The BSA is making available online some of the features from our Network magazine (published three times a year and available to members). This excerpt is our regular Desert Island Discourse feature, written this time by Professor Mark McCormack, of the University of Roehampton.
Your first choice is The Making of Men: Masculinities, Sexualities and Schooling, by Mairtin Mac an Ghaill – why did you choose that?
My route into sociology was an unusual one. Having completed a degree in mathematics, I was training as a secondary school mathematics teacher. Part of that involved doing an ‘educational study’ on a topic unrelated to the teaching of mathematics. I was interested in gender differences in students’ behaviours in class and started reading around the topic.
Alongside articles by Debbie Epstein and an underappreciated book by Jonathan Salisbury and David Jackson (Challenging Macho Values), Mairtin Mac an Ghaill’s The Making of Men was revelatory to me. Showing how teenage boys used homophobia to police each other’s behaviours, Mac an Ghaill also showed how schools as institutions were implicated in these dynamics. His work was part of a broader British sociology of gender and education that captured both the importance of socialisation and the role of schools in the homophobic masculinity of the late 20th century.
I found The Making of Men so powerful, not just because it explained my experiences as a trainee teacher, but because it perfectly captured my own school experiences as a closeted gay teenager at the time the book was written. My own youth had been a training in sociology through witnessing the way that homophobia was used to police gender and difference, and this book connected my own lay understanding with the sociology literature.
I’m perhaps a bit unusual in academic sociology in having my training initially through this sub-branch of the literature, but I think this area has many qualitative gems that are worth re-reading and Mac an Ghaill’s book powerfully captures a time and place that I am grateful we have moved beyond in at least some ways.
What made you choose your next selection – Deviations, by Gayle Rubin?
Sociology has always had an ambivalent attitude toward sexuality, both as a topic and as a lens to understand society. In Deviations, Rubin both shows how significant sex is to the structuring of societies and explains why we get so embarrassed talking about it. Sex and sexuality are rarely seen as a structuring force in society or a significant way inequality is entrenched, particularly when thinking beyond sexual health and LGBT issues.
Yet, many moral panics and social concerns centre on questions of sexuality. As Gayle Rubin writes in this book, “The manipulation of sexual anxieties continues to be a potent instrument for making the process of systemic wealth extraction both culturally palatable and politically viable”. I find Rubin’s book to be the best explanation of how sex and sexuality are so significant in society and how fears and concerns about them are used to advance regressive practices and laws both related to sexuality and other issues.
Deviations is a collection of Rubin’s writings over her career. While I might skip some chapters because the topic is less interesting to me, others are pure brilliance. ‘Misguided, dangerous and wrong’, ‘The leather menace’ and – of course – ‘Thinking sex’ are all classic texts that manage both to understand the zeitgeist of the time and inform many current concerns. The one sadness in reading them is to see the same flawed logics used around contemporary concerns.
Why did you select for your third book Threatened Children, by Joel Best ?
My research is increasingly focused on the social construction of social problems, from classic approaches to ‘deviance’, to contemporary issues related to advocacy research and sociological takes on evidenced-based policy. I find Joel Best’s writing on the social construction of social problems to be some of the most engaging and thought provoking, and his book Threatened Children brilliantly shows how data and evidence can be manipulated to persuade audiences, and how the cultural construction of social problems evolves.
Threatened Children must have required bravery to write. The book is about challenging the assumption that children were at risk in 1980s and 1990s America, and that the ‘threatened children’ served as a vehicle for other social concerns. As he wrote, “A society which is mobilized to keep child molester, kidnappers, and Satanists away from innocent children is not necessarily prepared to protect children from ignorance, poverty, and ill health”. This mirrors Gayle Rubin’s argument in Deviations (and one simultaneously made by Martha Nussbaum), that laws criminalising sex work, and feminist debates about pornography, distract from the practical social policy and political organising that challenge low pay, unaffordable child care and domestic violence.
Your fourth choice is The Monogamy Gap, by Eric Anderson – why this book?
Eric Anderson was my supervisor for my PhD on the changing nature of masculinities, and I have continued to co-author with him. While I have cited his book Inclusive Masculinity far more, it is The Monogamy Gap that I value the most as it does what sociology should: examine a social problem, provide a counter-intuitive theoretical argument, and give evidence-based recommendations on how to process that theory and argument.
The social problem that The Monogamy Gap addresses is the perceived failure of monogamy, in that many people cheat and many loving relationships end because of this cheating. The counter-intuitive argument is to argue that cheating is inherently part of monogamy, not its failure. This approach starts from seeing monogamy as a social institution rather than solely a relationship type. And Eric argues that this institution is imposed on people through heteronormative social expectations that sex is a sign of love and decreasing sexual desire for a person is evidence of a relationship problem. This conflation means that good relationships end because only one model of romantic relationship is widely available.
The Monogamy Gap is rooted in sociology but it draws liberally on psychology, sexology and social theory. What makes it so powerful, I find, is its non-judgemental approach to thinking about sexual norms and its call for the valuing of multiple forms of relationship types. The Monogamy Gap isn’t so much a critique of monogamy but of a society where it is only monogamy that is a socially valued form of relationship – what Eric calls monogamism. For people interested in a critique of monogamism and the social institution of monogamy, this is a great book to go to.
Your last book is Damage, by Josephine Hart – what led you to this?
If I were to be stuck on a desert island, the last thing I’d want to be doing is reading sociology all the time – not least because I’d be missing the people and societies that are the point of sociology. I also believe that sociologists are well-served by reading widely and engaging with art, literature and the humanities. It’s easy to stop reading fiction as an academic, and during the first lockdown one of the things I did was to rediscover reading for pleasure again.
Many of my favourite novelists are women writers – Margaret Atwood, Agatha Christie, and Donna Tartt in particular. Josephine Hart is perhaps the least well-known of the authors I regularly return to. Her books are modern- day Greek tragedies, distilled into slim novels that pack such a powerful emotional and psychological punch. Her most famous book is Damage and it is the story of a man’s affair and how it destroyed his family, yet it never falls into the stereotype that plot might suggest. Hart described the core of Damage as being “confession without the desire for repentance”, and that seems to be both a brilliant psychological position to interrogate and sadly anticipatory of recent trends in public life. It was one of the books I re-read over lockdown and it was as good as the first time I read it.
And for your luxury?
My trumpet. I’ve always enjoyed playing music. I started lessons through the Merton Music Foundation when it still received some funding from the council. That funding was gradually eroded but the foundation prospered as a registered charity through brilliant and passionate teachers and dedicated parents, giving kids across the borough the chance to make music. I played in several different bands and orchestras, and was able to go on tour to Italy, Norway and France with the jazz band and the concert band.
By the time I went to university, I was practising the trumpet an hour a day most days, but that gradually (and then swiftly) decreased as university life and interests took over. I sang in choirs instead, as that is much more forgiving of little practice.
I recently found my trumpet again, and it’s a beautiful instrument. But I put it away as I knew it wasn’t the time to start playing again. I love the idea of having the time, space and absence of neighbours on a desert island to become good at the trumpet again.
Professor McCormack’s choices (first editions):
1. The Making of Men, by Mairtin Mac an Ghaill (1994) Oxford University Press
2. Deviations, by Gayle Rubin (2011) Duke University Press
3. Threatened Children, by Joel Best (1990) University of Chicago Press
4. The Monogamy Gap, by Eric Anderson (2011) Oxford University Press
5. Damage, by Josephine Hart (1991) Alfred A Knopf