The Concept of Experience
in Studying Men
The paper aims at introducing
the concept of experience as a mediator between the pure cultural
constructivism and the studies on men’s everyday life. The experience
is defined as a verbalization of actual events. Thus it is shaped
by culture and language, but at the same time, it refers to the
non-discursive realities of human life.
The problem: men
between becoming and being
In opening up the concept
of manliness for critical research, the idea of gender as a cultural
construction has been essential. In this context, the term “masculinity”
has been innovatively and diversely used to historicize the changing
nature of being a man. Most commonly it has been defined as an ideal
stereotype or as a “real cultural essence” of manliness. Masculinities
– and especially hegemonic masculinity – can be understood as cultural
constructions, which shape, direct and define the actual behavior
of men. The culture “fills” men with ideals of manliness, patterns
of behavior and knowledge on what a man is and ought to be.
standpoint is not free from significant problems in Critical Studies
on Men. First of all, to build up a mono-causal link from masculinity
as an ideal to the actual, subjective being a man falls short in
oversimplifying and generalizing the complexity of a manly subject-constitution.
This shortcoming is not avoided by adding anti-types, counter-masculinities,
or oppressed masculinities into the scheme  . “Masculinity” can only grasp
the idea of being a man; signifying a man as an object of
structures and ideals. Secondly, to use the term masculinity in
a very general way in the actual research process may lead into
a situation where it is at the same time both the object of the
study and the explanation model used to explain itself. Masculinity
may become a meta-narration comparable with modernity – actually,
it often comes close to being a translation of modernity in gender
studies. Specific ways of human behavior and speech are read as
signs of “masculinity”, which again is produced by “culture”. But
how is such a culture produced, if not by human subjects?
As Eve K. Sedgwick
has pointed out, sometimes masculinity and men do not have anything
to do with each other. In research, they must be separated as their
own spheres. Also Jeff Hearn has criticized Men’s Studies on concentrating
too much on the abstract and often on undefined levels of masculinities
instead of studying what men actually do.  Source texts which, for instance,
propagate for an ultra-militant ideals of manliness, do not construct
one-to-one the subjectively experienced manliness.
Another approach on
men would seem to avoid the over-interpretation of the masculinities
as cultural ideals: studies on men’s everyday life. To study men
as having a voice of their own is certainly welcome. This perspective
proportions the cultural ideals of masculinity with the subjective
level of being a man and sees men more in being than in a
mere cultural becoming in relation to the ideals. Here lies
also the problem of perspective. As the source basis of studying
men’s everyday life is highly subjective (interviews, diaries, correspondence
etc.), this may transfer to an “illusion of subjectivity” in the
study. Furthermore, it may also create an “illusion of authenticity”,
which does not take into account the culturally mediated nature
of “subjective” sources. In contrast to the concept of masculinity,
the personal voice of men may overshadow cultural power relations,
the constructive nature of being a man, and historical changes in
manliness. The man stagnates into a subject of being instead of
the object of becoming.
Both of the above-mentioned
perspectives are useful and do not have to exclude each other. But
how to combine them without letting the other perspective dominate
the other? A special problem concerning gender studies has been
to combine a constructivist view with a subjective one without giving
way to the essentialist idea of sex, which is often (implicitly)
dominating in the subjective accounts of gender
 . In the following, I attempt to apply the concept of experience
into historical research on men and to contemplate on the consequences
of this application.
Concept of experience:
being in becoming
First of all, a difference
must be made with colloquial use of the word “experience” and scientific
use of the term. In the latter case, experience (Erfahrung)
is understood as a culturally mediated form of objective events
and pre-discursive impressions (Ereignis & Erlebnis).
An experience takes its shape in continuous processing and verbalizing
of impressions. Experience is an individual praxis, which at the
same time reproduces, modifies and changes the social structures
of knowledge. Socially accepted and understandable language gives
meaning for impressions and events, thus forming an experience.  Therefore, individual experiences are already culturally pre-shaped
through previous experiences, through the inventory of language
available and the semantic systems of interpretation, through norms
and values – in short, through cultural paradigm. Experience is
not a clearly definable substance of things, but a process under
tension of the actual events or impressions and the socially accepted
and available means to verbalize these.
But experiences do
not merely reflect the transfer of cultural paradigm or tradition
into subjective realities. They are also formed within a tension
between the past, the present context and the subject’s horizon
of expectations (Erwartungshorizont). This horizon is, of
course, also a cultural construction. Nevertheless, the events and
impressions, which are worked on to the experiences by the subject,
do not necessarily fit in to this ideal construction – they may
both consolidate or undermine the cultural paradigm forming the
horizon. It seems that cultural ideals and expectations are triggered
so high that more commonly than not, they are unreachable by an
individual. Experiences are often nothing more than a series of
unfulfilled expectations.  Thus the subjects are bound to continuously re-evaluate what
they have experienced, and in this process also to re-evaluate their
horizon of expectations, their past, and the cultural paradigm,
which presumably leads to the fulfillment of their altered expectations.
