Higher Education and Working-class Men and Masculinities

Since the 1990s there appears to have developed an increased anxiety in the global north about the position of boys and young men. These concerns have centred on a range of issues including boys’ supposed educational ‘underachievement’ (when compared to girls), high rates of suicide, and poor mental health among young men, and boys’ involvement in offending and anti-social behaviour. The supposed lack of male role models has also been highlighted as a growing concern for educators, politicians, policy makers and those in the media. These problems have been framed as outcomes of a ‘war’ on boys or a ‘crisis’ of masculinity. However, as others have pointed out, this discourse is far from novel and has a much longer history than the current ‘crisis’ suggests. Also as feminist and pro-feminist researchers have argued, boys and young men still learn to enact power in these times of ‘crisis’. Therefore, although the generic category ‘boys’ is often used in policy and cultural commentaries, in reality it is young men from working-class backgrounds who are most often associated with this ‘crisis’ anxiety and with public fears of disorder, disrespect and delinquency around their performances of masculinity.

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These fears also seem to cross ethnic and racial boundaries. Consequently, while has been a significant debate around boys’ educational ‘underachievement’ across the global north and the difficulties young men face in the post-industrial era very little work has been conducted around the difficulties and challenges facing white and BME young men from working-class backgrounds who display alternative performances of masculinity through academic success and become ‘achieving boys’ and enter higher educational institutions.

So given this background (and some of my previous work on marginalized young men) through some contacts at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, I set up my current project to look at these issues further. In order to recruit participants for the study I have sent emails out and attended lectures to talk to students at the university about the project. I have specifically advertised for young men [or those who identity as men] who come from low-income backgrounds, or those who are the first in their family to attend university or those who are in receipt of the Canada Student Grant, which is given to those from low-income backgrounds.

So far I have been pleasantly surprised with the amount of young men who have come forward and want to speak to me. In the 3 weeks that I first advertised for participants, I have interviewed 9 participants with more lined up for the coming weeks. I have found some of these interviews challenging and as an educator, quite upsetting at times due to some of the issues disclosed in terms of educational experiences.

A key theme which seems to be developing and one that is perhaps unsurprisingly, is the financial worries the respondents are under to combine studying and part-time paid work. What I have found interesting is that all seem to acknowledge that the undergraduate degree alone is not enough. All the participants have talked about further qualifications and the need to gain at least a masters degree, which of course will incur more debt without the guarantee of a job at the end of it. What is also emerging from these interviews in terms of masculinity at university is that for many young men, the university experience offers the opportunity to perform masculinity in a different way to that of their home communities through academic labour. But this more studious performance of masculinity does not fit easily with their home communities, which are often situated in less affluent areas or with other men in their families who are in more traditional low-income ‘male’ occupations. But what is also surprising, is that the ‘bro’ culture or ‘party’ imagine of student life, for these young men at this university at least, is not engaged with. It would appear that they simply don’t have the time for it, financially or culturally.

Next week I want to dive back into writing about the world around me and I will write about one aspect of life here in Vancouver that I find difficult to deal with, homelessness.

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A First-Class Experience

I love flying and still get a little thrill every time I board a plane.  The first time I flew was in 1995 when I was going on a summer package holiday to Lanzarote in the Canary Islands. Being pre 9/11 and flight security being totally different to what it is 20 years on, I and my brothers got to go up to the flight deck and speak to the pilots mid-flight!  I loved the take-off and landing and the food that came in the little foil containers on a tray, I remember thinking it was all a great adventure. Although I now fly regularly for work and have been lucky enough this year to have flown to New York, Copenhagen and Glasgow to attend different conferences, I still get a thrill from flying and always look forward to it. So I was in a bit of a dream like space in August when I was flying to Vancouver to begin my new research project and I received an unexpected upgrade to first class.

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I have a family contact who works for a leading British airline so I am able to get drastically reduced economy flights. However, these are always standby seats, so I am unsure when I arrive at an airport if I am going to get on the plane, as full-price passengers always come first. On some occasions I have not been given a seat till entering the plane. This time I was told that there were plenty of seats available, so I was checked into the flight, and given a seat in economy. But I was told to ask at the gate in case there had been any changes and there might be a chance of an upgrade to business or first class. Arriving at the gate my ticket was taken from me by the assistant and I was told to listen out to an announcement for my name. A short while later I heard my name called over the public address system and I received a new boarding pass and found I had indeed been upgraded. As I walked onto the plane, with my new boarding pass in hard, I was directed by a member of the cabin crew to a little flight of stairs inside the plane which lead to the upper level and into the dome of the aircraft. As I had only ever walked past these stairs before on my way to the less spacious conditions at the back, and I am more used to flying with budget airlines like EasyJet, I could barely containing my excitement and feeling like a little child, climbed the stairs into this unseen world.

