Verbal abuse in school : constructing gender and age in social interaction
Sammanfattning: This thesis aims to describe and analyze gender and age patterns of verbal abuse among students, and how it is used in identity construction by girls and boys in social interaction in school. Two sets of data were used: a school-based survey (study I) and an observation and interview-based qualitative study (studies II-IV). The survey encompassed all 6th and 8th graders (n=1 006) in a medium-sized Swedish city, and served to assess the gender and age-based prevalence of verbal abuse, and its effects on well-being. The qualitative study was conducted among 8th grade students at two schools in the Stockholm area (127 hours of observations and 10 interviews). Through discourse analysis, it explored the role of verbal abuse in gender and age construction between same-age students in everyday interactions and examined students’ own understanding of verbal abuse. The survey showed that verbal abuse is prevalent, more pronounced among 8th graders, that boys experienced insults and threats to a greater extent, and girls sexual name-calling (e.g. “whore”). Boys most often used verbal abuse against other boys as well as girls, indicating that it was especially significant for masculinity construction. Being exposed did not have to be frequent, repeated or combined with other kinds of harassment to be negatively related to school satisfaction and well-being. The observations and interviews demonstrated that verbal abuse was a cultural resource to which boys had greater access. Often with sexual content, it contributed to “toughness”, a central component of hegemonic masculinity in the schools. While generating most of the verbal abuse, tough, popular boys were not necessarily regarded as verbally abusive. Responsibility for the bulk of verbal abuse was instead attributed to “rowdy” boys. Whereas boys largely benefited from using verbal abuse, such practices mostly reflected unfavorably on girls. Verbal abuse simultaneously ordered masculinities and femininities, structured heterosexual relations, and contributed to age construction, intertwined with that of gender. For boys, using verbal abuse constituted them as appropriately (hetero)sexual teenage males. Discourses of immaturity, development, and school year used in the meaning-making of verbal abuse positioned genders differently, and contrasted teenagers with adults. Verbally abusive girls were associated with a negative “fjortis”-femininity, indicating that they displayed the wrong kind of sexuality, femininity and social age. What constituted ‘verbal abuse’ was jointly constructed by students and sometimes also by teachers in interaction. Speaker intent was a main point of students’ understanding, in turn modified by a number of permissive discourses, such as “joking”, friendship or pejoratives having “lost their meaning”. Students came to interpret use of pejoratives and insults especially by tough popular boys as “jokes”, rather than being offensive and hurtful. This suggests that students, using and investing in such discourses, reduced the practice of being verbally abusive to acceptable everyday interactions because it was part of how hegemonic masculinity is constructed in school at this age. It appears that verbal abuse influences power relations between conversational participants to the advantage of the speaker, and can have positive social consequences for those who can learn to use it the “right” way. Power implications of verbal abuse go beyond the particular interaction and conversational participants. Orders of status and power repeatedly produced through verbal abuse based on e.g. gender, age, and sexuality, create part of the social context of school in which students live their everyday lives and form their identities.
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