secondly, the men under consideration here are all white, mainly middle-class and would describe themselves as heterosexual. These men reflect the ‘traditional’ masculinities referred to throughout the discussion above. As such, these men's understandings, attitudes and risk-taking can be directly situated alongside the arguments outlined.

Methods

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Methods
  5. Understanding sleep
  6. Attitudes towards sleep
  7. Risk, reflexivity and sleep
  8. Discussion
  9. Conclusion
  10. Acknowledgements
  11. References

This paper analyses data on men collected as part of an ESRC-funded project investigating the ways in which couples negotiate their sleep. A favourable ethical opinion was gained from the University of Surrey ethics committee. Forty couples (aged between 20 and 59, with and without children) were first interviewed together within their own home. Immediately following this couple interview, each partner was asked to wear an actiwatch, a small watch-like device which measures movement, and complete an audio sleep diary (see Hislop and Arber 2003, Hislop et al. 2005) for a week. The partners were then interviewed individually four to six weeks later. This paper analyses data from the couple interviews and from the individual interviews with the male partner. All interviews were tape recorded and transcribed in full.

A range of recruitment strategies was employed to obtain the sample. As the aim was to glean in-depth knowledge about the nature of couples’‘sleep reality’, our sampling approach was purposive in nature (Arber 2001). Flyers were hand delivered around estates in the South East of England (eliciting an average response of one couple per 100 flyers). Further to this, friends or family members were approached and asked to act as something akin to ‘gatekeepers’: approaching their social networks; describing and, one assumes, legitimising the research. Finally, utilising snowball techniques, participants were invited to pass on details of the study to family and friends. Each participating couple received £100 to compensate them for their time and commitment. The sample was solely heterosexual and coupled.

Although this methodology was primarily designed to understand couples’ sleep, it was also purposively constructed to deal with the issues under examination here. For example, the focus on heterosexual, white, (largely) middle-class men matched the desire to focus on men who are potentially nearer to notions of ‘traditional’ masculinities. In addition, coupled men offer a potential solution to a central problem which arises when trying to get at men's understandings and engagement with sleep. On the one hand, there is a need to obtain rich, lay accounts, since lay perspectives hold the key to understanding the relationship between body, self, culture and society (Watson 2000). For Popay et al. (1998), lay knowledge acts as ‘the medium through which people locate themselves within the places they inhabit and determine how to act within and upon them’ (1998: 619 see also Robertson 2006b: 435). Qualitative interviews are considered one of the most useful tools for getting at such ‘deep understandings’ (cf. Silverman 1993: 95). As Taylor notes, qualitative interviews ‘are appropriate for the researcher who seeks to access the participants’ understanding of the world and their experiences’ (2005: 40).

Yet, on the other hand, talking to men about their sleep is potentially problematic. It has been suggested that people take sleep for granted and rarely reflect on it consciously (Borbely 1986). This links into Williams’ more general suggestion that much of our daily lives is predicated upon practices which we carry out unthinkingly (1995: 598). Robertson offers some support for this stance, suggesting that men have difficulties in knowing how to respond to questions regarding what they conceive health to be. Reflecting arguments made by Williams (1995), Robertson acknowledges that this may be because everyday practices are not wholly consciously organised and are accomplished routinely and unthinkingly (2006a: 178). This lack of conscious thinking on the topic may lead to ‘an inability to rehearse or anticipate what the interviewer might want to know or what they might want to tell’ (cf. McKee and O’Brien 1983: 151, Brannen 1988).

The ‘joint interview’ design was adopted in an attempt to overcome these possible problems. An individual's ‘habitus’ and ‘practical consciousness’ are partly formed by public narratives regarding appropriate gender behaviour (Robertson 2006a). Joint interviews allow for these public narratives to be played out within the interview setting. Further to this, through joint interviews with their partner, men may also be less inclined to offer ‘minimal’ answers or employ other strategies which authors, such as Schwalbe and Wolkomir (2001) suggest men do in an attempt to remain in control.1 The interviews were semi-structured in format, and the questions asked were very open-ended and not specifically focused on (sleep and) illness or (sleep and) health. Rather, the questions concerned topics such as, ‘what constitutes a good night's sleep?’

