A critical evaluation of the proposition

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David Collinson and Jeff Hearn posit that “… a challenge to men’s taken-for-granted dominant masculinities could facilitate the emergence of less coercive and less divisive organisational structures, cultures and practices” (Collinson and Hearn, 1996: 73). This paper offers a critical evaluation of this proposition within a structuralist/poststructuralist conceptual framework, centring on discourse as a means by which taken-for granted dominant masculinities may be ameliorated. The theoretical examination, detailed under Conceptual foundations below, begins with an appraisal of the value of discourse in both the workplace and wider society. Discourse is shown to be powerful and widely accepted, with the potential to challenge dominant masculinities. This potential, however, is not without its difficulties. The practical considerations of the potential challenge identified are examined under The challenge to dominant masculinities below. Previous challenges to taken-for-granted masculinities are considered and are found to have been limited in their success, inter alia, due to the external points of origin of their discourses. Finally the Conclusion recapitulates upon the paper’s findings. Collinson and Hearn’s (1996) proposition is found to be valid but conceptually flawed and optimistic, requiring a more robust challenge than they imply.

Conceptual foundations

Language is the tool of the various discourses that contribute to the formation and communication of social structures, cultures and practices (Van Dijk, 1997). The “linguistic turn” – the name given to the encapsulation of the centrality of language in the development of structures, cultures and practices – is a product of structuralist and post-structuralist philosophy (Barrett, 1998), and is most commonly associated with the nineteenth and twentieth century work of Ferdinand de Saussure, Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault (Potter, 2000). The linguistic turn concept captures the importance of both words and interpretation – “signification” (Barrett, 1998) – which may be described as being either “internal”, i.e. that which is acceptable to and readily adopted within the relevant settings (and usually originating therein), or “external”, i.e. that which is unacceptable and rejected by the relevant settings, due to having originated from outside and hence being recognised as alien. The processes by which these significations arise are herein respectively described as “internalisation” and “externalisation”. Collinson and Hearn’s (1996: 73) suggestion can be read in two ways – as a workplace challenge, or one with a wider, societal base. Examination of the quoted sentence in its entirety – “The possibility of a challenge to men’s taken-for-granted dominant masculinities could facilitate the emergence of less coercive and less divisive organisational structures, cultures and practices, a fundamental rethinking of the social organisation of the domestic division of labour and a transformation of ‘men at work'” – suggests that their reference point encompasses the domestic division of labour (the private sphere) as well as the workplace (the public sphere). Collinson and Hearn (1996) optimistically suggest that dominant masculinities are “precarious” due to their inherent conflicts and the absence of solidarity between men. An alternative understanding of this is that dominant masculinities are necessarily in conflict due to masculinity’s characteristic division and competitiveness: it is in divisiveness that masculinity achieves its conceptual unity;

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