Professor’s Study Asks: What’s Wrong With Masculinity?

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SUNY Oswego’s Andrew Smiler will explore the positive attributes of teenage masculinity under a three-year $54,000 federal grant.

For the project, a collaboration with Ritch Savin-Williams of Cornell University, Smiler said he wants to challenge the popular perception that masculinity and male peer groups necessarily represent a societal problem. The work is funded by a grant from the USDA Cooperative State, Education and Extension Service at Cornell.

“There has been a lot of press the past several years about what boys do, focusing on the negative,” said Smiler, an assistant professor of psychology at Oswego. “But most boys do graduate high school. Most boys don’t have criminal records. Most boys grow up to be fine, upstanding adults, and we’d like to know how that happens.”

While observers recognize that all-male teen groups function differently from all-female groups, Smiler wants to explore how those male groups influence positive and negative choices. He said one thing that makes the study novel is how it looks at what makes masculinity or male-to-male peer interaction a point of strength — for individuals as well as society.

“We always think of adolescent peer pressure as a bad thing, but it can be a good thing if it supports good behavior,” he said. “We know as part of masculinity we encourage boys to take risks, continue through a task even if it’s difficult, and be problem-solvers. Those are skills that should help all college students.”

The process involves pencil-and-paper surveys with 500 to 600 high school seniors about behaviors and attitudes, including the search for strengths or positives related to masculinity and male-male friendships.

“The big issue really is asking what are some of the strengths boys bring to the table, in terms of positive functional development,” Smiler explained.

“In some ways, it’s part of a larger movement in psychology to get away from just studying problem behavior,” Smiler noted. “It’s only the past 15 to 20 years that have focused not only on the bad stuff but on what allows people to be healthy, to do well.”

The seniors surveyed include young women as well as men — so in addition to having a large data set available to other researchers, this also presents an opportunity to study what are considered masculine attributes in women, Smiler said.

“It’s unusual to see how masculinity works in both males and females in the same study,” he added.

The project also could open the door to follow-up surveys five or more years in the future to see how masculinity influences development. “We could see if we can identify what they were doing in high school and how that predicted what happened down the road,” Smiler said.