Here one can find an
active role of the subject in the concept of experiences. Although
language and cultural paradigm greatly determine the direction of
experiences, there is a subjective sphere where individuals can
both feel their existence and consider themselves as active participants
in their own life. The extent of this private sphere is by no means
a solid standard, but depends on the historical context. Still,
even in the most totalitarian societies, this sphere has not been
completely colonized. It might be useful to understand the monolithic
“cultural paradigm” more as a collection of available or forced
cultural discourses, the diversity of which varies historically.
Thus, a person is loaded with a (potentially) asymmetric and contradictory
inventory of cultural identities, systems of interpretation, and
discourses, which may lead into surprising combinations of interpreting
certain events and impressions. Nevertheless, the need to share
one’s own experiences socially seems rather to standardize subjective
experiences than to lead to complete arbitrariness.
The concept of experience
The concept of experience
can be translated to concern more precisely gender and men. Thus,
the object of the study on men would be the experience of men in
certain historical circumstances. In this context, the cultural
pre-shaping of experiences could be translated as an internalization
of the gender order and the gendered language bound to that. The
ideals of manliness would be situated in the subject’s horizon of
expectations, where they would work as a sort of a production machine
of the social reality. The fuel of the process is the need to become
“a Man” – to identify as a man. But instead of understanding the
relationship between ideal and subjective existence as a compulsive
machinery without any loopholes, one should study how ideals and
the gender order are indeed experienced by men and how ideals transform
into action. Which are situations and mechanisms that activate certain
ideals? How extensive is the available spectrum of experiencing
manliness in a certain historical context? And how do the experiences
of men change their cultural ideals and the horizon of future?
There is a special
problem in studying men’s experiences of their own gender; the mostly
implicit nature of this experience. It is important to notice that
culture does not only affect the verbalization of events and impressions
into experiences, but that even the very perception of them is culturally
shaped. Both men and women quite automatically perceive other people
as men and women. This division is made at the moment of observation,
and is not culturally neutral, but includes a variety of norms,
expectations, and values. This “gendered gaze” takes a variety of
cultural premises concerning men and women for granted, and this
axiomatic, self-assuring nature of perception does not open gender
for mutual communication or negotiation process. In contrast, observations
turn into “facts” and “evidence” of gender difference. The same
is often true in men perceiving other men and themselves.
 Gender is not easily explicitly expressed or socially shared;
more often, it is a part of the cultural pattern according to which
people experience their life. In other words: subjects experience
themselves as men and women, but they rarely directly experience
their masculinity or their femininity.
Because of the mostly
implicit nature of gender, historical research on men has to concentrate
on premises and logic, which are embedded in the ways men talk and
write about their experiences, and in what they do. When defining
the subject of the study on men’s experiences, I consider it important
not to predefine these experiences by using determinative categories
or ideal types, which already shape the answers to the research
problem. So, instead of studying what it means to be a war veteran,
a father, a soldier, or a husband, it might be more fruitful to
ask how did the men experience home-coming after the war, how did
they experience having a child, or how did they experience their
time in the army. This option would let men themselves to position
cultural categories like veteranity or fatherhood into their experiences,
and it also lets women to have their word on these same experiences.
In this way, a broad social reality shared both by men and women
is open for research and possibly makes visible the differences
and similarities in the ways men and women experience it.
In short, the concept
of experience attempts to insert being into becoming – without naïveté.
It concentrates on social structures, on the semantic systems of
interpretation, and on the use of power, but tries to avoid making
involuntary puppet-objects out of men. This is done by taking seriously
and literally things men themselves say or do, as, although these
things can be claimed to be “mere constructions”, they do have an
impact on the social reality per se  . Nevertheless, the concept does not consider
the ego-documents of men as being something authentic or depictive
of “real essence of manliness”. They are also mediated and culturally
structured testimonies. Indeed, a point of departure for the whole
concept is that there does not exist some deep, authentic essence,
which should have priority over “superficial levels” of reality
in research. But even if such a hidden truth is an illusion, the
subjective experience of authentic being-a-man is real and
should be taken like that. So, the concept of experience can be
understood as a point of intersection between the social structures
and the subject, between the objective and the subjective reality.
The concept of experience
opens at least the following historical relations for research:
(1) structures and ideals — subjective experiences; (2) prediscursive
impressions and events — verbalized experiences; (3) past and future
— the space of experiencing; (4) the experiences of men — the experiences
of women; and (5) the objective reality — the subjective reality.
It goes without saying, that such a task as sketching experiences
of men in this framework requires both diversity of methods and
diversity of sources.
The sources for this
enterprise can be roughly divided into those, which tell about the
social, cultural and political regulation of the sphere of experiencing,
and into those, which tell about the substance of the subjective
experiences inside this framework. To understand the dynamics between
the cultural context and the subjective experiences this division
must not be understood as categorical: not only does the cultural
context shape experiences, but also the socially shared experiences
may start to form their cultural context.
