Research Showcase: Sam Shields

Sam Shields is a Lecturer in the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences. Her book Working-class Female Students’ Experiences of Higher Education: Identities, Choices and Emotions (2021) is part of the Palgrave Studies in Gender and Education series.

The book is premised on the concept of gender as culturally-mediated understandings of femininity and masculinity and the concomitant roles and expectations associated with these. Twelve working-class women, six middle-class women and two working-class men were interviewed from three universities in the North of England. This research was prompted by a desire to understand what factors enabled working-class women to gain entry into university and in what ways this was a different experience to their middle-class counterparts and/or men. Teachers cite ‘feminine’ attributes of conscientiousness, hard-work and compliance for the educational success of young women. Furthermore, the debate on educational underachievement in young men has led to assumptions that all young women are academically successful. Yet this discourse is flawed, when socio-economic backgrounds are considered, working-class girls often underperform in the education system.

Neoliberal educational narratives tend to ignore the structural disadvantages of gender and social class. As individuals are involuntarily placed within society, they are structurally impacted by different sets of ‘enablements’ and ‘constraints’. ‘Internal conversation’ considers how individuals reflexively mediate between structure and agency and provides insights into how meaningful the ‘successful girl’ discourse is to women. Furthermore, gendered insights are offered through Archer’s concepts of ‘morphogenesis’ and ‘morphostasis’. Morphogenesis meaning transformation and change and morphostasis meaning the reproduction of existing structures.

The book illuminates the contextualising role socio-economic background can play in shaping gendered expectations of women being supporters of family or supported by family. The meaning-making of the working-class women undergraduates did not generally reflect the sense of competitive ambition and individualism that is often needed by neoliberal approaches to academic success and careers, which frequently necessitate geographical mobility and a readjustment in balancing the needs of family and friends. For many of the working-class women, the strength of familial bonds and locality-ties meant that educational or career aspirations would never supersede these priorities and commitments. This was a very different experience to the middle-class women undergraduates who were expected by their families to be geographical mobile and were supported in embarking on postgraduate qualifications to facilitate career aspirations. For the few working-class women in the study undertaking morphogenetic life-projects more akin to their middle-class counterparts, they undertook these against a backdrop of an increasing fracturing of their natal familial contexts.

Further Reading:

Archer, M.S. (2003) Structure, agency and the internal conversation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Al-deen, T. J. (2019) Agency in action: young Muslim women and negotiating higher education in Australia, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 40 (5), pp. 598-613

Baker, J. (2010) Great expectations and post-feminist accountability: young women living up to the ‘successful girls’ discourse, Gender and Education, 22 (1), pp: 1-15

Jones, S.  & Myhill, D. (2004) ‘Troublesome boys’ and ‘compliant girls’: gender identity and perceptions of achievement and underachievement, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 25 (5), pp. 547-561

Lips, H. M. (2019) Gender the basics, Abingdon: Routledge, 2nd ed.

Pinkett, M. & Roberts, M. (2019) Boys don’t try? Rethinking masculinity in schools, Abingdon: Routledge

Research Showcase: Jake Pointer

Jake Pointer is a PhD researcher in Sociology in the School of Geography, Politics and Sociology. His project concerns a sociological understanding of migrants working in the UK Industrial Meat Processing sector (IMP); specifically, abattoirs and cutting plants.

IMP is a migrant-dominated occupation in the UK, but it’s also male-dominated. One of the aims of the project is to understand why there are so many migrants in IMP, but another question raised whilst conducting the project was, why are there so many men in this sector? To answer this, the project utilises a combination of theory and interviews with meat workers, and the conclusions (thus far) are split into two sections: the physical and the emotional. Regarding the physical, IMP work demands the use of the body. Often tasks involve hard manual labour such as heavy lifting, cutting, skinning, de-boning, packing and, of course, killing, with physical competence being prized as a masculine ideal. This is true for other manual jobs such as building or factory work. Furthermore, IMP is often seen as undesirable by society, but the aspects that make it so are gendered. Meat work is dangerous; cuts and slips are common, with amputations and on-the-job deaths occasionally recorded. Dealing with raw flesh is seen as repugnant for many. These aspects can be framed through masculine ideals; pride in the ability to ‘stomach’ such work or to ‘man up’ and tackle dangerous tasks on the job.

The emotions in IMP are also gendered, with workplace norms dictating which are acceptable and unacceptable. Empathy, for example, may be regarded as a feminine emotion and is, therefore, inappropriate. The successful slaughterhouse worker deploys a stoic approach, detaching themselves from the morality of killing. Some scholars have noted discourses around ‘providing’ for the community almost like a hunter/gatherer, a sort of primitive breadwinner role. As with the hunter, the slaughterman cannot feel pity or remorse; the animals are merely a means to an end, like wood used to make furniture. This does not mean other emotions are not ‘appropriate’. Humour has been found in many IMP facilities, with jokes often aimed towards those who do not fit the desired masculine ideal, which helps to exclude outsiders. However, humour may facilitate pernicious forms of banter such as harassment. Whilst unpleasant, the successful receiving of harassment is often judged as a demonstration of toughness, almost a rite of passage. Men who can receive these will then be accepted into the workplace culture.

Migrants make up the majority of meat workers, but so do men. IMP work is both physically and emotionally embedded with traditional notions of masculinity; it’s physical, dangerous and needs a strong stomach, with these sacrifices being for the good of wider community. Whilst there is a slowly growing number of women in this sector, for the foreseeable future meat work will remain a ‘man’s job’.

Further Reading

Ackroyd, S. and Crowdy, P. A. (1990) ‘Can Culture be Managed? Working with “Raw” Material: The Case of the English Slaughtermen’ Personnel Review, vol. 19, no. 5, pp. 3-13. 

Hamilton, L. and McCabe, D. (2016) ‘‘It’s just a job’: Understanding Emotion Work, De-animalization and the Compartmentalization of Organized Animal Slaughter’ Organization, vol. 32, vol. 3, pp. 330-350.  

McLoughlin, E. (2018) ‘Knowing Cows: Transformative Mobilizations of Human and Non-human Bodies in an Emotionography of the Slaughterhouse’ Gender, Work and Organisation, vol. 26, no. 3, pp. 322-342.