Printer Friendly

Masculinity, social support, and sense of community: the men's group experience in Western Australia.

Men are less likely than women to seek help for emotional problems (Good, Dell & Mintz, 1989; Robertson & Fitzgerald, 1992). The fact that they are less likely to seek help for emotional challenges has implications for psychological and physical well-being and has contributed to the rise in alternative systems of support. Increasingly, researchers are exploring the role of alternative systems of support such as all-male support groups in addressing the different health needs of men (Mankowski, 2000; Mankowski & Silvergleid, 1999-2000; Robertson & Fitzgerald, 1992). In this paper we report on research that investigated the experiences of men in two types of all-male support groups. We were specifically interested in understanding the ways these groups function from the perspectives of these men, and to clarify the ways in which these groups facilitate awareness of masculine identities.


Within the broader literature base on men's issues, there has been some focus on the ways in which traditional male roles are being redefined and the implications of this for men's social and psychological well-being (e.g., Biddulph, 1995; Coyle & Morgan-Sykes, 1998; Horrocks, 1994; Levant, 1992). Distinctions between what is perceived as masculine and unmasculine have become blurred, resulting in confusion and gender-role conflict (Buchbinder, 1994). The "norms" of masculinity that included restrictive emotionality, self-reliance, avoiding femininity, seeking status and success, aggression, fear of intimacy, and homophobia have collapsed (Levant, 1992; O'Shaughnessy, 1999). Connell (1987), for example, analyzed dominant male sexuality in Australia and referred to this as hegemonic masculinity. He described this as a type of heterosexual masculinity that is "macho" and typical of Australian culture. Patience (1991,1996) described Australia's "hard culture," suggesting that it has encouraged homophobia, rigidity, gender ambiguity, and the underestimated difficulties associated with being male.

The gender-role conflict that arises from the changing masculinity has been defined as a "psychological state in which gender-roles have negative consequences on the individual or others" (O'Neil, 1990, p.25). This conflict results in the restriction of a person's potential, and occurs when "rigid, sexist, or restrictive gender-roles, learned during socialization, result in the personal restriction, devaluation, or violation of others or self" (O'Neil, 1990, p.25). To deal with the challenges facing men, there has been a rise in the formation of all-male support systems. For example, self-help groups developed specifically for men's health issues have addressed fathering, prostate cancer (e.g., "Us Too") masculinity, and men's self-development (e.g., the "ManKind Project, MKP"; The Mankind Project, 2002; Mankowski & Silvergleid, 1999-2000) and batterer intervention programs, including the Duluth Model (Mankowski, Haaken & Silvergleid, 2002; Pence & Paymar, 1993). These groups function to provide a context within which men can deal with social and psychological issues including gender-role conflict.


The literature (e.g., Burda & Vaux, 1987; Wilson & Mankowski, 2000) indicates that social support groups are beneficial for men experiencing relationship problems or life crises where support systems breakdown. Social support operates in different ways, and there are different types of support (Felton & Shinn, 1992; Orford, 1992; Wills, 1985). According to Orford (1992), support networks provide informational, instrumental, emotional, and esteem support.

A main aim of all-male support groups is to allow men to assess themselves by looking inward through emotional work and learning new skills. That is, there is a strong focus on emotional support. These groups provide men with opportunities to develop emotional openness, intimacy, and role-related personal growth; men can also bond and form social and support networks with other members (Karsk & Thomas, 1987; Rabinowitz & Cochran, 1994). A key outcome of participation is that men gain insight into their gender-role socialization and relationships, and this reduces gender-role conflict (Karsk & Thomas, 1987).

Some have investigated patterns of interaction within all-male groups with researchers focusing on the way masculinity is negotiated in these groups (e.g., Mankowski, 2000; Wilson & Mankowski, 2000). Social identity is developed through shared personal storytelling and community narratives in these groups (Mankowski, 2000; Mankowski & Rappaport, 1995; Rappaport, 1993). Rappaport and others have illustrated the way processes and structures in GROW (Inc.) groups impact on members where members adopt an alternative narrative and gain emotional support while working toward their desired goals (Antze, 1976; Rappaport, 1993). People jointly reconstruct the narratives, and part of the power lies in the joint construction of the story in a supportive context. However, it appears few empirical studies in Australia have documented the nature of these supportive functions and processes in men's groups and the ensuing positive outcomes, which may include a deeper understanding of identities and self-understanding.