In my study concerning
the experiences of repatriation of Finnish veterans after the Second
World War, the aforementioned sources consist of official documents
defining this process, diagnosis principles of mentally and physically
injured veterans by doctors, statistics on the social and economical
background of repatriation, the public discourses on repatriation
in the newspapers etc. Even further, one needs to have knowledge
of preceding cultural paradigms, which the men and women of the
war generation had internalized, including the ideals of manliness
and the semantic systems of interpreting social reality. Luckily,
this vast task has been of growing interest of both cultural and
social history, and I can rely on relatively good research basis
concerning more or less explicitly both the social history of repatriation
and the cultural history of Finnish society in 1930’s and 1940’s.
Collecting and analyzing
the latter group of sources, the ego-documents of the men (and women)
of the war generation, seems to be a more demanding task. At the
moment, my source basis for this task is limited to about 35 “home-coming”
novels written by war generation men and women in the immediate
post-war years. These novels concentrate explicitly on the problems
and experiences of war and home-coming. The point of departure for
reading these books is that they are a mediating process between
the experiences of their authors, between their artistic ambitions
and conventions, and between the socially accepted and understandable
way of talking about the war and the post-war society
 . The advantage of this genre is that they seem to offer
a discursive field, where both men and women talk about the same
experience of home-coming, thus making visible the similarities
and differences of experience between genders. As said earlier,
the imagined “authenticity” is not the selective criteria for the
sources, and with this remark it can be claimed that the home-coming
novels indeed tell about the experiences of their authors at a certain
But at the same time,
the highly mediated nature of the novels caused by the self-censorship
of the authors and the censorship of the publishing houses situates
them somewhere in the middle of the public experience of war and
the subjective experiences. I wish to extend my source basis further
by looking at private correspondence, diaries, and interviews, as
well as accounts of public demonstrations, where veterans themselves
took an active role in demonstrating their experiences and translating
these experiences into a collectively shared language. But even
if I would happen to find every possible source concerning the subjective
experiences of the veterans, I have to accept that a great part
of the veterans remained silent and that the most private sphere
of experiencing will be hardly opened for research.
This leads to one more
special problem of studying the experiences of men. The process
of experiencing does not always lead to a clear-cut experience of
a certain event. Because of the unbearable nature of the event or
the lack of language to describe it, the process never breaks into
the discursive level of experiences.  For this reason it might be necessary also to read what the
ego-documents do not say in comparison to our expectations.
Furthermore, if one accepts that there exists a subjective sphere
of life outside the total reach of cultural ideals, “identity-machinery”
and constructing, then the subjects may also deliberately and actively
choose to stay silent and to use this retreat as a sheltering haven.
To a certain extent, this logic of silence can and should be analyzed
– after all, for instance the stereotypic silence of Finnish men
can be seen both as a consequence and an explanation of historical
phenomenon and ideals of manliness. Silence can be both pure non-existence
or fierce being and doing. Analyzing this has its limits and easily
falls into speculation.
In short, the concept
of experience may help to understand gender as “a way of existing”  instead of being an abstract construction of ideals and norms.
The concept is not based on an essentialist idea of sex; it strongly
takes into account the importance of cultural gender construction.
Still the emphasis on experience makes it clearer that men and women
are not only produced – they also are.
MA. Ville Kivimäki
is a postgraduate student of history at Åbo Akademi University
and a researcher in the research project “The War that Follows Peace”
of the Academy of Finland.
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 See e.g. Mosse 1996; Schmale 2003; Schilling 2002.
 Sedgwick 1995; Hearn 1996.
 Kienitz 2002, pp. 188–192.
 Compare e.g. Walser Smith 1996, pp. 596–600.
 On the problematic task of this combination, see Maihofer
1995, pp. 11–16.
 Latzel 1998, pp. 17–18, 127, pp. 370–373.
 Buschmann & Carl 2001; also Buschmann & Reimann
 Compare Koselleck 2003a, pp. 331–335; Koselleck 2003b,
 This also includes taking seriously men’s experiences
of being victims. As tempting as it might be to demonstrate the
vagueness of such claims or juxtaposition men’s victimhood to
that of women’s in a patriarchal society, also this experience
is often part of men’s social reality and thus a historical factor.
For a controversial, but not a reactionary account on the issue,
see Lenz 2001.
 Compare Depkat 2003, especially pp. 466–468 and pp.
 Here I am, of course, talking about the trauma. Even
though “trauma” did not belong to the available vocabulary of
the Finnish war veterans in 1940’s, I do believe it existed as
a mostly undiagnosed, non-discursive psychological phenomenon.
The problem of using the term is in transferring the today’s diagnosis
criteria and meaning of the term one-to-one to meet the social
reality of the veterans in 1940’s – exactly the absence of the
term partly created this reality; on history of trauma see e.g.
Lerner & Micale 2001.