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Since the 1960s sport sociology has been a growing and important subfield within sociology. Sport has a significant presence in the modern world that intersects with political, economic, social, cultural, international, national, and local structures and interests. As this brief overview details through its examination of these dynamic and complex relationships, sport sociologists have not established a dominant theoretical paradigm. Rather, they constructed a critical dialogue that has progressively drawn on a range of theories and concepts including: functionalism; Marxism and neo-Marxism; figurational sociology; cultural studies; feminism; postmodern and poststructural perspectives. The field continues to develop as it seeks to explain sport’s connections to contemporary issues such as globalization, technological change especially in regard to media technologies, climate change, and sustainable lifestyles.
- Sport and Modernity
- Sport – A Sociological Perspective
- The Institutional Analysis of Sport: The Functionalist Turn
- The Cultural Analysis of Sport: The Critical Turn
- Sport in the Twenty-First Century
Though the origins of sociological theories and concepts have a clear trajectory starting in the nineteenth century with the writings of Comte, Marx, Durkheim, and Weber, the intellectual history of sociology’s interest in sport has more recent origins. There is some debate as to how these seminal theorists viewed the relevance of sporting practices, however, it is reasonable to contend that sport and leisure practices had, by the late nineteenth century, become arenas of sociological interest in that they were established and significant parts of the private and public life. This awareness did not, however, produce any significant levels of analysis and it was not until the 1960s, that a substantive body of sociological theory and research into sport began to be produced. Today sport sociology is a highly prolific field of research and theory constituting a distinctive subdiscipline within sociology. The field is supported by a number of well-established academic bodies (British Sociology of Sport Association, North American Sociology of Sport Association) and peer-reviewed journals (e.g., The International Review for the Sociology of Sport; Sport and Social Issues; Sport, Education and Society; etc.) that are also associated with a wide range of annual and quad annual academic international conferences. Across a global span of universities, sport sociology is an essential component of sport science departments and their delivery of undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in sport.
Since the 1960s (Kenyon and Loy, 1965), sociological interest in sport has become extremely wide-ranging and has been informed by the transformative economic, social, cultural, and technological issues impacting the social world. Some of the most influential of these focus on: the impact of globalization and the cultural pervasiveness of competitive sport within everyday social life; the economic power of a globalized (but mostly North American and European) network of intersecting ‘sport industries’ and transnational corporations; sport’s interconnectedness to a growing consumer culture; the intersections between privatized sporting practices and contested power relations across and within a diversity of social groups (class, gender, sexuality, race/ethnicity, disability, age); sport and national identity.
Given this diversity of interests, it is hardly surprising that the field has sometimes been characterized by antagonistic and sometimes acrimonious exchanges between scholars (Giulianotti, 2004). Putting these ‘theory wars’ to one side, there are a number of concerns that broadly unite the field. One concern has been to analyze and comprehend the social linkages between sports institutional structures and social practices and modernity’s evolving institutional and cultural character. Another has been its interest in agency/power dynamics in that as Sugden and Tomlinson (2002: p. 9) note “power relations are social relations.”
Sport and Modernity
Social historians, such as Huizinga (1955), evidence the foundational connection between humanity’s universal ludic element and the historical development of human civilizations. For Huizinga (1955), the social and cultural characteristics of modernity progressively challenged the playful character of sport as irrational and unproductive and inserted a new rationalism – the dominance of economic and labor relations over all other forms of life. Modernity’s structural and ideological frameworks therefore had a powerful influence on modern sport’s codification and governance. In the nineteenth century this was particularly exemplified by Victorian Britain that was becoming ever more industrialized, capitalist, urbanized, bureaucratically organized, and internationally interconnected. The confluence of the global influence of the British Empire and its internal processes of modernization created many of the sports that today have a dominant global presence. These sports include, boxing, varieties of football sports (soccer, codes of rugby-football, American football), bat and ball games (cricket, baseball, and tennis), and a family of athletic activities located under the title of track and field.