Mutual help organizations may be viewed as narrative communities where personal change and identity transformations are consequences of shared stories and narratives. Men's support groups may be construed as a relational community with a community narrative (Heller, 1989; McMillan & Chavis, 1986; Rappaport, 1993; 1995). Narratives may be communicated in various ways including writing, personal contact, rituals, and shared events. All-male groups provide members with an identity through their community narrative, and this provides a basis for change in a member's personal identity story (Rappaport, 1993). Mankowski and Rappaport (1995) used a narrative framework to explore identity development and transformation in social settings. They suggest masculine identity may be understood in terms of storytelling. From this perspective, hegemonic masculinity or dominant cultural stories guide social constructions of male identity. Dominant ideologies are communicated through social institutions and mass media, and may be in the form of myths, fairytales, or legends (Horrocks, 1995; O'Shaughnessy, 1999). Wilson and Mankowski (2000) suggest the use of mythology is more common in mythopoetic men's groups. This is characterized by Robert Bly's (1992) work, where men explore male spirituality and psychology by way of rituals, literature, and art. In some of these groups, the focus is on exchanging stories and creating alternative versions about masculine ideology (Mankowski, 2000).

Settings with strong narratives are likely to reflect a strong a sense of community (McMillan & Chavis, 1986). Sense of community is "a feeling that members have of belonging, a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group, and a shared faith that members' needs will be met through their commitment to be together" (McMillan & Chavis, 1986, p. 9). The model contains the elements of membership, influence, integration, and fulfillment of needs, and shared emotional connection. Membership is a feeling of belonging, of being a part, and a feeling that commitment has earned a right to membership and includes the attributes: boundaries, common symbol systems, emotional safety, and sense of belonging and identification. Sense of belonging and identification alludes to feelings of group acceptance and devotion. Common symbol systems help to maintain boundaries and create unity among group members. Influence is bi-directional and may stem from the member's input in the group and/or the group's influence on members to attain conformity and control (McMillan & Chavis, 1986).

This model has been applied to a range of settings (Fisher, Sonn, & Bishop, 2002) and can be used to explore men's groups because these function as community by providing a context for support and belonging. We used the model to examine men's experiences in men's groups in Perth, Australia. We were specifically interested in (a) exploring the experiences and perceptions of emotional and social support and community men have in these groups and (b) understanding how identity transformation is facilitated in men's groups.



Participants were 12 males ranging in age from 40 to 60 years (M = 47.5, SD = 5.06). Participants who had the knowledge and experience of men's groups were invited to participate in this study. The majority of the participants were Australian born, with one New Zealand born and one United Kingdom born participant. Participants were recruited from the community through the Men's Health and Well-being Association (M.H.W.A.) of Western Australia. All had been, or were currently, members of a men's group.

Ten participants came from four different group settings that focused primarily on men's personal growth issues, and two participants were involved with a domestic violence group. Some participants were currently members of more than one group. All groups were open and followed an unstructured group psychotherapy model (Pence & Paymar, 1993). Group numbers varied from three members in one group to a range of five to 30 in the other groups. At the time of interviewing, the average length of membership was four years (with a range of six months to ten years).

Educational backgrounds ranged from basic high school certificates to university postgraduates. Seven of the participants had been married, and six have children. Six men reported immediate family availability as a support network, and three reported availability of extended family.


A semi-structured interview schedule was used to guide the interviewing. Following two pilot interviews with two men previously involved in men's groups to establish the face validity and clarity of the questions, some questions were re-worded and some omitted (Smith, 1995). Questions included: "Can you tell me how you came to join a men's group?", "So, what has it been like?", "What has happened for you in your time in groups?", "What does being a member in the group mean to you?", and "In terms of being a man, have you found your (masculine) identity has changed?"


Participants were recruited through the M.H.W.A. Copies of information and consent letters were sent to key members of different men's groups, and these were passed on to members. On expression of interest, members contacted the researcher by phone, and an interview appointment was organized.

Participants were interviewed in-depth, using a semi-structured schedule. Interviews were tape recorded and lasted from 30 to 90 minutes. On completion, demographics were collected, and participants were de-briefed, and any further questions regarding the study were answered. The researcher kept a diary, and entries about values and interests were made after each interview. Documentation such as this gives a more complete account of the research process (Pidgeon & Henwood, 1997). After 12 interviews saturation had occurred, and interviewing stopped.


Data analysis followed the procedures outlined by Smith (1995) and those of Miles and Huberman (1984). After re-reading the transcript several times, memos and notes were made, and categorization and coding for data reduction commenced. To facilitate data analysis, each paragraph of the transcript was numbered, and significant sentences were underlined in blue pen. These were determined by the meaning they conveyed in relation to answering the research questions and demonstrating the salient features of the participants' experiences.

An independent analyst read and analyzed the data. Agreement of relevant and recurrent themes was decided after discussion and clarification of issues (e.g., reviewing relevant literature). This verification process ensures the transcript, or paragraphs, reflect the themes and categories interpreted by the researcher (Denzin & Lincoln, 1994). Secondly, where possible, member checking was employed (Miles & Huberman, 1984). Although limited, this involved contacting five participants and asking them to verify the researcher's interpretation and understanding of their transcripts to ensure authenticity.


