Darren Campbell graduated from Moray House School of Education with a BEd PE (Hons) degree in 2015. For his final year Investigation, he explored the ways in which masculine identities are constructed and ‘enacted’ in the PE setting. During his probationary year, Darren continued to work on his paper and, in March 2016, it was published in one of the leading international journals in the field: Sport Education and Society. In this blog, Darren presents a summary of his work: his aims, key findings and implications for the profession.
Research into masculinities and gendered identities in school has been conflicted in recent times. Most evidence suggests a traditional ‘orthodox’ masculinity is still prevalent amongst boys, with displays of strength, pain tolerance, homophobia and misogyny appearing to play a major part in their identity construction.
However, some recent research has suggested a new, more ‘inclusive’ form of masculinity is emerging. This research suggests that more liberal attitudes in society have allowed boys to perform a wider range of more ‘feminised’ behaviours that were previously unavailable to them. For this investigation, I undertook research in a secondary school in Glasgow to help uncover the current state of adolescent masculinity in a Scottish PE context.
Aims and methods
I undertook a qualitative case study approach to examine the thoughts, beliefs and actions of 16 and 17 year old pupils in a real school context. I combined the use of observations inside and outside of the PE classroom with one-to-one pupil interviews. This allowed me to gain an insight into how children in this particular school understood and experienced the world in relation to gender. My particular focus was to uncover the ways in which boys perceived masculine ideals and how this impacted on the ways in which they performed in PE.
The pupils in this school mostly displayed a traditional ‘orthodox’ form of masculinity that centred on strength, pain tolerance and the policing of others’ identities. Pupils not only verbalised their embodiment of these traits in interviews, but also performed them in PE through hard tackles, play fights and insults. The nature of PE provided a platform for pupils to perform such traits, with key sites being ‘invisible spaces’ where pupils could avoid teacher surveillance – for example on large playing fields or in changing rooms. Pupils that were successfully able to negotiate an identity that encompassed these masculine traits were rewarded with social capital and popularity among their peers. Generally, pupils who were unable to perform to masculine expectations had their identity questioned and stigmatised. This constrained boys into performing a narrow gender identity that conformed to traditional masculine norms.
Interestingly, however, some pupils did manage to successfully perform an identity that aligned with some principles of inclusive masculinity. These pupils were friendly, kind and physically tactile with each other but were still able to maintain a high social status within the class. For example, boys frequently hugged each other and openly expressed their close friendship with other boys. They were able to do this without visibly losing any social capital or being stigmatised by other pupils. This suggested that pupils internalised a belief that orthodox behaviours were required to succeed in PE, but these behaviours were not as valued outside of a sporting context. Furthermore, it is important to note that the pupils who were able to perform traits of inclusive masculinity already held a high degree of social and physical capital through their successful embodiment of orthodox masculinity. This high degree of masculine capital may have allowed certain pupils to transgress orthodox norms without fear of being stigmatised.
Implications for the PE profession
While there seems to be progress in challenging orthodox masculinity, more work may still need to be done in schools to allow children to perform a range of gendered identities without fear of being stigmatised. By improving their awareness of various forms of masculinity, teachers are better placed to challenge the dominant, orthodox norms prevalent in PE. Furthermore, by understanding how orthodox masculinity is maintained and reproduced, teachers can respond more consistently and appropriate to challenge pupils who use homophobic and misogynistic language. In this way, teachers are better equipped to create safer learning environments where inclusive masculinities can thrive and, as a result, pupils have a more positive learning (and wellbeing) experience in PE.