Becoming “War Buddies”: Underestimating Insider Status

By Heather Mooney

Mooney_blog

I’ve learned very quickly that it is harder than I thought to be an insider, though in completely unexpected ways. My dissertation explores the social construction of deviance and rehabilitation in total institutions through a case study of a therapeutic boarding school from the “troubled teen” industry. This industry loosely consists of various private facilities for reforming deviant adolescents including boot camps, wilderness therapy programs and last chance ranches. Many scholars warned me that even though I am an insider (I myself was a “troubled teen”), I am likely to be an outlier. Scholars assumed that I was unlike other fellow reform school alum (PhD candidate, single, childfree, Buddhist, activist). I was cautioned many times not to assume my thoughts, feelings, and experiences were similar to those of the participants. Understandably, it took me by surprise to discover during the early phases of data collection that I am very much an insider – almost to the textbook definition.

While certain variables make my narrators and me unique, the overarching sentiments echo my personal experience more than I had been advised. From the very start of data collection I connected with my contributors in many ways because sharing the experiences of attending non-traditional school and the therapeutic activities brought a strong sense of solidarity. Despite the similarities, we also identified notable differences: following reform school, pursuits of education, and in family relations. Through shared intense institutional experiences, bonding occurs in ways that outsiders may not fully understand. This has led to the unanticipated challenge of becoming friends with strangers – at a rapid pace.

Advantages of Insider Status

My insider status has been essential to studying this hidden population; however, I miscalculated how integral my position would become. I especially underestimated the value of the shared experience (attending a total institution) that engendered this insider status. I assumed that having attended the program would allow for shared language and an intimate understanding of the institution’s structure. As the interviews quickly progressed, I was not prepared to be treated like a “war buddy”. Nor was I prepared for the emotional affinity with my narrators after having mostly listened and talked for hours. I attribute this rapid rapport building to the deep and long-lasting impact the academy has had on each of us and what a rare opportunity it is to share this with a fellow former student.

The Sway of Insider Status

At the end of my first interview, I stepped back to reflect. I hadn’t laughed so hard in months as I had done while wrapping up that first dialogue. Since then, conducting my interviews has been like the high school reunion I’ve never had – though in slow, detailed motion. By the end of our interviews, I feel like a peer more than a researcher. I’m learning that often my shared understanding has inhibited further probing or explanation that an outsider would have had to question for clarity. Due to this I will likely query narrators again for further details on a few themes and ask even more in depth questions going forward. Some contributors have asked to stay connected via social media and all have expressed appreciation in my investment in documenting these experiences. Most of the narrators expressed heartfelt gratitude as our interview had been the first time in years, for some a decade, that they had been able to openly reflect,  be heard, and understand the impact the therapeutic boarding school has had on their life. In taking this moment to recognize that though the boundary between friends and participants is blurry, I would rather continue to break it down than enforce it.

Subverting Research Power Dynamics

In my dissertation, I “study up”; the narrators are mostly upper middle class whites. The average cost of similar private troubled teen programs is somewhere around $5,000 per month. This is in stark contrast to my previous research in which I “studied down” interviewing recently incarcerated homeless men. In this study, being an insider allows me to get closer to my narrators realities and shift at least some of the inherent research dilemmas that feel too perennial in their nagging truths about exploitation.  With my dissertation I seek a more equitable exchange in my position of power and social status, stemming from a variety of mostly ascribed sources. For instance, I encourage the narrators to select their own pseudonym to frame themselves as they see fit. I will send transcriptions and final drafts to be reviewed and commented on by them prior to publications. This allows narrators the opportunity to participate in and respond to interpretations and analyses.

These steps ensure that my status does not impose a unilateral framework and understanding onto the narrators’ experiences. There can be a false sense of insight provided by the insider status coupled with the powerful role of researcher that must be tempered by continued avenues for the narrator’s engagement and oversight of their truth (data). It is my hope that my position as an insider will foster innovative and inclusive methodological tactics that give inclusive opportunities to narrators throughout the research process in hopes of bringing parity to the generosity entrusted and given by the contributors to share these oft untold tales in ways that ideally benefit us all.