The themes that developed reflected some aspects of sense of community (membership, influence, and integration and fulfillment of needs). The notion of social and emotional support was reflected throughout the transcripts and was predominantly reported under the theme of integration and fulfillment of needs. Another theme reflected the process involved in the men's group experience. Two categories were incorporated in this theme: personal growth and gender-role conflict. Quotations and keywords have been used in reporting to illustrate themes.


Boundaries. Who belongs in a group and who does not is determined by boundaries (McMillan & Chavis, 1986). Data suggested that boundaries are internally created for these groups; they are determined by differences in the way these men think and behave compared to what is considered the "norm" in Western society, typically the "macho" hegemonic masculinity. These attitude changes stem from group experiences. Work places were common arenas for these feelings to surface--where power, competition, and other traditional male traits are displayed. For example, according to one participant:
 ... but my way of relating to them [work colleagues] and
 my understanding of them is quite different of my
 experience in men's groups, because they can all pretend
 to be macho types, and to be a bunch of racists and sexists,
 but I also know that the vast majority of them have another
 side, although they are hiding it....

The participant continued: "They know that something is wrong but they haven't got to the point where it's hurting them enough that they are going to do something about it." This notion of us/them was reflected in many participants' stories.

This aspect of boundaries is important and serves to create a context that is perceived to be separate from the "outside world" and owned by members. A participant highlighted this by saying: "Because outside of that I don't have anything like that, so it's like my view for the common world."

Common symbol system. When participants were asked to give an account of a typical group experience, they reported using certain social conventions and collective representations such as "rituals," "ceremonies," "rules," and customary behavior. These characteristics were common across groups and provided a social bond that facilitated smooth functioning within the groups and fostered emotional security. The following description illustrates a typical group format:
 Firstly, we start off with a meditation.... and there's a
 sharing circle format. Then we open the floor for sharing,
 and there's a talking staff and you take that, and they
 have an open floor to discuss--and they deal with whatever
 issue they want to with an atmosphere of non-judgmental
 listening, and you don't give feedback.

Another participant's experience was:
 ... and after that [meditation] we ring a Tibetan bell and
 everyone would sit around, and we light the candles on the
 floor, and we read the charter for the men's group, which
 is that we meet for men's fellowship and there is an
 opportunity for personal growth.... We speak from the "I."
 That is very important that we don't start lecturing or
 talking about other people. Everything must be from "me"
 or "my" personal experience....

An important rule that must be practiced and adhered to is listening. Personal storytelling is an important part of the group process, where members are given the opportunity to tell their story. A "talking stick" is used to give the holder the right to speak without interruption (Barton, 1998). Used to organize the group, this ritual also serves to empower and honor members. This ideology is explained in the following quotation from one of the participants:
 We don't allow people to give advice--so we have a talking
 stick. When you hold the stick, it works. So, in situations
 where men are together, it is quite competitive, so one might
 tend to hold the fort more than others and interject, but with
 this system that can't happen.

Physical contact between members is encouraged and is an accepted characteristic of group behavior. However, this is gradually introduced to new members and is optional.

Emotional safety. Emotional safety is concerned with the security members' feel within their group. Membership criteria establish boundaries that provide the emotional security that facilitates group intimacy (McMillan & Chavis, 1986). Interview data indicated that these men felt security and acceptance among members in the context they had created. For example, comments like: "it was a safe place to go ...," and, from another: "I have learned in that environment to take risk...." This sense of security stems from an understanding and agreement of membership protocol. Risk-taking generally related to truth-telling and self-disclosing when telling personal stories. Hence, "confidentiality is imperative" and is "part of the charter" (ground rules developed by group members) for all groups. This fosters feelings of safety and confidence to "speak openly." When asked what it has been like in the group, one participant responded:
 It's been safe. I felt safe and confident. I can't tell my mates
 [outside the group] how I feel. And I can delve into how I'm
 feeling, and tell them almost anything. I don't mind speaking
 from the heart and speaking about personal things. So we speak
 as openly as you feel for yourself.

Data revealed one of the most effective codes of conduct for membership was the notion of speaking from the "I," or sometimes called "I" statements. This frame of reference protects members by facilitating "non-judgmental comment" and reminds members to "never give advice." As one participant explained: "... where you can do it [talk] here because there is no judgment, no `you said,' something I have learned, because it has to be `I' or `I' feel, feeling ones.... No accusing stuff."

