Communication and Identities in Institutional Arenas - Part I/Jonsson, Rickard (2007) Blatte betyder kompis: Om maskulinitet och språk i en högstadieskola

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Summary and some reflections

This somewhat unconventional PhD thesis from 2007 raises important issues concerning young peoples’ languaging and categorizations. As many of the issues in and around the research presented in this thesis were discussed during the seminar with Rickard Jonsson, these reflections will touch upon a limited number of themes.

As stated in the text, the purpose of Jonsson’s study was twofold: 1) to study how some boys use language as a tool in portraying masculinity, how the stereotype “immigrant guy” emerges in mundane communication at school – and to see what kind of meaning this category is filled with. 2) to study what the boys cannot or are not allowed to say or do – i.e. the forbidden language in their daily lives, and how that unsaid and forbidden is a part of the construction of masculine identities.

As I see it, “Blatte…” is located somewhere in the intersection of sociolinguistic, ethnographic and youth studies and carries thus certain similarities with my ongoing research.

The book is based on an extensive ethnographic fieldwork (with the usage of fieldnotes and audio recordings as a specific method) among a group of boys with mostly immigrant backgrounds in grade 8. Jonsson claims also having been inspired by ethnometodology and its focus on members’ usage of their communicative resources in interaction. Apart from own empirical data, Jonsson refers to and relates phenomena within the surrounding society (as reflected by public debates) to his material. This interconnectivity of micro and macro perspectives increases both depth and creditability to analyses in the book.

To me, Jonsson’s contribution is inspiring in many senses. First and foremost, it represents in many ways a classic ethnographic work of an ethnographer who has aspired to really learn about the lives of the people he studies. During the seminar, many methodological features were discussed, but also some ethically interesting issues were raised. Within ethnography, the role of ethnographer has sometimes been considered problematic, which perhaps is the reason why Jonsson puts considerable effort (as seen in both the thesis and the seminar) in discussing his role during the fieldwork and in relation to the field, as well as in data interpretation.

Many of the examples presented in the thesis could be considered rather controversial. Jonsson refers to the boys’ discussions on sexual escapades, criticism of homosexuality, racist/segregated discourses, insults (or verbal battles), all portraying the emergent masculinity as well as the subjectivity of “immigrant boys”. The purpose has been, however, to see beyond stereotypes and consider the ways of interacting from the subjects’ point of view. Talk is seen as performing.

The most important themes Jonsson’s text raises have to do with the following (my interpretations):

  • Authenticity – “the rule of being true about oneself”, (p.64); there is a distinction between being natural or acting/trying to be someone that one isn’t. In one of the examples the authenticity of being either “Swedish” or “immigrant” is reflected in the ways of wearing clothes. Authenticity is important as it can also quarantee access to other communities, despite the fact that one has originally not been a part of that community.
  • Heterosexuality – homosexuality; these two are seen as strictly separate, and heterosexuality is portrayed in the boys’ communication as the norm (p. 140, also a part of portraying certain type of masculinity). “Gay talk” (p.175, 203) is, however, constantly present in the boys’ lives. From my point of view, it is interesting to consider the adolescence as a period in life when gendered identities are often highlighted.
  • Language as a reflection of the community one belongs to, but also as a means of creating oneself. This relates to the second aim of the entire study; to study the things one is not allowed or cannot say – as language is about access, belonging and constructing, it also has the ability to create boundaries. Referring to Judith Butler (as seen during the seminar), Jonsson claims that who we are is created in and emerges through communication (p.134).
  • In the final part of the book, Jonsson discusses the above-mentioned phenomena in depth and relates them to previous theories, for instance that of performativity. A point of departure for the book (and the study) is that language does something, he writes (256). Therefore it is also important to focus on what is done through language by not saying certain things.