A qualitative study of subjective male identities among South African adolescents in rural and urban settings using a photo-narrative method.
Masculinity is a relevant and important research priority in South Africa, where problematic constructions of adolescent masculinity are linked with a range of health issues and psychosocial risks. The theoretical basis for this qualitative research study was social constructionism informed by dialogical theory and psychoanalytic accounts of masculinity, including Kristeva's theory of abjection. The overall aim was to explore the lived experience of adolescent boys in order to understand how boys are subjectively positioned in relation to hegemonic standards for 'acceptable' masculinity in social contexts. Following ethical guidelines, boys were purposively sampled for the study from two school settings, a 'multicultural' urban single-sex school and a 'monoracial' rural coeducational secondary. A mixed method approach was used - a photo-narrative visual research method, focus groups and semi-structured interviews within a constructionist paradigm. Visual and verbal data was analysed by means of an integrated quantitative content analysis and qualitative narrative analysis. Findings suggested that hegemonic standards were experienced in different ways by boys in terms of subjective positioning and microcultural context. Peer-groups were identified as having major importance for adolescent boys as a means of validating masculine norms, with sport functioning as an important masculinity marker. A central finding was that peer group norms created the conditions for inclusion and exclusion, which in turn lead to the construction of 'acceptable identities'. Performative 'doing' and symbolic 'having' were identified as two important ways of constructing masculinity - ways that were not always in accord. Another important finding was that boys battled to create even a rough congruence between masculinity norms and an authentic sense of self. There was a convergence around hegemonic norms of toughness, emphasised heterosexuality and displayed risk-taking across contexts; however, these norms were understood in different ways. Non-relational and objectified sex talk was a strong focus of hegemonic masculinity for most boys in the study. Toughness was understood as alternatively verbal, performative or physical, and these differences were linked to racial and cultural differences. Similarly, there were racial and cultural differences in how expressions of masculinity were 'commodified'. Hybridised identities emerged from the multicultural context of School A but not in the monoracial context of School B. Based on the findings that boys occupied several positions simultaneously and experienced contradiction among various identity positions, it was suggested that Connell's masculinity framework provided only a limited macrosociological perspective that neglected the ambiguities of masculine subjectivity. The study identified a range of means by which boys negotiated distances for alternative masculinities outside of hegemonic standards. The collective pressure of meeting an illusory and unattainable standard of masculine acceptability was identified as a source of conflict and anxiety for most of the boys in this study. This anxiety was managed in various ways including finding alternative constructions of masculinity in sub-cultural contexts, religious experience and in traditional cultural practices. These findings have implications for programmes and policies that address issues of masculinity in relation to the challenges and risks facing adolescent boys in South Africa.
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