Though powerful social stratifications based on class, gender, and race were always evident, the growing cultural significance of these sporting forms (allied to their use in educational settings) created a largely unquestioned process that established belief in the moral virtues and social benefits attainable from such sports (Craig and Mellor, 2010). Located in this realization, sociologists and historians began to analyze how the rationalized elements of modern sport were/are dialectically connected to modernity and how this distinguished it from manifestations of recreational play and games within previous historical epochs. Illuminated by these analyses, it was realized that sport was a highly significant and complex social and cultural construction existing in spheres of being that can be both: physical and abstract, competitive and playful, institutionalized and autonomous, commodified and part of the human commons. Founded on its codified, rationalized, and institutionalized constructions, modern sport’s tangible social reality became ever more open to empirical academic analysis. In locating aspects of these analyses within perspectives drawn from Marx, Weber, and latterly Giddens and Bourdieu, sport sociologists have also determined that these social constructions do not and cannot exist other than through their active and reflexive production and reproduction through people’s everyday actions. The powerful social bonds connecting fans, athletes, teams, and sporting localities routinely demonstrate that sport is rooted in the norms and obligations of social reciprocity and citizenship. The significance of sport therefore cannot be apprehended in the absence of a much broader understanding of the structure of the society as a whole (Bourdieu, 1986, 1988).
Sport – A Sociological Perspective
For the first half of the twentieth century, sport’s nineteenth century genesis meant that in most Western countries sports were run as independent bureaucratic social organizations that were predominantly viewed as having little or no direct connection to the broader processes of democratic organization, governance, and economic prosperity. Regarded mostly as a matter of personal choice and self-interest, sport received minimal interest within the academic sociology of the time. This changed through the latter part of the twentieth century when social, economic, and political transformations and crises drew sport into a sharper sociological focus. These included the postwar rise of the welfare state, civil rights and feminist movements, postcolonial nationalist movements, East–West Cold War ideological and political confrontations. Given its ubiquity, sport could not remain immune from the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. In the United States, manifestos such as the Athletic Revolution (Scott, 1971) and Edwards (1969), a critique of the racialized reality of many sports started to challenge the established consensus. In Europe and Canada, Jean-Marie Brohm (1978) and Rigauer (1981) lead a strong Marxist critique that identified sport as alienated and a bastion of capitalist class inequalities. In the UK, sport became located into social democratic ideas about the welfare state and was increasingly represented as a social right under the ‘Sport for All’ banner.
Drawing on these critical analyses the field has continued to produce an extensive and important body of social analysis that has its own distinctive genealogy. This genealogy is informed by a number of distinct approaches that parallel sociology’s complex and dynamic body of theoretical perspectives and epistemological approaches. Though the major perspectives which have influenced the field remain open to debate (Giulianotti, 2005; Jarvie, 2006), there is a fairly well-accepted consensus that emphasizes the significance of the following perspectives: functionalism; Marxism and neo-Marxism and cultural studies; interpretative approaches; figurational sociology; feminism, postmodernism, and globalization theories. Though the field is often reduced to these perspectives, it is important to state two caveats. While many of sport’s most influential theorists are associated with one perspective more than others, none has attained dominance within the field. This is even more apparent when distinctions are made between the epistemological traditions within different countries. Across university departments and academic journals there are distinct differences between the United States, Canada, the UK, and Europe. Moreover within much of the recent literature covering gender, race, sexuality, and sporting bodies, the boundaries between feminist, cultural studies, postmodern and poststructuralist analyses are often arbitrary and fluid, and many would argue that these separations are mostly habitualized academic conventions rather than an artifact of necessary epistemological or ontological coherence.
Given that numerous texts provide those interested in sport sociology with comprehensive discussions and critiques of these perspectives, it is not the intent of this article to provide yet another contribution to this already well-populated area. Instead, the intention is to highlight some of their most salient points within this work. The discussion is organized in three sections. The first reflects on sport’s institutional and functional characteristics. The second examines the impact of the critical cultural turn within sociology and specifically how sociology has regarded sport as a cultural product and a set of social practices reflective of dominant and subordinate power relations. The third briefly details some of the emergent themes that are starting to have a presence within sport sociology.
The Institutional Analysis of Sport: The Functionalist Turn
Theorists such as Durkheim, Parsons, and Merton influenced much of the initial sociological analysis of sport. In adopting this structural functionalist perspective, this work broadly accepted the premise that the social world could be understood as a system of integrated and interconnected working parts. This work was primarily empirical and focused on establishing ‘social facts’ and was primarily adopted by American sociologists (Loy et al., 1978). Their goal was to establish if there was empirical proof for popular assumptions regarding sport’s capacity to ‘function’ positively as a social institution and contribute to the Parsonian mandate to achieve necessary functional prerequisites. More specifically their interest was on how sport could integrate members of the society, provide an arena of positive goal setting and attainment of positive and character-building attributes, make a contribution to the health and well-being of the nation, create community, and foster national identity.
