People in all cultures have always engaged in playful physical activities and used human movement as part of their everyday routines and collective rituals (Huizinga 1955). The first examples of organized games in societies worldwide probably emerged in the form of various combinations of physical activities and religious rituals (Guttmann 1978). Those games were connected closely with the social structures, social relations, and belief systems in their societies. Although they often recreated and reaffirmed existing systems of power relations and dominant ideologies, they sometimes served as sites for resistant or oppositional behaviors (Guttmann 1994; Sage 1998). Variations in the forms and dynamics of physical activities and games indicate that they are cultural practices that serve different social purposes and take on different meanings from time to time and place to place. Research on these variations has provided valuable insights into social processes, structures, and ideologies (Gruneau 1999; Sage 1998).
- Using Sociology to Study Sports
- Conceptual and Theoretical Issues in the Sociology of Sport
The physical activities that most sociologists identify as ”modern sports” emerged in connection with a combination of rationalization, industrialization, democratization, and urbanization processes in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As various forms of physical activities and play were constructed as institutionalized, competitive, rule-governed challenges and games, they became associated with a range of processes and structures in societies. To varying degrees in different settings, ”organized sports” were implicated in processes of social development and the structure of family life, socialization and education, identity formation and government policy, commodification and the economy, and globalization and the media. Today, sports constitute a significant part of the social, cultural, political, and economic fabric of most societies.
As cultural practices, organized sports constitute an increasingly important part of people’s lives and collective life in groups, organizations, communities, and societies. In addition to capturing individual and collective attention, they are implicated in power relations and ideological formation associated with social class, gender, race and ethnicity, sexuality, and physical ability. Because sports are social constructions, they may develop around particular ideas about the body and human nature, how people should relate to one another, expression and competence, human abilities and potential, manhood and womanhood, and what is important and unimportant in life. These ideas usually support and reproduce the dominant ideology in a society, but this is not always the case. Ideology is complex; therefore, the relationship between sports and ideological formation and transformation is sometimes inconsistent or even contradictory. Furthermore, sports come in many forms, and those forms can have many different associated social meanings.
Although sports continue to exist for the enjoyment of the participants, commercialized forms are planned, promoted, and presented for the entertainment of vast numbers of spectators. Sport events such as the Olympic Games, soccer’s World Cup (men’s and women’s), the Tour de France, the tennis championships at Wimbledon, American football’s Super Bowl, and championship boxing bouts capture the interest of billions of people when they are televised by satellite in over 200 countries around the world. These and other formally organized sports events are national and global industries. They are implicated in processes of state formation and capitalist expansion and are organized and presented as consumer activities for both participants and spectators. Although sport programs, events, and organizations may be subsidized directly or indirectly by local or national governments, support increasingly comes from corporations eager to associate their products and images with cultural activities and events that are a primary source of pleasure for people all over the world. Corporate executives have come to realize, as did Gramsci (1971) when he discussed hegemony and consensus-generating processes, that sponsoring people’s pleasures can be crucial in creating a consensus to support corporate expansion. At the same time, most sport organizations have sought corporate support.
People of all ages connect with sports through the media. Newspapers in many cities devote entire sections of their daily editions to sports, especially in North America, where the space devoted to sports frequently surpasses that given to the economy, politics, or any other single topic of interest (Lever and Wheeler 1993). Major magazines and dozens of specialty magazines cater to a wide range of interests among participants and fans. Radio coverage of sporting events and sports talk shows capture the attention of millions of listeners every day in some countries. Television coverage of sports, together with commentary about sports, is the most prevalent category of video programming in many countries. First the transistor radio and more recently satellites and Internet technology have enabled millions of people around the world to share their interest in sports. As Internet technology expands, these media-facilitated connections that revolve around sports will take new forms with unpredictable social implications.
Worldwide, many people recognize high-profile teams and athletes, and this recognition fuels everything from product consumption to tourism. Sports images are a pervasive part of life in many cultures, and the attention given to certain athletes today has turned them into celebrities, if not cultural heroes. In cultures in which there have been assumed connections between participation in sports and character formation, there has been a tendency to expect highly visible and popular athletes to become role models of dominant values and lifestyles, especially for impressionable young people. This has created a paradoxical situation in which athletes often are held to a higher degree of moral accountability than are other celebrities while at the same time being permitted or led to assume permission to act in ways that go beyond traditional normative boundaries.
