Breaking – that's me! Meaning, identity and gender constructions among young break(danc)ers living in Oslo.
In a rapidly changing world characterized by increased ethnic diversity, successful integration depends (among other factors) on social interaction among people. Hence, there is a need for cross-cultural meeting points. Breaking [breakdance] is historically linked to a black, urban street context and has evolved into a global phenomenon with adherents throughout the world. This dissertation investigates the meaning of breaking in the lives of young people living in Oslo, Norway. Considering breaking as a subculture and alternative sport, the dissertation may contribute to the understanding of young people's choices – their construction of meaning, identity and gender within this activity.
Theoretically, the study draws on symbolic interactionism to understand how young breakers in Oslo define their experiences and give meaning to their identities, behaviors, realities and social interactions. However, to address social structure and power, a gender perspective has been applied. As a social construction, gender is constantly reconstructed through social interaction, and the dissertation explores how gender influences the breakers' experiences and how breaking is a site for negotiating gender ideology and power relations.
Methodologically, the study uses a qualitative research strategy to create an in-depth understanding of the social practices of breaking. Empirically, the dissertation draws on ethnographic data generated through fieldwork and interviews. The fieldwork involved participant observation four days a week from August 2011 to March 2012. The fieldwork was followed by 17 qualitative interviews with 6 female and 11 male breakers, who reflected the observed diversity within the subculture of breaking.
The results of the dissertation have been presented through four articles. These are interconnected and constitute a whole as they explore the breakers’ construction of meaning, identity and gender.
Articles 1 and 2 draw mainly on symbolic interactionism. Article 1 highlights the breakers’ construction of an alternative breaker identity. The article reveals that successful integration into the subculture of breaking is dependent on impression management according to the subculture’s characteristics. Through deliberate impression management, subcultural boundaries were created through a style that constituted the breakers’ collective group identity. Accordingly, the breakers constructed an alternative breaker identity detached from other social categories and created a sense of belonging to a wider breaker community.
Article 2 discusses the breakers’ meaning constructions. The results show that the breakers had made a deliberate choice to start breaking. The article highlights that the meaning of breaking arises through the breakers’ ongoing social interaction and that the symbolic value of breaking was created through a demand for involvement. Accordingly, the breakers developed a sense of affiliation to a group that not only supported them but also challenged them to make their contribution to breaking. By defining breaking as an artistic dance, differences were celebrated and the meaning of breaking was constructed around the feeling of freedom to “just be yourselves.”
Articles 3 and 4 have mainly a gender perspective. Article 3 explores how young people involved in breaking contribute to the doing, redoing and undoing of gender. The negotiation of gender is highlighted through the female breakers’ experiences in a male-dominated culture. Within the subculture of breaking, the perception of gender served as a frame for female breakers’ actions and re-actions. The article emphasizes how the female breakers constantly challenged the perceptions of doing gender, and how breaking holds the capacity to redo and undo gender.
Article 4 draws on R. Connell’s (2005) conceptualization of masculinities and explores how masculinity is exhibited among young male breakers – how this is formed, performed and (re)negotiated through breaking. The article highlights how the breakers’ masculinity constructions are influenced by breaking’s history, and how this can be interpreted as a protest masculinity, challenging the hegemonic masculinity in the societal gender order.
Even though the dissertation focuses on the everyday practices of breaking at a local level, the results underline the breakers’ sense of belonging not only to a Norwegian breaking community (regional level), but also to a wider global breaker community. The dissertation concludes that the meaning of breaking is constantly reconstructed through the breakers’ social interaction. The results highlight that young people’s cultivation of freedom and differences are framed by the prevailing definition of the situation within the subculture of breaking. This collective awareness influences the breakers’ construction of meaning, identity and gender.
The study reveals how gender as a social structure influences the breakers’ social interaction and meaning constructions. Gender is constantly renegotiated in the breakers’ social interaction, and the results show that breaking seems to have a transformational potential regarding gender. Furthermore, among the breakers, ethnic diversity was regarded as a natural part of breaking and the results underline breaking as an alternative means of identification and acceptance for young people of diverse backgrounds. As the meaning of breaking was constructed around a sense of respect and recognition, the breakers communicated increased self-esteem and confidence, which were useful in contexts outside breaking.
The main finding of this dissertation is that the meaning of breaking arises through the breakers ongoing social interaction in a gendered and multicultural youth culture. The meaning of breaking is connected to a sense of belonging to a local and global subculture and constructing an alternative identity across social differences. Within this framework the breakers expresses the feeling of freedom to "just be themselves." In sum, the results of the study show that breaking is a meeting point across social and cultural borders, and that the meaning of breaking was constructed around a sense of "belonging" and empowerment.