The results were by and large inconclusive (Fine, 1987). By the late 1970s, concerns regarding processes of socialization started to take a more critical turn as the linkages between participation in sport, class and gender inequality, racism, and other socially problematic behaviors (cheating, violence, sexual abuse, etc.) became matters of concern. Contemporary empirical research continues to provide insights into a number of issues: the changing institutional structure of globalized sport (Maguire, 1999); the increasing rapidity and impact of technological change on the world of elite sport performance; the use and regulation of performance enhancing drug use and nontherapeutic surgical body enhancements; and the contradictory representations of the ‘natural embodied athlete’ (Cole, 2002). The ongoing penetration of computer-mediated technologies to all aspects of modern (or indeed postmodern) life has created a growing interest in the study of how social media is transforming sport (Wilson, 2007); the impact of new forms of control, surveillance, and conformity; the power of networked sport (Sugden, 2002; Castells, 2009).
The Cultural Analysis of Sport: The Critical Turn
From the 1970s, sociological research on sport took a critical and ethnographic turn, documenting structural and cultural inequalities within sport, and challenging many of its popular ideological representations. In the UK, this was led by authors, such as Hargreaves (1986), and allied scholars influenced by the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies based in Birmingham and in North America by Gruneau (1988, 1999) and others associated with the Massachusetts School. These approaches collectively attempted to re-center the sociological study of sport within a neo-Marxist perspective that retained an overriding concern with capitalist political economy. The theoretical grounding of much of this and other subsequent work (Sugden and Tomlinson, 2002) drew on the work of Gramsci’s notion of hegemony. Analyzed through these more critical conceptual lenses, sports were no longer perceived as immutable and traditional entities but as contested social practices produced by athletes and organizers within the context of historically specific social constraints. Underpinned by the hegemony of bourgeois culture, modern sport became regarded as a powerful ideological tool naturalizing the celebration of competition and winning organized by the principles of capitalism (belief in the free market, commodification, Fordist managerialism, and division of labor). Although often hidden by its own institutionalized rhetoric, sport was recognized as a powerful ideological resource whose control was/is essential to the interests of dominant social groups. Also pivotal to this perspective was the idea of resistance. A counterpoint to sport’s relative autonomy was that it could be harnessed by subordinate groups to challenge dominant ideologies and structures. Over three decades of research by a substantive international group of sport sociologists has drawn on these perspectives to explore issues of class, gender, race/ethnicity, sexuality, and disability that detail how hegemony is open to contestation and that sport is a powerful social arena in which meaning is not only constructed, but challenged and reconstructed (Craig and Beedie, 2010).
Paralleling the development of cultural studies, Eric Dunning, a student of Norbert Elias cultivated a somewhat different cultural orientation. Dunning incorporated Elias’ grand theory of social development into a figurational approach to sport sociology (Elias and Dunning, 1986; Dunning, 1999). The figurational approach focuses attention on social processes and interdependencies that frame a diversity of issues ranging from hooliganism to athlete migrations and male bonding. The figurational approach distinguishes itself from the neo-Marxist and cultural studies perspectives through its comprehensive focus on social structures while taking into account a group processes such as emotions, class, gender and race distinctions, and communication patterns.
During the 1980s, feminist sport theorists such as Jennifer Hargreaves and Ann Hall incorporated aspects of the figurational approach with cultural studies and its emphasis on hegemony and resistance to move the analysis into the examination of gender relations within sport. The distinctive waves of feminist analysis (Hargreaves, 2004) have established a globally influential sociological field within which sport is theorized as a male preserve contributing to the oppression of women physically and sexually. Though this observation represents a fairly simplified summary, the wide-ranging and disparate analyses representing a feminist stance assert two notable principles: that sport offers women the potential for subverting male dominance by enabling women to experience their bodies as strong and powerful; that the dominant constructions of sport can be contested and restructured to align feminist social agendas.
