Mark McCormack interviewed by Dean Beck & Lauren Rosewarne

I finished high school in 1999. Homophobia was rife, and being gay I took it all personally.  In first year uni I came out as gay, and went back to my old school to coach Year 9 debaters.  Now, 14-15yo teenage boys are pretty awful.  But they quickly figured out my sexuality — the Onion headline ‘Newly Out Gay Man Overdoes It’ could have been written about me — and the gay jokes ceased.  Every now and again they’d slip up, blush and say ‘Sorry’.  Gay was no longer some abstract anti-ideal; it had been personalised.

I wouldn’t say that simply realising they knew someone gay caused their anti-gay attitudes to evaporate overnight.  Some of them weren’t specifically anti-gay themselves, but used anti-gay language to manage the hard and soft aspects of teenage masculinity.  For a closeted kid hearing those remarks, their impact wasn’t lessened by that distinction; it doesn’t matter what individuals intend when they participate in a culture of prejudice.

Some would have held real anti-gay beliefs but stopped expressing them, because of countervailing norms against being rude/mean, or fear of my sharp tongue.  Finally, putting my name and face to ‘gay’ might have challenged or strengthened beliefs for or against anti-gay attitudes and positions; my spikey fuck-you faggotry was for me an act of reclamation, defiant of my own homophobia, but it could equally have reinforced the stereotype underpinning theirs.

So it’s not a simple story.  ‘Personal contact’ didn’t ‘produce acceptance’.  I know what happened in the classroom interaction, and I know it was better for me, and any other closeted gay kids, or straight kids rocking ‘soft’ masculinities.  Those are real outcomes, notwithstanding the impossibility of knowing exactly what produced them.  Sure, I can speculate about what was going on, and so can you, reading this piece.

But before you reply saying “What’s really going on is…”, I’d like you to stop and think. For two reasons:

  1. Enquiry.  There are lots of different ways we could try and establish what produced the change in behaviour.  We could do a focus group asking the kids to tell us.  We could do a cohort study with repeated interviews or questionnaires.  We could take a cross-sectional survey and extrapolate from its results.  We could transcribe the classes and perform textual analysis on the transcripts.  But we didn’t do any of those things.
  2. Your experience might suggest different things because your experience is different.  Instead of disputing my interpretation of mine, how about sharing yours?  If it suggests a distinction or dimension I haven’t considered, I can use that to reflect anew, so the outcome is the same, and our pool of data gets that much bigger.  This is why good educators tell their stories and newly-minted grad students can’t convince anyone of anything.

  3. Epistemology.  When you say “What’s really going on”, you’re invoking a principle for deciding what counts as real.  Just looking at the story I tell in my introduction, we could disagree about how to decide what’s really going on — whether the boys’ attitudes were about their own gender or the sexuality of others;  whether the attitudes were conscious or unconscious;  whether their negativity was abstract or specifically targeted;  whether they realised they were hurting others;  whether the boys were homophobic or their shared culture was;  whether it’s intentions, or the nature of the expressive act, or its effect on gay kids, that matters. Every principle for deciding what’s real implies other perspectives are not real.
  4. Many people follow criminal and anti-discrimination law in their thinking on prejudice.  They divide the situation up into victim/perpetrator, and believe the meaning of what happens to the victim (crime/not; discrimination/not) is determined by what’s in the head of the perpetrator at the time of his act.  In that single sentence, we’ve set up some powerful assumptions: we’re talking about individuals (rather than culture/institutions); we’re making a zero sum decision (only one perspective can be true); we’re assigning blame (instead of acknowledging both parties may be constrained and injured by a culture of prejudice).

Different methodologies embed different kinds of epistemology.  Methods that involve assigning things to categories and counting them necessarily involve decisions about what’s really what.  Our accuracy in making these decisions is only going to be as good as the questions we ask.  There’s a heap of research out there that is worse than useless, because the authors neglected to ask about some distinction or dimension that matters, and got a publication and press coverage out of it — reproducing an oversimplified concept of the problem.

The antidote to this problem can be found in methods that practice description before decision-making, like ethnography and grounded theory.  The point is not to categorise and count, but to develop a rich description of a situation, identifying all the distinctions and dimensions that matter. 

A good PhD undertaken in this mode might only talk to 20-30 people, compared to the hundreds or thousands of questionnaire responses a social psychologist might seek, but our qualitative researcher might end up transcribing over a million words.  The point is not to measure the probability of agreement on some issue, but to describe how and why perspectives and experiences of it differ.

Dr Mark McCormark from Brunel University has just published a book titled The Declining Significance of Homophobia: How Teenage Boys are Redefining Masculinity and Heterosexuality (OUP, 2012).  It’s based on his PhD thesis, in which he undertook an ethnographic study of masculinity and homophobia among male students aged 16-18 at three schools in the United Kingdom.  He’s making a pretty big claim — that homophobia has disappeared from the modern teenage schoolyard culture of masculinity in the UK.  You can listen to an excellent interview (mp3) he gave to Dean Beck and Lauren Rosewarne on JOY949 and view a transcript of my live tweets from it.

I have been struck by the number of people saying “I had a really different experience at school 15 years ago so I don’t believe this can be true,” or “The Writing Themselves In study would suggest otherwise.”  But McCormack isn’t doing a comparative study of 15 years ago and now, or Australia and the United Kingdom.  And there’s a huge problem taking up cudgels based on little more than a press release; that’s formally equivalent to the denial of climate change.

Although ethnography isn’t normally well-suited to proving probabilistic claims, when something so intense and ubiquitous 15 years ago is no longer apparent to a sensitive observer in 2012, it’s reasonable to argue that some big shift has occurred.

And listening to Mark talking with Dean and Lauren, he was drawing on some pretty subtle distinctions in his analysis of the situation.  That’s a real strength in this kind of research — it’s that sensitivity to complexity and multidimensionality that makes it useful and credible.  Now that the claim has been made and furious discussion provoked, there will no doubt be follow-up research using more quantitative methods. The best quantitative researchers don’t sneer at qualitative research or critical theory; they use it to develop their conceptual and dimensional vocabulary.