Analysis was carried out using a grounded theory approach (Glaser and Strauss 1967, Bluff 2005). Level 1 coding, or open coding, noted issues relating to the men's perceptions of sleep. These were initially identified in response to questions pertaining to the perceived importance of sleep and questions which sought to probe the respondent's knowledge of the scientific sleep discourses. Analytically at Level 2, these core assumptions could be seen to be connected in complex ways; shedding light on men's attitudes towards sleep and to the relationship between sleep and ‘risk-taking’. Throughout the paper, participant quotations are identified by their couple number, age of participant, occupation and the type of interview (CI for Couple Interview; II for Individual Interview). We now outline men's understandings of sleep, their attitudes towards sleep and discuss the relationship between sleep and risk-taking, before returning to issues surrounding masculinities.

Understanding sleep

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Methods
  5. Understanding sleep
  6. Attitudes towards sleep
  7. Risk, reflexivity and sleep
  8. Discussion
  9. Conclusion
  10. Acknowledgements
  11. References

Four recurring and core assumptions were identified within the men's narratives: ‘sleep is something my body needs’; ‘my body needs change and are changeable’; ‘my body needs are specific to me’ and ‘sleep and functioning’. Each of these is discussed in turn below:

Sleep is something my body needs

The men considered sleep to be a ‘bodily need’. Sleep remained firmly located within the body, even when it was talked about as something which fuels the mind (sleep leads to improved concentration) or when the mind was considered as something which delays or disrupts sleep (thinking too much leads to delayed ‘switch off’). The body was seen as ultimately controlling the onset and offset of sleep. For example, one 33-year-old male often fell asleep at ‘inappropriate moments’, including whilst riding his motorcycle. When asked whether he thought that this was a problem, he replied:

Your body is telling you that you need to sleep for whatever reason. Do you know what I mean for physical, mental . . . you know what I mean? Your body is sad for whatever reason, you know? It is time to close down for five minutes, you know? So that is not a bad thing, you know? But no, I think it is more annoying to everybody else, than it actually is for me. (ID 1; 35; Self-employed builder; II)

In locating sleep as such, the men appeared to separate ‘my body needs’ and what ‘I want’:

And for me it was very much a lifestyle choice, I guess if my body needed that, I guess I would have to do it, and I don't know whether I can consider myself fortunate that I don't. (ID 4; 30; Computer programmer; CI)

My sleeping pattern I would say is exactly the same, or my desired sleeping pattern and my actual sleeping pattern are the same. I reckon I have always been someone who, I can party quite late, but I will always get up early in the morning. (ID 2; 51; Architect; CI)

In essence, men suggested that they had to suffer the demands of their body: if ‘one is a morning person and wakes naturally, even though perhaps he would rather not be, you know, there is probably not a lot you can do about that’ (ID 9; 45; Buildings facilitator; II).

My body needs change and are changeable

The second core assumption extended the discussion above by emphasising the ‘changeability’ of ‘body needs’. A cursory glance at the men's discourses suggested that ‘bodily needs’ were constant. For example, reference was made back to childhood sleep, suggesting some form of immutability, and phrases such as ‘always been’ were used:

Yes, I never struggled to keep myself awake when I was at work. It was like a buzz. And even now, sometimes now, I can get a buzz out of being up at sort of two or three o’clock in the morning. It is strange I don't know how to explain it but I have always been like that. It has never really given me too much of a problem not having a full eight hours. (ID 19; 48; Refrigeration engineer; CI)

It has always been the same. Some months I will go that I keep waking up at night and can't get to sleep and I wake up at night, and then I can't get up in the morning, and then all of a sudden I have a month of really good sleep when it is really good. (ID 17; 43; Self-employed refrigeration engineer; CI)

