Underground and fringe cultures are the focus of much of Dr. Michael Atkinson's research. Assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at Memorial, his work is intriguing and varied, and generally related to social deviance. He delineates three main areas of current interest: social deviance as it relates to body issues, men's cosmetic surgery, and voluntary self-maiming.
Dr. Atkinson's PhD dissertation, completed at the University of Calgary in 2001, concerned contemporary tattooing forms and practices in Canada. His fieldwork led him to extensive participant observation as well as numerous interviews with tattoo enthusiasts. His research will be published in a forthcoming book, Tattooed: The Sociogenesis of a Body Art (University of Toronto Press).
The book looks at the social evolution of the tattoo as a symbol of difference, focusing on its shift as a symbol of the `outsider,' to becoming a culturally mainstream form of interpersonal difference."
Conducting his research in tattoo parlours, Dr. Atkinson was introduced to the sub-culture of self-maiming and body modification, such as burning or nailing body parts, castration, and other forms of self-mutilation. While conventional psychological wisdom indicates that people involved in such practices typically exhibit pathological or other psychologically deviant traits, Dr. Atkinson found that most people he met who engaged in these practices were, in fact, pro-social people.
"These people were making statements about cultural ideas of pain, tolerance, the physical aspects of humanity. For the most part, they felt they were making social commentary."
Dr. Atkinson plans to pursue his research on this topic from that particular sociological perspective.
Research into sub-cultures has also led to work in the realm of "Straightedge," a form of the punk movement that eschews typical excessive consumptive punk-related behaviour. Kids in the Straightedge movement reject alcohol, premarital sex and drugs, thereby turning this philosophy into what Dr. Atkinson refers to as an "orienting lifestyle."
The flip side of Dr. Atkinson's research coin is his work in the area of sport; more specifically, the social construction of criminal behaviour in sport, as well as post-injury body image of female athletes. Both topics relate to the socialization of athletes, who may learn a different construction of normalcy through their involvement in sports.
Criminal behaviour in sport is any action that goes beyond sanctioned activity within the rules of the game. There tends to be a reluctance to define excessive player violence as criminal, and Dr. Atkinson is interested in examining why this behaviour is supported by the fans as well as player culture itself.
The other area of sport behaviour Dr. Atkinson is currently researching relates to how female athletes respond to their bodies after they have had serious injury or surgery. Thus far, he has found that, in a similar way to their male counterparts, these women treat their scars as a badge of honour, treating their bodies as tools, mechanisms to complete their goals. He has concluded that the socialization of athletes takes precedence over any gender differences that might otherwise prevail in terms of body image.
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