“You get praised more when you’re good at sport”: Young people negotiating embodied subjectivities through (dis)engagement in physical education

This is the abstract from my PhD, awarded October 2012.

The purpose of this study was to engage with a group of students from a diverse school environment about how they construct value or status in their own and others’ bodies in physical education (PE) and sport. This study was premised on the notion that young people’s constructions of bodies that have value affect both their sense of self and their (dis)engagement with physical activity in and out of school. Sport, physical activity and education are not value-free in their purpose or practices, and constitute arenas in which young people learn about what those values are and how they apply to their own bodies. Learning more about how young people make embodied decisions to engage in physical activity can aid in understanding how best to create inclusive, positive experiences within PE and youth sport. The feminist / poststructuralist theoretical framework that this research draws upon focuses attention on the constructions of embodied subjectivities through an individual’s subject positions amongst multiple discourses. These discourses are (re)produced but shift as individuals take up and negotiate positions through the multiple narratives available to them. By linking these notions to that of physical capital, this study explores how individuals’ practices affect how they might be seen as valued. This study pays particular attention to gendered and racialised constructions of bodies in PE and sport, as literature identifies concerns about equity in participation and representation. Data were generated over one school year with a cohort of students in Year 9 of an ethnically diverse secondary school in the East Midlands, UK. Fourteen boys and eleven girls volunteered to take part in a collaborative visual ethnographic project consisting of a fortnight’s photo diary and the sharing of participant-produced images in group interviews. Taped group interviews, participants’ photographs, field notes from observations of the participants’ PE lessons and researcher’s photographs of the school notice boards were collated and analysed using a combination of thematic, discourse and content analyses. Findings indicated that the participants constructed as valued bodies those that are “good at PE”: meaning competency, strength and a desire and ability to win. Alongside this, students also valued fit, “not fat” bodies, and the display of effort or trying one’s best. These constructions were often tied to their potential to perform convincingly. The students took up positions in relation to these notions of status, sometimes investing in practices that would develop their bodies in these ways. Participants’ fluid subjectivities as they negotiated different activities, physical cultures, and assumptions about gendered and racialised bodies affected their choices not just whether to engage but in what ways they would engage in physical activity.

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