Yet discussions of ‘always been’ do not negate the fact that sleep might not ‘always be’. For the men within the present study, sleep and bodily needs were seen as both changing and as changeable (or controllable). For example:

All the time I was working nights, all the sleep I was ever getting during the day was maximum five hours. So I am still finding it has settled down more now, over the last couple of weeks. So it has taken all this time to get my body used to being awake during the day. (ID 22; 27; Bus driver; CI)

There was a time that I felt practically nocturnal and that was when I wasn't getting enough sleep, so you would wake up in the morning feeling awful, start to come alive by mid morning and by sort of eight-nine o’clock at night, we would just sort of come into our prime, and so it seemed a pity to be going to bed at 10. Whereas now I have possibly just pushed my body rhythm a few hours earlier, so I come alive for the morning and then feel tired by about ten. Whereas I used to peak at ten, and it seemed a pity to go to bed. (ID 26; 26; Research Scientist; CI)

In essence the men appeared to reflect Borbely's suggestion that sleep is a ‘theme with variations’ (1986: 31). Adopting a particular strategy, such as ‘pushing your body rhythm’, can ‘improve’ some facet of self (cf. Watson 2000: 120), although it may not be able to significantly override ‘biological imperatives’ such as perceived age-related changes in sleep and the need for sleep per se. Put another way, changes in patterns of sleep can be undertaken but these need to be considered in relation to, and (potentially) in resistance to, dominant biological factors.

My body needs are specific to me

Sleep need was also discussed in very individualistic terms. When asked to comment on the amount of sleep people need, many of the men suggested that it depends on the individual, not least of all because ‘some people sleep better than others’ (ID 18: 59; Site engineer; II).

Some people have six hours and that is good for them and they are fine. It is what you need, depending on your metabolism to me. (ID 18: 59; Site engineer; II)

I think six, they say – do they say six, depends on the person, weight and all that, doesn't it? (ID 23; 25; Car mechanic; II)

Somewhat paradoxically, this individualising of sleep often sat alongside discussions of how ‘groups’ of people are different. Thus, just as the men within the present study believed that sleep was changeable but only in relation to, and in resistance to, dominant biological factors, many of the men viewed sleep as an individualised entity, but one which could be moulded by collective tendencies or group attributes. For example, positioning themselves at the intersection of the assumption that my ‘body needs are specific to me’ and the belief that ‘my body needs change and are changeable’, the following men suggested that:

There is such a huge variability between people and also over the course of our lives. I mean it depends on how old you are. Quite clearly elderly people sleep very much more. It is a lot of dozing sleep and so on and babies sleep a tremendous amount more so I find that a very absurd statement [that everybody needs seven hours sleep]. (ID 28; 54; Accountant; II)

I think everyone is different, aren't they? I wouldn't say that is true, because everyone is different, so everyones’ body is different. Yes and then, when you obviously get older your body is different. Yes. (ID 14; 29; Self-employed hair dresser; II)

Sleep and functioning

The final core assumption found within the men's dialogues related to why the ‘body needs’ sleep. This was seen, primarily, because of a perceived link between sleep and function. In contrast to many of the women in the study, for men, sleep was not seen as a ‘corporeal pleasure’ (cf. Crossley 2004) or as an important requirement for bodily appearance (cf. Hislop 2004). Although with respect to the discussion above, there was some ambiguity as to whether the men were suggesting that ‘my body’ needs sleep to function or whether ‘I’ need sleep to function, sleep was said to be primarily about ‘regaining the reserves and energy to do whatever you want to do the next day’ (ID 4; 30; Computer programmer; CI). For example, as many of the men said ‘If I don't have a good night's sleep, I know it at work’ (ID 23; 25; Car mechanic; CI) or ‘[sleep is] critical for functioning in my job’ (ID 24; 55; Senior academic researcher; CI). Sleep, in essence, was considered ‘deadly important’ in relation to paid employment:

If you are a working person you have to go to work and be on the ball. If you are not on the ball then it just makes work much, much harder and so sleep is deadly important. And in my opinion you can break up a few nights as long as you have kept it up at some point. And we all have body clocks. It is like me trying to sleep in the day. Unless I am absolutely exhausted, I can't. I am awake and that is it. Rarely can I sleep during the day, although I might try. Often just lying down and being quiet is quite beneficial (ID 3; 37; Self-employed plumber; II).

