What does it take to be a ‘good man'? Men throughout the world are frequently subjected to negative representation. In the South African context this is no different, say SHARLENE SWARTZ, JEREMIAH CHIKOVORE and LINDA RICHTER, who are embarking on a study focusing on men's morality and considering how ‘being good' is in fact an asset (or ‘capital'). 

The good, the bad and the ugly

Men are, not always unfairly, portrayed as neglectful, profligate, abusive, sexually uncontrolled and violent. On the other hand, the notion of ‘the good man' is a deeply and prevalently valued ideal - devoted son, loyal friend, diligent worker, loving father and wise guardian.

Yet, what it means, or even what it takes, to be ‘a good man' is seldom defined, empirically investigated, or deliberately promoted in interventions. A study focusing on men's morality as a ‘moral ecology' (in a social context), and considering how ‘being good' is in fact an asset (or ‘capital'), has the potential to contribute to social cohesion in a society fragmented by political, technological and cultural change.

It also holds promise for a country beset with problems around gender inequality, father absenteeism, criminality and corruption. In addition, men who live in resource-poor environments face greater challenges to ‘getting it right' because financial provision is frequently put at the forefront of what it means to be ‘a good man'.

Masculine morality?

With this motivation in mind, the HSRC has embarked upon a multi-year project to investigate masculine morality. Entitled ‘Men and Morality: Investigating the social, cultural and environmental requirements for a society with more than just a few good men', the research collaborative draws on a wide range of expertise from within the HSRC as well as various South African and international institutions. To date 16 senior investigators and five research trainees are involved in the project from the HSRC, University of Cape Town, UNISA, Medical Research Council, University of KwaZulu-Natal, University of Johannesburg, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the University of Maryland, USA.

The project seeks to identify new ways of thinking, researching, interpreting and implementing findings around morality for the benefit of society. Key questions that component studies will seek to answer include:

  • What defines, and what does it take to be, a ‘good man', and in whose eyes?
  • What indigenous and social constructions of manhood and morality exist, and in what complex ways do these intersect?
  • What dimensions and parameters, including social, economic and political, does men's morality take?
  • How does male moral identity develop over time and how have men's moral attitudes changed over the past 20 years?

Disseminating the findings

It is envisaged that component studies: include partnerships with active civic moral movements (such as the Moral Regeneration Movement, Heartlines, the African Fathers' Initiative, and campaigns such as Brothers for Life, One Love, and One Man Can); utilise young people in conducting research; and involve communities in public debate and negotiating forums. It is planned that the study culminates in national implementation and dissemination workshops that will form an evidence-base for civil-society and government-led implementation initiatives in social development and education. who live in resource-poor environments face greater challenges to 'getting it right' because financial provision is frequently put at the forefront of what it means to be 'a good man'. 

The department of science and technology's grant to the HSRC focus on the Grand Challenges of Human and Social Dynamics provides seed funding for the project. Activities to date include a research symposium, the submission of numerous research proposals to funders and the preparation of a special issue of a journal.

Senior research specialists, Dr Sharlene Swartz and Dr Jeremiah Chikovore, and executive director Professor Linda Richter - all from the research project on Child, Youth, Family and Social Development - are the project leaders for this research collaborative.