Boys, sport and the construction of masculinities : an ethnographic study of sporty year-eight boys in a single-sex private school in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.
Bowley, Barbara Anne.
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Sport in South African schools plays a vital role in the development of some boys’ masculine development and construction. The focus of this qualitative research is on year-eight boys who play sport in a single-sex private independent school in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. This study investigates the influential role that sport plays in the social construction of their young masculinities. It is an ethnographic study conducted in 2012 and early 2013 in which I gained information and insight into the lives of the boys and the social factors that influenced the construction of their gendered masculine identities. Information and data for this study is generated from a year and a half long participant observation as well as interviews with the boys. With sport being an integral part of how they construct themselves, the purpose of this study is to examine in detail how they use sport to create masculine identities. During the complex construction of these masculine identities, the boys in this research battle with issues of race, class and sexuality; all of which are intertwined in their construction. I argue that there is a hierarchy of masculinities and a pecking order of power relations and those who do not meet the hegemonic (dominant) ideal are relegated to the position of subordinate ‘other’. The key question for this research that I have addressed is how boys come to invest in sport in schools and in what ways these decisions impact on their masculine identities. The boys’ peer group has a powerful influence in the formation of their masculinity so how the boys are seen by their peers and seniors is of enormous importance. They carefully choose and participate in certain sports that will bestow social status, gain acknowledgement and as a result, attain power among their peers. The study found that while sport afforded the boys a certain hierarchy within the broader context of the school community, these boys also competed amongst themselves to create a hierarchy within the dominant group of sporty boys to gain power over one another. I draw on critical masculinity studies and race theories and use social constructionist perspectives to provide an understanding of their investment in sport and how the socially constructed nature of masculinity is affected by their investment in sport. While the official practices of the school are to encourage participation in sport and much of the focus in South Africa is about encouraging sports, this research argues that the meanings that these boys ascribe to sport is gendered, racialised and sexualised. viii The findings show that the body plays an important role in the aspirations of a dominant masculine identity. The boys were consciously aware of the limitations of the body but also understood that the body is an integral part of the construction of masculinity. Homophobic taunts and put downs were used by the boys as symbolic markers to assert their heterosexual positions, gain power and reinforce their positions of dominance. The interviews reveal a number of footholds for understanding the importance that sport plays in the lives of these boys and more importantly, the ways in which sport and masculine power intertwine and become integral to the success of boyhood. Ethnographic research also shows that while sport is an area of unity and cohesiveness, amongst these boys sport is also an area of exclusion and marginalisation. Despite the importance that sport plays in many boys’ lives and the fact that sport may act as structures to create positive masculinities, this study reveals that sport is also an area where many boys become isolated and rejected.