Boyhood in Neoliberal Times: The ‘Crisis of Masculinity’ Debate, Post-industrialisation, and Identity Work

by Garth Stahl

In the late 20th/early 21st century, many scholars (Mac an Ghaill, 1994; Fine, Weis, Addelston, & Marusza, 1997; Weis, 2004; Nayak, 2003; 2006) have cited the massive societal shifts in economic and gender-relations which have resulted in fragmented rites of passage (employment, marriage) and which have placed the males in a position of confusion commonly called the ‘crisis of masculinity’ (Faludi, 1999). Evolving from the moral panic concerning boys’ ‘underachievement’ (Griffin, 2000) and, more specifically, underachieving working-class males (Epstein, 1998), debates over ‘failing boys’ has focused on the complexities associated with the so-called ‘crisis of masculinity’ (Faludi, 1999) and boys ‘underachievement’ in schooling. A highly charged context of backlash politics has shaped a particular gender agenda, and in this miscellany we see arguments concerning boys (as a homogenized group) portrayed as victims of discrimination both in schooling and in wider society (Weaver-Hightower, 2003).

As the so-called ‘crisis of masculinity’ (Faludi, 1999) occurs beyond the classroom, there has also been major pedagogic shifts inside the classroom; school processes have become increasingly neo-liberal (league tables, high stakes testing, a rise in accountability), which creates more difference and influences the how learner identities are formed (Francis, 2006; Wilkins 2011). In his analysis of the ‘boy turn’ in education, Weaver-Hightower (2003) argues that there have been four main strands to the ongoing debate on boys’ education: popular-rhetorical, theoretically oriented, practice oriented, and the feminist and pro-feminist. Weaver-Hightower contends a significant prompt for the ‘boy turn’ has been ‘increasing neoliberal education reforms and the rise of the New Right-the conservative restoration since the 1980s’ which is particularly true in England, where neoliberal reforms ‘produced an educational choice structure in which schools compete with one another for students’ (p. 476). Epstein, Elwood, Hey, and Maw, (1999) identified separate discourses used in the popular and academic press to explain boys‘ educational underperformance: ‘poor boys’, ‘boys will be boys’, ‘at risk boys’, and ‘problem boys’. While these discourses have framed key debates in gender theory concerning boys, the neoliberal policy drivers ensure that working-class boys are individualised and held accountable for their failure (Francis, 2006, p. 191). Furthermore, such neo-liberal discourses, while denying the existence of any real class distinctions, limit the discursive space in which various forms of working-class masculinity are acceptable.

‘Urgency’ and ‘solutions’?

Griffin (2000) argues that the ‘language of crisis, alarm and urgency’ (p. 170) is typically followed by a list of school-based remedies which have been posed by policy-makers to counteract male ‘underachievement’ (for critiques see Skelton, 2003; Weaver-Hightower, 2008). There have been a plethora of policy responses to this perceived ‘crisis’ but very few take into account the ‘very significant ways in which the social construction of gender impacts significantly on curriculum, pedagogical practices and relations with and between students in schools’ (Lingard, Martino, & Mills, 2009, pp. 9-10). In the policy discourses surrounding boys and schooling, there are ‘constant slippages’ that reaffirm what are ‘natural predispositions or learning behaviours and orientations for both boys and girls’ [emphasis in original] (Mills, Martino, & Lingard, 2007, p. 15). Drawing on biological essentialist notions and Gardner‘s multiple intelligences, certain common tropes such as kinesthetic learning, devaluing inter/intrapersonal skills, preferring explicit/relevant teaching, and requiring male role models to learn often tend to dominate. Such strategies fail to acknowledge the culture of masculinity as well as environments and discourses from which boys draw their identity from. These initiatives risk homogenizing working-class boys into one cohesive group when we must recognize heterogeneity and their diversity in values, attitudes, and behaviour and how these are influenced heavily by their school and social contexts.

The working-class male

The ‘crisis of masculinity’ is arguably felt more harshly by the working-class male. The so-called ‘macho lad’, whose ‘reproduction of working-class masculinity has been ruptured’ (Kenway & Kraack, 2004, p. 107), and who, perhaps, finds it more difficult to adapt. Today, working-class youth have to contend with a rise in credentialisation alongside a hazy economic future where stable employment is less common (Brown, 2013). As traditional social structures have disappeared, young men, particularly those from lower and working-class backgrounds, have to negotiate their identity work around rapidly changing discourses of aspiration and power. In place of traditional, respectable, working-class employment we have seen the steady rise of service-level positions which require working-class men to ‘learn to serve’ (McDowell, 2003) or ‘learn to loaf’ (Marks, 2003, p. 87). If working-class boys are drawing upon employment as part of their identity construction, they are now more likely to draw upon the ‘McJob’ (Bottero, 2009, p. 9).  The impact of post-industrialism on white working-class masculine identity, specifically how masculinity is constructed in relation to education and the labour market, is framed by efforts to preserve tradition, uncertainty, survivalist mentalities, unrealistic expectations, and new searches for ‘respectability’ and ‘authenticity’ (Dolby & Dimitriadis, 2004; McDowell, 2003; Nayak, 2003).

As a result of post-industrialization, I argue working-class males draw on certain historically validated dispositions, such as social cohesion and social solidarity (through a legacy of union action and community involvement) to confirm their gendered, classed, and ethnic subjectivities inside and outside of schooling (Stenning, 2005; Mac an Ghaill, 1994: Pye, Haywood, & Mac an Ghaill, 1996). Social solidarity is often rendered through farouche ‘laddish’ or ‘loutish’ behaviours (cf. Francis, 1999) which can be socially empowering but also transgress boundaries of what is considered acceptable in a school context. Laddish behaviour is always a form of social validation and tied to self worth (Jackson, 2002; 2003).

About the author: Garth Stahl (@GarthStahl) is a Lecturer in Literacy and Sociology at University of South Australia.  He is a theorist of sociology of education. His research interests lie on the nexus of neoliberalism and socio-cultural studies of education, identity, equity/inequality and social change.  Currently, his research projects and publications encompass theoretical and empirical studies of learner identities, gender and youth, sociology of schooling in a neoliberal age, gendered subjectivities, equity and difference, and educational reform.  Of particular interest to him is exploring counternarratives to neoliberalism around ‘value’ and ‘respectability’ for working-class youth.  His book, entitled Identity, Neoliberalism and Aspiration: Educating White Working-class Boys is now available from Routledge.


Categories: Committing Sociology, Rethinking The World

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