Emerging from this feminist critique has been the necessity to construct a critical understanding of the physicality of sport. Most classical sociological theory either ignored or diminished the social significance of the body. Yet the empowerment and transformation of the body is at the heart of sport’s transformative potential. The synthesis of Foucault and feminist theory has enabled sport scholars to problematize the body and establish it as a site of control and domination through which power is exercised and enjoyed (Giulianotti, 2005). While bodies can be empowered through sport, they are also constrained, shaped, consumed, and act as a powerful ideological resource.
A significant development within cultural studies was the inclusion of a range of cultural factors and artifacts as essential to a critical analysis of the social meanings of sporting events. A growing literature offers critical readings of the mediated discourses surrounding sporting events (Whannell,.) and global sports stars such as Michael Jordan and David Beckham within an ever-present celebrity culture (Kellner, 1996; Cashmore, 2014; Smart, 2005). In its expose of the discursive meanings of sport and its analysis of how these narratives do ideological work reproducing and justifying depictions of meaning and presence (plus absence), this stillgrowing body of literature represents some of the most influential work within the general field. As Cashmore (2013) details, images of black athletes, even those purporting to offer positive images that are intended to subvert racist attitudes, still retain the potential to reinforce racial stereotypes associating black athletes with crime, drugs, and poverty. The same is also true for many of the normative images of women in sport, which consistently emphasize those athletes who are deemed to be marketable through their sexualized attractiveness and adherence to the norms of heterosexualized femininity while making invisible those who fail to fit this profile.
Partly informed by the feminist critique of sport, postmodern and poststructuralist perspectives started to have a significant influence on the study of sport from the late 1980s and 1990s. Some of the distinguishing features of these perspectives are their rejection of metatheoretical analyses and their ‘grand narratives’ (Lyotard, 1984) and their replacement by an emphasis on diversity and contingency. In relation to sport, it’s proponents (Rail, 1998) recognized the dominance of transient consumer culture and its use of images and spectacles to enculturate individuals and their search for identity into an endless cycle of (meaningless) consumption and illusion (Baudrillard, 1995). Through their use of yearly cycles of professionalized sport and quad annual sporting mega events such as the Olympics and World Cup (Roche, 2000), a dominant and pervasive media culture implodes sport into realms of hyperreality, mass entertainment, commodification, and passive consumption (rather than active participation). At the pinnacle of these processes are the lifestyles and images of celebrity athletes albeit that these lives are often illusionary and fundamentally disconnected from the lives and everyday reality of their adoring fans. Although its analytic presence has now diminished, the principal value of the postmodern and poststructuralist stances was their questioning of the authority of sport sociology’s more structuralist and realist approaches.
Although it has retained an interest in sport’s location within popular culture one of the responses to the postmodern turn has seen a significant reexamination of the institutions of sport and their structural intersections with political and cultural power structures (Sugden and Tomlinson, 2002). These examinations often focused on the globalized sport industry and its associated global flows of people, ideas, culture, capital, commodities, and technology. Some of the concerns evident in this work have been the impacts on national identity and its coherence within a multicultural world; growing levels of inequality and social instability; the maintenance of sporting traditions and community; equitable sport development.
Sport in the Twenty-First Century
As we progress ever deeper into the twenty-first century, sport sociology has a number of emergent challenges that will become more persistent as time passes. The economic crisis of 2008 has created a number of challenges and contradictions facing the global capitalist system (Harvey, 2014; Stiglitz, 2013; Krugman, 2013). In respect to sport these concerns are (re) directing many sport sociologists to return to the issues of inequality and social and economic development. Though concerns about equity, especially in relations to gender and race, will remain highly significant within the field, there is a diversity of emergent transformative processes attracting attention within sport sociology. Some of the most prominent concerns that will frame significant research and analysis over the coming years are the links between the growth of interactive online gaming, social networking sites, and their relationship to the formation and reproduction of sedentary lifestyles; concerns regarding health and well-being especially in respect to the global explosion in levels of obesity; the impact of technological innovations that range across diverse areas of inquiry such as the media and the body – this latter issue is particularly evident through the growing presence of disability sport; public disquiet about sport governance in some of its undemocratic and unregulated power structures within globally important sport bodies such as FIFA and the IOC; finally, sports intersections between its often-abstract globalized structures and the lived realities of its performance within local everyday contexts of life will continue to provide insights into the production of social life in the twenty-first century.
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