Impressive study of a complex and sensitive subject

Gunn Helene Engelsrud
The Western Norway University of Applied Sciences

Annica Caldeborg
Physical Contact in Physical Education: New perspectives and future directions
190 sidor, hft
Örebro: Örebo University 2021 (Örebro Studies in Sport Sciences)
ISBN 978-91-7529-387-5

General introduction

It is always a pleasure to be offered new perspectives on physical education (PE) and the opportunity to review a recent contribution to PE research. My first reaction, however, when I read the title, was to wonder why the author chose to use a word as “physical” in the title that has two different meanings (or does it?). This whetted my curiosity and guided my reading. What, then, did I discover? I must admit that I conduct my review from a selective perspective, which may not give full justice to the work.

As this is a doctoral thesis, I found, as expected, three well-written papers that have been published in reputable journals and one article that had been submitted and has now also been published. The author states (p. 17) that “the overall aim of the thesis has been to acquire more knowledge about physical contact between teachers and students in the school subject of PE” and to investigate it from various perspectives as set out below:

      • In Study I, the aim was to investigate physical contact between teachers and students in PE from a student perspective.
      • In Study II, the aim was to investigate how female students talk about physical contact between teachers and students in PE regarding heteronormativity.
      • In Study III, the aim was to investigate physical contact between teachers and students in PE from an immigrant student perspective.
      • In Study IV, the aim was to map the current literature (from 2000 to 2020) on physical contact in PE, sport coaching and preschool by means of a scoping review.

The thesis consists of an introductory chapter of 117 pages and these four papers. The chapter sections are unnumbered but are as follows: “Preface” (9-10), “List of studies” (11), “Introduction” (13-16), “Aim of the thesis”, (17-19), “The didactical context of the thesis” (21-24), “Background and previous research” (25-40), “Theory” (41-51), “Method” (53-75, Study I–IV), “Summary and result of the studies” (77-84), “Discussion and conclusion” (83-97), “Summary in Swedish” (99-102), and “References” (103-117).

The thematic background of the studies is the socio-political context of child abuse and the consequences of child protection issues and safety, that the author claims has changed, the questioning of the role of “physical touch” in PE, and suspicion of PE teachers with regard to touching students in PE as “natural”. PE teachers face a dilemma. Touch relates to a no-zone, “don’t touch” pedagogy, “the forbidden body”, and the avoidance of touch (also the case in sport coaching). Male teachers feel themselves under more suspicion than female teachers do.

PE teachers face a dilemma. Touch relates to a no-zone, “don’t touch” pedagogy, “the forbidden body”, and the avoidance of touch (also the case in sport coaching).

The author adopts a student perspective and draws on a selection of informants from upper secondary schools for Study I and Study II. She interviewed 18 Swedish students in Study I and Study II and 21 immigrant students in Study III. She utilises the didactical contract and theory from Michael Foucault and Judith Butler.

The literature overview refers to many perspectives and time-typical dilemmas in which touch or physical contact may occur for reasons that can be difficult to distinguish, such as abuse and care. However, Caldeborg’s empirical findings show that physical contact between teachers and students is not perceived as a major problem if the reason for it is clear (and I would add “good). They also show that teachers touched students in unexpected ways that students found unpleasant or odd (Study I and Study II). One of Caldeborg’s main points is that discussion of touch/physical contact in PE must be contextualised and understood in relation to didactical contracts instead of in terms of absolute no-touch zones and creating fear and suspicion over touching and being touched in encounters between teachers and students in PE.

Caldeborg also presents findings regarding young female student informants in which she uses the concept of heteronormativity: no further information is provided about the selection of female students and their own sexual orientation. Was it a premise of the interview that all the female students belong to the heteronormative paradigm? How did the researcher develop the questions, and did she consider the teacher as “male figure”? The premise that teaching in PE may be based on heteronormative discourse is well known. The question here is whether Caldeborg has helped to reproduce this perspective in this article. She also examines how students with an immigrant background express being used to negotiate norms, their experience of valuing both the context and purpose of teachers, and their general support of physical contact in PE.

Some critical points

First, back to the title, where the meanings of “physical” go unnoticed. I also wonder if the title would have been more illuminating if she had written “Young students’ perspective on how teachers in physical education use touch – a critical examination”. The age of the immigrant informants was between 16 and 22, and the other female informants were 18 to 19 years old, which indicate that the author speaks of specific age groups, rather than about PE in general.


I also wonder why the scoping review was conducted at the end and not at the beginning of the research process. The author writes that the background and previous research sections overlap with the scoping review, yet I view the structure slightly backwards and question why the review was not carried out at the start, where it would have supported the reading. It takes time for the reader to orient themselves to the knowledge fields in which the thesis is situated and to grasp its perspective and positioning. As previously stated, as a reader I was already questioning in the introduction (p. 13) how the author was positioning herself conceptually: was this a thesis on how students experience and talk about physical contact in human communication between teacher and students in PE as an educational context? Did the author regard physical contact as being used as “a tool” and “touch” and “physical touch” as synonymous? Did the author regard touch as being the same as “physical contact”? What is “the research field of international touch”? Might PE teachers misuse touch, using it for reasons other than to support and guide the learning process and to care for their students? To start with, the author should have clarified the phenomena of “touch” (touching and being touched)”, “physical contact” and “bodily contact” (which are used in the literature) and sought to operationalise these concepts before conducting empirical research based on individual interviews, focus group interviews, and photo elicitation. This lack of clarity from the beginning makes me questions what is the most important knowledge and theory to build on. Is it the socio-political context of child protection issues and safety? Or is it the need for children to be supported and guided in movement learning, to be given a warm guiding touch and to feel safe in their own bodies? The author takes as her starting point a dilemma and change that have stigmatised touch and related it to the no-zone, “don’t touch” pedagogy, the forbidden body, and avoidance of touch (also the case in sports coaching).

I wonder if these perspectives were included in the interview guide, as the reader is never given information about how the theoretically informed positions of the author (and the co-authors) influenced the questions in the interviews and what the researcher(s) thought of what the influences are on a “student perspective” today. Are students likely to know about didactic contracts and discursive perspectives or where “they come from”? I also felt there was a need for more contextualisation of youth and youth culture and how the author has situated herself (as a woman) within the project.


The thesis is impressive, and its scope of the literature is broad. Those who take the time to read it will enrich their knowledge regarding the dilemmas surrounding the “use” of touch in PE. The thesis will encourage them to reflect on the dynamics and contracts that relate to this subject. My critical comments notwithstanding, the thesis is recommended and makes a rich contribution to the PE field of knowledge.

Copyright © Gunn Helene Engelsrud

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