Further, physical contact and sharing personal stories creates intimacy and trust and a sense of emotional security. For example: "I think the sort of hugging and stuff makes you really feel secure within the group--the physical contact," and, from another participant: "there is a sense of knowledge about those people and a degree of trust comes out of that for me." Many respondents said they had never revealed that much to anyone else before because they were now among a group of "common-focused people" with "shared values." For example, ".... you were taken very much at face value, in a supportive sort of environment where everyone was there for pretty much the same reason, because they were tired of the competitive male society, and it was a refuge from it if you like.... "This sense of emotional safety within the groups was consistent across transcripts.

Sense of belonging and identification. Responses reflecting sense of belonging were mostly related to feelings of acceptance and relatedness. Data suggested that these feelings were created and maintained by a safe environment, familiarity with the group, and shared value systems. The following comment illustrates the notions of acceptance and relatedness, and also reflects the presence of an "unconditional positive regard" for members:
 ... suddenly there was this forum where I could talk about the
 problems I was having ... and I didn't talk about that to anyone
 before that ... they allow me to express my feelings and to
 recognize how I am feeling and also see other men doing the same
 thing.... And that is what I found was the greatest or biggest
 thing for me, was that I suddenly was among a group of men who I
 could relate to in quite a deep way, and trust, and a feeling of
 camaraderie that I had never experienced in any other place.

Sense of belonging and identification is shown to be an important, positive phenomenon for these men in transition, who have experienced low self-esteem and vulnerability related to personal crises and gender-role conflict.


The findings show most groups endorsed shared leadership where they "... acknowledge no expert, so we take expertise from each other ... and we take it in turns to be facilitator." The role of influence is central to these groups as this is linked to personal empowerment. This is explained in these words:
 [influence] is related to so many of these issues of what it is
 to be a man. I mean part of our Western society's conception
 of man is ... top dog sort of stuff. This is the traditional
 conception of maleness, the competitiveness, and top dog. But
 that's why there are certain understood protocols ... in which
 their [members'] own sense of their worth is being re-built
 through this process.

Traditional male-role socialization encourages men to control others, attain power, achieve, and compete. In men's groups, these behaviors are discouraged, and the notion of equality and honoring members is promoted in men's peer mutual support groups that share leadership and give feedback when asked. This ideology fosters personal empowerment and a sense of mattering to the group and to other members.

Data showed a need to conform by adhering to group protocol and adapting to a new community narrative where an alternative way of viewing masculinity is taught. This involved changes in attitude and behaviors toward other men. Some members reported difficulties in adapting, and one felt "quite traumatized and unsettled by having physical contact with other men...." This is further illustrated by the following comments: "so I am not used to hugging men ... there was no doubt at all I was homophobic."

These responses reflect a traditional male role trait--homophobia, a feature of hegemonic masculinity. Data suggested showing affection, although challenging, became an accepted way of relating to other men. This was noted across transcripts including the domestic violence group.


Integration and fulfillment of needs relates to reinforcement and rewards for members and is central to sense of community. Needs are determined by values and goals, and if shared by members, need-fulfillment is facilitated. In turn, people are able to meet their own and other people's needs (McMillan & Chavis, 1986). Data analysis reflected several important needs being met through membership in these groups. Common to most transcripts were shared goals, such as "personal growth," "lifestyle change," and "the fellowship of other men." Joining a men's group gave members "new life skills" and "structure." Other respondents reported the benefits of learning new ways of behaving toward other men--for example, "... to learn to relate to men and to learn to see men as friends ... who can actually nurture me rather than being competitors...."

Most participants reported a "crisis" or "turning point' in their life that triggered a need to seek some form of emotional support. This was reflected in comments such as: "I was in a state of pretty deep despair." Another respondent said: "I found that first group quite an anchor within my life, a life buoy at that time." A common theme was relationship breakdown, where a lack of emotional support was felt. This created a need to restructure their lives: "It has given structure to the week, and if I didn't go I would feel a bit lost, I think," and ".... it's community, it's family."

A need for lifestyle change was also apparent in many transcripts, where conflict between family, work, and social relations was realized. The following comment reflects this: "I worked very long hours and didn't have a good social network." Data suggested membership offered emotional support at three levels including social, psychological, and physical. Physical support came from contact, such as "hugging," "holding hands," and "linking arms." Emotional support was reflected across transcripts and was offered formally in the group and informally (outside the group structure). When participants were asked about their greatest gains, many echoed the following words: "The feeling of support. Feeling of not being alone.... "Strong friendships and bonding were reflected throughout all transcripts. The following comment illustrates this well:
 The greatest gain would be the close relationships I have
 developed from it. And the people in the group for a long
 time are my friends, and they are people I know that I can
 depend on--and they can depend on me, and we will always be
 friends because of our joint experience.