People around the world increasingly talk about sports. Relationships often revolve around sports, especially among men but also among a growing number of women. Some people identify with teams and athletes so closely that what happens in sports influences their moods and overall sense of well-being. In fact, people’s identities as athletes and fans may be more important to them than their identities related to education, religion, work, and family.
Overall, sports and sports images have become a pervasive part of people’s everyday lives, especially among those who live in countries where resources are relatively plentiful and the media are widespread. For this reason, sports are logical topics for the attention of sociologists and others concerned with social life.
Using Sociology to Study Sports
Although play and games received attention from various European and North American behavioral and social scientists between the 1880s and the middle of the 20th century, sports received scarce attention in that period (Loy and Kenyon 1969). Of course, there were notable exceptions. Thorstein Veblen wrote about college sports in the United States in 1899 in Theory of the Leisure Class. Max Weber mentioned English Puritan opposition to sports in the 1904 and 1905 volumes of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, and William Graham Sumner discussed ”popular sports” in his 1906 Folkways. Willard Waller devoted attention to the ”integrative functions” of sports in U.S. high schools in The Sociology of Teaching in 1932.
The first analyst to refer to a “sociology of sport” was Theodor Adorno’s student Heinz Risse, who published Sociologie des Sports in 1921. Sports received little or no further analytic attention from social scientists until after World War II. Then, in the mid-1950s, there was a slow but steady accumulation of analyses of sports done by scholars in Europe and North America (Loy and Kenyon 1969; Dunning 1971).
The origins of the sociology of sport can be traced to both sociology and physical education (Ingham and Donnelly 1997; Sage 1997). The field initially was institutionalized in academic terms through the formation of the International Committee for Sport Sociology (ICSS) and the publication of the International Review for Sport Sociology (IRSS) in the mid-1960s. The ICSS was a subcommittee of the International Council of Sport Science and Physical Education and the International Sociological Association, and it sponsored the publication of the IRSS. Other publications in the 1960s and 1970s provided examples of the research and conceptual issues discussed by scholars who claimed an affiliation with the sociology of sport (Kenyon 1969; Krotee 1979; Luschen 1970). In addition to meeting at the annual conferences of the ICSS beginning in the mid-1960s, many scholars in the sociology of sport also met at the annual conferences of the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport (NASSS). This organization was founded in 1978. It has sponsored conferences every year since then, and its membership has been as high as 326 in 1998. In 1984, the Sociology of Sport Journal was published under the sponsorship of the NASSS.
Although the sociology of sport involves scholars from many countries and has its foundations in traditional academic disciplines, its early growth was fueled partly by the radical and reform-oriented work of social activists trained in a variety of social sciences. That work attracted the attention of a number of young scholars in both sociology and physical education. For example, in U.S. universities, many courses devoted to the analysis of sport in society in the 1970s highlighted sport as a social institution, but many also used sports as a focal point for critical analyses of U.S. society as a whole. Objections to the war in Vietnam inspired analyses of autocratic and militaristic forms of social organization in sports and other spheres of social life. Critiques of capitalism were tied to research on the role of competition in social life and the rise of highly competitive youth and inter-scholastic sports. Concern with high rates of aggression and violence in society was tied to an analysis of contact sports that emphasize the physical domination of opponents. Analyses of racial and civil rights issues were tied to discussions of racism in sports and to issues that precipitated the boycott of the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games by some black American athletes (Edwards 1969). Analyses of gender relations were inspired by the widespread failure of U.S. high schools and universities to comply with Title IX legislation that, among other things, mandated gender equity in all sport programs sponsored by schools that received federal funds.
Today, those who are dedicated to studying sports as social and cultural phenomena constitute a small but active, diverse, and steadily expanding collection of scholars from sociology, physical education and kinesiology, sport studies, and cultural studies departments. This has made the field unique because many of these scholars have realized that to maintain the field they must engage each other despite differences in the research questions they ask and the theoretical perspectives and methodologies they use.
Mainstream sociology has been slow at the institutional level to acknowledge the growing social and cultural significance of sports and sports participation. The tendency among sociologists to give priority to studies of work over studies of play, sports, or leisure accounts for much of this disciplinary inertia. Furthermore, sports have been seen by many sociologists as nonserious, nonproductive dimensions of society and culture that do not merit scholarly attention. Consequently, the sociology of sport has continued to exist on the fringes of sociology, and studying sports generally does not forward to a scholar’s career in sociology departments. For example, in 1998-1999, only 149 (1.3 percent) of the 11,247 members of the American Sociological Association (ASA) declared ”Leisure/Sport/Recreation” as one of their three major areas of interest, and over half those scholars focused primarily on leisure rather than sports. Only thirty-seven ASA members identified ”Leisure/Sports Recreation” as their primary research and/or teaching topic (0.3 percent of ASA members), and only two Canadian and two U.S. sociology departments offer a graduate program in the sociology of sport, according to the 1998 Guide to Graduate Departments of Sociology. At the 1998 annual ASA meeting, there were approximately 3,800 presenters and copresenters, and only 20 dealt with sport-related topics in their presentations; only 2 of the 525 sessions were devoted to the sociology of sport. Patterns are similar in Canada, Great Britain, and Australia (Rowe et al. 1997).
