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Masculine Sports and “Respectable” Men in Working-Class Neighborhoods

In a work rich in ethnographic material, Akim Oualhaci questions how socialization through sports contributes to the reconfiguration of masculinities in working-class neighborhoods in France and the United States.
Reviewed: Akim Oualhaci, Se faire respecter. Ethnographie de sports virils dans des quartiers populaires en France et aux États-Unis, Rennes, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2016.

Studies on the social construction of masculinities—a quite recent but very productive field of research—often focuses on the world of sports, considered an effective space for gender-based socialization. [1] Akim Oualhaci’s book is a continuation of this work and specifically analyzes “the social fabric of sportsmen from the contemporary urban working classes” (p. 9). From a Bourdieusian perspective, the author seeks more precisely to understand the extent to which sports-related socialization forms part of the reconfiguration of working-class masculinities. To this end, Akim Oualhaci conducted an ethnographic survey that would allow him to compare three particularly “virile” or “masculine” sports practices, featuring strength and confrontation, in two distinct national contexts: boxing and bodybuilding in the United States, and Thai boxing (Muay Thai) in France. [2]

The first part of the demonstration focuses on the social conditions of young men’s engagement in the three gyms surveyed. In these predominantly male contexts, the analysis of the marginal presence of young women highlights the way in which sports socialization leads practitioners to forge a masculinity that is both “working-class”—because it values gendered self-esteem and masculine self-assertion—and “respectable”—because it is more open to gendered diversity, in accordance with the norms of the middle classes.

The second part focuses on studying the cultural sphere of young men in urban working-class neighborhoods “through the prism of the socialized body” (p. 317), focusing on the relationships between the processes of domination (class, gender, and ethno-racial) and the empowerment processes of dominated groups. From the study of sports careers, we understand that self-transformation work (physical, social, and moral), which involves many sacrifices, is part of a “strategy of resistance” (p. 182) to domination through the reappropriation of one’s body, space, and time. This moral and bodily asceticism also allows athletes to distance themselves from “street culture” and, in so doing, to become “respectable” men, distinguishing themselves from the deviant male fringes they call “problem cases” or “scum.” In other words, this work generates forms of valorization within the local space (recognition from peers in the gym and within the neighborhood, and sometimes recognition from the municipality), which give a certain “self-esteem” to bodybuilders and boxers. However, the “sportivized” bodies of these racialized young boys also reinforce, according to the author, the social, gender, and racial stereotypes to which they are subjected, since they have become conditioned to dominant representations, whereby “black men from the ghetto” and “young men from the banlieues” are meant to be muscular, aggressive, up for a fight, and violent by nature.

The third and final part focuses on the effects of the “sportivization” of the treatment of the social question by studying the role of coaches, [3] who transmit sporting knowledge (both technical and ethical) aimed at bringing respondents into line with dominant norms (those of the upper strata of the working classes and some of those of the middle classes). In doing so, it is a question of producing “good citizens” who are more open to the “world of others” (p. 239) and who will turn away from deviance and idleness by controlling violence and “setting to work on their bodies” (p. 253). But these learnings also reinforce adherence to “the ‘values’ specific to the working class” (p. 308), such as, for example, a relationship to politics based on distance and mistrust.

The ambivalent effects of socialization through sports

It is of great interest to this book to empirically demonstrate the ambivalence of the effects of the sports socialization of this male youth from impoverished and stigmatized neighborhoods. By finely describing how “the practices studied oscillate between emancipation and adjustment to the dominated position” (p. 106), Akim Oualhaci’s survey shows that there is a tension between working-class culture and legitimate culture within these sports spaces. Perceived by the respondents as “schools of life,” the sports practices studied are both “bastions of working-class male sociability at a time when the labor movement and its institutions are disintegrating and ‘privatizing’” (p. 322) and spaces where “the stranglehold of a compartmentalized social destiny” is loosened (p. 9). In other words, they value physical strength and virility values—which are otherwise disqualified, even racialized—and, at the same time, they allow practitioners to acculturate to a legitimate culture by internalizing certain norms, in particular by introducing a new relationship with the body, health, the aesthetics of techniques and the future. However, practitioners face the lack of legitimacy of capital accumulated in other social spheres, such as the labor market. Sport socialization thus contributes to the construction of an incorporated cultural capital and a social capital that tends to keep these young athletes away from the “street” and participates in their autonomy, while remaining adjusted to their “working-class culture.” In this sense, it favors above all the “reorganization of forms of working-class sociability undermined by deindustrialization” (p. 322).

The comparison of several practices occupying similar positions in French and American sports spaces as well as two models of societies also undoubtedly constitutes the originality of this work, in particular compared to the monographs already existing on the practices studied. [4] Although the author focuses more on the similarities in the respondents’ life and sports experiences, he is also careful to explain the “asymmetry of the two societies’ (p. 14) and the differences in socialization that he identifies between the three rooms observed. Nevertheless, given the richness of the data and the editorial bias, it is not always easy, throughout the pages, to understand which explanatory principles should be used in the analysis of the differences identified, even if the author comes back to them in an enlightening way in conclusion. It should be recalled that the contexts differ in terms of national policies and ideologies (“social bond” or “empowerment”), sports logic (dual confrontation or production of individual performance), modalities of practice (amateur or professional), conditions of interaction (presence of girls or male self), modes of organization and transmission favored by coaches or participants and their individual provisions previously incorporated into the “ghetto” (in the United States) or the “banlieues” (in France).

What form of everyday relations between men and women

Moreover, the author, while studying the construction of virility in sports in which men predominate, and the effects of the presence of a few women on working-class sociability, does not address the issue of daily relationships between men and women. However, “masculinity” [5]—to be understood in a relational way and as a constitutive of gender social relations (Connell 2014)—generates a certain relationship with women that is also expressed in interactions with the other sex group (Goffman 2002). In order to deepen the analysis, it would be interesting to study to what extent sports commitments producing “respectable” men modify the relations between the two sexes in public spaces in the neighborhoods, and in the private and professional spheres. More specifically, it would be useful to question the articulation or confrontation of socializations and their effects: that of sports socialization, bringing practitioners closer to certain dominant norms and “establishing new, albeit ambivalent, relationships between girls and boys” (p. 101) in sports halls and in “street culture” (Bourgois 2001) based on a gendered order that generates symbolic and material forms of violence, such as the exclusion of girls from public space, the control of their sexuality (Clair 2008), and even, in its most extreme forms, domestic and sexual violence (Bourgois 2001).

This dense work—rich in field notes, discourse from respondents, and bibliographical references (in both French and English) on urban working-class youth—provides a better understanding of practices and experiences. It will undoubtedly give food for thought to those whose work seeks to break down preconceptions (as in this case with regard to sporting practices and ethno-racial stereotypes concerning boys in urban working class environments). It will also be informative for anyone whose research focuses on “self-transformation work” (Darmon 2003), the production of masculinities, and the question of the reconfiguration of the working classes.


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To cite this article:

Carine Guérandel & translated by Oliver Waine, “Masculine Sports and “Respectable” Men in Working-Class Neighborhoods”, Metropolitics, 12 March 2019. URL :

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