Another rewarding experience was learning the value of "talking," expressing emotions, and sharing problems through personal storytelling. One respondent described this by "... and I didn't talk about that to anyone before that, and it was like a pressure valve--a real release." Although self-disclosure and "emotional release" held personal risk, this need was reflected in many transcripts. For example, "So, I need to talk ..., "and from another "... and the words ... if someone just listens to me get it out.... "Many participants acknowledged the personal growth and improved lifestyles they had experienced with comments such as: "... it's been basically a big learning curve ..." and "... it has improved my relationship with my family ... the awareness has improved." Generally, this growth referred to learning to relate to, and respect, women and other men, express feelings, listen, empathize, and increase self-knowledge.

Respondents expressed a need to address issues around male sexuality more, suggesting this topic had been neglected in the past. Comments such as, "I was surprised how little sex was talked about," and from another, "it [sex] was just never brought up." One participant explained: "It is a real confronting issue, especially for men, more than women. For blokes it is really confronting. The macho part--the lack of sensuality that men have...."


Although the sense of community framework was useful to understand some of the experiences men have in their groups, it was only by viewing each transcript in its entirety that a clear picture of the process of personal change was revealed. Personal change is a key function of these groups and was a strong theme evident in the data. According to Mankowski and Rappaport (1995), "identity represents self-knowledge about the past, present, and future" (p. 215), and may also be conceptualized to include two levels of analysis--personal identity (the individual), and group or shared identity. In the present study, personal change and identity transformation relates to the process these men have experienced in the groups, and the outcomes that result from group involvement.

Data indicated many gains from membership; however, a consistent gain across interviews was emotional support. The development of this support helps these men through their transition phase. The group provides a community narrative, and this is adopted as a new masculine ideology or narrative that facilitates personal growth and reduces gender-role conflict. Numerous responses related to identity transformation were categorized as personal growth and gender-role conflict.

Personal growth. Personal growth refers to increased self-understanding and knowledge that these men acquired (Markus & Nurius, 1986). Personal storytelling and sharing a community narrative were important aspects of this process and also facilitated identity transformation. Participants reported positive learning outcomes such as:
 ... you will be exploring all sorts of different ways of
 expression. The other aspect of that is learning perhaps
 through words, or the use of words to even find out what
 feelings are inside, so for me part of my claiming manhood,
 or finding manhood, is actually getting in touch with feelings,
 so talking....

The findings showed that these men had learned new ways of relating to other men and to seeing themselves. During this process they had also attained an increased realization of their own needs and values. However, in discussing personal growth, some participants expressed a need to seek outside help in conjunction with group work suggesting, "men's groups are not enough" and that individual therapy, family of origin work, or couples counseling may be required (Meth & Pasick, 1990). Again, this reflected the divergent needs of members with some content to "stay where they were" and others needing more "challenges."

Gender-role conflict. For many of these men, this psychological state operated at two levels. First, it served as a motivation and catalyst for joining groups, as one respondent explains: "... there hasn't really been any rights of passage for men, in our Western society, no pathways. You know, where am I learning what is a man?" Second, gender-role conflict was often experienced during the transformation process and caused confusion. Numerous responses reflected this experience during the initial process and were illustrated by the following:
 I thought I was losing it [identity]. I felt in the early days of
 the group I really was losing it a bit there. I was really
 confused, and I didn't know where I was going. A bit lost ... but
 [now] I feel I can still be a bloke, but I don't have to be a man's
 man, though. Yeah, I'm more myself. I am myself.

When asked, "In terms of being a man, have you found your identity has changed," one participant responded: "For me it has blurred the boundaries between the genders a lot more, so I feel more like just a person. And I used to feel I had to adopt the role in the past of a male."

Many respondents discussed identity transformation in relation to personal change, for example: "I have softened. I no longer consider myself like an island." However, it became apparent that these men did not perceive an identity change, but rather a sense of their identity re-surfacing (Coiling, 1992; Horrocks, 1995). For example: "I don't think I had an identity a few years ago. So now I can accept and know more who I am...." Data analysis revealed this realization of "true identity" was a positive outcome and was embraced by these men. This is clearly depicted in the following quotation:
 [the question] implies there is a knowledge of what my identity was
 and that has changed from what it was to what it is now. I probably
 wouldn't respond to that [question], but it would be far closer to
 the truth to say that a far greater and clearer sense of my identity
 as a male has emerged. It's great to be male. But an identity of who
 I am has evolved out through, sort of, the part of the whole process
 I have been through including the Men's Group. But in becoming
 increasingly happy with the person I am, and part of that is me as a
 man, there are still challenges to that at times.

