The Space Between: Negotiating Male Subjectivities in Physical Education Research

By Kehler, Michael; Atkinson, Michael | International Journal of Men's Health, Fall 2015 | Go to article overview

The Space Between: Negotiating Male Subjectivities in Physical Education Research


Kehler, Michael, Atkinson, Michael, International Journal of Men's Health


In the beginning of your study, I thought you were just going to observe me and not really talk much.... But now it's different. I don't see you as someone who is studying me. In fact, I would consider you as one of my friends. When you are not around, people ask me why you follow me and why I'm letting you, but I always just say how cool you are. And you are. It's weird, I guess, but to me you no longer seem like this adult who is [researching me] but actually my friend. I like it better this way too because I feel much more at ease and I can talk to you, even if you don't ask me a question. Before I used to just wait until you asked me something, but now I know I can just tell you whatever and talk to you as though you're just one of the guys, so to speak. (Hunter, 2000, email communication with Author 1)

The opening excerpt was sent to Author 1 during his ethnography of a mid-western American high school. As part of the ethnography, he conducted participant observation during the last semester of an academic school year. His participation during this time and gradual transition from "adult/researcher" to "friend/colleague", as implied by Hunter's (all names are pseudonyms) remarks, reflects the complicated social, emotional and physical role of a researcher actively engaged with/in a culture. At first, an average researcher in the field of (physical) education might be struck by the "familiar" tone expressed above, outlining the social relationship between Author 1 and Hunter. When researchers and participants achieve both a social and emotional sense of intersubjectivity with one another, as Author 1 and Hunter did, they are bound to see each other less as "others" and more simply as people in a shared milieu of interaction. This can be problematic in the case of ethnographic research on young persons on the social margins, of course. Hunter's comments reminded Author 1 to question whether he had committed an unforgivable methodological breach of practice in ethnographic research by going far too "native" and losing all sense of academic and personal detachment.

We have long believed, however, that because boys' concerns with their bodies (i.e., concerns of boys who believe they are too fat, too weak, too thin, too effeminate) are so regularly understudied within the context of (physical) education, we need methodologies that help build epistemological bridges between researchers and these boys. As a result, and over the better part of the last ten years, we have both been involved in ethnographic studies (separately and jointly) of boys who exist on the social margins of masculinity in school; and in particular, boys who feel as if their bodies do not "measure up" to prototypical (if not stereotypical) images of the muscular, confident, and skilled body in the context of physical education. To be sure, for two "achieved" men in their forties, participating with boys who self-identify as on the margins (both socially and physically) in the context of gym in order to better understand their fears, insecurities, experiences and questions about their bodies is not an easy task. To understand the boys we study, however, we believe we need to study them in emplaced manners, through methodologies wherein trust, friendship and intersubjectivity may be achieved.

As academics less concerned with maintaining absolute detached objectivity in the research process we have engaged in purposeful and tactical work performed in order to achieve mutual understanding between research subjects. Simply speaking, understanding what to do methodologically in the pursuit of a deeper, authentic, respectful relationship with young people, and how to do it, is never a straightforward task; especially around sensitive subjects like body fears involving people spanning an obvious generational divide. Researchers before us have acknowledged the "messy work" involved in socially stepping into, between and through the lives of young participants (and, in turn, having them step into our lives) and the litany of both professional and personal complications involved. …

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