The job requires creativity or intense mental activity, so you need a good night's sleep (ID 24; 55; Senior academic researcher; CI).

In sum, men's beliefs about sleep centred on the assumptions that sleep is an (individualised) necessity, a bodily need, which is pliable (to an extent) and which is intrinsically linked to functioning. These core assumptions appear to reflect health promotion literature on sleep. As detailed above, the US National Sleep Foundation emphasises sleep as necessary for ‘function’ and ‘individual difference’. Further to this, the concept of ‘catch-up’ sleep, which is now common within Western societies, is underpinned by a belief in the, albeit limited, pliability of sleep patterns.

Attitudes towards sleep

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Methods
  5. Understanding sleep
  6. Attitudes towards sleep
  7. Risk, reflexivity and sleep
  8. Discussion
  9. Conclusion
  10. Acknowledgements
  11. References

Despite believing sleep to be an important necessity (especially for functioning in paid work), the men offered narratives which suggested that they depicted sleep as an annoyance or a ‘waste of time’:

I don't want to waste my time being asleep because the question of being dead and being asleep, and I don't want to waste my time being asleep. (ID 33; 57; Academic; CI)

One man went so far as to say that he would like to take a ‘pill’ which would remove the need for sleep completely: ‘if there was something that would have me feeling as good as I do at the moment and not have to sleep – yes’ (ID 26; 26; Research Scientist; CI). Another male suggested that ‘there are more important things to worry about than your sleep, I think, really’ (ID 6; 46; Self-employed car mechanic; CI). Men's lack of priority afforded to sleep also manifested itself when asked what advice men might give to another person about sleep. Answers given were often minimal and suggested that the men had rarely considered or cared about their dormancy.

Gosh five tips. Make sure you have a comfortable mattress. Again it is from a personal point of view. Make sure you have at least six hours sleep. I don't know. Don't sleep during the day. If you want to fall asleep, have a few beers. . . . Gosh I don't know. I can't think at all. (ID 16; 36; Owns printing business; II)

Further to this, the men believed that sleep should never get in the way of ‘having a life’:

[Following the interviewer suggestion that eight hours is necessary for good health] No I think personally there is not enough hours in the day anyway and I think it is my own choice to commute as far as I do for my job, but it means I tend to find the time I have got is limited after I come back from the job. I like the concept of being able to make more of my evening but that means at the expense of having any sleep. Trying to be sort of reasonable over the last five or six months and go to bed at a reasonable time with [partner] but then there comes an occasional week when I am just not ready to go to sleep yet. And want to just say well I can handle it, and it doesn't bother me too much that I haven't had that much [sleep]– because I know that probably by mid way through the morning commute I will be ready to tackle the day. I will probably suffer a little bit later on towards the end of the working day or once I get home from work in the evening but it is to me that sort of sacrifice feels worthwhile. (ID 4; 30; Computer programmer; CI)

I find it frustrating that you know, you mentioned the thing about the students earlier. I used to go out with a student and they are always like sleeping during the day. I thought that was lazy. It is because they have been drinking alcohol and they have gone to bed late and they are catching up during the day as well. So I have never really thought sleep a massively important part of my life. Of course it is a necessity. But I mean I have a couple of friends who go to bed 10 o’clock every night, every single [night] that is the latest they go to bed. Because they feel they will be knackered in the morning. I think if I got into a situation where for some reason I had to go to bed at 10 o’clock every night and I found it benefited me in the morning I may try and alternate and sort of do a week like that, but I just don't. I cannot get to sleep. (ID16; 36; Owns printing business; II)

At face value, then, this could be interpreted as evidence that men have little regard for sleep. However, if considered alongside the men's understandings of sleep these narratives can be seen as suggesting something more complex than a simple lack of regard. The men are embroiled within a ‘function/non-function’ balancing act. This manifested itself clearly when one male, in response to his wife, situated ‘sleep need’ alongside ‘work done’:

Wife: But I am sure I don't get as much sleep as I would like really. I mean probably seven hours would be good I would imagine. You probably get more hours sleep generally than me don't you. You are not so disturbed.

