Barbara M. Walker

"What About the Boys?"

The International Journal of Urban Labour and Leisure,
4(1) <>

ISSN: 1465-1270



This paper is an attempt to explain an empirically-based theoretical model which grew out of a small qualitative study centring around in-depth interviews with 39 boys aged between 11 and 21, and based in East Anglia. (The term ‘boys’ is used throughout – even when talking about the older age group – because this is the term they used themselves.) The full title of the project, funded by the ESRC, is Understanding Boys’ Sexual Health Education and its Implications for Attitude Change. The study’s aims were to investigate the experience and education of boys in relation to matters of sexual health and masculinity, and it is the experience of the construction of masculinity that is the focus of this paper.

I did not embark on this study with any theories of adolescence in mind. I just went out and talked to people about their experience, about how it felt to be growing up now. I talked to them 1:1 and in groups. I also observed boys in their daily lives – at school, out and about, playing sport, and socialising. The study generated a collection of varied and often vivid personal stories, as well as a sense of group culture.

Trying to analyse the data I was struck by its variety and inconsistency. Its richness reflected the activity going on in these young lives, the complications, spaces and fluidity that boys are working to find ways of dealing with. There’s a lot of questing and reflection going on out there.

However there did seem to be a loose, generalised shape to the developmental process they were undergoing. And I found this shape, this descriptive model, a useful way to begin thinking about the complications and inconsistencies in the data. I only offer it as a beginning. It’s not a framework within which everything neatly fits, but it seems to be elastic enough to encompass most of the inconsistencies I encountered. In this paper I am applying this descriptive model loosely to cover the ages between 11 and 21. During these ten years the boys I spoke to seemed generally to progress through three stages, and I have based these around specific ages. But I would like to stress that these stages are not necessarily discrete. By that I mean that it is not necessary to complete one stage before going on to the next. There must be a lot of slippage going on. And of course each individual has a unique pattern of maturing. Although I have no data, I suspect it’s likely that people are, to some extent, moving around it for most of their lives. An adolescent may expect an autonomous adult self to emerge at the end of this process, but how many of us feel we’ve got there yet? In any case, post-modernism tells us that the autonomous adult self is a misplaced goal, a chimera.

The boys in this study think, feel and learn much as we do. They are not an alien species, though one might be excused for thinking so on reading some of the literature. In fact, this research is somewhat different from much of the socio-psychological literature I have come across in that it attempts to describe what actually happens to ordinary people in ordinary situations. The problem comes in trying to represent them in a few thousand words. Any methodology, any theoretical model, any piece of writing is bound to be reductionist.

Anyway, enough of these caveats and get out clauses – on with the model.

The Model.


The first phase: Lords of the Middle School

My interviews with boys aged 11 and 12 indicated relaxed friendship, reflected in their mutual conversational style which was good-natured, empathetic, and evenhanded. There was some evidence of scapegoating individuals, but a general sense of co-operation prevailed. Fights happened occasionally but “hardly anyone gets hurt”. Avoidance of confrontation incurred no loss of face. “Most of the time you just say, Sorry, sorry, I haven’t got time for a fight. Sorry”. Running away or hiding were seen as sensible courses of action. Bullies were dealt with by a “massive gang of boys who come, ‘You don’t do that again!’”.

Already they had a sense of their distinct maleness. Girls were mysterious beings who operated in a separate, hidden world out of school, “Perhaps saying hello in the street, or a vague sort of smile, but that’s about it.” In the classroom boys and girls never sat together, and at playtime they “seem(ed) to disappear”. The idea of dating had some currency but wasn’t taken seriously. “We always know we’re going to get dumped in the end,” they said philosophically. In any case their boyfriend/girlfriend experience seemed to be almost entirely notional and rarely went further than dancing at an occasional disco. They didn’t ‘go out’ anywhere together. And hardly anyone had kissed their girlfriend.

Theirs was an active world. Leisure was spent playing football, riding bikes, using play equipment. Watching TV and video came high on their list of preferred activities, but the implied passivity was to some extent belied by their favourite programmes and films which featured activity and derring-do: Star Trek, The Terminator. Competition was formalised in games. Even board and computer games had themes of ritualised aggression. Bad behaviour was physical too – jumping on furniture, hitting people, dropping things.

In talking to me they were unguarded and easy. Serious problems such as a hole in the heart and dyslexia were volunteered in a matter-of-fact way. Life could be puzzling but seemed to be unthreatening.

Older boys looked back on these years as a golden age. They said there was no exam pressure, no bad feeling between groups. “We had no worries in the world”. My data with the younger age group would appear to corroborate this. They were the relaxed ruling class of the primary school. But already clouds were gathering on the horizon. Secondary school was not anticipated with any relish.

The second phase: Secondary School Dualities

The change of culture from childhood to adolescence has been likened to moving from one society to another (Elkind, 1984). This sudden dislocation seems to coincide with entry into secondary school. As one boy told me, “I’d say life totally changes when you come to High School”. He and a friend, currently in the middle of their GCSE courses, went on to sum up their problems in one, often-repeated, word – “pressure”. At secondary school the presence of near-adult older pupils, public examination oriented curricula, emphasis on qualifications/training for adult life, plus the physical and emotional changes experienced at this time, all combine to shift the focus to include the future. And the future is worrying, uncharted territory replete with large questions – will I pass my exams? will I get a job? will I ever afford a house and a car? (and perhaps more immediately) what on earth do I do about girls?

So the future is problematic and the present is no longer comfortable. Instead there is turbulent emotionality which has to be handled, new rules which have to be discovered. And these boys have learned that problems are not to be shared and that “we don’t show our feelings so much (as girls).” Their view of an adult male was of someone “who no longer needs help from anybody”. Already, a group of 14 year olds said that when faced with a problem, “you bottle it up and hope it goes away.”

It seems that, faced with these dilemmas, boys do two things simultaneously: they work to build a public self and they work to build a private self. There was evidence that these two developmental processes feel very different, although they operate in parallel and the boundaries are fluid. And it may be that it is in the tension between the two, where the barriers come into being and crossovers occur, that attitudes and self-knowledge are formed. It is in crossing and re-crossing the space between public experimentation and private reflection, in the internal dialogue they engage in to deal with the fluidity and ambiguities they encounter, that they theorise about themselves in the world. Because it is unspoken and yet constant, this liminal self-work is difficult for the young person to explain and therefore for the researcher to pinpoint. The clues, however, are all around us.

Let me try to illustrate this concept by exploring the differences and similarities between the public and the private, and point to some of the inconsistencies in the data that this dichotomy might help to explain.

The role of the group

Despite its humour, from the outside boys’ group culture can appear to be almost brutal – a ruthless business of cutting all members down to size. So severe is the bantering group performance, so lacking in any obvious empathy, that one might question why gaining acceptance from a group is so important. What do they get out of it? Well, there’s safety in numbers, so maybe they were learning about solidarity: a defensive necessity for human males in a hostile world. Learning judgement; who you could trust; who would back you up in a crisis. Learning the banter of affability; the only language of affection allowed between heterosexual men. Learning to be part of an effective team.

It seemed that, during this public/private self phase, the individual boy is aware of shifts in gear between the two. For instance his friendship group, while giving him a great sense of structure and belonging, can be an inappropriate place to voice all that he thinks. The private self that he’s building has to be modified when required to fit into the group ethos. While at the same time he’s learning things about his private self within the public sphere. It’s here that he tries out images and discovers which ones he’s comfortable with. Here he discovers talents such as wit, art, getting on with people, getting off with girls, that he takes back into his private self and which become part of the person he is. Similarly it’s a way of discovering what he’s not good at, and can therefore reject and no longer bother with. The group he chooses to relate to, and its rules of engagement, can also help to define the individual – I’m the sort of guy who’s a good laugh, likes a drink with my mates, bunks off school, nicks cars, plays competitive rugby, listens to Indie music, kicks a ball about in the park, whatever.

One boy said, in talking about finding a new group of friends:

That’s when I started to build the jokey, laughy, get into a bit of trouble, he-smokes-the-odd-joint, kind of thing, you know? … That’s really when I found the identity of a young person I suppose. It was negative and nonproductive in certain ways, but it was very productive in getting a feeling of self, I think.

Boys are good at setting up diverse friendship groups. So it is quite possible for a boy who looks isolated at school or in his neighbourhood to have a separate friendship group based around sport, music, or the Internet. On the other hand there are some isolates, some loners, who don’t join groups. This may be because they are the scapegoats, the excluded. Or they may have interests, circumstances, or sexual orientation, that set them apart. But they will be aware of the groups around them, and will see themselves in some sort of comparative relationship to them. It may be possible for the building of a public self to go on vis a vis a group, instead of within it.

In any case this is a continuum. Perhaps all adolescents feel, to a greater or lesser extent, that they don’t quite belong within the group. And it’s at this boundary that the formative self/selves -work goes on.

The third phase: Growing Autonomy

If the previous phase has been about learning the rules necessary for an acceptable public self, at the same time as constructing a meaningful private self, there comes a time when the two processes can overlap and fuse. Someone who has internalised these social rules, understood them, can now learn which ones he can safely ignore. He has more social confidence and no longer fears that a small step outside the norms of group solidarity will damn him forever in the eyes of his peers. He can afford to be more individualistic. There’s scope to listen to different music, discover oil painting, spend time with a girlfriend, and still retain your mates. And this greater individualisation breaks down the barriers between the cliques. He can suddenly discover that it’s possible to have a perfectly reasonable conversation with someone he has ignored for years, just because they identified with another group. There are things in common after all. The public self can become more private, and the private self can begin to come out into the light. As one boy said, “I’m more honest with myself now… I think now I’m doing things for myself.”

For some of the boys the route to this greater confidence and responsibility for self was through overcoming difficulties such as travel abroad during a ‘year out’, surviving parents’ divorce, or coming out as gay.

For others the necessary support was provided by the first steady girlfriend. I was frequently told something along the lines of, “Of course it’s different now I’ve got Emma. She’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I can talk to her." Having a girlfriend seems to confer no great status in group terms – being successful in getting off with lots of girls is of more use there. This relationship operates much more within the private sphere. Finally the boy has someone who will listen, with whom he can share his private self. Here he can escape the ritualised banter of his mates and indulge in extended conversation, helping to clarify his thoughts and attitudes. Then, armed with her acceptance of his private self, he can venture back into the group. Though he may find that the group is changing anyway as more of its members acquire a similar confidence. As a university student told me, “With my friends we’re all very comfortable with each other. There’s no need to impress each other.”


I’d like now to explore the utility of this model by applying it to a phenomenon arising from my data; that of the boys’ relationship with music. Almost always, when the topic of music came up in the conversation I noticed their faces light up. Music obviously meant something to them. And they talked about it with a fluency and emotionality that was noticeably different from their talk about other aspects of their lives. Why was this? Let’s attempt to use the model as a speculative tool.

Phase One

The younger age group liked music well enough, in a general sort of way. It was pleasant to have it in the background while you were doing something else.

“Every so often when we are in Games Workshop. They turn up the volume. Yeh, I like the music. Especially good fun when you have got some heavy flavouring and songs going on – ‘I am the Lord of Hell Fire and I bring you FIRE’. Bringing out your terminator with a heavy flame on it.”

Phase Two

Music seemed to be much more important for the boys at secondary school.

For the public self, identifying with a particular type of music can help provide guidance as to what type of lifestyle to subscribe to. It tends to come with a package that can go a long way towards providing a public image. One boy, looking back to a time when he felt an ‘outsider’ and was desperately trying to find a group to join, told me:

“They were into Indie music and stuff. I didn’t really like that and still went out with them to sort of go and see bands, … and drinking and stuff … But not really enjoying ‘cos I was doing things at the weekend that I didn’t really enjoy. It was a bit odd.”

Music can be a powerful dividing force too. Just as a shared taste in music can define a friendship group, so can it separate the groups from each other. “I don’t like your sort of music” has even been quoted to me as grounds for starting a fight.

But it’s more than that, and this I think is where the private self comes in. It may be that exploring your feelings privately in responding to music is safer than with other human beings. It won’t laugh at you. It won’t judge you. Listening to your own music in your room or on a Walkman is a private experience. No defence is necessary. No role playing is expected. It’s just you and the music and you can let yourself go with it. One older boy talked about listening to music as the most profound learning experience of his life – looking back he saw it as a sort of emotional experimental laboratory.

“It can make you think, ‘Yeah! That’s, right. That’s how it fits.’ And I’ll tell you why. It’s because, if you have certain thoughts going on in your head and there’s no link to what’s going on but you can see they complement each other but you can’t see why, then music – lyrics – can help. If you see that other people have had a similar idea then that can help you place it. It’s because, the reason why you’re attracted to the music is because you like it, enjoy it, and feel attracted to that artist, which makes the link between what you’re saying and doing easier to take on board – rather than a parent or a teacher… People underestimate how much just three words can change your life.”

The boys are sophisticated in their use of music. As well as emotional release it can be used as a relaxant, to stimulate before going out, as an aid to getting up in the morning and facing the day, etc. And it’s ever-present. You can always plug into it – sometimes literally. One boy, who said that he personally didn’t listen to much music, found it annoying that most of his mates seemed to be permanently wearing Walkmans, nodding away. It’s even common in lessons, I was told, when the wire is run up a sleeve, and the earpiece covered by resting the head on a hand. Perhaps music provides a retreat from the competitive banter of group interaction – enabling immediate shifting between public and private selves. Sometimes it’s the final retreat – full stop.

“Thinking is definitely dangerous … That’s why I have a stereo next to my bed, so I can think about that instead of trying to solve all the world’s problems and stuff like that, ‘cos you do find yourself doing that when you’re in bed and you can’t sleep.”

It may be that music is the most acceptable – and accessible – art form for boys. It’s part of their everyday (sometimes all day) experience. Not only is it OK to listen to music, it’s OK to make it too. And both these activities can straddle the public/private divide in different ways at different times. There are all sorts of ways to get involved in music. What proportion of boys dream of forming a band? Are those first guitar chords learned in private or public situations? Even the tinkering involved in making compilation tapes is creative. “Bedroom DJ-ing” tends to be a private activity, but the resultant compilation tapes are often made for public consumption.

“Music’s important to me. I buy records. I spend most of my money on records. I get sort of twice a week when they come in. It’s a really weird concept. It’s not buying albums and stuff. There’s just things that come out on vinyl, on 12 inch, just one song, on one side and one the other and they, you’ll never be able to get them on an album, or on a tape or anything. Eventually I’m going to get some record decks so I can mix them. That’s what I’m getting in April for my birthday.”

Perhaps music affords a safe area in which to learn an emotional language. They say that they talk about music with their mates. And when they talk to me about it in this emotional register it has a practised ring to it. The words come out easily, not stumbling as they do when they’re talking about other relationships.

“I’m really, really very passionate about music and it really does control my emotions and stuff. I’d say music was definitely my main escapism and my main interest and everything. I know a lot about it. I know a lot about music that I like. “

Phase Three

Having explored music in some or all of these ways, boys can then feel free to follow idiosyncratic interests.

“(My friends) are mostly into Britpop and stuff like that, which I can’t stand, but my Dad has got loads of jazz CDs and things, I don’t know, I suppose I started to listening to some of it and I really liked it.”

In any case, it’s all less crucial now. Stereotyping people on ‘us and them’ grounds is no longer important. As one sixth former told me:

“We all just sort of became the same … got the same interests. It’s odd like these people you never saw, they were just into totally different things to us, but now you see them at the same clubs, they like the same music, they wear the same clothes as us. I mean not they’re copying us, we just both jumped to the same thing, the same music, sort of things like that and it’s just weird now, ‘cos like we’ve become friendly with them, it’s quite good.”


The model suggested in this paper is one of process. It describes how boys move from the relative security experienced at the ages of 11 and 12, through the stresses and conflict of their early to mid-teens, and reach, via personal theorising, a more confident autonomy by their late teens and early twenties.

The nucleus of the model is the twofold notion of the early teens, where the individual is acutely aware of himself as he operates alone and within his chosen friendship groups. And the educational engine is located in the liminal space between the two contexts.

I’m not suggesting that the ‘right’ sort of twofold work can result in a balanced identity. But this model might be a useful way of thinking about apparent contradictions, and asking questions about male development. For example,



Elkind, D. (1984) All Grown Up and No Place to Go: teenagers in crisis (Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley)

Fisher, N. (1993) Boys About Boys: the facts, fears and fantasies (London: Pan)

MacLeod, M. & Barter, C. (1996) We Know It’s Tough To Talk: boys in need of help (London: Childline)



Barbara M Walker
Centre for Applied Research in Education
School of Education and Professional Development
University of East Anglia
Norwich NR4 7TJ
Tel: 01603 592636
Fax: 01603 451412


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