Researching Men in New Zealand – Whose Voices Are We Hearing?
By Paul Camister
Our assumptions, values, feelings, and histories shape the scholarship we propose, the findings we generate, and the conclusions we draw. Our insights about family processes and structures are affected by our membership in particular families, by the lives of those we study, and by what we care about knowing and explaining.
Katherine Allen, Journal of Marriage and the Family
In New Zealand we often seem uncomfortable when it comes to discussing contentious issues. We feel particularly uncomfortable when these debates involve gender, ethnicity and family issues.
There is a strong tendency to try and shut off discussions rather than trying to address the issues being raised. For example, recently Helen Clark has tried to gag Tariana Turia when she spoke out about the possible effects of colonisation in relation to child abuse.
In turn, Tariana Turia tried to stop the Commissioner for Children publishing data on Maori child abuse. Yet, while strongly arguing for the right to discuss research about child abuse, last year the Commission for Children itself worked hard to suppress debate over whether there should have been some gender balance in their own research on fathers.
However, if we are to move forward as a society we need open and frank debate about family change, about the interconnected changes in roles for men and women, and about the changing circumstances of Maori and Pakeha.
In these debates, and particularly in the debates about family and gender role change, we need to hear the voices of many groups.
This includes men.
While debate and policymaking is often guided by ideology rather than by research, research can at times have a major impact on the thinking of both law makers and those implementing government policy. There are many examples of where research has helped improve the lives of women and men.
An example for women is the research as to why, historically, girls had been less attracted to subjects such as maths and science in schools and why, on average, their performance in these subjects was lower than boys. Such research helped schools alter curriculum and teaching styles to improve the position of girls. An example of where research has started to help men is the small amount of research that has been carried out on men as primary caregivers.
This has identified that such men often have experiences in this role quite different from women including, at times, facing barriers in this parenting role. This research has already had some impact on providers of support services to parents, as well as more practical ways such as encouraging the provision of public areas where fathers can change and feed young babies.
Such research not only helps the fathers, but also helps their children.
It is clear from broad research on changes in work and family patterns that the lives of many men have changed dramatically over the last couple of decades. While many of the changes have been discussed in more detail in previous issues of F&C, they include decreased contact with their children by one group of men but increased time with them by another group.
Yet we know little about the day-to-day experiences of many of those men whose lives have changed. For example, we have much information on the problems that sole mothers can face but know little about the lives of either non-custodial fathers or those fathers who themselves are sole parents.
For example, what barriers do non-custodial fathers face to being effective parents and how could these barriers be overcome?
In the 1960s and 1970s when women’s lives were also changing dramatically, there was a call for more research on women. In parallel with this, there was much debate about the methodologies used when researching the lives of women.
As a result of this debate there is now currently general acceptance in New Zealand, particularly within government agencies, that women need to both take a key role in researching the lives of women and be involved in extensive advocacy on their behalf (institutional examples include the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and the National Advisory Council on the Employment of Women).
In contrast, amongst some agencies and researchers there seems to be no concern about the gender of the research team when researching men. In recent years we have seen a major research project on fathers involve primarily a female research team and a significant amount of public funding has just been granted to a female only team from the Feminist Studies Department at Canterbury University to study the effects of viagra.
In addition, in a recent National radio interview a female researcher from Victoria University described her research on male rapists in prison. When asked why she did not interview Maori men, she stated that it would be inappropriate and culturally insensitive as a Pakeha to study Maori.
Yet while she had a concern about studying across ethnic lines, she appeared to have no concern about studying across gender lines.
In New Zealand, it would be highly unlikely that any publicly funded research on motherhood or female sexuality would now involve a male only research team. It is important that researchers and the agencies commissioning research now engage in debates about the methodologies used for researching men. Ignoring or even actively trying to suppress such debate will not make it go away.
Such debate will include establishing the situations where it is most appropriate to use a male-only team, the situations where a mixed team will provide the best results, those where a women-only team might provide some useful insights and those where the gender composition of the team is irrelevant.
However, in general in research on men, and in particular on issues such as shared parenting and with regard to various male specific health problems, an “inclusive” approach to research appears to be the most appropriate.
The argument for inclusive research is especially strong when behavioural change amongst the group being researched is an anticipated and hoped for outcome of the research process.