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For sociologists subscribing to a hierarchical model of culture, sports may be regarded as its antithesis: a bodily practice, of little cultural consequence, gazed on by passive spectators for the enrichment of the leisure and media industries. The neglect of sports as a sociological subject until relatively recently may be attributed to a common resistance within intellectual culture to engagement with the corporeal realm of popular pleasure. However, the increasing prominence of (especially electronically mediated) sports, a more open minded attitude within sociology to what has often been dismissed as ‘‘mass’’ or ‘‘low’’ culture, and the influence of interdisciplinary approaches (especially cultural studies) has created space for a developed cultural sociology of sport. This shift by no means signals a theoretical, conceptual, and methodological consensus concerning sport and culture in the discipline, but, rather, a new willingness to explore their relationship within a sociological framework.
- Sports and the “Cultural Turn” in Sociology
- The Rise of Sports Culture and the Cultural Sociology of Sports
- Dimensions of Sport and Culture
- Sport and Culture: Into the Future
One obstacle to a sociological engagement with sport and culture is establishing an agreement on the defining characteristics of the objects of analysis, a particular problem given their diversity and dynamism. Precisely what constitutes sport and culture presents, in itself, grounds for dispute, alongside contending evaluations of their relationship. In broad sociological terms, sports can be conceived as the social institution developed out of the rationalization and commercialization of physical game contests that has occurred since the mid nineteenth century (notably, first, in Britain), and culture as the shifting ensemble of symbols, signifying practices, and texts that give expression and meaning to the social world of which sports is an increasingly significant part. The twin focus of this research paper, then, is on the place and influence of sports within the wider sociocultural sphere, and on the specific, rapidly developing characteristics of sports as a ‘‘subset’’ of society and culture as a whole.
Sports and the “Cultural Turn” in Sociology
Many sociologists have noted – and often regretted – the ‘‘cultural turn’’ in sociology that has produced, among other subdisciplinary shifts, an increasing interest in sports. Prior to the 1960s there was a tendency for sociologists to be suspicious of the everyday subjects that appeared epiphenomenal to the main sociological determinants – class structures, state relations, and so on. However, analyzing culture, especially in its popular form, became a more compelling activity in the light of what can be called ‘‘culturalization’’ and ‘‘mediatization’’ – the heightened social, economic, and political importance of the making of meaning and the circulation of symbols, especially through popular media such as television, radio, magazines, newspapers, and recorded music. Stuart Hall (1989: 128) makes this point eloquently in proposing that, in the late twentieth century, a ‘‘New Times’’ had emerged that demanded new perspectives. For Hall, culture is no longer, and probably never has been, the epiphenomenal symbolic superstructure determined by the material socioeconomic base. Culture is now deeply material in its productive processes, and the material world is permeated by cultural practices and meanings.
Sociologists in the post-World War II era began to find the objectivist tradition of mainstream sociology (and the streak of puritanic rationalism that it often displayed) overly austere and lacking in contemporary relevancy. The influence of youth culture, for example, now registered in subcultural and deviancy theory, and the popularization and personalization of politics (encapsulated in the catchcry ‘‘the personal is the political’’) taken up by feminist and postcolonial scholars also resonated within sociology. More sociologists felt licensed to embrace everyday life as a legitimate starting and reference point for their investigations of the social. Addressing popular cultural subjects like rock music, television consumption, and sports enabled a more reflexive mode of analysis that conceived culture as dialectically constitutive of structural relations, not as the predetermined outcome of them. New strands of social theory, such as postmodernism, and interdisciplinary perspectives like cultural and media studies, challenged the grand narratives of sociological theory and the integrity of its disciplinary boundaries. The distanced, all seeing eye of macrosociology was criticized for producing a universalist regime of knowledge that obscured its own historically conditioned, subjectivist limitations. The cultural turn enabled (mainly male) sociologists who were ‘‘closet’’ sports aficionados (fans), as well as those who had felt victimized by sports (through compulsory physical education at school or by the ideologies embedded in the sports media), to interrogate, critically and self reflexively, their own and others’ cultural tastes and consumption. Adopted excessively, such an approach can be condemned as unscientific, impressionistic, narcissistic, and self-indulgent. But with appropriate attention to the enduring questions and techniques of sociology, it is able to illuminate the ways in which contemporary culture (aided and abetted by capital and state formations) is both shaped by and profoundly influences the social.
