An Interpretation of Juvenile Parolees' Gender Constructions at School

By Smith, Brian J. | High School Journal, December 2001 | Go to article overview

An Interpretation of Juvenile Parolees' Gender Constructions at School


Smith, Brian J., High School Journal


Introduction

This paper interprets marginalized youths' active gender constructions during school. (1) Past and recent sociological work examines the significance of gender construction for understanding juvenile delinquency and school experiences (Cohen, 1955; MacLeod, 1995; Messerschmidt, 1993,1994,1995; Miller, 1958; Miron and Lauria, 1995; Willis, 1977). This work illustrates that an individual's gender can be understood as a socially created concept, as an identity that arises through social interactions (Connell, 1987; West and Zimmerman, 1987). Gender theorists and researchers illuminate the importance of gender construction for understanding various state policies and individual behaviors, and the overall gendered nature of social life. Individuals' interactions with one another as men and women both create and are created by social structures (Giddens, 1981). Furthermore, individuals' structuralsocial locations provide particular resources for their active constructions of themselves as men or women (Connell, 1987; Messerschmidt, 1993, 1994, 1995; Newburn and Stanko, 1994; West and Zimmerman, 1987; Willis, 1977). Youths who occupy the social-structural margins of society, and thus lack adequate access to gender resources such as school success, may utilize crime and/or school resistance as resources to construct themselves as men or women. Importantly, when individuals are actively "doing gender" their actions sometimes function to reproduce existent gender-based social inequalities (Connell, 1987; MacLeod, 1995; Messerschmidt, 1993,1994, 1995; Smith, 1997; Willis, 1977).

The paper focuses on inner-city juvenile parolees' gendered interactions at a community school in a large southwestern city. The analysis seeks to interpret the students' gender constructions within the contexts of cultural ideologies and social-structural locations. Drawing from a year of field research at the school and interviews with youths and teachers, I interpret youths' gender constructions with their peers and teachers as a reflection (and ultimately a creator) of these ideologies and locations. I conceptualize students' gendered identities "relationally," as being created during social interactions (Miron and Lauria, 1995: 31). Students at the community school constructed their gender in a variety of ways; male students used both hegemonic cultural ideologies and locally available resources to construct their masculinities. They often created their identities as men through discussions of crime, physical toughness/violence, opposition to school, heterosexuality, and dominance of females. Female students sometimes created their gendered identities through opposition to male students, and via discussions of physical toughness/violence and heterosexuality. Importantly, students' gender constructions did not rely on ideologically dominant resources such as paid work and school success. In addition, their active constructions of gender functioned to reproduce certain harmful cultural ideologies (e.g., men as being superior to women). The analysis suggests the necessity of creating schools which students' value, where they will want to spend their time and energy on learning useful knowledge rather than on reproducing existent ideologies of gender inequality and criminal violence. When these students rejected schools and teachers and celebrate physical violence and crime they also helped reproduce their own marginalization.

School, Structure, Crime, and Gender Constructions

Theoretical and empirical work on schooling and delinquency recognizes the significance of gender. Miller (1958) argues that masculine attributes such as toughness and violence are important status criteria for lower-class males in delinquent peer groups. Cohen (1955) discusses the significance of social gender roles for understanding male delinquency; he notes that structural and cultural factors regulate an individual's appropriate "sex role. …

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