It’s a Man’s Man’s World

Dr. Benjamin Campbell, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin, received his PhD in biological anthropology from Harvard. He is generally interested in the evolutionary study of the human life course, hormones as modulators of human biology and behavior, and neuroanthropology.

Campbell applies these interests in the embodiment of masculinity among Ariaal men, pastoral nomads of the Marsabit District in Kenya. Embodiment, to Campbell, refers to the experiences of the body that provide context for cognition, including things like muscle tone, heart rate, and endocrine release. In this way, testosterone can be thought of as something that is “embodied” in the experiences of Ariaal men. Campbell hypothesizes that since testosterone is embodied, varying levels of testosterone can then affect the well-being (specifically the energy levels, libido, and enjoyment of life) of Ariaal men in a measurable and meaningful way.

Samburu Man (From Wikimedia Commons)

In order to test this hypothesis, Campbell used the World Health Organization (WHO) quality of life questionnaire (WHOQOL) with 205 men in two different settlements, one nomadic and one close to a town, and collected saliva samples to test testosterone levels. Once he controlled for dopaminergic sensitivity (based on the Taq1 A1+ genotype, received from hair samples), residence (nomadic encampment or town settlement), and age group he ran a regression analysis to model the relationship of testosterone levels to the outcomes of satisfaction with energy, positive emotions, and satisfaction with sex which form his well-being outcomes. Of these, testosterone is linked with an increase in satisfaction with energy and positive emotions, though residence remains a stronger and larger predictor of the outcomes. In this way, embodying masculinity, in the form of increased testosterone levels, is associated with well-being.

(From Flickr)

From this conclusion, Campbell claims a “nearly” universal relationship between testosterone and well-being in men. However, the only other studies he cites to make this claim were done in Germany, the U.S.A., and Finland. It seems that more research would need to be done in countries in various geographic regions in order to be able to make any claims of a larger pattern of testosterone levels relating to well-being. Further, the exact pathways by which it does so would need to be explored in more detail. Of the variables used in this study, the one with the largest effect size and significance related to well-being had to do with living in the nomadic encampment, which Campbell suggests could be due to the men living closer to their cultural roots. If we are conceding that living in line with valued cultural roots contributes importantly to well-being, then we would need to somehow control for the possibility that it is living up to the cultural “model” of manliness, which testosterone might contribute to, rather than the testosterone itself, that is contributing to well-being. Along these lines, the socioculturally constructed nature of the gender role of “masculinity” would need to be further explored within each of the different contexts in which testosterone is being tested for its contributions to well-being.

For further consideration:

  1. What, according to Campbell, is the relationship between embodiment and emotion?
  2. What are some of the benefits of looking at the relationship between a hormone and well-being? What are some of the drawbacks?
  3. What methodological changes could be made to address some of the further research questions either brought up here or in Campbell’s chapter itself?



Campbell, Benjamin. “Embodiment and Male Vitality in Subsistence Societies.” In The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology, edited by Lende, Daniel H., and Greg Downey, 237-259. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press. 2012.


11 thoughts on “It’s a Man’s Man’s World”

  1. This chapter was fascinating to read! I wonder what the impact of testosterone is on female well-being? Or even the impact of estrogen and progesterone on the well-being of both sexes? As I was reading this chapter I was also thinking about everything else I have learned about testosterone and it’s physical and physiological impact. Although testosterone is believed to be crucial for male well-being, isn’t it also detrimental to the body in some ways? I have read in other classes that higher levels of testosterone lead to an increased risk of developing prostate cancer. How can we reconcile this seemingly paradoxical explanation about testosterone?

  2. I think the way he uses the word “embodied” is interesting. When I think of that word, I think of it meaning to personify or to symbolize something, but I know it can also mean to contain or encompass something. The male body does contain testosterone so to say it is “embodied” is an interesting way to see it. He talks about the connection of these things to emotional well being. If these “embodiments of masculinity” are things like testosterone or muscle tone or heart rate, I would make sense that these are components of emotional well being. For example, low testosterone often causes symptoms like fatigue and low libido which can be confused with or spur on symptoms of depression. I do think that the relationship between hormones and well-being can be kind of cyclic, though. It gets into some philosophical debates about mind-body. Do hormones affect well-being or does well-being affect hormones?