Taking sports seriously as culture, therefore, was a crucial step in a more general reinvigoration of sociological inquiry. Instead of seeing sports and other forms of popular culture simply from, say, a functionalist perspective – and thereby necessarily emphasizing its adaptive and integrative ramifications for the social whole – it became possible to explore sports as a social domain of contending ideologies and values with a disparate range of relations to social reproduction and change. Similarly, from an orthodox conflict (including Marxist) sociological perspective, sports tended to be seen as a straight forward product of social class relations, especially those involving commodification and ‘‘false consciousness,’’ but a less mechanical engagement with sports as culture offers a more dialectical, complex understanding that is less reliant on a single, central axis of domination and subordination.
The analysis of sports in traditional macro sociological terms can still be productive, but a culturalist approach, appropriately informed by social theory, is able to draw on a richer, more contingent theoretical repertoire as well as a more intimate, ethnographic insight into how sports culture is ‘‘lived’’ as everyday practice. This intellectual project does not necessitate the abandonment of formative sociological questions of structure, agency, and power, but helps to ‘‘rehabilitate’’ and extend them into hitherto neglected areas of growing prominence. In this regard, sports, by a series of measures, can be seen to be a pivotal element of contemporary society and culture. Its raw popularity as spectacle alone makes it so – for example, it has been estimated that the cumulative audience for the 2002 Korea/Japan World Cup of association football was 28.8 billion viewers; that 9 out of 10 people in the world with access to television watched some part of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games; and that there was 35,000 hours of dedicated broadcast coverage of the 2004 Athens Olympic Games among 220 countries. Such ‘‘mega media’’ sports events are profoundly instructive about cultural change in (post)modernity.
The Rise of Sports Culture and the Cultural Sociology of Sports
Over the last three centuries, occasional physical folk play and game contests have become codified, scheduled practices, and the love of the game (the ‘‘amour’’ at the root of ‘‘amateurism’’) has progressively given way to professional spectator sports. The relatively modest remuneration of sportspeople (mostly male) that followed the decline of the class based, aristocratic ideal of the ‘‘sporting gentleman’’ involved first the payment of expenses and lost wages by those who had to exchange their labor power to live; then payment for play that was usually insufficient to provide a living wage; and, later, reason able returns for ‘‘sportswork’’ for the duration of the usually short and uncertain career of the professional athlete. But, just as in other areas of the labor market where income inequality grew between fellow workers in the same industry and between industries, so the emerging cultural ‘‘sale ability’’ of sports has produced ‘‘superstars’’ compensated at extraordinary levels. Conspicuous examples of celebrity athletes include the African American basketballer Michael Jordan, surveyed in the 1990s as the world’s most recognizable individual, and English footballer David Beckham, whose high profile, like Jordan’s, derives from ‘‘leveraging’’ his sports standing for a diverse range of pecuniary purposes. The restructuring of the athletic labor market into a tiny minority of the ‘‘super rich,’’ a larger but still small group of modestly rewarded professionals, and a vast number of aspiring professional athletes with little prospect of success, reflects a ‘‘structure of culture’’ in sports that now aligns it closely to the broader entertainment industries.
Even those (the majority of active sportspeople, although not of the whole population) who play sports but earn little or no income from it are part of a large sports industry supplying facilities, clothing, training, and equipment. Thus, professional athletes represent the alluring face of contemporary sports, behind which lies the ‘‘industrial’’ engine that produces it – including sponsors, advertisers, media companies, sports agencies, peak sports organizations, management, equipment and clothing manufacturers, privately and publicly funded sports educators, administrative and training bodies, and research scientists. Systematic planning, design, and operation are central to contemporary sports, while retaining a crucial symbolic element of a spontaneous culture of play.
Sports is, then, both symptom and cause of a much larger sociocultural shift, as the highly localized cultural practices of spatially fixed settlements such as villages and small towns have become concentrated in large urban centers, only for sports to be redispersed in mediated form through their dissemination as images and sounds. This symbolic sports communication, in turn, has become a pivotal means by which national cultural identity can be constructed through the sports press, and public service and commercial broadcasting. Mediated international sports events are extraordinary opportunities for internal and external representations of nation, an inherently ideological practice demanding close sociological interrogation, not least because of its apparent innocence. This brief sketch reveals how mediated sports culture can attract the interest of sports sociologists, who have found its terrain richly productive, pursuing questions surrounding social relations, economics, politics, ideology, and culture within and beyond the sports world.
