Light, R. and Kirk, D.  (2000)  'High School Rugby, the Body and the Reproduction of Hegemonic Masculinity', in Sport, Education and Society, Vol. 5, No. 2:163 - 176

The body has become increasingly important in sociological work, and this work has begun to inform work on the construction of masculinity and other aspects of gender and gender relations. However, there are few detailed studies of actual practice, for example in the analysis of actual  'institutionalised regimes of physical activity in schools' (163), especially their connections with class, culture and gender. It is necessary to discuss both the  'corporeal and discursive nature'of experience, in this case of young men undergoing rugby training in an Australian High School. The study examines the  'reproduction and maintenance of a hegemonic form of masculinity that was increasingly under threat in rapidly changing social, cultural and economic conditions' (164).

Theoretical considerations

Bourdieu's concepts of habitus and practice are explored, and Foucault is used to examine the discourses of hegemonic masculinity, especially its characteristic discursive regimes. Both theorists can be combined for a focus on discourse and practice.

Bourdieu argues that culture is imprinted on the body, and also crucial in the production and reproduction of culture: bodily positions, for example, provide cultural and social meanings at an unconscious level. Bodily interaction also shapes the habitus (see file). Habitus can be seen as  'the embodied social history of the individual... the cumulative somatic product of the individuals corporeal engagement in social and cultural practice' (165) . These ideas can be used to address the issue of gender, especially in terms of how sport or physical education helped to construct gender in an embodied form.

Practice plays a crucial role in accumulating different types of capital, including social and cultural capital. While this is used mostly to focus on issues such as taste, the analysis can be applied to gender. Previous research indicates how gender is socially constructed and embodied. Connell's classic work argues that masculinities can take different forms according to class and culture, but can also assume a hegemonic status, acting as  'uncontested, commonsense notions of what it is to be a man' (165). [see also file on Gramsci on hegemony]. Hegemonic ideals, such as toughness and dominance, develop within particular social fields, and are embodied, for example in rugby training. In the case study, a  'traditional' form of masculinity is expressed in both discourse and corporeal practice in the rugby training going on at an elite Australian High School.

The study

 '[O]bservation, in depth semi structured and conversational interviews, field notes and video analysis' (166) were used in the study  [I am not all sure that Bourdieu would have approved of these research methods -- see file]. The school in question was an elite independent school, proud of its success in both rugby and rowing, which offered  'symbolic cultural capital', and created a pressure on the rugby team to win and to do so in a masculine manner.

There was a traditional conception of masculinity, frequently connected to current practice. Sports became important as justifying the social distinctiveness of this school, in line with the classic role of public schools as  'masculine eyes in institutions for the ruling classes' (166). Rugby is particularly suitable for offering  'a particular, class specific form of masculinity' (166). Playing rugby became important at this institution.

However, rugby union generally have become a professional game in 1995 and has developed certain characteristics accordingly -- a 'more open attacking and free-flowing style of play' (167), which clashes with tradition to some extent.So do other features such as  '15 man rugby' (170), which involves all players now in aggressive and physical play, clashing with traditional emphasis on aggressive, physical forward play. This tension is apparent in the training regime, since tradition is so important at the school, and is reflected in the discourse of the coaching staff, the spectators, Old Boys, and even the players themselves.

The school regime had also changed, leading the new Principal to eradicate the traditional bullying of juniors by seniors. This it also been seen as important in the construction of masculinity, and was the subject of some nostalgia by the pupils. This is another example of  'how the ideals of suffering, sacrifice and the toleration of physical pain were central to the development of the boys' masculinity' (168). Bullying was seen as a necessary form of discipline to sort out the genuinely masculine, and the new Principal's policies were seen as part of a general softening.

Drawing upon Connell, rugby can be seen as a useful way to display both force and skill, the essential components of masculinity in schoolboy sport, combined with  'moral qualities associated with the ideals of courage, sacrifice, commitment to the team and the production and exercise of physical force' (169). Training involved  'drilling and disciplining of the body to make it an efficient weapon for the exercise of force and the domination of other young men' (169 - 70).

The study focuses in particular upon the forwards in the 1st XV, and the way they were trained in scrummaging. The rugby coach was observed encouraging physically demanding play, and attempting to motivate the players by getting them to think about  'dominating the opposition and to develop pride in their performance as a pack. During the session he recalled notorious  "hard men"  of Queensland rugby as models for the players to emulate' (170). Thus language reinforces the bodily practices of actual training.

