Meaning and identity in boxing: Intersections of race, ethnicity, gender, class, and age

Date of Completion

January 1997


Anthropology, Cultural|Education, Physical|Sociology, Ethnic and Racial Studies




Boxing is perhaps the most widely known sport in the world. Boxing is also a practice in which social meanings and social identities interact to reflect and constitute society and the individual. The few previous social scientific studies that have studied boxing (Weinberg and Arond, 1969; Hare, 1973; Sugden, 1987; and Wacquant, 1992) have relied on monolithic notions of the meaning of "boxing" as primitive (Sammons, 1988) and violent (Davis, 1992), and the identity of the "boxer" as a young, African-American male from an urban area. The problem is that human realities are complex, multiple, and dynamic (Lincoln and Guba, 1985), and not reducible to static, monolithic wholes of "boxing" and the "boxer." Therefore, this study was guided by the following questions: (1) What is the relationship between the social identities and the social meanings related to boxing? (2) How and by whom are the dominant meanings of boxing reproduced and resisted? and (3) How do boxers reproduce and resist dominant social identities associated with race, ethnicity, class, gender, and age?^ This study was an ethnographic study using qualitative and quantitative techniques. The setting for this study was a New York City boxing gym noted for its large and diverse membership. Data collection techniques included participation, observation, and interviews. The study employed an emergent purposive sampling design (Lincoln and Guba, 1985), recruiting subjects across categories of race, ethnicity, gender, age, and competitive level.^ Based on the results of this study, I argue that the normative discourse of boxing as a competitive sport for urban youth is incomplete and inaccurate; and that hegemonic masculinism and hegemonic racism largely explain the persistence of a sport-centered discourse of boxing that perpetuates White male privilege. However, the practice of boxing by subjects in this study often resisted sexist, racist, and ageist discourses, notably in the participation of competitive women boxers, the "play" model of boxing, the partnership ethos of sparring in boxing, and competitive older boxers. In conclusion, I discuss boxing's subordinated discourses and practices as potential alternatives to the dominant discourses and practices of American sports. ^