Dimensions of Sport and Culture
The major dimensions of the sports–culture relationship concern the impacts of the industrial development of sport, the social ideologies that circulate within the ‘‘media sports cultural complex’’ (Rowe 2004: 4), and the positioning and influence of sports within the wider sociocultural sphere. In relation to sports and industry, the developments outlined above can be regarded as important elements of the penetration of the logic of capital into everyday culture. Inducing, from the mid nineteenth century onwards, spectators to pay to enter the controlled space of the sports stadium in order to watch paid athletes perform, is a significant instance of the industrialization of leisure time and practice. The combination of the incipient sports industry and the betting and hospitality industries proved an effective way of facilitating the congregation of large crowds and the expenditure of the discretionary income that organized labor secured from the owners of capital. A class cultural dimension to the sports industry reproducing wider social structural relations is an important feature of its historical formation. For example, cricketers were divided by class into (amateur) gentlemen and (professional) players well into the twentieth century, and horse racing – the ‘‘sport of kings’’ – displayed a hierarchy extending from the member’s enclosure down to the ‘‘punters’’ restricted to the open areas of racecourses. As the sports industry has grown and ‘‘massified,’’ these overt class cultural distinctions have been less sharply drawn, but they have not been eradicated. For example, the ‘‘bourgeoisification’’ of contemporary sports stadia, including expensive seating, corporate boxes, and high class catering, has ensured that quality of access and service provision are governed by socioeconomic circumstances. Similarly, the sports labor market is stratified and segmented, with privileged access to individual expensive sports (such as golf and tennis) more readily available to the already privileged, while in team sports there are patterned divisions of labor that commonly restrict leadership positions to the socially advantaged (the practice of ‘‘stacking’’).
Although these spatialized aspects of sports culture remain important – major stadia, for example, are invested with the kind of quasi-spiritual qualities that lend support to the proposition that sports is a secular religion – the most important force in the development of sports over the last century has been its increasingly intense relationship with the media. Without the media, sports would be hampered by the restrictions of time and space, with itinerant caravans of sports people displaying their wares in different towns, cities, and countries. This practice is, of course, still evident, but in economic terms it is much less significant than another, more flexible process: the symbolic transportation of the unique sports event to the domestic hearth. The simultaneous development of the sports and media industries has been, although not without some tensions, synergistic. The development of sports was limited while it relied on the staging of events for the exclusive pleasure of those present. Correspondingly, the commercial media could not flourish without regular, popular uses for their communicative infrastructure enabling exposure of large audiences to the advertisers who underwrote their print and electronic texts. In sports, with its large, passionate audiences, regular, relatively inexpensive and ‘‘long form’’ programming, and capacity to function in both news and entertainment genres, the media found an ideal industry partner. As a result, sports became an integral component of contemporary culture, inescapable for all citizens regardless of their cultural tastes because of the efficiency and reach of the sports media.
Because of its intimate involvement with the media, sports is a highly effective bearer of social ideologies disguised as natural, self-evident truths. The sports industry is imbued with a highly performative ethos, with its outcomes organized around measurable qualities and outcomes – winning and losing, faster and slower, stronger and weaker, and so on. When coupled with an ideology of transparent meritocracy (those who succeed deserve and can be seen to do so) and a mythology of a sports world that stands aloof from the ‘‘ordinary’’ world, sports culture can be seen to offer a microcosm of a simpler, fairer universe. In this sense, there is a close articulation between sporting values and neoliberal ideology. But sports culture also contains within it anti modernizing values reliant on tribalism and collective identity. Sports as cultural practice is arbitrary and trivial in that it consists of rule governed physical game contests onto which meaningful significance is projected by participants and spectators. The often nostalgic (and, indeed, sometimes atavistic) forms of identification on which sports draws its cultural power may, then, release reactionary impulses that are inimical to the ‘‘disembedding’’ that is constantly attempted by modernism and neoclassical economics. For example, as discussed below, the spatial relocation of a sports team (economically classified as a franchise), as has occurred with many grid iron and ice hockey teams in the USA, or the attempted takeover of a sports club, can stimulate anti market, anti-capitalist sentiments among sports fans. Such ideological tensions within sports mean that its institutional analysis cannot be reduced to an assumed capture by a commercial ethos. Instead, sports can be seen as a social site – albeit one that is heavily scored with ideologies of dominance – in which the cultural interplay involves social ideologies that are both reinforced and contested.
