Critiquing and Creating Social Spaces

By Christopher Matthews

I was happy to be asked to write a blog post shortly after publishing this paper in Gender and Society. I remember sitting down at my laptop to start the process of translating my academic arguments into less opaque language. Part way through this process I realized that what I was writing didn’t have the impact that I was hoping for; the post was turning into a simplified summary of my paper. “Surely,” I remember thinking to myself, “a blog post should be more than this?” With some time I realized that my frustration was connected to broader issues related to the translation of research, public engagement and active scholarship.

There have been useful attempts within academia to begin developing impact of scholarship, that is, actually doing something based on research findings. One crucial element of this in the UK has been the significance that is placed on evidencing the impact of research in order to obtain funding in the Research Excellence Framework (REF). Unfortunately, my research in boxing has had almost zero measurable impact when considered in this manner. This is why I struggled to develop what I considered to be an interesting blog post at the time, I wasn’t ready to start telling people beyond academia about my research, as I’d not done anything really significant with it yet!

My paper was based on ethnographic research I undertook in a boxing, martial arts and weight lifting gym in England (see Matthews, 2014, 2015 for more detail). The central critique I made in the paper was that while there’s lots of evidence of broad societal shifting in various ways towards equality there are social-cultural spaces that remain, and perhaps become increasing, resistant to such change. When my analysis is broken down to this level it becomes a simple idea, and it is, so while the paper makes a relatively significant contribution to academic knowledge, the obvious question follow; so what? Or what’s next? And this is why I feel the need to create not only critique.

boxing
Luke Jones at Bexhill Film Company

Boxing, as a cultural phenomenon, has a long history of being a site for difference, inclusion, diversity and challenging social norms. Yet, it is still dominated symbolically and quantitatively by certain men and narratives about manhood. The legacy of boxing’s historical roots in a powerful, aggressive and often violent masculine body culture still shape and frame contemporary experiences inside and around the gym. However, the rise of women’s boxing, perhaps highlighted most significantly at the London 2012 Olympic games, has made stories of female boxing fair easier to tell and live (See Woodward (2012) for a discussion).

 This Girl Can Box

England boxing and many boxing clubs around the country have made significant contributions to continuing this process. And while there is still much work to be done, many boxing clubs have become spaces where powerful, skillful and strong female bodies are presented, expected and respected.

Where boxing clubs in a general sense appear to be more resistant to change is in their ability to attract and cater for LGBTQI+ communities. In many cases this is not through any sort of open or even covert homophobia, but rather a lack of knowledge about how, and in what ways, it might be possible to break the symbolic association between boxing and certain images, ideas and stories of heterosexual men. For example, I spoke recently with a gay man who really wanted to try boxing, but when attending his local gym simply couldn’t walk through the door, as if there was a force field keeping him out.

 The clearest way of tackling this issue, is to create spaces where these ‘social force fields’ can be eroded. Indeed, there are some great examples of how this is already happening (London Gay Boxing Club, Velvet Gloves Boxing NYE). So I began working with my local gym, the Eastbourne Boxing Club (EBC), to explore the potential for starting an LGBTQI+ boxing class.

The first stumbling block is funding. One of the main reasons boxing clubs do not have such sessions already is that they believe, in most cases quite rightly I would suggest, that they simply won’t be popular enough to cover expenses. Most clubs simply don’t have the finances to enable them to take risks on sessions for groups that have not traditionally been associated with boxing. I was able to secure some funding from the University of Brighton’s Community and University Partnership Programme to help in this regard.

The next issue is to find coaches who can deliver boxing in a manner which is inclusive and considered. Fortunately the coaching team EBC is not only well qualified in the sport but they also hold progressive personal political ideals. They have been really interested in the idea of promoting boxing to the local community. I have also taken the England Boxing level one boxing qualification so that I can assist where possible.

As such, we found some free time at the gym organised free boxing classes for the local LGBTQI+ community. We are currently promoting these sessions with flyers and posters both on the internet and in hardcopy. Indeed, England Boxing has helps us with this post about the sessions.

I will conduct some research based on these sessions which will help develop my existing academic explorations of boxing, produce monitoring and evaluation information for the specific sessions while, also highlight best practice and areas for improvement. The goal is to combine this information with research from other similar projects to produce guidelines and suggestions for the national governing body and other clubs who are interested in doing something similar.

This is how I have attempted to create something based on my academic critique, and this is also why I now feel like I can produce this blog post now. Simply put, I have more of a story to tell about how my research is doing something in the world rather than sitting on a shelf in the library.

Christopher R. Matthews is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Brighton, UK. He is a competing amateur boxer who has used his active participation as central aspects of his research. He has published on a variety of topics including men’s power, sports violence, health, gender and sexuality. Alongside Alex Channon he is the co-editor of Global Perspective on Women in Combat Sports: Women Warriors Around the World and the co-founder of the Love Fight Hate Violence campaign.

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One thought on “Critiquing and Creating Social Spaces

  1. I appreciate your candor about writing about your research beyond academia. While my topic(s) and discipline differ, I often struggle to write effectively AND find an audience for my writing outside of academia. The way you trace the history of boxing clubs in England, identify the problems associated with inclusion for LGBTQI+ people in boxing clubs, and discuss your own attempts to create spaces is really effective and interesting.

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