Sport and Identity

Identity is a rather loose concept which has various degrees of currency in a number of different disciplines. For example, Bosma et al. (1994) have argued that there is little consensus in the field of psychology about the phenomena to which the term identity might refer. They go on to suggest that, as a result, different definitions of identity not only have led to the development of different schools within psychology, each with its own theoretical and empirical traditions, but that scholars appear to know little about, or prefer to ignore, what is happening beyond the boundaries of their own school.

There is not quite the same situation within sociology, where considerable theoretical and methodological developments of the concept of identity have occurred primarily in the sociological tradition of symbolic interactionism, in both the Chicago and Iowa schools, and where, according to Weigert et al. (1986), the notion of identity has also had some limited currency in the sociological traditions of structural functionalism, critical theory, interpretive sociology, and the sociology of knowledge.

The sociological concept of identity is broadly understood to include notions of ‘‘social identity,’’ ‘‘personal identity,’’ and ‘‘ego identity.’’ Social identities are those identities which tend to refer to the individual’s position(s) in a social structure, understanding that various cultural and social factors influence the extent to which the individual is pressured into fitting into available identity ‘‘molds’’ (Cote & Levine 2002). They are identities which are either seen as providing some social value and are therefore claimed by the actor, or imputed or attributed to others in order to place or situate them as social objects. Personal identities are the self designations and self attributions which an individual brings into play or asserts during the course of interaction, and are essentially the meanings the individual attributes to the ‘‘self ’’ (Snow & Anderson 1987). ‘‘Personal identity,’’ then, is a concept which places the focus on the specific individualities that are peculiar to each of us, which arise as a result of the accommodations between the definitions of our social identities and the uniqueness and peculiarities of our actual lived experience (Cote & Levine 2002). The term ‘‘ego identity’’ refers to the sense of sameness or continuity in the ‘‘self ’’ (or personality) which individuals experience over long periods of their life. Bosma et al. (1994) use the illustration of a tree, which, although it experiences great changes over the seasons, still remains the same tree. Similarly, although a person experiences tremendous changes between the times of her conception and death, she remains the same, unique individual.

Two major interests have been apparent in sociology’s focus on identity: (1) the process(es) through which adult identity is formed and (2) the process(es) by which that identity is maintained once it is formed. Identity formation is a process through which, particularly in modern societies, individuals are able to choose from an array of potential self definitions and personal meanings, and then may work to develop those identities in interaction with others (e.g., see Goffman’s 1959 work on impression management). Modern societies, it is argued, provide many more models of social and personal identity and offer much more freedom to choose from among these models. The notion of identity maintenance picks up on the idea, associated with late modernity, of the increasingly transient and unstable nature of social identities, with the consequence that the sustained validation of such social identities by others constantly requires work (Cote & Levine 2002: 6). This approach to the management of identities suggests that, first, the individual is required to act in a manner that is appropriate to the identity/ies which he or she is claiming, and second, that the individual must gain a confirmation of the performed identity/ies from the responses and reactions of appropriate significant others.

These ideas about identity are clearly centered on such assumptions as: (1) individuals are able to choose their identities; that is, they have an array of potential identity options available to them; (2) they are active players in the interactions which lead to the creation, assumption or appropriation, and development of an individual identity; that is, individuals have agency; and (3) it is through the validations of others in social interaction with the individual that such identities are maintained; that is, one must work at securing these validations and confirmations.

Various literatures within the field of sport sociology have focused on the role that ‘‘sport’’ (broadly understood to include the many forms of participation in a wide range of types of physical activity, considerations of the physical body in movement, and the many forms of secondary consumption of sporting activities) may play in the processes of identity formation generally, and of particular identities specifically, and in the processes through which individuals strive to sustain such identities. This work has examined the role of sport (1) in the formation of an identity as an ‘‘athlete’’; (2) in the formation of identities specific to particular sports; and (3) in the formation of more generic identities, such as gender identity, racial/ethnic identity, or national identity. It has also examined the consequences of successfully claiming an athletic identity on the individual’s future options for seeking alternative identities and career paths.

The generic identity of ‘‘athlete’’ has considerable saliency in many social settings and in many of the countries of the world – although the specific characteristics associated with this identity vary from sport context to sport context and from country to country. Nevertheless, such an identity is clearly valued and may provide many social benefits to the individuals who are able to successfully claim it – whether this occurs at an elementary school age, at high school or college, as a member of a professional or national team, or even as a masters athlete in his nineties. The success of such identity claims rests on, first, the individual’s ability to satisfactorily or authentically present the main characteristics of this identity, and second, the validation of the identity claim provided by primarily non athlete, significant others – one’s peers, family, community, and so on.

