'We are the selfie generation!': An ethnographic study of contemporary bodily culture within a Scottish school and physical education context

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


Schools are rich and intense social environments where young people constantly interact with one another, negotiate social relationships and construct their identities. The school context also influences how young people experience and relate to their bodies. Physical education can be especially influential here – an environment where young people learn about the body and through the body within a highly visible setting. Research has investigated how bodily meanings and power relations are constructed within schools and physical education but these processes are ever evolving. For example, the ingraining of online social interaction within young people’s lives currently adds new dimensions to how young people learn, interact and perceive themselves and their bodies. This thesis presents findings from a year-long ethnographic study located within a Scottish secondary school. Participant observation and qualitative interviews were used to explain the contemporary bodily culture amongst young people and to investigate how engagements with online social spaces were shaping young people’s bodily perceptions and practices. Findings evidenced three overarching tenets of informal pupil culture. These were: the centrality and importance of the body within social life; the omnipresence of online social spaces and online social interaction; and the development of a celebrity-esque culture amongst the pupil population. Accordingly, pupils constructed and negotiated hyper-risky social environments where the body and the self were hyper-visible, hyper-scrutinised and hyper-controlled. Working within a critical realist framework, theoretical insights from Erving Goffman, Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu were utilised to suggest that the online environment represented a very important and attractive medium for identity construction where young people had opportunities, and felt pressure, to create idealised images of themselves. Online self-presentation also had offline implications for how pupils behaved, viewed themselves and for how they perceived and treated others. Physical education therefore became an especially risky social space as it was characterised by a lack of control over bodily identity, which juxtaposed sharply with the intense control over self-presentation afforded online. The online realm was also a highly influential context for learning about health and the body and a space where looking ‘healthy’ was very fashionable. Accordingly, this thesis suggests that socially safe and critical environments should be constructed in physical education. The thesis also concludes by arguing that physical education has unique potential to contribute positively to young people’s lives through practical, experiential learning. Physical education can foster and create a refreshing culture, contrasting and challenging superficial dimensions of contemporary bodily culture. It can become a space that diminishes the significance of outward experiences: a space where young people positively experience their bodies and the world around them; where they can reflect and marvel upon such experiences; and learn to respect their own and each other’s bodies in a very intrinsic and deep sense.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2016


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