Male: I am not so disturbed in the night. And how does that compare to how much you work? (ID 25; 37; Project manager; CI)

This balancing act also manifested itself in narratives concerning exercise (can make you sleepy; but not if you do it too late at night) and daytime napping (an inappropriate time to sleep). It also appeared that the men erred more on the side of ‘function’. Notions of ‘bodily need’, ‘change and changeability’ appeared integral here. As one male suggested, ‘you have got to give your body a chance to adjust’ (ID 5; 35; Lorry driver; II). Others stated that you can ‘get a life’ by gradually getting used to a decrease in sleep time, and discussed sleep in terms of ‘acceptable sacrifice’ and ‘productivity’. Throughout all this the ‘body’ is left to inform them (the ‘I’) if they have pushed the boundaries too far.

Risk, reflexivity and sleep

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Methods
  5. Understanding sleep
  6. Attitudes towards sleep
  7. Risk, reflexivity and sleep
  8. Discussion
  9. Conclusion
  10. Acknowledgements
  11. References

The emphasis on ‘giving your body chance to adjust’ and ‘acceptable sacrifice’ does suggest that the men's relationship with sleep is underpinned by notions of risk. Indeed, the men did offer discourses which seemed synonymous with risk-taking. According to Horne (2006) ‘the greatest impact of sleepiness is from falling asleep at the wheel’ (2006: xi), yet the men seemed to be either unaware of this or willing to test it to the extreme. As one male suggested, ‘I was terrible in the mornings driving to work. I was so sleepy, but I never thought I could do it. But you just do’ (ID 11; 27; Electrician; CI). Others offered similar narratives:

[Discussing sleep walking and automatic functioning] I suppose it is like, well, it could be a similar thing when you are driving and you don't know where you have been, but you are just flaked out and you are there. It could be a similar sort of thing. (ID 23; 25; Car mechanic; CI)

[Discussing driving and his Army career] You drink plenty of coffee and it is just on auto pilot then. (ID 5; 35; Lorry driver; CI)

Yet, at the same time, the men also suggested that they were reflexive about their sleep, both in relation to driving and to other tasks:

I don't think I could do that kind of work [long-distance driving] on the sleep I am on. Because that is where you might fall asleep driving on the motorway [as it] is so laborious. You are going like a . . . driving like a zombie and if I did that, then I would need a lot more sleep. (ID 5; 35; Lorry driver; CI)

Wife:  [asked whether sleep was important] Oh yes, I do!

Husband:  If we didn't have children, I wouldn't buy that.

Wife:  I probably wouldn't worry no.

Husband:  But when you have got children and it is when they [the children] have got special needs as well. It takes it out of you more, and you get stressed out a lot.

  (ID 38; 40; Electrician; CI)

As evidenced above, part of this ‘reflexivity’ involved perceiving some tasks as needing more sleep than others. Just as men's relationship with fitness has been said to be ‘contingent upon the individual, and thus the infinitely variable construction of everyday . . . roles and obligations’ (Watson 2000: 123), the amount of sleep deemed necessary for functioning appeared to be based on circumstances and expectations. Other aspects involved identifying differences between their own and their partner's sleep; a differentiation which was often supported by the women:

We mentioned at our other interview when our children were babies, [wife] found that she could get up and attend to them in the night without any real discomfort to her sleep. Whereas if I am disturbed through the night, it really does crease me. (ID 28; 54; Accountant; II)

Male:  But as soon as I wake up, I'm up and that's it. I’ll go.

