Making the Magic Circle: Gendering Youth Violence Through Interaction, Opportunity, and Cultural Milieu

L. Susan Williams, Kansas State University

George Venn, in his book Marking the Magic Circle (1987), commands attention to the importance of space: "Space is organized around a scaral center...through every human being, unique space, intimate space, opens up to the world" (3; 15). Space is also gendered; that is, social structures, including the institutions and interaction that dwell therein, are organized around various constructions of masculinities and feminities. This study examines the gendered nature of youth violence within various spatial contexts: three high schools, each of which exhibits distinct characteristics based on opportunity structure (e.g., economic didsadvantage), cultural milieu (reflecting local values), and interaction styles. Each of the components--interaction, opportunity, and cultural milieu--are based in part on local gender arrangements. For example, students construct relationships somewhat differently in a small school than in a large urban school, and rural and urban communities define violence and weapons use differently. Using survey, interview, and observation data from a study of three high schools int he Midwest, this paper reports three primary findings about the gendered nature of violence and contextual influences. First, violence itself is gendered. By gendered violence, I mean harmful acts or structural arrangements that are organized around or depend upon socially constructed masculinities and femininities. Weaps use, for instance, is a particularly strong muasculine marker. Secondm violence is a resource for "doing masculinity," and youths may seek power through doing violence (such as fighting). Finally, the relationship between gender and violence varies within various school contexts, depending upon a variety of social influences including conventional gender attitudes. For example, the relationship between gighting and gender attitudes caries from school to school.

This study depends on a gendered theory of violence that also incorporates structural dimensions of a locl gender regime. Doing violence is gendered, but in ways specific to local customs. Especially in the rural context, fewer differences appear between girls and boys in how gender influences violence. Opportunity is also important: The normative presence of weapons, which is a particularly masculine marker, is one of the strongest predictors of individual instances of violence. And local cultural milieu remains significant, as the relationship between doing gender/doing violence and the context within which it takes place is unique from place to place. In addition, the cultural milieu of a particular gender regime--here measured in part by gender traditional attitudes--influences the extent to which boys will fight, irrespective of the school context. Of course, the pulling apart into separate spheres is somewhat artificial; in essence, the three components are interactive parts of a dynamic social system.

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Updated 05/20/2006