These ideologies in and of sports do not only involve, directly, matters of capital and labor. The (re)construction of the nation through international sports competition can reinforce, in some instances, racism and xenophobia, but also challenge the power of globalizing processes to erase the specific qualities of the local. Sports culture displays a discourse that is split between universalism (humanity united by the love of and respect for the game) and particularism (humanity fractured into competing, partisan clusters that support one team – sometimes violently – against national, racial, and ethnic others). The critical task of sports sociology is to analyze, ‘‘without prejudice,’’ these fissures and tensions within sports culture.
The linkage between nationalism and gender – the ‘‘masculinization’’ of citizenship criticized by feminists – suggests the potential role of sports in the cultural ‘‘enforcement’’ of the societal gender order. Sports, like many other cultural forms, is marked at many levels by sex and gender, although there are few forms of culture that have been so clearly and consistently divided by sex (reflected most obviously by sexually segregated competitions). The social construction of sexual difference in sports – its gendered complexion – is an important subject when analyzing the ideological reinforcement of notions of masculine superiority and exclusion.
Sports, both with regard to participation and spectatorship, is historically a key aspect of masculine culture. According to the ‘‘objective’’ performative measures of sports, men dominate in terms of athletic records, athlete remuneration, and spectator interest. Over the last century, in which women have challenged men in many domains – such as the workplace, representative government, and the home – sports has tended ideologically to reproduce male (pre) dominance. Those sports prizing the qualities in which men have an advantage (biologically inherited and socially learned) with regard to strength, speed, and aggression (as opposed to, say, style, subtlety, and cooperation), have consistently been the most valorized in sports culture.
However, the logic of capital accumulation has simultaneously eroded this gender segregation, as the saturation of the male and the neglect of the female spectator markets have been recognized. The commercial importance of television sports spectating, in particular, has prompted systematic strategies to attract the female viewers who also make many of the purchasing decisions on household products. Sports broadcasts are now increasingly tailored to mixed sex audiences, but greater recognition of women as viewers has not been matched by higher status in sports. Thus, apart from a small number of elite sports, such as tennis and golf, and relatively infrequent multi sports events, like the Olympic and Commonwealth Games, the gendered culture of sports is largely one of males and females watching predominantly male sports (such as the football codes of soccer, rugby, gridiron and league, and other major team sports such as basketball, ice hockey, and baseball). Male viewing of female sports is routinely accompanied in sports journalism and commentary by their sexual objectification, and an emphasis on their performative inferiority (in relation to men), maternal and marital status, and dependency on males. This assertion of ‘‘hegemonic masculinity’’ is also applied to other men, especially those who are homosexual, and is expressed in sexist and homophobic insults in sports (such as ‘‘playing like a girl/ queer’’). Again, however, the gendered repositioning of sports marketing has fostered the sexualization and reconstruction of sporting masculinity, leading sportsmen (such as David Beckham) who adopt a more flexible, (post)modern masculine style, to become subjects of popular debate concerning new forms of manliness.
By such means, the space of sports culture can operate as a forum for wider social debate about change and continuity. Recurrent sports scandals, intensively covered by the media, are especially prominent vehicles for collective reassessments both of the institution of sports and the societies of which it is a part. For example, financial impropriety (such as betting related match fixing in association football and cricket, or secret inducements to the International Olympic Committee members who decide on which city is to host the Summer and Winter Olympic Games) and the use of performance enhancing drugs in sports (for example, in Olympic athletics and weightlifting, and Tour de France cycling), provoke intense debates about the corruption of sports by commerce and the associated privileging of ends over means. Personal indiscretions by sports stars, ranging from the criminal (such as rape) to the individual ethical (like infidelity), also discursively bridge the sports and wider social worlds, enabling the airing of issues that concern both the corrosive effects of celebrity culture and the everyday dilemmas confronting ‘‘ordinary’’ people that are held in common with sports stars. Sports culture, from this perspective, can be regarded as a vivid symbolic canvas onto which grand pictures of contemporary society are drawn, often with reference to idealized representations of the past.
