Gender on the court: Girls and boys in youth recreational basketball
Framed by the perspectives of symbolic interactionism and feminist theory, my dissertation examines kids' constructions of gender and athletic identities in a youth recreational basketball league. This project involved participant observation of two boys' and two girls' teams, grades fourth through eighth, over the course of a basketball season, as well as semi-structured interviews with individual players. A fundamental premise in my research is that children are agentic actors, constructing identities and making sense of situations in what can be complex, if not contradictory, environments. I examine the micro-level interactions of kids within the macro-context of institutional structures and cultural imagery, capturing the essence of both agency and constraint that shape the process of gender.
Specific questions emerged as significant and were used to frame the chapters of this dissertation. What types of gender ideals did kids confront in their everyday lives, and how well did these ideals fit with their participation in basketball? What happened when peers challenged kids' presentations of gendered and athletic selves? How did kids go about constructing gender differences, and what impact did these difference have on status and gender relations? What were the rewards and potential costs of kids' continued preference to play on gender-segregated teams? Was the league moving towards the more inclusive, egalitarian environment, or were players simply engaged in a more complicated, round-about construction of the same types of gender asymmetries?
Within the league, gender was quite salient and intimately linked with the production of athletic identities and status. Ideals of gender equality, which reflected the dominate egalitarian discourse of the community, confronted kids' lived experiences of inequality, leading to an ongoing and unresolved tension between the two. Despite evidence of ideals of gender equality, a growing presence of girls in the league, and behavioral challenges to stereotypical ideas about girls and boys, a gender hierarchy that positions some boys in a superior position to other boys and all girls remained entrenched in the basketball league. In “doing gender” (West and Zimmerman, 1987), gender differences were actively constructed and served as the basis for the distribution of reward and status.