European Commission logo
English English
CORDIS - EU research results

Becoming Men: Performing responsible masculinities in contemporary urban Africa

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - Becoming Men (Becoming Men: Performing responsible masculinities in contemporary urban Africa)

Reporting period: 2020-03-01 to 2021-02-28

Becoming Men is an interdisciplinary social science research group based at the University of Amsterdam that uses ethnographic methods to study masculinity in urban Africa, focusing primarily on the cities of Nairobi, Johannesburg and Dar es Salaam. Since the mid-1980s academic and public discourses have painted African masculinity as precarious and predatory. Economic insecurity, urbanization, shifting gender norms, and growing gender parity have led to claims that African masculinity is in crisis. More recently, stories of urban men embracing responsible fatherhood, calling for an end to intimate partner violence, and demanding homosexual rights have emerged as exemplars of progressive possibility. By theoretically framing discourses and practices that pathologize and/or politicize masculinity as simultaneously performing and producing gendered/sexual selves, researchers in the Becoming Men group set out to disentangle seemingly competing claims about African masculinities and shed light on the scientific, political and economic projects guiding them.

The Becoming Men research team consisted of 18 core team members, including the PI, 8 PhDs, 7 post-doctoral fellows, and 2 visiting fellows. Researchers conducted in-depth ethnographic research in urban settings to identify diverse performances and practices relating to masculinity in African contexts. Researchers studied different aspects or “nodes” in what we theorized as a “global gender equity assemblage.” Drawing on team expertise in history, urban anthropology, critical development studies, demography, psychology, and feminist media studies, we focused on gender and sexuality as a set of practices that shaped peoples everyday lives in urban settings. We used a contrasting case study approach, conceptualizing key cosmopolitan cities in Africa as “labs” where norms and practices related to gender and masculinity were experimented with in everyday social engagements. We sought to understand these cities though a lens of globalization, specifically attending to how international health and development initiatives contributed to ongoing social experiments with gender and sexuality in Africa settings and, further, how knowledges advanced and gained in Africa looped back to shape Euro-American presumptions about African masculinities.

In all studies, discourses and practices relating to masculinities served as an entry point to understand shifts relating to gender and sexuality, as well as the social, economic, and political factors contributing to these shifts. Further, we were interested in trying to shed light on the recent rise of anti-queer, anti-feminist populist politics in the countries of study, including The Netherlands. Our research findings point to the important ways that social media shapes both public discourse and everyday practices relating to gender and sexuality, specifically emergent forms of digital feminism as part of a global #MeToo moment, as well as among gender non-conforming people who use social media to advance political causes and to enhance privacy within their social worlds. Working in several countries also allowed us to highlight the extent to which the state continues to play an important role in shaping legal landscapes and providing social services that dramatically alter the intimate lives of citizens. Our finding challenge much research on gender and sexuality in Africa which tends to overstate the role that international funding agencies play in shaping gender and sexuality. Our research also pointed to the presence of vibrant forms of activism on the ground in all countries, albeit often entangled with international rights-based organizations.
After a year of collaborative development of the overall project and the individual sub-projects, all team members conducted approximately one year of field research in their sites on their part of the comparative question. Each team member then proceeded to further analyse their material and publish their findings in the form of individual or co-authored articles, books and PhD- theses.
Across our projects, we sought to “theorize with” our research participants. This helped us to arrive at three cross-cutting themes that challenge current conceptualizations of masculinity in Africa. First, we found that men were actively involved in caring practices within their family and friend networks. Men’s care work often took the form of providing financial support for food, school fees and in times of medical need. While much of the literature on masculinities focuses on men as providers, rarely is this provision examined through a lens of caregiving, which overlooks the important role men play in reproducing normative family structures. This aspect of masculinity is entwined with the second key theme: kinship. Scholarship on masculinities in Africa often fails to consider diverse forms of family-making. By focusing on subjects such as queer family-making, the nuclearization of families, and dispersed forms of shared fatherhood, we have been able to illustrate the multiple ways men contribute to the re-making of family and kin networks, as well as patriarchal power structures in Africa today. A third key theme that emerged from our research was the ways that cunning, or contextual intelligence, was understood as a key aspect of masculinity, particularly in times of economic precarity. Men stressed the importance of being able to act quickly to take advantage of opportunities, while always keeping the big picture in mind. Failing to do this consistently was regularly linked to men feeling as if they were failures, quite often leading to self-abuse, addiction and even suicide.

These findings are published in a range of (forthcoming) articles, books and PhD-theses. Many of our publications are freely available at