A gendered study of conflict and violence among boys in the construction of masculinities at a technical high school in Durban.
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The study analyses instances of disagreement or conflict among boys at Sunville, a technical high school in Chatsworth, Durban. In many, cases these episodes escalated and became physically violent encounters. In other instances, they were resolved without any physical violence. Conflict developed in two phases which were not mutually exclusive. In the first phase a learner would give various forms of provocation (for example insults). The provocations gave rise to or expressed conflict but did not necessarily lead to violence. In cases where physical conflict emerged various causes were at work. These related to the way boys saw themselves in the school and the manner in which they constructed their masculine identities. The major cause of fights (violence) was the hierarchal arrangement of masculinities in the school and the efforts used by boys to assert their power. Attempting to gain inclusion or hierarchical ascendancy led boys to jostle for position and this often led to physical violence. The competitive nature of hegemonic masculinity heightened the vulnerability of the boys. They responded to this vulnerability by forcibly and sometimes violently establishing their masculine credentials. Heterosexual masculinities are organised and regulated to a large extent through trying to bolster fragile masculinities or avoid humiliation. Avoiding humiliation is reactive and defensive and bolstering fragile masculinities is aggressive and assertive. Boys try to bolster their own fragile masculinity by humiliating other boys and they can do this most effectively and easily by picking on boys who are vulnerable, those who are not part of the main gang (the peer group that is most influential in defining hegemonic masculinity). This masculine practice was at the core of bullying at Sunville and bolstered and perpetuated hegemonic masculinity in its assertive, intolerant, blustering and violent form. Boys frequently used vulgar and offensive language to humiliate other boys. They also behaved in ways that proved allegiance to their peer group, took revenge, and involved themselves in acts of gambling to bolster their own masculinities. These actions often led to violence. Boys who largely reject hegemonic masculinity may be forced defensively to protect their own masculine identities when they are subject to aggression (often by hegemonic masculine frontline troopers). This explains why some ordinarily peaceful boys at the school got involved in fights and physical scraps. While the school’s hard boys were normally the aggressors they would also protect their own masculine identities (by reacting violently) if they felt vulnerable. This study looks at gender relationships, with a focus on how conflict and violence feature in the construction of masculinities. Two issues are important: a) how do conflict and violence contribute to the makings of specific masculinities and b) how do existing masculinities legitimate and delegitimate the enactment of conflict and violence. This study therefore examines, on the one hand, mechanisms by which conflict is mediated or resolved and, on the other, the processes by which conflict and disagreement escalate into violence. While there were high levels of tension at Sunville, not all conflict situations led to violence. Some conflict situations had peaceful resolutions. This study examines the specific circumstances that gave rise to these outcomes. In short, this study examines how conflict occurred among boys, how boys handled this conflict (violently or nonviolently) and how masculinities were implicated in handling conflict. What was common in all the incidents of conflict and violence was that boys projected certain images of themselves and sought to live up to certain versions of what it is to be a man. I argue in this thesis that the form of masculinity that boys subscribe to influences the manner in which they deal with provocation and conflict. The escalation or peaceful resolution of conflict depends largely on whether a boy subscribes to or rejects the values of the hegemonic masculinity that exist at Sunville, which include heterosexuality, toughness, authority, competitiveness, maintaining peer group prestige and the subordination of other boys. Those boys who subscribed to the hegemonic values of masculinity at Sunville in most instances were bound by its values to resolve conflict aggressively. Some boys had an allegiance to particular constructions of masculinity which are at variance with the school’s hegemony and this made it more likely that they would choose peace over violence in conflict situations. Their practices in handling conflict separated these boys from the hegemonic way of resolving conflict, which was to use force, aggression and violence. In those cases where the conflict was defused, different, alternative, non-confrontational understandings of masculinity were salient. The values which they asserted included respect, being able to exercise restraint, and being independent, strong willed and individualistic in their thinking and actions. I have identified the modus operandi of this group of boys as being autonomous. These boys took up autonomous positions in situations of conflict that did not support the hegemonic imperative at Sunville to escalate conflict into violence. I have chosen the term autonomous masculinity to describe that masculinity that is performed at a particular moment of conflict, at which moment particular non-hegemonic masculinity (in terms of the school’s masculinity) is drawn upon to avoid conflict. Masculinity is itself a contradictory gendered phenomenon and it is possible, and indeed quite common, for contradictory positions to exist side by side and indeed to be occupied simultaneously by boys. It is unlikely that boys will choose non-violence in every situation. Individuals occupy multiple positions and therefore have a range of identities with different ones acquiring significance in different contexts. Boys take up different positions in different contexts; identities are multiple and fluid. In dealing with conflict at Sunville there are hegemonic and counter-hegemonic positions that boys can inhabit and some boys inhabit one more than the other because they embrace particular masculine positions. The study was undertaken using a qualitative methodology. I undertook research by observing cases of provocation, actual instances of conflict and the manner in which conflict was defused or amplified into violence. My methods included observation and observation in class, around the school and during leisure activities, regular recorded informal discussions and formal interviews. I identified 10 boys to be the main respondents in this study. All the boys were in grade 10 (and were aged between fifteen and seventeen) when I began the research process. I conducted research with these boys for three years, gathering data on an ongoing basis. In the course of the research I used a snowballing technique to draw in further respondents. This study focuses on the uncritical conflation of conflict and violence in the existing literature on masculinities in schools. Conflict and violence are separate parts of a single process. The one does not automatically lead to the other, therefore this requires that we exercise caution when describing violent masculinities. Too often, in the desire to explain patriarchal violence, researchers have lumped aggression together with violence. In this study I witnessed aggression but show that it did not necessarily lead to violence. Connell (1989) has noted that schools are major sites for the making of masculinities. She argues that schools have particular patterns of gender relations (she terms this the gender regime) which impact on and are played out in the lives of boys. Conversely, male learners themselves contribute to the gender regime of the school. While each school may have one form of masculinity which is dominant and which prescribes the ideal form that masculine behaviour should take, there are always other masculinities present within a school. These may be marginal. They may be silenced or complicit or may challenge the dominant, hegemonic masculine form. This study contributes to debates about school masculinities in the context of conflict and violence. The study concludes that while there is a clear identifiable link between modes of the dominant masculinity and violence, there are other versions of masculinity that are being performed within the school that are democratic, peaceful and respectful. I propose that schools should be mindful and support these other versions of masculinity in order to reduce violence among boys in school.