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Boy Culture and the Performance of Teenage Masculinities

Cliona Barnes

External Examiner: Dr Breda Gray, University of Limerick, Ireland
Date Awarded: 2007
Cliona Barnes SEPR graduated thesis 2007


This thesis is a response to negative media and public portrayals of young white working class men in Ireland. It is prompted by the emergence into the public sphere of the Department of Education and Science’s Exploring Masculinities (EM) programme, a curriculum initiative designed to counter perceived problematic elements of youthful masculinity. This programme initiated a debate in the Irish media on men and boys, and gave a particular Irish dimension to the international focus on issues and questions about masculinity, social class and youth culture. My research seeks to uncover what lies behind increasingly negative and intransigent portrayals of young white working class men in Ireland who are, through their ‘deviant subcultures’, commonly presented as possessing or embodying a threat to established, middle class social norms and values.

My focus throughout is on uncovering and generating an understanding of not only the material elements of the lived culture of young working class men; but also the effects this often violent and misogynistic culture may have on them, and on the way in which they are represented. The research, which is based on ethnographic fieldwork, seeks to reinvigorate debate on the effects of social class, traditional gender roles and disadvantage on gender identity and youth culture. Therefore, this is a ‘local’ ethnography, informed primarily by a small scale case-study conducted over two full school years with two groups of twelve young men from a disadvantaged, urban Cork City community. This work has emerged from and is supported by a broad cultural studies perspective with an emphasis on the pedagogical frameworks the boys participate in as well as their popular culture and everyday lives. It is presented with a full awareness and acknowledgement of the powerful influences which structure and shape youthful masculinities and cultural identities, taking full account of the community, home and school environments which the boys encounter and live within on a daily basis.

The dissertation comprises five chapters together with an introduction and a conclusion. Chapter one presents the institutional history of EM as a curriculum initiative. For the unfamiliar reader it introduces the full context and background of the programme, its prolonged review process and the media controversy and coverage that surrounded it from the outset. This chapter summarises and explains the problematic ‘masculinity in crisis’ discourse or narrative, the nature and content of the media coverage and the aims, objectives and methodologies of the programme itself. Chapter two brings the reader directly and immediately into the classroom fieldsite through a critical and reflexive re-reading of my research experience in the school. My ethnographic process is detailed, focusing on the classroom and the experiences therein as well as exploring broader, more abstract questions such as the intersections between active ethnographic research and gender, the larger problems of general and specific access to fieldsites and subjects, and the continuous development and evolution of complex negotiations and conflicts in the field with gate keepers, and occasionally reluctant subjects. The third chapter focuses on encountering and engaging directly with the identity of the boys, their perceptions of themselves as masculine, their perception of their role(s) in the broader social world and their complex understandings of the ways they are negatively perceived by the adult, classed other or outsider. This chapter illustrates and explicates the relationship between the hyper-masculine, macho persona preferred by the boys, their social class position and identity and the restrictive, rule-bound environment of the school whereby they are bound to a subservient position that both conflicts with and encourages their constructed identities and classed and gendered senses of self. Chapter four moves out of the classroom setting and brings the reader directly into contact with the material culture of the boys. I explore the ways in which negative aspects of that physical culture attach themselves to these boys and their peers in a way that is not similarly evident in relation to middle-class boys and their consumption of the same cultural artefacts, brands and moments. The fifth and final chapter re-enters the classroom, bringing together the material culture of the boys discussed in chapter four and the negotiations between the programme materials, the teacher and the class seen in chapter three. It explores, through a series of critical vignettes, the problems that arise when the programme materials and youth culture clash.