Sociology research review and critique: “Boyz to Men”

Anoop Nayak’s 2003 sociological study “Boyz to Men: masculinities, schooling and labour transitions in de- industrial times” examines the adaptation (or lack thereof) of a representational group working-class British young men to a changing labor economy. Life in Britain has been profoundly altered due to shifts in the class structure. There is a dearth of stable factory jobs and a shift to “service sector economies, part-time work, fixed-term contracts and more ‘flexible’ patterns of labour” (Nayak 2003: 148). The study focuses specifically on the Northeast of England and details a specifically ‘male’ experience inside and outside of school. The perspective adopted is thus one of social constructivism, which seeks to understand how the subjects understand their own experiences in a social context and contextualizes those experiences within a wider cultural framework of interpretation which has many ‘layers.’

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The Northeast region was historically an industrialized area, but has not reaped the benefits of Thatcherism or globalization (Nayak 2003:149). According to Nayak: “An in-depth and multi-textured analysis of masculinities is now better served by also accounting for young men’s multiple relationships to the family, locality, peers and changing labour market in global times. To develop such perspectives this study will utilise ethnographic methods including the use of history, familial biographies, semi-structured interviews and ‘thick’ description of people and place” (Nayak 2003:148). Nayak attempts to understand socially significant symbols such as football and manual labor, and significant locations (such as pubs) to give insight into the young men’s world.

The researcher was particularly concerned about the fact that previous analysis of the behavior of working class boys tended to focus upon their failures in schools, rather than attempted to understand them in a wider framework. By focusing on the relatively narrow venue of school, the boy’s full, experiential lives did not receive adequate justice, and it was too common to fall into the trap of seeing the young men simply as ‘failing’ youths. “Researching young men’s subjectivities within and beyond school walls allowed for a multidimensional, and ultimately more intimate portrait of their masculinities to emerge” (Nayak 2003:149). The young men’s wider social environment better contextualizes their life experience, including their tendency to deemphasize scholastic achievement, rather than merely problematize it.

The research was gender-specific in nature to examine how the ‘feminization’ of the job market impacted this group of working-class males. Historically, males were gendered as the primary breadwinners within working-class culture. In the new, IT-driven economy, computer skills proved to be far more valuable vocational attributes and a source of work for women. Women, who lacked many of the male inhibitions of selecting white-collar work, have thrived, in contrast to their male counterparts. The unemployment rate of men vs. women was nearly double in 1996 in the area (Nayak 2003:150).

This suggested how changing economic pressures challenged the conventional social structures of gender labor relations. But rather than causing the men to view desk work in a more masculine way because of its job prospects, many men clung to their values of prioritizing manual labor over white-collar work, despite the fact that such work was growing increasingly scarce to find. This decision might seem inexplicable to an outsider, but Nayak’s social constructivist perspective shows how this ideology is ‘constructed,’ despite its economically disadvantageous nature.

The ethnography focused upon a specific group of white, working-class youths with a strong tradition of manual labor in their families. Most of them had aspirations to enter trades or to enter into the businesses of their fathers (which catered to working class men, like a pub in the case of one of the boys). The study drew a direct link between their sense of regional and class identity and attitudes towards education (Nayak 2003:151). Implied in the analysis of the responses was that the boy’s attitudes made it difficult for them to change with the times, despite their youth. “The Real Geordies promoted the values of a muscular puritan work ethic (honesty, loyalty, self-sufficiency, ‘a fair days work for a fair days pay’) in a situation where manual unemployment was now the norm” (Nayak 2003:151). Hard work rather than higher education was seen as preferable and none of the boys seemed to wish to leave the region of their birth, despite the economic difficulties it was experiencing. Mental labor, even if it promised to be easier and more lucrative was seen as a ‘cop-out’ and inauthentic. To engage in such mental labor would be a denial of the boy’s identity, circle of friends, and the pursuits that they had adopted since adolescence. Cultural pressures and the symbolic language of the Geordie subculture caused the boys to take what would seem to be a self-defeating life path.

