Barrie Thorne, “Borderwork,” and the Social Space of Schools

If someone had told me that the way to pick a research project was to scan my bookshelf, find my absolute favorite studies, and figure out what they have in common, I’d have done a school ethnography. It was Barrie Thorne’s Gender Play (1993) that made me want to go to graduate school. I just learned that she retired and thought it might be a fitting time to talk about how much her work inspires me.

When sex role theory was the way to talk about gender, scholars and activists interested in discussing gender inequality focused on key socializing institutions (where “sex roles” and their associated expectations were thought to be primarily produced) like the family, education, religion, etc. I have always thought that school ethnographies emerged out of this period – though Parsonsstructural functionalism seems a distant memory to much of this research. Incidentally, Barrie Thorne was among the group of feminist scholars who collectively explained why sex role theory was and is inadequate as a theory.

[SIDE NOTE: Terms like “class roles” and “race roles” were never as popular as “sex roles.” Yet scholars dealing with race and class were certainly navigating similar concerns. Paul WillisLeaning to Labor (1977) is a prime example, illustrating how working-class youth are making a choice to enter working-class jobs. But it’s a choice that is structured by much more than their individual desires.]

Lately, I’ve gone back through a number of my favorite school ethnographies to read more about how scholars discuss the role of space in the structuring of children’s experiences of school, the perpetuation of inequality within schools, and the fostering of performances of self at school.

Barrie Thorne was centrally concerned with these questions in her research for Gender Play. It wasn’t just that girls and boys are subtly influenced to work and play in gender-segregated groups; Thorne wanted to know how this happened, and (important for our considerations here) where this happened and where it failed to happen.

Emphasizing only the prevalence of ‘segregation’ does little to illuminate an underlying question: What makes girls and boys more likely to separate or to choose to be together? Comparing kids’ gender relations in different contexts–in schools and in neighborhoods, and across varied school settings such as classrooms, playgrounds, and lunchrooms–can help answer that question. (1993: 49)

Thorne spoke with many children who played with both boys and girls outside of school, but participated in gender segregated school playground play. Thorne argued that the organizational features of schools themselves were capable of reinforcing and/or undermining social segregation and larger patterns of inequality.

The authority structure in schools plays a role in encouraging/discouraging and reproducing/challenging these interactions as well. Gender segregating students for classroom activities into “the boys vs. the girls” exercises is one way that teachers reinforce understandings of gender difference. It’s also true that adults’ reactions to children’s play is a key ingredient of the reproduction of gender performances. Thorne coined a concept–“borderwork”–that I use in almost everything I write and that has utility for understandings of race, sexuality, class, and more. Borderwork describes the following:

When gender boundaries are activated, the loose aggregation ‘boys and girls’ consolidates into ‘the boys’ and ‘the girls’ as separate and reified groups. In the process, categories of identity that on other occasions have minimal relevance for interaction because the basis of separate collectivities… These stylized moments evoke recurring themes that are deeply rooted in our cultural conceptions of gender, and they suppress awareness of patterns that contradict and qualify them. (1993: 65-66)

Though it is adults who set up social spaces within which children are watched over and play, when children engage in gendered play in ways that epitomize adult expectations, adults participate in borderwork as well. This is a common occurrence surrounding children’s participation in sports, but it also occurs in classrooms, on playgrounds, in workplaces, and more. There are various ways that children (like adults) learn to treat each other differently in different social contexts, but when we allow the moments when boys and girls appear the most different to cast too deep a shadow over the more plentiful moments when they appear the same, we forget that they interact in social spaces designed to highlight these differences.

Their interactions do not take place in a cultural vacuums. Rather, they play in worlds of our choosing, and the social settings in which they play exert pressure over the types of play in which they engage and how both we and they make sense of it. Social spaces made and used by adults are no different. They are designed with certain kinds of interactions in mind, to be used by certain people, for specific reasons, etc. The spaces within which we interact are a fundamental aspect of the activities that go on therein.

2 thoughts on “Barrie Thorne, “Borderwork,” and the Social Space of Schools

  1. thanks for doing this. Gender Play is one of my all time favorite books, too. I teach a graduate seminar in sex and gender, and the class readings gradually morph toward newer readings each year, but I still use this foundational book.

    • Thanks Mike. I actually received a really thoughtful email from Barrie saying that you had sent her the post. Thanks for that. She seems like as wonderful a person as she is a scholar.

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