Sports discourse and language is also highly influential in framing the wider society in its own image – the ‘‘sportification’’ of society. As noted above, there is an apparently simple competitive logic within sports that conjures up a world of clearly defined competitors, rules, and outcomes. As a result, sports metaphors, such as those involving ‘‘level playing fields,’’ regulatory ‘‘hurdles,’’ and ‘‘races’’ for company acquisitions and profit goals, have insinuated themselves into business discourse, not least in news bulletins. Similarly, political discourse in representative liberal democracies is suffused with the language of sports, with electoral contests, parliamentary debates and policy disagreements routinely framed in the language of sports encounters. Advertisers also often ‘‘pitch’’ products and services in sporting terms, with companies and consumers represented as ‘‘teams’’ and ‘‘oppositions,’’ and the visual imagery of sports used to depict producers and consumers. The ideological implications of representing diverse organizations, relations, and practices as analogous to sports phenomena require skeptical sociological examination given their symbolic reduction of complex social, economic, and political processes to simple, imagined sports contests and outcomes.
Such ideological deployments of the culture of sports also impute to it a ‘‘purity’’ of contest (based on talent, tactical acumen, and diligence) that is highly contestable. For example, success in international sports, while often represented as reflecting national character and physique, is also deeply influenced by the resources provided by capital and the state to support the sporting effort. Success in sports, as in commerce and politics, is the product of the mobilization of existing (often inherited) social advantage; ‘‘behind the scenes’’ maneuvering, not all of which is legal or ethical; and contingencies (favorable or unfavorable conditions). The idealization of sports draws misleading, ideologically loaded contrasts between it and other domains of social practice. For this reason, sports sociologists and their counterparts in cultural studies, gender studies, postcolonial studies, and so on, have counseled skepticism when the ‘‘lessons’’ of sports have been extended to other social spheres.
Nonetheless, the resilience and influence of sports culture cannot be underestimated. Elements of sports culture constantly threaten to spill out into the wider sociocultural spaces. For example, viewers of television – the medium that, despite ‘‘post broadcasting’’ challenges by new media technologies such as the Internet, remains the most popularly significant form of contemporary culture – have increasingly been presented within the high profile television genre of ‘‘reality TV.’’ Formats such as Survivor, (American) Idol, and Big Brother are profoundly influenced by sports and sports television. They all involve, like sports, ‘‘actuality’’ coverage of contestants in competition with each other for a prize, shot from multiple angles, points of view, and speeds. The contests require strategic and tactical maneuvers akin to sports contests, with competing teams and individuals, and performative tasks and goals. There is also, like sports, fan participation, including expressions of approval or disapproval of contestants, and large, staged real time events with boisterous audiences. In other words, it can be argued that sports has not only, as is often claimed, taken on the values and practices of entertainment but, by means of a cultural feedback loop, it now influences other major forms of popular culture. Indeed, sports has challenged the prime place of rock music as the principal source of popular cultural ‘‘cool’’ style in the last two decades.
Central to popular culture is the figure of the fan, and sports is a key arena in which a dynamic interplay between culture and commerce in fandom can be discerned. The sports fan is often represented in sports sociology as something of a victim of powerful commercial forces, stripped of agency by the capture of their pastime by capital and the state. The media, in particular, are often accused of taking over sports, with television reducing its physical practice to sedentary spectacle, and shaping sports contests to fit the demands of audience maximization and broadcast schedules. Sociologists have also been critical of the media’s imputed seizure and deformation of sports discourse. Because sports is a cultural form that can be readily adapted to fill cultural space throughout the media – including live, replayed, and edited broadcasts, quiz shows, news bulletins, feature films, documentaries, newspaper sections, photo essays, magazines, novels, and biographies – sports culture can appear reducible to a simple, unidirectional relationship between a range of media producers and passive cohorts of media sports consumers. However, this is a misleading account of how popular culture is made, remade, and used that relies on totalizing and static analyses of cultural relations.
