Masculine identities in physical education: a comparison of S1 and S4 boys in a Scottish secondary school

Sean Stewart has recently completed his final year of the MAPE Programme at the University of Edinburgh. In this post, he provides a summary of the research he carried out for is Educational Studies 4 Independent Research Project.

Masculine identities in physical education: a comparison of S1 and S4 boys in a Scottish secondary school by Sean Stewart

Research suggests that the PE domain is male-dominated (Parker, 1997), often expressed through the curriculum and activity content (Hickey, 2008). Thus, a particular form of masculinity is valued in PE, while others are oppressed. Hegemonic masculinity (HM) theory (Connell, 1987) proposes that masculinity is hierarchical, with typically masculine (or ‘orthodox’) behaviours such competition, ability and homophobia viewed favourably (Parker, 1996). Unfortunately, research suggests that the PE environment can foster these ‘orthodox’ traits and can result in the disengagement from PE of those boys who cannot conform to such masculine norms. Yet, HM theory has come under scrutiny (de Boise, 2015), leading to the introduction of more contemporary theories of masculinity. For example, Anderson’s (2009) inclusive masculinity (IM) theory suggests that males, regardless of their place in the hierarchy, can engage in feminine or homosexual behaviours without stigmatisation. However, although Wellard (2006) also suggests that males can engage in a range of ‘feminine’ behaviours, these are often only available to those males who embody a high degree of physical and social capital, or exclusive masculinity (EM). Campbell et al. (2016) investigated masculine identity in a Scottish school and found evidence of EM among adolescent males (age 16-17) the PE context.

In my research, I aimed to extend the work of Campbell et al. (2016) by exploring the masculine identities of both first year (S1: age 12-13 years) and fourth year (S4: age 15-16 years) boys and to understand the role of PE in the construction of their identities.  During a 10-week investigation, I observed the student’s behaviours within the PE environment. Towards the end of the study, I carried out group interviews with four boys from each class. These boys volunteered to participate in this study and where of middle and working-class backgrounds. Critically, the boys all played sport, the most prominent being rugby, and were present for every lesson observation.


Popularity. The S1 boys valued effort and learning, with boys being picked for teams because of their effort, regardless of ability. These values allowed S1s to gain popularity, and those who exhibited more orthodox values were deemed unpopular. By contrast, the S4s students called boys who gave effort ‘keenos’. They valued ability and competition, for instance, in the beep test where pupils disregarded it as an ‘individual marker’, instead seeing it as a ‘battle’.  Popularity for the S4 students was given to boys who displayed more orthodox behaviours, referring to them as ‘top of the pack’. However, reflecting Wellard’s (2006) concept of EM, the S4 boys also exhibited more feminine behaviours in PE, such as dancing or showing emotions, yet seemed to remain at the top of their perceived hierarchy.

The body. The S1 boys did not appear to be influenced by the body, they did not normalise a particular form of embodiment and therefore did not marginalise ‘other’ bodies. The body was important in the construction of the S4 boy’s masculine identity and was strongly influenced by the local rugby culture in the area. Consequently, they situated their bodies around the idea of an athletic rugby body which they described as being like a ‘tank’. If boys did not possess this body they were called ‘small boys’ and appeared to be oppressed.

Homophobic discourse. The S1 boys showed signs of inclusive masculinity, for example, rejecting aesthetic activities as being gay and stating they did not care about a peer’s sexuality. The S4s contradicted this, with homophobic discourse being the most generic form of oppression. Interestingly, the boys also used homophobic language towards each other, adopting what McCormack (2011) describes as ‘gay discourse’, a form discourse that is not perceived to be negative or homophobic.

The PE curriculum. The S1 curriculum consisted of a range of both ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ activities where the teachers used innovative, learner-centred pedagogies. The S4 boys participated in a choice-based curriculum, often choosing a team sport. The teachers suggesting that this allowed the “boys to be boys”. Importantly, the game of rugby and the boys that played rugby were highly privileged within the whole-school structure.


The results from this research suggest that multiple masculinities do exist in this school, but that as the male students move from S1 to S4, masculinities become more exclusive, to the detriment of those boys who do not display orthodox, rugby-oriented characteristics. There are several implications for PE teachers. For example, if teachers aim to challenge orthodox norms and create a safe space for multiple masculinities, then they need to consider the impact of their PE curriculum and pedagogies on boys of all age groups. Developing and sustaining a diverse and inclusive curriculum, as well as innovative, learner-centred pedagogies may be a first step towards achieving this aim.


Adams, A. (2011). “Josh wears pink cleats”: Inclusive Masculinity on the Soccer Field. Journal of Homosexuality, 58:5, 579-596

Anderson, E. (2009). Inclusive Masculinity. London: Routledge

Campbell, D., Kelly, J., Gray, S. & MacIsaac, S. (2016). Exclusive and Inclusive Masculinities in PE: A Scottish Case Study. Sport, Education and Society, 1-13

Connell, R. (1987). Gender and Power. Stanford: Stanford University Press

de Boise, S. (2015). I’m not Homophobic, I’ve got Gay Friends: Evaluating the Validity of the Inclusive Masculinity. Men and Masculinities, 18:1, 318-339

Hickey, C. (2008). Physical Education, Sport and Hyper-Masculinity in Schools. Sport, Education and Society, 16:1, 1-16

McCormack, M. (2011). Hierarchy without Hegemony: Locating Boys in an Inclusive School Setting. Sociological Perspectives, 54:1, 83-102

Parker, A. (1996). The Construction of Masculinity within Boys’ Physical Education. Gender and Education, 8:2, 141-158

Wellard, I. (2002). Men, Sport, Body Performance and the Maintenance of ‘Exclusive Masculinity’. Sport, Education and Society, 11:2, 105-119