Heather Mooney is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Sociology at Wayne State University in Detroit, MI specializing in inequality studies. She is currently working on her dissertation about adults who were former “troubled teens” discussing their experiences and perceived impact of attending a therapeutic boarding school. In her spare time, she is committed to ending mass incarceration, enjoys exercising, and practices Tibetan Buddhism.

Two legal sexes aren’t enough: Why governments should recognize non-binary bodies and identities

By Lal Zimman

Virtually every form we fill out that serves to identify us – whether administered by governmental, educational, medical, economic, or social institutions – asks for sex or gender. In most cases, the only recognized options are female and male. Thanks to the work of intersex and transgender activists, there is increasing recognition that individuals may possess bodies and/or identities that fall outside of the normative categories of female and male. However, governmental and legal institutions largely remain resistant to official recognition of non-binary sexes or genders, instead requiring all citizens to be categorized as female or male despite the well-documented diversity of gender and sex. This resistance can be seen in recent cases in which governments have rejected bids to create a third legal sex category, as France did last month and Germany did in 2016.

To many people, the concept of legal sex seems like an intuitively obvious system that reflects information about an individual’s identity. This sense of intuition, however, comes from the naturalization of biological sex as a simple binary, when in fact it is a complex web of characteristics that can be aligned in many different ways. The notion that there are only two sexes relies on the erasure of intersex bodies, i.e. those that show distinctive or ambiguous physiological characteristics that are neither normatively female nor normatively male. Such erasure happens culturally – by pretending intersex bodies don’t exist – and medically – by operating on or removing ambiguous organs so that a child’s body appears more normatively female or male. The insistence that there are only two sexes is simply not supported by the observation of biological diversity among humans.

Christopher Hutton a scholar of language and the law, has argued that legal sex presents itself as a descriptive category, but in practice serves normative functions.1 In other words, we are meant to think of legal sex as simply reflecting a natural, universal reality in which every individual is obviously and unproblematically female or male. Ultimately, however, one’s assignment to a legal sex category creates both restrictions and obligations in terms of access to spaces, activities, and even other forms of recognition – as when states restrict allowable names based on legal sex.2

Gender_neutral_bathroom_sign
By sarahmirk (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Someone whose identity documents are seen as being “in conflict” with their sex, gender identity, or gender expression can face numerous, and often quite serious, consequences. They may be unable to travel freely; unable to access safe and appropriate housing, shelters, medical care, or public facilities like bathrooms; unable to access certain spaces where identification is required for entry, like venues where alcohol is served; unable to engage in certain kinds of commercial transactions, such as using a credit or bank card or purchasing goods that require proof of age; and at particular risk during interactions with the state such as being pulled over or detained by police, being jailed or imprisoned, or navigating immigration systems. Someone whose identification outs them as trans, gender non-conforming, or intersex may routinely have to choose between personal safety and taking part in everyday, life-sustaining activities. Some may be unable to publicly articulate that identity at all because of the risks involved.

These points are often used to support the argument that transgender people shifting from one binary gender role to another should be permitted to change their legal sex, ideally without medical requirements such as hormones or surgery. But this logic applies with at least as much force for those living outside of the sex/gender binary all together.

In most cases, legal sex is, indeed, formulated in terms of sex – that is, physiology rather than social identity. In places where legal sex can be changed at all, individuals are generally required to alter their bodies in dramatic ways, including sterilization, in order to gain access to a new legal sex.3 The key assumption here is that biological differentiation is more important than social differentiation, and that the state is in the business of categorizing people on the basis of sexual phenotype rather than social identity.

Given how important the body is for arguments about legal sex, it is particularly striking when states refuse to acknowledge intersex individuals, who are born with bodies that cannot be straight-forwardly categorized as either female or male. If legal sex is supposed to reflect biological difference, and we know that intersex bodies exist, why are the differences between intersex bodies and normatively female or male bodies not worth capturing? What danger is there in recognizing the full range of what nature provides? How can we justify burdening this population – or any population – by denying them identification documents that match their bodies, identities, or presentations?4

Surely the key to answering to this question is the fear that legal recognition might reveal other cultural gaps, creating a demand for greater social, as well as legal, awareness and affirmation. If a state accepts that intersex bodies exist, and that they are not simply malformed versions of female or male bodies, how can it justify the non-consensual modification of those bodies in order to fit the binary system? How can educational institutions insist that only two genders exist, both through the way students are treated and in the material they are taught? How can trans people be denied the right to change their documents or required to achieve a certain degree of physical conformity in order to do so if the law recognizes that gender is more complicated than we’ve been led to believe? And if those with indisputably non-binary bodies can be recognized as legally different from non-intersex people, how can the state refuse to acknowledge those with non-binary identities, who are as deeply affected by lack of proper documentation as any other trans or intersex individuals?

