What is it about?

The basic idea for the research was to explore how contemporary young men come to identify with role models of masculinity in a search for authenticity and meaning. The broader context for identity development among young men is a complex social psychological field in which a range of ideologies of masculinity - or masculinisms - has emerged in response to feminisms: (1) anti-feminist forces, such as toxic masculinity, misogynistic online cults, aggressive and gendered nationalisms and xenophobia, men’s rights groups and Christian promise keepers; (2) movements ambivalent toward feminism, including men’s liberation movements, male adherents of postfeminism, and gay liberation movements; and (3) pro-feminist forces, including socialist feminist men’s movements and organizations like the National Organization for Men Against Sexism. To focus on this question in context, I undertook a thematic and narrative analysis of online commentary among the mostly young male followers of celebrity Canadian psychologist, Jordan Peterson. Since his emergence from relative obscurity in 2016, Peterson has become a dominant cultural figure and has a huge global following across a range of platforms and media. I wanted to know more about the attraction of young men toward Peterson and his messages, in particular in how they interpreted his expectations regarding masculine identity and conduct. Combining thematic analysis with narrative analysis, I conducted a study of the contributions to a discussion and news website – Reddit - focusing in on the Jordan Peterson “subreddit” (JPS), that is a network of threads of comments and other digital input related to Peterson. In order to limit the parameters of the study, I began by identifying threads that referenced key terms associated with masculinity and masculinisms. These threads were then further limited to those with a substantial interactive development across a number of contributions. This constituted the most promising setting for elaborations of Peterson and his impact on the identities of the online contributors. On the basis of the thematic analysis, I developed four sets of narrative themes that captured key elements of the attraction to young men to Peterson and his ideas. The central objective of the study was to map these themes and to begin to explore them. The four narrative themes were: “The Attentive Acolyte,” “The Angry Brother,” “The Abandoned Son,” and “The Admiring Student”. In brief, the typical narratives unfolded were, respectively: the unquestioning loyalty of the devotee toward the charismatic leader; the shared anger and misogyny of the young man as reverse victim; the need for warmth, affection, and validation of the fatherless son; and keen curiosity of the alert and keen student, including possibly a critical and dialogical engagement with the teacher.

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Why is it important?

The broad nature of Peterson’s own narratives of masculinity, as well as those of his followers, range across models of masculinity and resist easy summation. However, the presence of the more extreme statements of toxic masculinity and misogyny is limited. The overall tone is that of traditional conservatism, with its emphasis on the patriarchal order and sexist assumptions regarding fixed and inherited sex and gender roles. While these are reactionary and anti-feminist, they are situated within a familiar ideological landscape in tension with liberalism. Given the context in which these perspectives are situated, a series of questions remain and will require further investigation: Will conservative order be eclipsed by right-wing authoritarianism and the alt-right? Will chivalry deemed archaic and futile be swept aside by crude misogynistic control? How far will the imagined impugned honour of the young men as victims turn toward rage and violence as a response? In order to address these questions, a number of lines of enquiry may be followed. First, what is the shelf life of Peterson himself? For how long will he remain a relevant cultural figure? Might he adapt his positions and pronouncements better to fit the mood of the times? Will alternative and competing male role models emerge among the intelligentsia or the academic classes? What of other social media platforms and sites? How is masculinity modelled and exhibited through those sites and how far are they influential among young men? Most elusively, how will the socio-political developments of the current era, notably the fate of populisms and authoritarianism influence the field of metanarratives of masculinity in which identities become possible?


My interest in the study grew in part from my role as a father and grandfather of young men and boys as well as my many years of mentorship of young male scholars. I have known these boys and young men well and seen them develop their identities and attempt to find their place in the world. As Peterson became famous in the years following his early public interventions, in 2016 and beyond, I was struck by how many young men were drawn to his ideas and I wanted to know more and to understand the appeal. At the same time, my own research into male identities and ontological security exposed me to contemporary theoretical literature on globalization, political psychology, and the rise of anti-feminist discourses and movements among the right-wing populists and alt-right supporters. It was in these contexts that I framed the existing study of the Jordan Peterson subreddit.

Paul Nesbitt-Larking
Huron University College

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This page is a summary of: Constructing narratives of masculinity: Online followers of Jordan B. Peterson., Psychology of Men & Masculinity, March 2022, American Psychological Association (APA),
DOI: 10.1037/men0000394.
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