Ulf Mellström

Portrait: ‘We Need to Take the Fight and Not Be So Careful’

2018-09-03 09:40

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‘Come on, bring it on! Where are you?’

Mellström flexes his muscles and jokingly pounds his chest. We are talking about the debate article he wrote last spring about the badmouthing of gender research he sees on conservative editorial pages – a piece that has drawn a great deal of attention. I ask him why he is choosing to actively spark discussion in the midst of an increasingly fierce debate climate. He says that maybe it has something to do with the classic ‘hardcore masculinity’ (a term he coined), which is the focus of his research, but also with his own background.

We are enjoying a cup of coffee on his balcony in Stockholm. He lives in Stockholm but commutes to Karlstad a few hours away, where he works as a professor of gender studies. Who would have thought that the somewhat unmotivated working-class kid from Sävedalen, a Gothenburg suburb, would end up pursuing an academic career? Mellström says that he was really tired of school already after 9th grade. However, it was also around this time – while fiddling with cars and mopeds in his family’s garage – that he became interested in technical stuff, but also gender issues.

‘I grew up like a stereotypical boy preoccupied with stuff like cars and football,’ he says. ‘But I have also always been interested in gender issues. Maybe it’s because I grew up with two mums most of the time, my real mum and my aunt.’

Challenging the Stereotype of Firefighters

Mellström has focused his research on the topic of men and machines ever since he presented his PhD thesis titled Engineering Lives, Technology, Time and Space in a Male-centred World in 1995. As part of writing his thesis, he followed a group of engineers at Volvo Cars in Torslanda outside Gothenburg when they developed the Volvo 850 model. His research has contributed new knowledge about the expectations placed on boys and men. He has also shown how preconceptions regarding masculinity lead to the exclusion of women in many areas.

There is still a widespread belief that only men can do the job, despite the clear lack of support for such a view.

He has a particular interest in different forms of traditional masculinity and environments where women are absent. He describes ‘hardcore masculinity’ as a form of masculinity that remains relatively unaffected by the way gender norms have changed in society and that continues to hold on to more traditional expectations and ideals. The view of firefighters is one example of this, he says. From 2010 to 2014, he headed a research project focusing on gender, risk and safety in emergency services.

‘That’s definitly a prime area of hardcore masculinity. It’s the most heroic job there is,’ he says.

He believes that the view of firefighters as heroic men may in effect exclude women from the profession. There is also a risk that heroism and safety concerns do not always go hand in hand, which may lead to unnecessary risk-taking. Nevertheless, many people want to maintain the current image of firefighters. There is still a widespread belief that only men can do the job, despite the clear lack of support for such a view, Mellström points out.

Gender Research – a Political Straw Man

Besides his masculinity research, Mellström has an intense interest in research policy and the situation of universities and scholars. He has been a member of the Swedish government’s delegation for gender equality in higher education, the Swedish Research Council’s committee for gender research and the Research Council of Norway’s gender research programme, as well as chair of the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research, among other relevant posts. He is seeing how the possibility to carry out gender research is being threatened due to intense attacks by socially conservative actors. That is what made him write the debate article published in major Swedish national newspaper Dagens Nyheter last spring.

‘Gender research has become a political straw man. By mixing populist rhetoric and ideologically twisted analyses, political columnists and other self-proclaimed experts are pushing the idea of an ongoing apocalypse of Swedish higher education,’ he wrote in the article.

There are so many lies out there. Nationalists and social conservatives have made gender research a symbol for everything they hate.

As a professor, he believes he has a special responsibility to stand up against the attacks.

‘There are so many lies out there. Nationalists and social conservatives have made gender research a symbol for everything they hate. It’s paradoxical, because gender and gender equality issues are not very controversial among people in general,’ he says.

The fact that the badmouthing of gender research can continue in the midst of the MeToo revolution is due to the increasing polarisation in society, according to Mellström. Social conservatives are being more vocal than in the past at the same time as feminism and the women’s movement are standing strong.