Female:  [partner] could wake up and literally leave and drive. I can't do that. I would have to be awake for 10, 15 minutes and get my bearings. But you could phone [partner] at four o’clock in the morning and he could get dressed and be in the car by the time I have physically got out of bed (laughs). And I have said to [partner] you could ring at any point, but if you ring after it's dark, after midnight and keep talking to me and until I actually say ‘oh it's you’ I have no idea what I am saying I will just go ‘or whatever’, and make sure I know what you want me to do and then go back to bed and think what was that? (ID 1: both in their early 30s; Self-employed builder; CI)

In summary, the men may seem to have little regard for sleep and be prone to risk-taking. However, the situation is not as simple as this. The men are embroiled within a function/non-function balancing act and narratives of risk also contain examples of reflexivity. This situation appears provoked and legitimised by the men's understandings of sleep, which in turn appear legitimised by wider health information on sleep.

Discussion

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Methods
  5. Understanding sleep
  6. Attitudes towards sleep
  7. Risk, reflexivity and sleep
  8. Discussion
  9. Conclusion
  10. Acknowledgements
  11. References

These qualitative data from 40 men talking about their sleep suggests, at one level, that men's relationship with sleep is far removed from notions of traditional masculinities. At this level then, Mullen's (1992) ‘balancing acts’ appear to be reproduced and Robertson seems correct to assert that ‘it is not just caring too much about health that puts hegemonic identity at risk. Not to take enough care with one's health, particularly through indulging in excess, also moves one away from hegemonic ideals’ (Robertson 2006a: 184).

Yet this does not necessarily mean that men's relationship with sleep is benign. Aspects of the ‘victimisation’ thesis may stand here. Men may only gauge whether they have had enough sleep to do something once they have done it. It is possibly this blurring of risk and reflexivity which leads some of the males discussed above to emphasise how ‘you just do it’ (ID 11; 27; Electrician; CI). The emphasis on function may also become bound up with a view of the body as an instrument to serve ends; which, in turn, may lead to the men having ‘little ongoing relationship with [their] somatic processes’ (Seidler 1989: 64, see also Robertson 2006b: 438). Men's functional view of their bodies may also be coupled, at least until the onset of noticeable body changes, with an expectation that the body will perform (White 2001); leading them to ‘gauge’ their sleep needs ‘incorrectly’.

Men's engagement with sleep may also give them status and power over other men and women. Four things need to be considered here: First, the men are embroiled within a ‘function/non-function’ balancing act and expect others to be as well. Second, within this balancing act some functions are seen as requiring more sleep than others. Third, within the men's narratives the functions prioritised predominantly reflected the (male) praxis of ‘worker’, ‘driver’ and ‘mate’. Finally, unlike in Watson's study men are not required to ‘manage ambiguity’. Women and men, for example, both agree and are subjected to the same criteria (as with the male above who asked his wife ‘how does that compare with how much you work?’). This is despite the fact that women were frequently described as biologically different (for example the male who suggested his wife ‘sleeps lighter’) and sleep need being considered as an individual thing. Within the couples studied, there appears to be a hegemonic version of sleep, with women ‘actively consenting’ to the subordination of their sleep needs (see also Venn et al. forthcoming). If modern man is ‘trapped’ because of primary economic responsibility (cf. Riska 2006), he is at least having his sleep prioritised.

Yet as noted above, this qualitative study does not necessarily lend itself to the formation of generalised concepts and commentary. This is not least because it purposefully chose to focus on ‘traditional’ men. There are, of course, multiple masculinities and as Imms suggests, these ‘diversify hegemonic power structures, rendering them more accessible to rehabilitation’ (Watson 2000: 159). It is possible that other men may draw upon other resources to define themselves as ‘man’.