I was met by a steward and stewardess who smiled and glancing at my passport and boarding pass, and I was then showed to my seat. From my seat at the front of the airline I could see into the open fight deck and the pilots getting ready for take-off. As I was putting my bag away into one of the many spaces I had been allocated, and taking in my surroundings, I was offered champagne by the steward. Not wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth I accepted! When the stewardess returned with my drink, which came in a real wine glass (obviously first class passengers can be trusted not to break such things and use the broken glass as an implement to highjack the plane) I was handed a menu and wine list to peruse. The stewardess informed me she would return to take my order in a little while and if I wanted anything, to let her or her colleague know right away.

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As I watched other passengers board the plane and take their seats, the socialist in me was beginning to feel a little guilty at the air of exclusiveness portrayed here, but the sociologist in me was fascinated by this side of air travel that I had never had access to before. So over the next 9 hours of the flight, whilst enjoying myself immensely, I did not want to waste this experience, so I heeded Sara Delamont’s advice and put my ethnographic skills to the test by recording my observations through taking field notes. They are quite brief but I wanted to share them somewhere and this blog seems to the place to do it, so here’s a list things of things I noted down.

  • The compartment was made up of 16 reclining bed seats [photo], which made for a much more pleasant travel experience with more space for each passenger and the abiity to ignore others around you.
  • A small number of cabin crew to deal with all passengers, who seemed to remember the names of everyone and used them repeatedly when serving means and beverages. Uber polite and uber efficient. I wonder if first class cabin crews get paid more?
  • Champagne in real glasses
  • Some rear facing seats
  • Hot towels (a long forgotten delight in economy)
  • No cider in first class!!!
  • A wine list with a variety of different vintages, not the usual ‘red or white’ choice
  • A choice of newspapers, with plenty of copies of the Daily Mail being selected by other passengers
  • Multiple opportunities for further drinks (and nuts)
  • Provided with a menu with a variety of food choices [photo] (Salmon, Beer and Mango and Raspberry tort btw)
  • All meals delivered with metal cutlery, china plates and tea served in china mugs (again first class does not seem to have the same issued with security!)
  • A small leaflet explaining how the seat works and which buttons to press to turn it into a bed

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  • Bigger TV screens
  • Bigger Trays
  • Dividing screen between passengers, which the cabin crew operate on passengers behalf
  • Bottled water instead of little plastic cups.
  • Multiple tea and coffee service
  • The ability to sleep and therefore feel good when landing. I imagine this would help business types perform important business type decisions on arrival!

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One of the biggest things I took away from this experience is that other passengers didn’t look ‘super rich’, so it challenged my ideas of what types of people travel first class and how social class is not always so easily defined by just having access to capital. In my last post I talked about Goffman’s theory of social inattention, and while there were certainly instances of passengers ignoring each other, for example when the steward or stewardess was leaning over one passenger to pass meals to the other, there was a general friendly atmosphere.

However, the biggest thing that came out of this flight and in keeping with all good social science research, l think a lot more further research (and in particular participant observation of first class flights by myself) needs to be conducted into these issues!

Next Friday I will write a little bit about my ongoing project as the interviews are taking place thick and fast here in Vancouver.

Getting In Part 2 – Blogging Inspiration and Research Focus

This is the second part of my two part opening blog post. Last week I wrote about my anxieties about actually sitting down to write and what to focus on. This week I want to clarify some of this and the inspiration behind it. I also want to write a little about the research that I am currently conducting.

On blogging

As I said in the previous post, I want this to be a place for me to share my musings and observations of everyday life in a much more casual manner than the channels I normally use. One of my biggest sociological heroes is Erving Goffman and it is his work which has inspired me to take this approach.

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Goffman’s research focus was very much on illustrating the day-to-day interactions that occur between people in a variety of different situations and different social experiences. This is what sociologists call the micro level of society. His work has been an inspiration to me in terms of the ideas he presented, but also the way that he wrote about these ideas. Although his books are sometimes a bit difficult to follow in terms of their structure,  I found I ‘got’ Goffman from the beginning and the writing style in his early books is very straightforward. For me at least, his attempts to describe what happens when people go about their lives in different settings and how we mix with other human beings, helped me explain many things I saw around me, but ones that I never had a name for. Just one example, as I could go on forever about Goffers (I think maybe Goffman deserves a blog post of his own), is his theory of civil inattention.

Civil Inattention

Many of us might have been on a packed bus or train and surrounded by strangers in very close proximity, but somehow everyone avoids eye contract and ignores each other. Or we might be walking down a street and coming towards us is another person, we both look at each other from a distance, eye contact is made, but as we then get closer and pass each other, we both look away or avoid looking at each other (try breaking this rule sometimes, it can be interesting!). We participate in these sorts of practices to avoid social awkwardness with strangers and to maintain our privacy. Of course these things are not set in stone and they can be challenged or disrupted, but it is these sorts of insights from Goffman that have helped me make sense of often unnamed phenomena.