    1. I’m still a little shaky on the idea of embodiment in this context, but it is good to know that it is a developing idea that is meant to be thought-provoking.

      I think an interesting point that came up was the mind-body theory and I wish it was talked about more in class. I’m not sure how related it is but, to me, this is kind of points to an interaction between the physical body and the mind (if you subscribe to that sort of theory). I’m not sure if the author’s intention was to be philosophical but that is where my mind keeps going when I think about embodiment in terms of physiological characteristics.

  3. Campbell’s view is interesting but seems to not take into account all factors but rather just focus on testosterone. Testosterone may very well be linked to well-being but are testosterone levels the cause or just a side-effect of other influencing factors on the men. It can certainly be useful in measuring well-being in males but does not really explain what exactly causes the variance in well-being. Campbell says that nutritional status, food availability, and workload have an impact on testosterone levels. Why are those not seen as a more valuable reflection of well-being? Testosterone levels certainly do impact libido and energy but should we not also look to what is causing the variation in testosterone levels. As someone else said, it does appear to be rather cyclic and can be up for debate. A universal view for male vitality is a bit confusing for me. It would certainly require great cross culture study to see if the concept of muelos is “nearly” universal. What kind of questions would that answer if we did find out it was a widely shared concept?

    1. I am still not quite on board with the idea of embodiment of testosterone. I think I just do not really, fully understand what Campbell meant. I do, however, better understand embodiment as a whole. It is definitely a rather theoretical concept that is still being talked about and hashed out but it certainly has plenty of applications in neuroanthropology.

  4. I thought that this was a very interesting read since the article did not play out the way I was expecting it to. I always thought of embodiment as the dictionary definition of a real and tangible idea. In a way the levels of testosterone on a man’s well being fits the definition but just not in a way that I was used to seeing from previous anthropological courses.
    I think a way to improve this study would be to work with a slightly larger sample size with more than 5 questions regarding perceived well being. I thought this was interesting research that just needs a little more substance to it.

  5. I think one of the most interesting concepts to discuss in terms of evolution and testosterone is the idea of antagonistic pleiotropy. The basic idea here is that we can oftentimes better understand why there is a prevalence of a deleterious trait later in life if we consider how the trait aided early on in life with reproduction. In the case of testosterone, early in life we see many reproductive benefits such as increasing sperm production and sex drive which would be highly selected for throughout evolutionary history. However, later in life, high testosterone can be quite harmful with side effects ranging from baldness to prostate cancer. I would have liked for Campbell to include some type of discussion about how this evolutionary concept might relate to well-being and testosterone.

    1. Excellent comment Mandy! I almost forgot about antagonistic pleiotropy. I can now answer my own question about how we can reconcile this seemingly paradoxical idea that testosterone is good and bad for you at the same time. Using this concept, we can see why higher rates of testosterone would be selected for at a younger age and how dualistically, at an older this selection becomes harmful. However, I do think that too much or too little testosterone at any age may be harmful, especially since the author argues that too little testosterone is likely a reason for reduced well being.

  6. I found this article very interesting, but I would be very interested to see the same study repeated in women. Though all women produce some testosterone, some produce more than others. Do these women experience the same effect as the men in this study? Also, I’ve read studies that demonstrate that testosterone can actually limit immune response by suppressing the inflammatory response and inhibiting some processes of natural killer cells and T-cells, revealing why men are more susceptible to some infectious diseases, and women are more prone to autoimmune diseases. I would imagine that infectious disease prevalence would have an impact on well-being. Should this be considered in a study like this, or do the Ariaal men not experience this effect? If so, why not? I would also be interested to see how the testosterone negative feedback loop effects this. For the brief time where the body experiences low testosterone levels, will the man experience lower energy levels or libido?

  7. The discussion we had about body image and the full body experience of various emotions was very easy to engage it and I think about how I’m expressing my emotions more after having that class discussion.
    I still would like to see another study like the one Campbell did with a larger population and better research questions.

  8. I still see this article as starkly different than Worthman’s perspective on embodiment. I’d like to see Campbell expand on this perspective in other male communities. Embodiment, to me, is such a complex principle. It takes into account factors from the cellular to the macro-biological. While testosterone is an illustrative example of this, I think it lacks the larger context Worthman speaks of.

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