Findings revealed that these men had rejected their socially constructed male roles and were now discovering and confirming their "real self," which seems to be clearly transformed from Connell's (1987, 1995) hegemonic masculinity. Although a positive outcome, some participants expressed difficulty integrating this "true" identity into their lives outside the group. For example: "I still find I am guarded in my workplace, dealing with all this corporate stuff, and it's a fairly macho type workplace. I guess I don't fit very well." In some cases, particularly workplaces, there was still pressure to conform to societal norms. However, the group provided a context where authenticity could be enjoyed, an alternative to hegemonic masculinity. For example: "It was a place to go where we took down our normal society mask, so we could just be ourselves--be frail, just be ordinary, don't have to be strong, or whatever."


The aim of this study was to investigate the experiences of men participating in Australian men's groups. McMillan and Chavis' (1986) sense of community model guided the inquiry. The findings showed that the role and function of men's groups could be fruitfully investigated using the framework. Analyses also provided insight about the process of personal change and identity transformation resulting from group involvement.

Men join groups for different reasons in their search for communitas (Schwalbe, 1996). Some join because of feelings of dissatisfaction with life and the need for personal growth work. Others experienced a crisis, and this was the main motivation for joining. Life crises included relationship breakdowns, divorce, custody battles, or personal loss, resulting in men's questioning life choices and searching for meaning (Rabinowitz & Cochran, 1994). Many of these men's stories reflected some of these characteristics, including a re-evaluation of masculinity (Brod, 1987; Levant, 1992), with men asking themselves what it is to be a man. These groups were made up of men who shared a common goal of personal growth and identity redefinition (Levy, 1978). According to Patience (1991), culture is a critical force in shaping consciousness. Australia's hard culture places a "high value on masculinist sexism" that constructs maleness in rigid ways, expecting men to be stoic and in control of their emotions, while bonding with their "mates" (p. 33). All groups, including the domestic violence group, used a model that draws upon psychoanalytical analysis. This group structure and ideology were common across all transcripts with data reflecting shared leadership, all-male peer support, an openness to men's experiences (Pence & Paymar, 1993), and a focus on individual and psychological, rather than political, context (Clatterbaugh, 1997).

An interesting finding was that data from the two men in the domestic violence group were no different from the other men interviewed. The results showed that social and emotional support is developed through membership in men's groups. The groups' provide members with a safe environment to exchange personal stories and participate in the reconstruction of notions of masculinity. The way in which the groups operated to provide emotional support and reconstruction of masculinity can be understood in terms of the sense of community model. For example, membership provides these men with a sense of belonging and acceptance, while boundaries and a common symbol system work together to foster emotional safety and shared emotional connection (McMillan & Chavis, 1986). This creates trust and encourages intimacy, honesty, and self-disclosure (McMillan, 1996), which are not generally considered "masculine" in Australian culture (Patience, 1991).

In these groups, common symbol systems (McMillan & Chavis, 1986) play a central role in helping to maintain boundaries, providing structure, and creating unity among members. Certain social conventions and collective representations such as rituals, rules, ceremonies (e.g., sacred circle), and behaviors (hugging) are used in the groups and facilitate the development of a group narrative. Thus, these symbols and processes can be seen to perform an integrative and unifying function. This is a vital feature of a context within which change can take place. It has been shown that people seeking change often find it difficult to maintain change without the support of a group that provides a communal narrative in which they can sustain changes in their own personal story (Rappaport, 1993).

The value of personal storytelling and expressing emotions for identity change was highlighted in the present study. The need to be expressive and self-disclose was strongly reflected across interviews and viewed by participants as a positive cathartic experience. This is in contrast to socialization of men to be emotionally inexpressive. Past studies have shown that self-disclosure is an important aspect of emotional intimacy (Lewis, 1978) and storytelling fosters empowerment and identity development (Rappaport, 1995). The exchanging of personal stories helped men to realize that other men think and feel the same way, and having a common group narrative gave them an alternative masculinity to work toward.

One of the key findings was that a process of "self-discovery" had been experienced. These men reported finding their "true" identities, or reclaiming their identities, through group involvement and group process, rather than changing their identities. Others (e.g., Horrocks, 1994) have alluded to the masculine gender acting as a "mask" or disguise, using the psychotherapy term "false self." Several participants referred to the idea of the "mask" when discussing their real "authentic" identities.

Markus and Nurius (1986) proposed the concept of possible selves, which describes a person's ideal self and also pertains to how one would think about one's potential. The idea of possible selves functions as an incentive for future behavior and compliments the notion of self-knowledge. It could be that men's groups operate on this principle, using a group narrative to provide an idealized version of masculinity. Although these men's groups were not identified as mythopoetic groups, it was noted that their group narratives (common symbol systems) were based in a particular set of ideological belief systems and expectations. As such, these groups share similar characteristics with mythopoetic groups. For example, rituals such as forming a sacred circle, storytelling, and using a talking stick (Mankowski, 2000; Wilson & Mankowski, 2000) have been borrowed from other cultures and are based on mythology. This implies that masculinity can be viewed as a cultural construction (Pleck, Sonenstein, & Ku, 1993).