While there is a corresponding danger of romanticizing the resistive agency of the fan, sports culture displays many examples of fandom in action that do not correspond to orderly and guided consumption. Fans are by no means inherently progressive – indeed, as was noted earlier, sports culture is often deeply nostalgic and characterized by xenophobia, leading on occasions to racially motivated abuse and violence. The inequitable gender order described above that is structured into the formal institutions of sports can also be viewed as a common feature of ‘‘informal’’ sports fandom – for example, in the many exclusive, homosocial fan groupings in association football, or in some crowd chants and behavior towards women in sport stadia. In this regard, though, sports culture can be seen to be connected to wider social structures, practices, and values – it would be profoundly unsociological to imagine otherwise. Reactionary behavior and values are not the preserve of sports, but it provides a vivid popular theater in which all forms of signifying practice – whether socially progressive or regressive – can be accentuated and ‘‘writ large.’’ Indeed, the pivotal presence of the media creates circumstances in which sports spectators are not just watchers, but also the self-consciously watched, and so can be performing, like the professional athlete, for each other, for others present, and for the vast, unseen television audience. The mediated spectacles that are so central to sports culture are, then, opportunities for spectators to be key participants as essential producers of the atmosphere (‘‘ambience’’) of the sports event.
Sports fandom, then, exhibits a number of responses to the transformation of sports and the society of which it is a part. For example, the aforementioned ‘‘bourgeoisification’’ of sports, through which spectatorship is systematically subjected to a commodifying, ‘‘civilizing’’ leisure consumer influence intended to replace earlier unruly, proletarian, and aggressively masculine forms of sports fandom, has provoked some (mostly male) sports fans to protest against its sanitization. The unhappiness of some fans with what they see as cliched and compromised professional sports journalism has also encouraged the emergence of ‘‘fanzines,’’ which range from technically rudimentary publications with small circulations to more sophisticated, widely read, idiosyncratic magazines that take both sports journalism and the sports industry to task for their lack of consideration for grassroots fans.
Fan activism can also take on more formal political dimensions, as in the case of lobbying by the Independent Manchester United Sup Porters Association against the attempted takeover in 1999 of Manchester United Football Club by the dominant force in English football television, the Rupert Murdoch controlled BSkyB. The British government accepted the view, put by these football supporters, the fans of other clubs, and the non-Murdoch media, that such a move would overly concentrate power in football, reduce economic competition in the football industry, and have deleterious social effects by disadvantaging smaller football clubs and so their local communities. Here it can be seen that sports culture is a test bed for both economic and social debates, with the proponents of the takeover arguing that the primary locus of the association football industry was no longer national but international (in this case European), and that city based fans look beyond the nation to new, transnational communities (in this case involving supporters of equivalently elite clubs from Italy, Spain, Holland, and other countries). The deregulation of the football labor market through the so called 1995 ‘‘Bosman ruling,’’ and its associated freedom of labor migration within the European Union, challenged received ideas of local and national sports, just as the extension of the functions of the European Union, the operation of the World Trade Organization, and other transnational arrangements and agreements have caused wider anxieties. The highly charged area of sports, therefore, can symbolize and articulate in a concrete, dramatic fashion often abstract notions of transnational regulation and national identity.
In the same year that many Manchester United fans agitated against a takeover of the club, in the United States fans of the Cleveland Browns gridiron team (supported by its local elite), following the owner’s relocation of the franchise to Baltimore, successfully lobbied the National Football League to award it an expansion team, allow it to retain its key signifiers (name and colors), and even to provide a loan to renovate its stadium. Not all such activist campaigns are successful and, indeed, most of them are defensive rather than proactive in nature, but they reveal that sports culture is in part created by affective, identity based communities and coalitions that are sometimes able to influence developments in sports, rather than the product of a monolithic ‘‘sportsbiz’’ with an unstoppable commodifying momentum.
Thus, sports fans sometimes identify themselves as citizens who demand respect for the rights of ‘‘cultural citizenship’’ associated with sports. This extension of the concept of citizen ship to the cultural domain reflects the strengthening of the broad processes of ‘‘culturalization’’ and ‘‘mediatization’’ discussed above. It registers in the successful petitioning of many governments to enshrine access to prime free to air television sports (as opposed to its delivery only through paid subscription) as part of a citizen’s cultural entitlement and heritage, and in the reluctance of peak sports bodies like the IOC to allow sports broadcasting exclusivity to ‘‘pay’’ television operators. It is also evident in agitation to provide citizens’ access to sports infrastructure – including community sports facilities, elite institutes of sport, and high quality sports stadia – to be guaranteed by state subvention. Furthermore, opposition to sports sponsorship promoting and advertising unhealthy products (such as tobacco) and support for the use of sports in health promotion campaigns (such as the landmark ‘‘Sport for All’’ and ‘‘Life. Be In It’’ campaigns) have prompted positive and negative intervention in sports by the state. Thus, as sports culture has become increasingly pervasive in social life, it has taken on a range of features, including athletic display, carnivalesque fandom, commercial deployment, and state regulation.