‘‘We might see some dramatic anti-feminist, populist changes after the Swedish national election in September. I believe that the family-conservative bloc of parties will push their agenda with higher intensity in Sweden, similarly to in the rest of Europe,’ he says.

Grew Up in a Foster Home

Mellström’s mum came to Sweden from Finland as a child during World War II and experienced some serious hardship. She had Ulf out of wedlock and since she did not have her own home, Ulf was placed in a foster family.

‘Until I was 5 years old, I only saw my mum on weekends. Then she and my aunt got a flat together, and then I could stay with them,’ he says.

His path into academia was anything but straight. In Sweden, people finish upper secondary school with an upper secondary degree in a certain subject domain. After 9th grade, they can pursue a programme in anything from academically oriented fields such as science and business to more occupationally oriented programmes focusing on for example construction work and hairdressing. Mellström chose a programme in the latter category, with a plan to work in a warehouse.

After graduating, he travelled in Southeast Asia and ended up on an island in Malaysia, where he helped build boats. His pay consisted of food and a place to stay. In a next step he moved to Lund, Sweden and completed a degree in social anthropology. His identity as an anthropologist is strong – although he was equally likely to go into theatre as he was to become an academic. When they called from Linköping University to offer him a PhD position, he was first on the waiting list for the theatre director programme at the Marieborg folk college. He chose Linköping, but stayed in theatre on the side. In fact, Mellström and his theatre group received an award for their work in 1997.

‘The feeling of acting on a stage and owning a room is very special. It’s great. Research is a bit more viscous,’ he says jokingly.

His acting experience has definitely benefitted him as a researcher, and as a teacher in particular.

Moved to Malaysia

We leave the balcony for the sitting room, where Mellström’s youngest daughter Sonja is unpacking some laundry. She has just returned to Stockholm from studies in Paris, and after the summer she will move to London. His other daughter, Fanny, lives in Tel Aviv.

‘Maybe we have become a bit rootless, for good and for bad;’ says Sonja.

Sonja and her sister were just 7 and 11 years old when the whole family lived in Penang, Malaysia for periods of time. In Malaysia, Ulf continued to explore men’s love of machines. He rode a scooter between different shops and interviewed mechanics about their relationships with their work and machines. He made observations, asked questions and handed them tools, and also became pretty good at the language.

‘My work there can be described as some kind of early posthumanism but also as a classic ethnography of working-class masculinities in the region,’ he says.

It is hardly a coincidence that so many gender researchers are involved in topics that are personally relevant to them, he believes.

‘We are in some sense always dealing with ourselves. This is true in particular for those involved in intimate, ethnographic research.’

Editor of International Anthology

Next, Mellström will focus more on other people’s research. Mellström, his colleague Lucas Gottzén and South African gender researcher Tammy Shefer are the editors of a large international handbook on masculinity research that will be published early next year.

We need to point out the many positive changes that gender research has contributed to.

In connection with the Swedish election campaign this year, he will also remain active in the gender research debate. He has suggested to Ivar Arpi, editorial writer for major Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet, that the two of them should confront each other in a debate.

‘This is a time when we shouldn’t be so careful. Instead we need to stand up and take the fight. We need to point out the many positive changes that gender research has contributed to,’ he says.

Mellström’s Career in Brief

Obtained his PhD from Linköping University in 1995. Editor of Norma: International Journal for Masculinity Studies since it was founded in 2006. Professor of gender and technology at Luleå University of Technology 2005–2011. Professor of gender studies at Karlstad University 2011.

Mellström Chooses
Three favourite theorists: Clifford Geertz, Donna Haraway and Nina Lykke. Three favourite authors: Samuel Beckett, Nelly Sachs and Agneta Pleijel. Three favourite films: Big Lebowski, Måndagarna med Fanny and Isle of Dogs. The best thing about working in academia: The intellectual stimulation. The worst thing about working in academia: All the inflated egos. Somebody I couldn’t do without: My life partner and love of my life Ann-Carita Evaldsson (professor of education at Uppsala University). A favourite place for thinking: The writing room in the countryside cabin in Östergötland a few hours south of Stockholm.
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