Players and layers: young men's construction of individual and group masculinities through consumption practices
Literature across a range of social science disciplines highlights the existence of multiple masculinities, performed and negotiated through everyday practices. However, many studies of male consumers have not explicitly addressed how practices construct gender. In consumer research, themes of masculinity have mainly emerged in studies of advertising images, subcultural consumption, brands, events and consumer tribes. Few studies have explored men’s consumption and the construction of masculinity through and across practices. Previous studies also appear to have examined gender, practices and identities at either individual or group levels. This study therefore sought to address the role of consumption in young men's construction of masculine identities, across a range of contexts, and at individual and group levels. Working within the Consumer Culture Theory tradition, these issues were explored through ethnographic research with young Scottish men aged 18-22, developed from contact with members of a football-themed University society. Data on collective practices were generated through non-participant observation followed by participant observation over a 13-month period. Practices included playing, watching and supporting football, visiting pubs and nightclubs, and playing poker. Accompanied shopping trips also formed part of the study. To gain further insights into individual identities long interviews with nine key informants were conducted. The analysis involved the iterative cycle of de-contextualising and re-contextualsing of data strips in the form of detailed reflexive fieldnotes, interview transcripts, photographs and film material. Masculinities emerged as contextualised, shifting and deeply rooted within practices of these young men. Their consumption produced normative ideals within groups. It also played a role in practices during which ‘masculine capital’ was sought. This capital was expressed through knowledge and experience in practices rather than objects and brands. Practices came to resemble games in which this capital was constantly contested. Through these games, groups also negotiated their place within the cultural context of gender relations. Consumption within practices constructed 'invisible’ gender identities through collectively shared meanings of masculinity. However, seemingly normal meanings of masculinity and consumption emerged as highly complex and layered as individuals constructed their multiple selves across practices. Rather than being fixed, consumption and masculinity was constantly (re)negotiated in changing contexts. This layered negotiation process of consumption meanings and masculinity was also reflected in informants’ discourse. This study suggests that various masculinities are 'played for’ through consumption across culturally situated practices. It shows how practices and consumption meanings shift during the negotiation of often contradictory and intertwined layers of gender identities. Methodologically, it offers insights into the challenges of gender differences between researcher and researched, and the role of new technologies such as mobile phones in ethnographic studies. Consumption and marketing messages may therefore allow young men to ‘do’, ‘talk’ and ‘be’ masculine across varying practices and contexts.