The participants in this culture are, in some form, almost of necessity the entire population, which is confronted daily by sports, willingly or not. The omnipresent signs of sports in public and media space ensure that, to a degree, contemporary culture has been ‘‘sportified.’’ These circumstances have stimulated more discerning, interactive forms of sports fandom and consumption. For example, new media technologies have reduced the power of a small number of television companies and their producers to determine when and how a televised sports event can be seen. Digital broadcasting has made it possible for viewers to make many of their own spectatorial decisions, such as which match to watch in a tennis tournament, which camera angles to use, and what statistical data to summon. The advent of the Internet, furthermore, has created multifarious opportunities for fans to access written sports texts and still and moving images, thereby eroding the centralized power of large media corporations. However, such choices can only be made by those affluent enough to invest in the requisite equipment and services (apart from those provided freely or cheaply by public service broadcasters), thereby indicating that debates about empowering sports fans cannot be isolated from broader questions of social equity and access.
Sport and Culture: Into the Future
The sociological analysis of sport and culture has to deal adequately with the size, complexity, scope, and volatility of its immediate subject, and then to seek to encompass its deep intrication with the sociocultural world as a whole. This is no mean task, and, as Crawford (2004: 111) has noted in relation to sports fandom and consumption, there has been a strong temptation to concentrate on out of the ordinary phenomena and to advance already constructed theories founded on binary notions of hegemony and resistiveness. Crawford complains that little serious attention has been given to the mundane, everyday experience and consumption of sport, with researchers drawn to unrepresentative groups of especially ardent fans, whose very conspicuousness makes them relatively easy to research. Thus, he argues, sports researchers have tended to conceive sports fandom as an artifact of a theoretical predisposition that neatly divides it into dichotomous clusters of passive sports consumers and actively resistant sports fans. This observation is a reminder of Raymond Williams’s famous dictum that ‘‘culture is ordinary.’’ Sports culture, it might be observed, is now an ordinary element of social life, punctuated by extraordinary moments, both of which offer multiple opportunities to research the dynamics of increasingly heterogeneous, evanescent social formations.
Sociological inquiry into sports and culture is, then, an exacting exercise. It has been limited, once belatedly commenced, by inherited dualistic theoretical frameworks, with a functionalist assessment of social adaptation and integration posited against a conflict theory based (often Marxist inflected) critique of sports culture. Each tradition has produced its own variants and developments, with those emphasizing the more benign ritual dimensions of sports culture challenged by assertions of its repressiveness, although sometimes conceding that sport can be a site of popular cultural ‘‘productivity’’ where structures and ideologies of dominance are countered by (self-reflexive or unconscious) communities of resistance. The theories and methods adopted in this field of research and scholarship have tended to reflect these divergent positions. Disciplinary debate is crucial to the health of sociology, but the divergent approaches of political economy, ethnography, discourse analysis, textual interpretation, and so on evident in analyses of sports culture have often resulted in an unproductive series of parallel, disconnected conversations.
In current and anticipated trends, though, there are some signs of more auto critical and less predictable approaches to sport and culture. These are less likely to imply that sports culture can be hermetically sealed from its global, national, and local social context, and are more attuned to the specific, contingent ways in which sports culture can exert its influence on wider society. This research and scholarship demands a closer attention to what constitutes sports, how it is mediated, and the diverse, structurally influenced ways in which it is encountered and used by human subjects in their various social locations and relational networks. The overwhelming available evidence is that sports is an increasingly important component of culture and society in nations with conspicuously different histories. The global ‘‘club’’ of sports is no longer exclusive (there are, for example, currently 202 National Olympic Committees across five continents), but the power that can be wielded within sports culture is highly variable and clearly related to other resources of power (including economic, military, and geopolitical). The form that sports culture takes in different national and transnational contexts is both highly diverse and globally connected, and demands a rejuvenated, theoretically rigorous, historically informed, and culturally attuned sociology of sports and culture.
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