Archer, L., Pratt, S., Phillips, D.  (2001)  'Working - class Men's Constructions of Masculinity and Negotiations of  (Non) Participation in Higher Education', in Gender and Education, 13, 4: 431 - 49.


Although masculinity has remained largely unresearched until recently, the rejection of or resistance to education by males is well documented. This approach follows analyses of masculinity as a matter of multiple identity, connected with ethnicity class and gender:  'different masculine identities will be produced and differential locations within and across social divisions, entailing different relations of dominance/subordination in relation to other racialised, gendered, classed groups' (432). Hegemonic masculinity is 'never complete or absolute', and needs to be redeveloped in changing circumstances.

 Much of the work looks at masculinity and schooling. Working-class boys see education as associated with inadequate masculinity and middle-classness, and tend to reward instead  '"the macho qualities of being cool, hard and risk-taking' (Head, 1999)' (433). However, black and ethnic minority pupils are also positioned, and resist in different ways, as in common stereotype of Afro-Caribbeans as a challenge.

 Not much research has yet been down on the transition to fe or he. Working-class men are seen as a particular problem for recruitment, although they participate  'in roughly equal  (but very small) numbers to working-class women' and again there is a difference for those from Afro-Caribbean and Bengali groups  (433). Some initiatives have been launched to focus on working-class men in particular.

 This particular study was based on this series of focus group discussions concerning males who were both in HE and outside of it  [details are given 434 - 5]. The study found:

 (1)  'Anti-participation Discourses' (435), where HE was seen as incompatible with working-class masculinity, and university students seen as Other, as rich white middle-class men, or as  'boffins'or  'bods', as  'socially inadequate men who enjoy study'  (435). Study involved giving up your social life and living on a low income. There are hints here of a compensation culture as a reaction to having been failed, and some connection with the lads studied in Willis. The peer group was seen as important. However, some men reported regret at not having done well at school. Studying was seen as hard work, with no guarantees of ultimate success in the job market, as offering no  'fun', as boring. This reinforces the view that the working-class men, work is the centre of their social status, and thus  'they address educational choices and decision-making through discourses that privilege work and money' (437).  [and this is confirmed by extracts from the conversations pages 437 - 8]. Almost no one spoke of  'university participation in terms of personal development and fulfilment... Put simply, the men think they have too much to lose' (438). This strong instrumentalism has been identified by Delamont as offering a real barrier to the expansion of educational opportunity, but they can also be  'read in terms of the men's pragmatic responses to their disadvantage locations within classed power relations, rather than as  "bad"  or  "selfish"  values/attitudes' (438)  [this touches on lots of work on working-class culture and whether it represents a pragmatic or cultural response to powerlessness].

 (2)  'Pro participation Shared Discourses' (438), where it did seem possible to achieve mobility and security through education. Even here, the desired changes were'"practical" ,   not identity, changes' (438), a matter of achieving higher incomes and occupational perks, or avoiding the worst aspects of manual labour.

 [The study then goes on to isolate the effects of  'racialised constructions']

 For some Bengalis, Muslim notions of masculinity conflicted with the drugs and drinking lifestyle of students, and universities were seen as corrupting. Afro-Caribbeans saw study as conflicting with 'Cool Pose', revealed in an American study (Majors and Billson 1992)  as  'ritualised form of masculinity that entails behaviours, scripts, physical posturing, impression management and carefully crafted performances that deliver... pride, strength and control' (440). While white working-class men celebrated manual work,  'many black and Asian men specifically rejected manual identities' (440). For them, maturity and responsibility, including looking after families financially defined their identities, and study was seen as irresponsible. These discourses allow  'the men to exercise various forms of local power in relation to other working-class males and women. In comparison, participation in HE could  "interfere"  with the maintenance of these powerful identities... particularly... because masculinity is never an  "achieved"  identity, but is continually produced' (441). Many of the men in the sample worked in traditionally gendered occupations as well  'which may reinforce particular versions of masculinity' (445) .

 Sometimes, but this did lead to a discourse which favoured participation, especially if it leads to more secure middle-class jobs. Bengali males saw it as common to go to university. However, most of the men realise they were being structurally disadvantaged. Racism offered a particular barrier, and black and Asian men differed in their views about the efficacy of education to overcome or reinforce inequality. Optimism may be due to the belief that  'young people often feel that they are in charge of their own destinies, believing that  "their motivation, enthusiasm and aptitude would win out"' (442). Pessimists saw racism more pragmatically as an additional barrier, perhaps excessively so.

 Apparently,  'young black women were better able to negotiate successful educational routes' (442). White working-class women too seemed strongly attached emotionally to class identities, and the problems of moving to new identities have been discussed by Reay among others. This attachment seems slightly less apparent in working-class white men, and for some black and Asian men, the prestige of gaining a degree would not entail movement away from their cultural background.

 Overall, there is some variation across the sample. Pragmatic identities seem to be important. Non-participation had been negotiated rather than just ruled out. Nor was there a simple connection between school resistance and non-participation. Participation was considered in terms of potential losses and risks set against benefits. A common theme was the need to give up existing identities, and to enter a new area without the usual resources and power.

 Many young men did not seem to have planned their choice, and to have arrived  'through routes that appeared to be chaotic or by chance', which seems to be incompatible with the idea of  'informed choice... envisaged in much university course literature' (443) [and pragmatic calculation]. Perhaps the need to preserved masculine self-identity is what drove choices and calculations. Risks do impact differently on different groups, and there is now 'the idea that identity construction and self-actualization for many male adolescents combine stereotypical risk-taking with simultaneous processes of risk management' (444): this may mean that what looks like faulty strategies are really ways to manage risk  [lots of this appeared in the classic study of apparent low ambition among working-class men]. For most of the sample,  'participation constituted an economically, socially and culturally more difficult and riskier option' (444). This can take the form of reporting considerable pressure as a result of family bereavement and illness, or the need to juggle responsibilities in poverty. There are also inequalities in terms of access to cultural capital, including accurate information on HE and how to get to it, especially via traditional routes.

 While working class women seem to experience equal if not greater social domestic and economic constraints, they seem to be 'better at supporting one another and organizing collectively'  (445). However, it is possible that they can make the transition without so much  'identity risk'.  [There is a hint that even those men who do make it into HE have been too optimistic about the risks and constraints]. Policies increasing participation need to  'recognise the  "real",  economic and social barriers' (446).

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