"The Power of Community to Bring Those Walls Down"
Headlines and scholarly research alike sound the alarm that boys and men are in crisis (New York Times, 2018; Way, 2011). In the United States, boys and men are at higher risk for psychological, physical, and interpersonal problems, including depression, anxiety, suicide, substance abuse, lower academic retention, loneliness, and both sexual and physical violence (against women, hate crimes against marginalized individuals, against other boys and men, and gun violence), as well as political attitudes such as social dominance, support for authoritarian leaders, and climate change denial (American Psychological Association, 2018; Ferree, 2020; Gerdes & Levant, 2013; Manowski & Maton, 2010; Nelson, 2020). Extensive research has established these negative outcomes as corollaries of a culturally-dominant socialization process, or the degree to which boys and men adhere to hegemonic masculine norms such as strength, hyper-independence, and aggression (Mahalik et al., 2003; Way, 2011). In efforts to “redefine” masculinity (Levant, 1992) to be flexible, healthy, and prosocial (Adams & Frauenheim, 2020), the American Psychological Association has called for engaging boys and men in preventative, health promotive, and social change interventions. Men’s group programs are expanding both in prevalence and in the amount of scholarly attention they receive, yet there remains a lack of research focused on understanding how these groups work, Specifically, little empirical work has examined how the interpersonal process among members in a men’s groups might play a role in engaging them in individual growth and social change related to masculinity. Situated in a theoretical framework centering the quality of connection in interpersonal relationships as a central influence in hegemonic masculine socialization (precarious manhood theory; Vandello & Bosson, 2013), a primary factor in human growth and change (relational-cultural theory; Miller, 1976), and the therapeutic dynamics of groups (Yalom & Leszcz, 2005), the purpose of this dissertation was to examine the subjective experiences and reflections of men who participated in a 10-week long men’s group, offered by a non-profit violence prevention organization, A Call to Men. This group, called the “Circle of Influence,” aims to support men in practicing “healthy manhood” and promoting it elsewhere in their lives (see A Call to Men, n.d.). To explore the role of the group interpersonal process in men’s experiences of the program, this study posed the following research questions: 1) how do men understand changes in their own sense of masculinity and what it means to be a man? 2) how do men understand changes in the ways they promote healthy masculinity beyond the group? and 3) how do men understand their experience of the interpersonal process in the men’s group as playing a role in these changes? Using a qualitative descriptive approach (Sandelowski, 2000), semi-structured interviews with thirteen men who participated in the men’s group yielded five themes: 1) the group enables interpersonal experiences that counter hegemonic masculine socialization; 2) the group enables men’s development of insight into their masculinity; 3) the group enables positive shifts in men’s close relationships; 4) the group enables men’s participation in social action; and 5) men offer feedback for program development. These findings underscore the critical role of a community in which interpersonal dynamics counter those of hegemonic masculine socialization. As the findings suggest, such relationships can become catalysts for the goals of masculinity-focused interventions, such as insight and behavior change. Implications for intervention research and the application of relational-cultural theory to such interventions, the role of men’s groups in creating broader social change, and future research directions are each discussed.