Further research is required here. Any such research could fruitfully focus on the ‘functional’ bias within sleep literature. Men's engagement with sleep may reflect health promotion material, but at the same time health promotion material may legitimately allow for a gendered reading. As Watson suggests, men are most concerned with sustaining a ‘fit’ between achieving everyday tasks and having the right amount of physical fitness to achieve these tasks (2000: 122). These tasks are gendered, as the praxis of ‘father’, ‘worker’, ‘husband’ and ‘mate’ is the means by which ‘masculinity and health is socially confirmed’ (Watson 2000: 119). The site where ‘function’, as exposed by the health promotion literature, and men's understandings of function meet may be the key arena where multiple masculinities are played out. Where sleep is deemed to have ‘gone wrong’, it may also be a useful window onto the potentially medicalised nature of masculinities.

Conclusion

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Methods
  5. Understanding sleep
  6. Attitudes towards sleep
  7. Risk, reflexivity and sleep
  8. Discussion
  9. Conclusion
  10. Acknowledgements
  11. References

Throughout the men's discussions of sleep were suggestions that they did not care about sleep and that sleep was an unwelcome ‘dead time’. Some of their descriptions of sleep-related behaviours appeared synonymous with risk-taking behaviour. At one level, then, sleep could be positioned within paradigms which suggest that men use unhealthy behaviour to define themselves as men (cf. Courtenay 2000).

This paper, however, has highlighted how, when researching (men's) sleep, there is a need to begin with frames of reference, understandings of sleep and what sleep is actually perceived to be. Within the present study, there was little discussion of the reciprocal relationship between health and sleep. Rather, four core assumptions underpinned the men's discussions of sleep: ‘sleep is something my body needs’; ‘my body needs change and are changeable’; ‘my body needs are specific to me’ and that sleep is intrinsically linked to function.

Men's attitudes to sleep are both enabled (or provoked) and constrained by these assumptions. For example, these understandings, and especially the belief that sleep is something that my body needs, enabled the men to remove the responsibility for caring about sleep away from I, but not remove it altogether. Men did see sleep as important and as a necessity, especially in relation to paid work. However, the emphasis on sleep=important=function, logically led to a prioritising of a function/non-function dichotomy. In essence, for the men, sleep is something which the body should worry about whilst they remained focused on trying to ensure that they got enough sleep to function, but not so much that it prevented them having enough time to perform valued roles and responsibilities.

The primacy of the function/non-function dichotomy within the men's understandings of sleep blurred the boundaries between reflexivity and risk. There is an understanding that the body will inform them if they have pushed their biological imperatives too far. Yet, it is the ability to function which is central to how the body communicates. Men's prior expectation that the body will perform, coupled with the possibility that retrospective knowledge (you do not know if you can function until it is attempted) has to be used, may lead men to have sleep related accidents.

Yet this is not to suggest that these men's relationship with sleep was not gendered. The men's emphasis on function was in essence a prioritising of (male) tasks. Reflecting Watson (2000: 122), men are most concerned with sustaining a ‘fit’ between achieving everyday (gendered) tasks and having the right amount of sleep to achieve these tasks. Other men (and women) appeared to be judged by their ability to achieve this ‘fit’.

Acknowledgements

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Methods
  5. Understanding sleep
  6. Attitudes towards sleep
  7. Risk, reflexivity and sleep
  8. Discussion
  9. Conclusion
  10. Acknowledgements
  11. References

The authors would like to thank Vicky Vaughan for assisting with some of the data collection, and Andy King and members of the ESRC Sleep and Society seminar series for useful discussions. We would also like to thank the two anonymous reviewers and the Editors of Sociology of Health and Illness for their insightful comments. Thanks must also go to the numerous men and women who gave up their time to participate in this research. This study was funded by Economic and Social Research Council grant RES-000-23-0268.

Note
  • 1

    It is however difficult to quantify the exact extent to which this methodology had an impact. As the quotations contained within this paper indicate, though, men did offer lengthy narratives. It should be noted, of course, that joint interviews may also affect the dynamics of the women's narratives within this study.

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  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Methods
  5. Understanding sleep
  6. Attitudes towards sleep
  7. Risk, reflexivity and sleep
  8. Discussion
  9. Conclusion
  10. Acknowledgements
  11. References
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