In physical education and kinesiology, the primary focus of most scholars has been on motor learning, exercise physiology, biomechanics, and physical performance rather than the social dimensions of sports (see Sage 1997). Social and cultural issues have not been given a high priority in the discipline except when research has had practical implications for those who teach physical education, coach athletes, or administer sport programs. As the legitimacy and role of physical education departments have been questioned in many universities, the scholars in those departments have been slow to embrace the frequently critical analyses of sports done by those who use sociological theories and perspectives. Therefore, studying sports as social phenomena has not earned many scholars high status among their peers in physical education and kinesiology departments. However, the majority of sociology of sport scholars with doctorates have earned their degrees and now have options in departments of physical education or kinesiology and departments of sport studies and human movement studies.
There have been noteworthy indications of change. For example, there are a number of journals devoted to social analyses of sports (Sociology of Sport Journal, International Review for the Sociology of Sport, Journal of Sport & Social Issues, Culture, Sport, Society). Many mainstream journals in sociology and physical education now accept and publish research that uses sociological perspectives to study sports. National and regional professional associations in sociology and physical education in many countries sponsor regular sessions in the sociology of sport at their annual conferences. Annual conferences also are held by a number of national and regional sociology of sport associations around the world, including those in Japan, Korea, and Brazil as well as the countries of North America and Europe. The International Sociology of Sport Association (ISSA, formerly the ICSS) holds annual conferences and meets regularly with the International Sociological Association. Attendance at many of these conferences has been consistent, and the quality of the programs has been impressive. The existence of such organizational endorsement and support, along with continued growth in the pervasiveness and visibility of sports in society, suggests that the discipline will continue to grow.
Among other indications of growth, articles in the Sociology of Sport Journal are cited regularly in social science literature. Scholars in the field are recognized as “public intellectuals” by journalists and reporters associated with the mass media. Quotes and references to sociology of sport research appear increasingly in the popular print and electronic media. Amazon.com, the world’s major Internet bookseller, listed over 260 books in its “Sociology of Sport” reference category in March 1999.
Complicating the issue of future growth is the fact that scholars in this field regularly disagree about how to “do” the sociology of sport. Some prefer to see themselves as scientific experts who do research on questions of organization and efficiency, while others prefer to see themselves as facilitators or even agents of cultural transformation whose research gives a voice to and empowers people who lack resources or have been pushed to the margins of society. This and other disagreements raise important questions about the production and use of scientific knowledge, and many scholars in the sociology of sport are debating those questions. As in sociology as a whole, the sociology of sport is now a site for theoretical and paradigmatic debates that some scholars fear will fragment the field and subvert the maintenance of an institutionalized professional community (Ingham and Donnelly 1997). Of course, this is a challenge faced in many disciplines and their associated professional organizations.
Conceptual and Theoretical Issues in the Sociology of Sport
Through the mid-1980s, most research in the sociology of sport was based on two assumptions. First, sport was assumed to be a social institution similar to other major social institutions (Luschen and Sage 1981). Second, sports were assumed to be institutionalized competitive activities that involve physical exertion and the use of physical skills by individuals motivated by a combination of personal enjoyment and external rewards (Coakley 1990). These conceptual assumptions identified the focus of the sociology of sport and placed theory and research on sports within the traditional parameters of sociological theory and research.
Theory and research based on these assumptions were informative. However, many scholars in the field came to realize that when analytic attention is focused on institutionalized and competitive activities, there is a tendency to overlook the lives of people who have neither the resources to formally organize their physical activities nor the desire to make them competitive. Scholars became sensitive to the possibility that this tendency can reinforce the ideologies and forms of social organization that have disadvantaged certain categories and collections of people in contemporary societies (Coakley 1998). This encouraged some scholars to ask critical questions about sports as contested activities in societies. Consequently, their research has come to focus more on the connections between sports and systems of power and privilege and the changes needed to involve more people in the determination of what sports can and should be in society.
