“What does it mean to be a man?”

Someone casually asked me this question on Facebook the other day and it occurred to me that I have absolutely no idea. The question was driven by a desire to explore the male role in society and how this correlates with the increase in suicide in the UK.

Perhaps we need to break down the question into dichotomies to understand what she meant by ‘man’? Does she mean man: woman — what does it mean to be in relation to being (or not being) a woman? Is there a simply biological answer to this because there certainly isn’t a simple sociological one. We could explore the relationship between men and women and ask that in this secondary modern age that a man is a man who doesn’t also use it to degrade women in any way.

What about man: animal. Well there is probably an agreed line for zoologists about what the difference is and we can certainly claim a position that is unique on the planet — even if that is both unique destructive and uniquely creative. I was taken by the next dichotomy that came to my mind man: boy. It occurs to me that to be seen to be a man is probably most important to that person who looks to emulate you, or to use it as guidance. In the development of a social human being a child will look to gender as an indicator of established, expected and suitable behaviour.

Being a man becomes articulated in your everyday performance of how you interact with other people, how you react to their actions and how you cope with the everyday. More importantly, is accepted as a man, if indicated as such, you your particular set of physical and psychological characteristics become part of the established understanding of manhood. But to surmise any event, action or set of communication down to ‘being a man’ would be false. It would be an over generalisation.

I argue elsewhere that identity is not an essential element within you, nor a static concept. You can no more construct your identity through consumptive habits than you can ‘be a man’ by being strong, the wage earner in the family or by driving a big car. Your identity becomes constructed through the everyday performance of life — your interactions with others, with things, and with meaning and culture. It is the very process of change and development, in reaction to your environment, who you are — part of that may be synonymous with being a ‘man’ for someone else, and they may use that in their own understanding of the world. But for another person it could be a very different thing that helps them define that role.

I guess, ultimately, the complexity and vagueness of this answer suggests to me that the question is not as important as we might suggest. That rather than asking what a man’s role in society is, we should ask what a person’s role is — what does it mean to be a human? Although these are broader questions, they are actually more workable. You avoid having to define what a man is opposed to a woman or boy (exact distinctions that are changeable and often rather arbitrary) and instead look to the importance of how very similar we all are, and how that should inform our behaviour.

A very close friend was recently asked what made her an Anthropologist. She answered that it was not the wide anthropological text that she reads (because she doesn’t), it was not the theories or what she knows. Being an anthropologist, for her, is not even about what she does — it is about how she approaches the world. It is driven from a position of great curiosity in the diversity of humans but also in their ultimate equality. That despite our very beautiful variety, we remain equal.