However, there were individual differences in the stance of the players, in terms of whether they believe the hard training was essential, or their stance towards violence and aggression: for example, one front row player said that physical violence  'was not necessary in rugby' (171)  [especially punching]. In order to develop scrummaging skills, it is necessary to see the body  'as an instrument for physical domination and the invasion of space' (171), and there had been training programmes to develop strength and power, and later particular drills and techniques, in order to drive through the opposition, for example. The training for backs also emphasise the need to go forward, invade, and attack, but took the form of  fewer physical contact drills. Further, although aggression was encouraged, so were the  'ideals of fair play and value placed on self restraint' (171).

Hyper masculinity

One game in particular involved a heightening of aggression and masculinity. The opponents were a local school who happen to have a good rugby team. The match was preceded by a training scheme  'characterised by a siege mentality and a discourse of the need for moral qualities such as courage, determination and aggression' (172), although technical skills were also practised. The coach was particularly animated and tough on the players preparing for this match, continuing training until two players ended in exhaustion. The teams seemed to bond together as a result of the shared 'suffering and sacrifice' in training  '(172). Players responded with  'noticeable enthusiasm' to the session. The coach's talk also emphasised  'personal and school pride' (173), supported by a  'explicit articulation of a perceived class difference between the two schools' (173). These particular opponents were seen as playing to compensate for their academic and class inferiority.

The game was not particularly dominated by rough play or verbal intimidation, although their opponents did display more of these characteristics and it was  'intensely confrontational' (173). The school team in question did not wish to  'match their opponents style of highly aggressive hyper-masculine play' (173). It seems that excessive physical dominance was adopted in training specifically for this match, and it was not seen as appropriate for the elite school, who still retained some of the  'class specific ideals of disinterest', as in Bourdieu  (173).  [I am surprised that the elite school did not resort more to play among the backs, which is also a marker of class position, according to Bourdieu 1986]. There therefore seem to be two different forms of masculinity  [normal and hyper?].


Rugby has long been valued as a marker of social distinction as well as a vehicle to develop masculinity, but this is under threat, given the 'commodification' of rugby and its professionalism, which has meant its departure from a traditional ruling class based sport. However, a  'class specific form of masculinity' can still be found in this particular case study, but its  'hegemony... is continually contested and forced to adapt to challenge through modification' (174). Particular corporeal and discursive regimes have helped to maintain it.

As Bourdieu suggests, the game can also be seen as a metaphor for the 'larger social game'  (174), and so class specific forms of masculinity get embodied. Thus appropriate masculine behaviour was learned during rugby training, and it does continue to  'reproduce a hegemonic interpretation of what it is to be a man' (174).

Further research is needed in terms of how sport reinforces and reproduces gender inequality, the precise relations of power between men and women. Hegemonic masculinity as displayed here clearly reproduces power differentials between men and women  [there is no direct evidence of this, however, and no comments by the rugby players about women, no derogatory remarks about women recorded, and so on]. Experiences of sport can be important for the development of gendered identities. Little attention is given to the  'physical and emotional problems' that sporting practice based on hegemonic masculinity can produce [there is no actual evidence of this either in the study]. Although privileged classes have more respect for their bodies according to Bourdieu, there were plenty of chances for rugby players at this elite school  'to use their bodies as weapons, to suffer physically and emotionally and to risk their well-being, and the welfare of their opponents, for the good of the team and the school' (175). Bourdieu's insights might be used to explore further research on how sport reproduces 'gender based social inequality' (175).

[A pretty mixed piece this then.
  1. The usual ambiguities about 'hegemony' and how to interpret aspects where some sort of reservation seems to be expresses -- is an objection to excessive violence a sign of the necessary 'resistance' or  a reponse based on different  amouints of cutlural capital? Is hyper-masculinity or restrained masculinity the most hegemonic kind? Can women resist the claims of hegemonic masculainity or must they be inevitably subordinated by it?
  2. A strange refusal to take as valid the actual responses of the players - they enjoyed the tough training and the physical contact, even when they lost, but this has to be explained in terms which refer to some outside forces at work: they are victims of hegemony or of their coach's propaganda. Enjoyment must be irrational because there are risks of injury -- a very bourgeois view of the body and a disdain for its being risked seems to inform this? Why not use Bourdieu to understand this appalled reaction from the researchers?]