The primary issue here is what role states will take in the transformation the gender binary is undergoing. While purporting to remain neutral in the face of radical social change, governments who perpetuate binary systems for assigning legal sex actively erase intersex bodies and delegitimize trans identities. The creation of more categories is not an instance of governments creating or pushing for social change, but rather reflecting the reality already occupied by many of the people it purports to serve. Legal sex has real consequences for individuals, and reforming it is a matter of safety, of equal participation in public life, and of individuals’ access to legal recognition and dignity. As long as legal sex exists, we need more than two categories.

Lal Zimman is an Assistant Professor of Linguistics and Affiliated Faculty in Feminist Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is also General Editor of Oxford University Press’s Series in Language, Gender, and Sexuality. His research is broadly focused on the linguistic practices of transgender speakers, in which he employs
a range of qualitative and quantitative methodologies. He has published on the homonormativity of the coming out narrative genre (Gender & Language, 2009), the construction of biological sex in trans men’s use of gendered body part terminology (Queer Excursions, 2014, Oxford; Journal of Homosexuality, 2014), and the complex role of embodiment in the acoustic characteristics of the voice (Journal of Language & Sexuality, 2013; Language and Masculinities, 2015, Routledge). In 2014, he published a co-edited volume, Retheorizing Binaries in Language, Gender, and Sexuality with Oxford University Press.

1 Hutton, Christopher (forthcoming). Transgender jurisprudence, legal sex, and ordinary language.  In Evan Hazenberg & Miriam Meyerhoff (eds.), Representing Trans. Wellington, New Zealand:  Victoria University Press.

2 Several countries limit names for infants so that they are “gender appropriate,” including Denmark [link: http://www.cnn.com/2010/LIVING/07/03/mf.baby.naming.laws/index.html%5D, Iceland [link: http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2013/01/04/168642200/a-girl-fights-to-be-called-by-her-name-in-iceland-suing-government%5D, and Hungary [link: http://www.nytud.hu/oszt/nyelvmuvelo/utonevek/%5D.

3 See, for instance, Lee, R. (2015). Forced sterilization and mandatory divorce: How a majority of Council of Europe member states’ laws regarding gender identity violate the internationally and regionally established human rights of trans people. Berkeley Journal of International Law 33(1):114-152.

4 I am being intentionally broad here in speaking of bodies, identities, or presentations out of recognition that not all intersex people want their intersex status reflected in their legal sex. Individuals should be able to choose which legal sex category will make them safest, affirm their dignity, and allow them to participate fully and comfortably in social life. For some, that means using a non-binary sex category.

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.

The Vanishing Barbershop?

By Kristen Barber

The barbershop holds a special place in American culture. With its red, white, and blue striped poles, dark naugahyde chairs, and straight razor shaves, the barbershop has been a place where men congregate to shore-up their stubble and get a handle on their hair. From a sociological perspective, the barbershop is an interesting place because of its historically homosocial character, where men spend time with other men. In the absence of women, men create close relationships with each other. Some might come daily to talk with their barbers, discuss the news, or play chess. Men create community in these places, and community is important to people’s health and well-being.

But is the barbershop disappearing? If so, is anything taking its place?

In my study of high-service men’s salons—dedicated to the primping and preening of an all male clientele—hair stylists described the “old school” barbershop as a vanishing place. They explained that men are seeking out a pampered grooming experience that the bare-bones barbershop with its corner dusty tube television doesn’t offer. The licensed barbers I interviewed saw these newer men’s salons as a “resurgence” of “a men-only place” that provides more “care” to clients than the “dirty little barbershop.” And those barbershops that are sticking around, said Roxy, one barber, are “trying to be a little more upscale.” She encourages barbers to “repaint and add flat-screen TVs.” Continue reading “The Vanishing Barbershop?”