Similar to Wilson and Mankowski (2000), this research emphasizes the importance of social support and meaningful same-sex friendships for men. Even though men are less likely than women to develop social emotional support networks, and when faced with a life crisis they are often isolated and depressed, the emotional and social support is a key factor in promoting self-development and helping men through crises (Meth & Pasick, 1990). In addition, past studies suggest that men are less likely to seek counseling, preferring alternative forms of help such as seminars, workshops, and group interaction (e.g., Good et al., 1989; Robertson & Fitzgerald, 1992). Findings from this study indicated that these all-male groups were well suited to dealing with gender-role conflict and men's issues.

Several participants from the present study stated that the interview process had reinforced the value of group membership and increased motivation for them to continue. Hence, obtaining information by attempting to understand a person's own construction of his social world can provide valuable information regarding men's successful coping and adaptation. This knowledge may have implications for developing strategies and interventions aimed at improving men's social and emotional support systems and provide the foundations for future research. Such strategies might involve building on existing structures and integrating some of the effective strategies used within men's groups into other settings. These could be developed as information evenings for introducing men to their emotions (Meth & Pasick, 1990). This would also involve encouraging them to use the available support systems and learn the importance of emotional support. These forums may attract men who are not ready for a men's group experience, or individual counseling, but are seeking some direction, personal change, and emotional support. An important strategy for encouraging participation should involve breaking down the stereotypes about men who join men's groups through community education campaigns. An earlier intervention could also be developed for secondary high school students to help dispel the dominant myths created by society. These could be held in schools in a seminar series and could teach young males the importance of self-understanding, expressing emotions, and the role of emotional support.


Antze, P. (1976). The role of ideologies in peer psychotherapy organizations: Some theoretical considerations and three case studies. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 12, 323-346.

Barton, E.R. (1998). Talking stick in mythopoetic men's work. Transitions, 18(5), 29-31.

Biddulph, S. (1995). Manhood. An action plan for changing men's lives. Sydney: Finch Publishing.

Bly, R. (1992). Iron John. A book about men. Dorset: Element Books, Ltd.

Brod, H. (1987). The case for men's studies. In H. Brod (Ed.), The making of masculinities. The new men's studies. (pp. 39-62) Boston, MA: Allen & Unwin.

Buchbinder, D. (1994). Masculinities and identities. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.

Burda, P.C., & Vaux, A.C., (1987). The social support process in men: Overcoming sex-role obstacles. Human Relations, 40, 31-44.

Clatterbaugh, K, (1997). Contemporary perspectives on masculinity. Bolder, CO: Westview Press.

Colling, T. (1992). Beyond mateship. Understanding Australian men. Sydney, Australia: Simon & Schuster.

Connell, R.W. (1987). Gender and power. Sydney, Australia: Allen & Unwin.

Connell, R.W. (1995). Masculinities. Sydney, Australia: Allen & Unwin.

Coyle, A., & Morgan-Sykes, C. (1998). Troubled men and threatening women: The construction of "crisis" in male mental health. Feminism and Psychology, 8, 263-284.

Denzin, N.K., & Lincoln, Y.S. (1994). Handbook of qualitative research. London: Sage Publications.

Felton, B.J., & Shinn, M. (1992). Social integration and social support: Moving "social support" beyond the individual level. Journal of Community Psychology, 20, 103-115.

Fisher, A.T., Sonn, C.C., & Bishop, BJ. (Eds.). (2002). Psychological sense of community: Research applications and implications. New York: Kluwer Academic Press.

Good, G.E., Dell, D.M., & Mintz, L.B. (1989). Male role and gender-role conflict: Relations to help seeking in men. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 36,295-300.

Heller, K. (1989). The return to community. American Journal of Community Psychology, 17, 1-15.

Horrocks, R. (1995). Male myths and icons. Masculinity in popular culture. London: Macmillan Press, Ltd.

Karsk, R., & Thomas, B. (1987). Working with men's groups. Duluth: Whole Person Press.

Levant, R.F. (1992). Toward the reconstruction of masculinity. Journal of Family Psychology, 5, 379-402.

Levy, L.H. (1976). Self-help groups: Types and psychological processes. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 12, 323-346.

Lewis, R.A. (1978). Emotional intimacy among men. Journal of Social Issues, 34, 108-121.