The research did not specifically state that it attempted to answer the question: ‘why do some men prefer the option of poorer paid and increasingly scarce manual occupations vs. At least aspiring to enter white-collar jobs that require education,’ but the focus of the study and thus its implied results seem to indicate that this concern was a factor in the emphasis of the interviews. Nayak is careful to stress that the boys are not ‘lazy’ in the sense that they do value hard work, however they do not seem to be able to use that value to engage in foresight and planning about the future and instead spend their earnings on “clothes, drink, music, football…living for the weekend” (Nayak 2003:152). Even the boy’s reference to themselves as ‘real Geordies’ — referring to their regional identity, ethnicity, and class — is archaic, since the term was originally a synonym for ‘pit worker.’ The ‘real’ also implies that there are inauthentic people amongst them, and male authenticity is something fragile which must be preserved.

The notion of ‘thick description’ is manifest in Nayak’s analysis of what casual observers might consider ‘laziness.’ Rather than apply the judgments of outsiders which equate success in school with hard work and enterprise, Nayak attempts to understand the boy’s world in their own terms. This also helps to explain seemingly inexplicable behavior, such as one boy’s refusal to go two buses away from his ‘local’ home for an apprenticeship. The transient nature of many technology firms are also a turn-off for locals, who value stability and consistency above all else. Fear of change seemed to keep the boys in a state of a suspended animation: they realized that their father’s ways of life were no longer tenable, but the threat of the ‘new’ in the form of new industries, new loyalties, and new people made them reluctant to give up what had become their identity as ‘Real Geordies.’

Nayak also calls the culture of the young men a ‘culture of the body’ in the degree to which it revolved around physical activities, including manual labor, football, and drinking beer at pubs. In trying to secure money to participate in these activities, many of the young men could be surprisingly resourceful in legal ways to finance their passion. Great weight was given to the symbolic collective affirmation of identity — for example, when watching football games, it was very important that the young men ‘represent’ by attending the games in person, or at very least in pubs even if they could not afford their own tickets.

Defining identity was done in a very stark manner which clearly demarcated ‘insider and outsiders.’ People who watched from their armchairs were derided as lesser fans, or anoraks (bookish). In such an ideological sphere, in which everything that is intellectual is considered ‘bad’ and everything that is physical and visceral is considered ‘good,’ the boy’s dismissive view of attempting to better their educational prospects, despite the prosperity it might offer, becomes more comprehensible. Admitting that another way of being in the world might be tenable that did not valorize working-class manual labor was simply untenable to them. Even some conventional markers of success (a desk job, a nice television) were sneered at.

Manual labor and physicality were defined by symbolically central rituals and artifacts that within the ‘tribal’ context of the men took on much greater symbolic significance. Football is not simply a game but rather a badge of identity and membership in a community. Simply looking at the economics of working to buy tickets for a football game cannot be analyzed purely in terms of the logic of an outsider, who might wonder if the young men might be better off saving their money. This highlights the value of the perspective offered by Nayak, as it does not attempt to judge the young men, as might a social worker, or even members of the community who might see them as ‘good for nothing.’ Instead, Nayak shows how their actions are comprehensible within a specifically socially-contextualized space.

A materialist or Marxist-realist analysis of the boys, however, would not simply state that their views and beliefs were comprehensible given their social situation, but rather see their behavior as a kind of false consciousness — rather than focusing on change a world which offered them few truly meaningful opportunities (given that the white-collar jobs and apprenticeships offered were still far less lucrative than the managerial positions of those who came from the ‘right’ neighborhoods, families and schools) they boys channeled their energies into nonproductive pursuits like football. Localism became stultifying because it meant the boys did not see their struggle mirrored in the difficulties of other working-class youths. Nayak’s analysis, although persuasive, ultimately offers no real, meaningful solutions to a social order in which any methods of self-improvement are automatically viewed as a betrayal. These subcultural values ultimately hurt their adherents. Nayak can merely conclude: “recognising the place of education in the global marketplace may not smooth the jagged dissonance between formal schooling and local masculinities (Nayak 2003: 157).


Nayak, Anoop. 2003. ‘Boyz to Men’: masculinities, schooling and labour transitions in de-

industrial times. Educational Review, 55(2): 147-158.