These scholars used an alternative approach to defining sports that revolved around two questions: What gets to count as a sport in a group or society? and Whose sports count the most? These questions forced them to focus more directly on the social and cultural contexts in which ideas are formed about physical activities and the social processes that privilege some forms of physical activities. Those who have used this approach also note numerous cultural differences in how people identify sports and include them in their lives. In cultures that emphasize cooperative relationships, the idea that people should compete for rewards may be defined as disruptive, if not immoral, and for people in cultures that emphasize competition, physical activities and games that have no winners may seem pointless. These cultural differences are important because there is no universal agreement about the meaning, purpose, and organization of sports. Similarly, there is no general agreement about who will participate in sports, the circumstances in which participation will occur, or who will sponsor sports or the reasons for sponsorship. It is now assumed widely by scholars who study sports that these factors have varied over time from group to group and society to society and that sociological research should focus on the struggle over whose ideas about sports become dominant at any particular time in particular groups or societies. This in turn has highlighted issues of culture and power relations in theory and research in the sociology of sport.
Before the mid-1980s, most research and conceptual discussions in the sociology of sport were inspired or informed by structural functionalist theories and conflict theories (Luschen and Sage 1981; Coakley 1990), and in parts of western Europe, figurational sociology was used by some scholars who studied sports (see Dunning 1992). Those with structural functionalist perspectives often focused on questions about sports and issues of socialization and character development, social integration, achievement motivation, and structural adaptations to change in society. The connections between sports and other major social institutions and between sports and the satisfaction of social system needs were the major topics of concern.
Those who used conflict theories viewed sports as an expression of class conflict and market forces and a structure linked to societal and state institutions. Their work was inspired by various interpretations of Marxist theory and research focused generally on connections between capitalist forms of production and consumption and social behaviors in sports and on the ways in which sports promote an ideological consciousness that is consistent with the needs and interests of capital. Specifically, they studied the role of sports in processes of alienation, capitalist expansion, nationalism and militarism, and racism and sexism (Brohm 1978; Hoch 1972).
Figurational, or “process,” sociology was and continues to be inspired by the work of Elias (Elias 1978; Elias and Dunning 1986;Jarvie and Maguire 1994). Figurational sociologists have focused on issues of interdependence and interaction in social life and have identified historical linkages between the structure of interpersonal conduct and the overall structure of society. Unlike other theoretical approaches, figurational sociology traditionally has given a high priority to the study of sport. Figurational analyses have emphasized sports as a sphere of social life in which the dichotomies between seriousness and pleasure, work and leisure, economic and noneconomic phenomena, and mind and body can be shown to be false and misleading. Before the mid-1980s, research done by figurational sociologists focused primarily on the historical development of modern sport and the interrelated historical processes of state formation, functional democratization, and expanding networks of international interdependencies. Their best known early work focused on linkages between the emergence of modern sports and the dynamics of civilizing processes, especially those associated with the control of violence in society (Elias and Dunning 1986).
Since the mid-1980s, the sociology of sport has been characterized by theoretical and methodological diversity. Fewer scholars use general theories of social life such as structural functionalism and conflict theories. The theories more often used are various forms of critical theories, including feminist theories and hegemony theory; also used are interpretive sociology (especially symbolic interactionism), cultural studies perspectives, and various forms of poststructuralism (Rail 1998). Figurational sociology still is widely used, especially by scholars outside North America. A few scholars have done research informed by the reflexive sociology of Pierre Bourdieu (Laberge and Sankoff 1988; Wacquant 1995a, 1995b) and the structuration theory of Anthony Giddens (Gruneau 1999).
Methodological approaches also vary. Quantitative data and statistical analyses remain popular, although various qualitative methods and interpretive analyses have become increasingly popular, if not the dominant research approaches in the field (Donnelly 2000). Ethnography and in-depth interviewing, along with textual and discourse analysis, have emerged as common methodologies among many scholars studying sports and sport participation (Coakley and Donnelly 1999). Quantitative methods have been used most often to study issues and questions related to sport participation patterns, the attitudinal and behavioral correlates of participation, and the distribution of sports-related resources in society. Both quantitative and interpretive methods have been used to study questions and issues related to socialization, identity, sexuality, subcultures, the body, pain and injury, disability, deviance, violence, emotions, the media, gender relations, homophobia, race and ethnic relations, new and alternative sports forms, and ideological formation and transformation (Coakley and Dunning 2000).
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