Mankowski, E.S. (2000). Reconstructing masculinity: Role models in the life stories of men's mutual support group members. In E. Barton, (Ed.), Mythopoetic perspectives of men's healing work: An anthology for therapists and others (pp. 100-117). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Mankowski, E.S., Haaken, J., & Silvergleid, C.S. (2002). Collateral damage: An analysis of the achievements and unintended consequences of batterer intervention programs and discourse. Journal of Family Violence, 17, 167-184.

Mankowski, E.S., & Silvergleid, C.S. (1999-2000). A review of self-help and mutual support groups for men. International Journal of Self-Help and Self-Care, 1, 281-299.

Mankowski, E., & Rappaport, J. (1995). Stories, identity, and the psychological sense of community. In R.S. Wyer, Jr. (Ed.), Knowledge and memory: The real story. Advances in social cognition (Vol. 8, pp. 211-233). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Association.

Markus, H., & Nurius, P. (1986). Possible selves. American Psychologist, 41, 954-967.

McMillan, D.W. (1996). Sense of community. Journal of Community Psychology, 24, 315-325.

McMillan, D.W., & Chavis, D.M. (1986). Sense of community: A definition and theory. Journal of Community Psychology, 14, 6-23.

Meth,, R.L., & Pasick, R.S. (1990). Men in therapy: The challenge of change. New York, NY: Guilford Press

Miles, M.B., & Huberman, A.M. (1984). Qualitative data analysis: A source book of new methods. Beverley Hills. CA: Sage.

O'Neil, J.M. (1990). Assessing men's gender-role conflict. In D. Moore, & F. Leaf-gren (Eds.), Problem solving strategies and interventions for men in conflict (pp.23-38). Alexandria, VA: American Association for Counseling and Development.

O'Shaughnessy, M. (1999). Media and society. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Orford, J. (1992). Community psychology: Theory and practice. Chishester, UK: John Wiley & Sons.

Patience, A. (1991). Softening the hard culture. Mental health in Australia. The Journal of the Australian National Association for Mental health, 3, 29-34.

Patience, A. (1996, November). The question of love in a hard culture. Quadrant, 34-41.

Pence, E., & Paymar, M. (1993). Education groups for men who batter: The Duluth model. New York: Springer.

Pidgeon, N., & Henwood, K. (1997). Using grounded theory in psychological research. In N. Hayes (Ed.), Doing qualitative research (pp. 245-273). U.K.: Psychology Press.

Pleck, J.H., Sonenstein, F.L., & Ku, L.C. (1993). Masculinity ideology: Its impact on adolescent males' heterosexual relationships. Journal of Social Issues, 49, 11-29.

Rabinowitz, F.E., & Cochran, S.V. (1994). Man alive: A primer of men's issues. Pacific Grove, California: Brooks/Cole Publishing.

Rappaport, J. (1993). Narrative studies, personal stories, and identity transformation in the mutual help context. The Journal of Applied Behavioural Science, 29, 239-256.

Rappaport, J. (1995). Empowerment meets narrative: Listening to stories and creative settings. American Journal of Community Psychology, 23, 795-807.

Robertson, J.M., & Fitzgerald, L.F. (1992). Overcoming the masculine mystique: Preferences for alternative forms of assistance among men who avoid counseling. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 39, 240- 246.

Schwalbe, M. (1996). Unlocking the iron cage: The men's movement, gender, politics, and American culture. New York: Oxford University Press.

Smith, J.A. (1995). Semi-structured interviewing and qualitative analysis. In J. Smith, R. Harre, & L. Van Langenhove (Eds.), Rethinking methods in psychology (pp. 9-25). London: Sage.

The Mankind Project (2002). The ManKind Project. Available at: Accessed 11.06.2002.

Wills, T.A. (1985). Supportive functions of interpersonal relationships. In S. Cohen & S. Leonard Syme (Eds.), Social support and health (pp. 61-82). New York: Academic Press.

Wilson, S.R., & Mankowski, E.S. (2000). Beyond the drums: An exploratory study of group processes in a mythopoetic men's group. In E. Barton (Ed.), Mythopoetic perspectives of men's healing work: An anthology for therapists and others (pp. 21-45). Westpoint, CT: Greenwood Press.

The authors would like to thank Edward Barton and an anonymous reviewer for their helpful comments on an earlier version of this paper. Correspondence should be directed to Julie Reddin School of Psychology, Edith Cowan University, 100 Joondalup Drive, Joondalup 6027, Australia. Electronic mail: Julier@centrecare.comau or
COPYRIGHT 2003 Men's Studies Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2003 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Reddin, Julie A.; Sonn, Christopher C.
Publication:The Journal of Men's Studies
Geographic Code:8AUWA
Date:Jan 1, 2003
Previous Article:"What sort of man reads Playboy?" The self-reported influence of Playboy on the construction of masculinity.
Next Article:Is ageism alive in date selection among men? Age requests among gay and straight men in Internet personal ads.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters