chapter  1
26 Pages

Theorizing difference and (in)equality in physical education, youth sport and health


On a daily basis we are bombarded with messages and stories about difference and inequality. A TV news report highlights increased levels of poverty endured by people living in an unfamiliar, third world country; a radio interview on International Women’s Day features the continuing pay gap between women’s and men’s salaries; a national billboard campaign urges us to rethink our views and prejudices towards disabled people in society; or an article in a local newspaper reports on the rise in unemployment for immigrant young men. Differences and inequalities are felt locally and globally; they are all around us, although we may not always be aware of them. This chapter is about difference and inequality and specifically why they matter for understanding young people’s experiences of physical education (PE), youth sport and health. As teachers, coaches or others working with young people, we are involved in hundreds of decisions and interactions, some made on a momentby-moment basis, that will determine who gets made to feel different, who learns and experiences success and, conversely, those who don’t. Whilst everyone should have an equal right to achieve educational or sporting merits, or to be healthy, the reality we know is somewhat different. Think about some of the young people with whom you have worked and

reflect upon how you relate to them in ‘different’ ways. Are they, for example, like James? He is growing up in an urban, working-class suburb, has a dualheritage background, and lives with his mum and two older brothers. James loves playing one-on-one basketball and has even constructed an improvised basketball net onto a nearby telegraph pole so he can play with his friends. Or do you perhaps more easily recognize Anna? She has used a wheelchair since an early age and lives with both parents in a wealthy, rural green-belt area. After being collected from school by her mum, she is often ferried to an assortment of clubs and activities. Or does Matt remind you of a young person you’ve known? He lives in a working-class part of a large city with his dad and three sisters. For them, space is tight; they only have two bedrooms and Matt sleeps in the lounge. When Matt’s dad is at work he often has to look after his sisters. Even though these three young people have different

kinds of lives, this shouldn’t matter to their learning and everyday experiences of PE and sport. Young people like James, Anna and Matt live in an increasingly differ-

entiated world, where socio-economic, and other inequalities associated with disability, gender, ethnicity or religion, structure their experiences. In democratic societies, education and sports systems have developed with the political goal of seeking to contribute to a more equal distribution of wealth and knowledge. Specific policies abound seeking to promote equality, drawing on well-known mottoes such as ‘Sport for All’. More recently, the discourse has turned to ‘inclusion’ and ‘inclusive education’, reflected, for example, in the Every Child Matters agenda in the UK and No Child Left Behind in the USA. However, whilst there is much talk of inclusion in policy and practice, how much actual change is there? Armstrong and Barton (2007: 5) contend that much of the discourse has become ‘an empty signifier’ – there may be a lot of talk, but with little change in practice. After all, how often do we actually reflect on what inclusion in youth sport or education means? How do we include James, Anna, Matt and all the other pupils in PE when we know that their social backgrounds and health behaviours can be so diverse? Is it possible to counteract such differences? This book aims to shake up the ‘taken-for-grantedness’ of this policy rhetoric, and help you to see the complexities behind the realities of striving towards providing positive educational experiences in PE, sport and health, irrespective of social and cultural background. In this first chapter, we map how difference and inequality can be under-

stood by drawing upon social theory in general and, more specifically, social research in the field of PE, youth sport and health, and we explore the implications of these understandings for practice. In doing so, we aim to show how social theory is useful to our everyday practices working with young people, rather than something abstract or merely something that researchers do in their dusty, university offices! In focusing on social theory, we are not forgetting that differences have also been the focus of bio-behavioural scientific theories too; for example, physiologists explain differences in men’s and women’s 100-metres times as a result of differences in males’ and females’ physiological makeup. However, in this chapter, we are concerned with social thought, and specifically the relationships between differences and inequalities. Some time ago, Willis (1974: 3) questioned ‘Why is it that some differences and not others, are taken as so important, become so exaggerated, [and] are used to buttress social attitudes or prejudice?’ Willis was talking here about sex/gender difference in sport, and how the very small, physiological differences between men’s and women’s bodies have, nevertheless, been used to support discriminatory practices against women. However, ethnicity, sexuality, disability, age and religion are other categories of identity that can also result in individuals being treated inequitably. We are particularly interested in this chapter in embodied difference –

the ways in which individuals and groups get constituted and constructed

as different, and unequal, on the basis of their bodies; how particular bodies become valued and celebrated, whilst others are marginalized or ignored, and how these inequalities are taken up and reproduced in everyday and institutional practices. As a teacher, sports coach or health personnel (and as researchers too), we have a professional responsibility to work positively with difference, to celebrate difference and promote positive learning environments that enable all young people to learn, to develop skills and to flourish. Yet, in practice, this is far from easy. Whilst many PE teachers claim that their main priority is for their students to have fun, which we can assume they see as a prerequisite for good learning (see Dismore and Bailey 2010; Green 2000), research shows that, for a good many children, they fail in this quest. For these young people, physical activity becomes something to be avoided rather than embraced, with many looking back negatively on their time in school PE (Beltrán-Carrillo et al. 2010; Ennis 1996; Sykes 2010). As Evans and his colleagues note:

the most that many [young people] … learn is that they have neither the ability, status nor value, and that the most judicious course of action to be taken in protection of their fragile educational physical identities is to adopt a plague-like avoidance of its damaging activities.