As well as being  a home for all my academic work, this blog will also be a place for me to share my own observations of life around me, drawing on Goffman for inspiration.  I bet he would have embraced blogging if he was still with us!

Access and experience of higher education for young men from low-income backgrounds.

As part of my attempts to try and understand the social world around me, I am also interested in the way men and masculinities operate. My previous research has focused on mainly young men from working-class or lower-income backgrounds in a variety of different contexts within and beyond educational institutions (see the tabs at the top of the screen) but it has all been focused in the UK. I wanted to expand this work, and create an opportunity to work outside the UK, so through some contacts in Vancouver, my current project is based in Canada.

The principal aim of this study is to investigate the higher educational experiences of young men from low income backgrounds- or those who are the first in their family to attend university- at Simon Fraser University [SFU] in British Columbia, Canada. Taking an intersectional approach to class, race and gender, this study’s key focus is to explore how these young men’s masculinities are shaped and reshaped in the university context. It is a very small study, due to time constraints, but I hope to interview between 12-15 young men during the autumn or ‘fall’ semester.

The proposed study is guided by the following research questions:

  • Do academically successful young men from working-class backgrounds experience specific challenges or barriers (e.g. peer and family expectation, finances, mobility) in accessing higher education?
  • Does academic success and transition to university mean creating or adopting different or new performances of masculinity to their home communities?
  • Do the traditions of a community or a geographical place impact on what is acceptable subject choice by young men?
  • What are young men’s experience of, and attitudes to, education, learning and the courses they study?
  • What leisure interests do academically successful young men engage in whilst at university, and are these classed, raced and gendered?
  • To what extent (if at all) does university foster and develop opportunities for men to resist hegemonic forms of masculinity or does it intensify male privilege through misogyny and sexual harassment?
  • What strategies are adopted to achieve future success and how do these impact on relationships with family, friends, peers and partners?

Since I started at SFU at the beginning of September. I have had a lot of interest in the study and have already begun interviewing young men and have lots more lined up who want to take part. I will share the findings and the research journey here as it progresses.

In next weeks post I will write about my arrival in Vancouver via a first class flying experience and the sociological insights I gained!

Getting In Part 1 – Blog Anxiety

I started this blog a few weeks ago and despite my best efforts I have yet to write anything! I’ll be honest, it’s been on my ‘to do’ list every week, but like many things on my ‘to do’ list, despite my best efforts, it seemed to stay and get pushed down the order with other things cropping up. I’ve also been wondering where to actually begin! I have kept a journal on and off since a child and never plan on showing those ramblings to anyone, but who reads blogs really I thought? Who are they written for? Are they just one more act of narcissism in a social media saturated world? Is it for the author e.g me, or an unseen audience?

As a sociologist I write, or attempt to write (some of my peer reviewers would disagree on that point) in order to try and make sense of the world around me through the research I have undertaken. This work can be found in one of the tabs at the top of this blog (again something that is on the ‘to do’ list) but for the most part this work has appeared in academic books and journals and will be missed by most people without access to a university library. The ironic thing is that if I don’t publish my work in this way, I will be seen as unemployable by universities and hence not be able to carry on researching many of the important issues that I want to. I also want to create a place where I can share things in a more informal setting and attempt to be engaging in a much more relaxed, almost fun way.

As I was drafting this blog post in my head on the trip home last night from the university I am based at (Vancouver has a great public transport network despite what the locals say), I began to think of blogs for inspiration and realised,  quite quickly, that I have quite a few that I visit regularly. There are the ones from academic sociology types, like those by Les Back , Anna Tarrant and the great Raewyn Connell , then the ones on running, such as those by my friends Lisa and Mike who are each running marathons for different causes, the ones on masculinities research and finally, the ones on dating and sex. These then give me some confidence that I can find my own style and come up with something at regular intervals that will be informative and even entertaining at times! This blog then is my attempt at trying to do all this.

But…that is enough for now! I have run out of time as the 2015 Rugby World Cup is due to start soon and I need to get off and into downtown Vancouver to watch it in a pub somewhere. Priorities!

Keep a look out for Part 2 of this opening blog post, where I will write much more about what I am actually doing out here and what the coming months will ensue for me and this blog.

Sociologist On Tour – Welcome to my new blog!

Hi there!

My name is Dr Mike Ward and I am a sociologist from the UK. I am currently working at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada for the 2015 autumn or ‘fall’ semester. I am going to be using this blog to write about my experiences and to share with others the research that I will be conducting whilst here. I will also be using this space to discuss my observations of everyday social life and my own sociological insights into the world around me!