There are also many, more specific, sporting identities that are available in a wide range of different sporting activities, and in these cases the sport sociology literature has focused on the processes of identity formation and maintenance of such identities. An excellent example of this focus is provided by the work of Donnelly and Young (1988), who show how identity claims are made in the context of existing sport groups, and that successfully claiming an identity as an athlete in a particular sport is an interactive process that occurs in social and cultural contexts in which social definitions and meanings serve as influencing factors.

Using their ethnographic work on the sporting subcultures of rugby and rock climbing, Donnelly and Young illustrate the various ways in which neophytes to these two sporting activities deliberately strive to take on and claim – in Donnelly and Young’s words, ‘‘construct’’ – the social identity of ‘‘rugby player’’ or ‘‘rock climber.’’ They describe how, upon entering the social context, these neophytes often have a limited or even erroneous understanding of the behaviors, values, and attitudes typically associated with the sporting identities they are attempting to claim. If they are to be successful in these identity claims, therefore, the ‘‘rookies’’ need to realign their public presentations of these identities to meet the expectations of the subcultural insiders, the ‘‘veterans.’’ It is through an interactive process in which the rookies ‘‘try on’’ the potential identities and attempt to manage impressions that they become more ‘‘accurate’’ in and more comfortable with the presentations of these identities. More often than not, however, they make mistakes, misinterpreting the meanings and the significance of certain behaviors, expressions, and narratives from within the subculture. It is here that the role of subcultural insiders is critical in this interactive process, as Donnelly and Young demonstrate, as the insiders test the newcomers in order to validate the identity claims that they are making, particularly about the skills, abilities, and experiences they are claiming as part of the identity – such as having climbed certain routes which have an established level of difficulty, or about having played in certain positions in rugby or at certain levels of expertise in countries recognized as rugby powers. The result is that these insiders act to either support and confirm or refute the claimed identity.

The formation and maintenance of more societally generic identities through personal participation in sports as well as through watching sports has been another focus of the sport sociology literature. Sports are believed to be particularly efficacious in such identity processes because of their enormous popularity, the passion they can engender in both participant and spectator, and their potential to present effective modeling of the different identities. For example, sociologists have explored the ways in which a wide variety of sports can be used to create and to reinforce gender identity, such as a ‘‘masculine’’ identity through participation in such sports as soccer, North American football, rugby, and ice hockey (e.g., see Burgess et al. 2003). Alternatively, scholars have also shown how participation in sport can be used to create and sustain gender identities which challenge traditional meanings and definitions – for example, gay athletes who challenge hegemonic definitions of masculinity (see Anderson 2002). Similarly, scholars have examined the role of sports in the construction of various racial and ethnic identities, such as baseball and the Latino identity, basketball, football, and athletics and the African American identity, and rugby and the Maori identity (e.g., see King 2004). And, of course, sociologists have investigated the role of soccer worldwide in the construction and reinforcement of various national identities, from Ireland and Scotland to Israel, Liberia, and Brazil (e.g., see Bairner 2003).

Finally, some literature in sociology of sport and identity has examined the consequences of successful claiming and maintaining sporting identities on an individual’s future options for seeking alternative identities and career paths. This literature has looked at the ways in which such success fully claimed sporting identities, while on the one hand encouraging the deepening of the individual’s commitment and ‘‘embeddedness’’ in sporting involvements, may, on the other hand, also act to constrain the individual’s immediate and future life choices. For example, Steven son’s (1990) examination of the careers of elite athletes illustrates how many of these individuals were often recognized early (but not always) in their lives as potentially excellent ‘‘rugby players’’ or ‘‘field hockey players’’ by a number of significant others (including their peers and their community, their parents and siblings, and such significant adults as teachers and coaches). The initial consequences of being attributed such desirable identities were generally very positive, in that these individuals received considerable attention and praise, and were held in high esteem by their immediate social group. Such consequences served to heighten the commitment of these individuals to these identities and to their sporting activities, increasing the time, energy, and resources which they committed to them, while also simultaneously reducing the perceived value of pursuing alternative identities and other types of careers. So, as they enjoyed these benefits over their careers as athletes, they also found that their options to be ‘‘other than a rugby player’’ or ‘‘other than a field hockey player’’ became constrained. As the costs of their identities as successful athletes began to mount – injuries, the intrusion on other aspects of their lives, including their relationships with others, the constraints on their ability to create other career and identity possibilities outside of the sporting context – the resultant difficulties in maintaining their identities as athletes became increasingly acute, until their athletic careers came to an inevitable end or became transformed into associated identities, such as coach, administrator, or media commentator.


  1. Anderson, E. (2002) Openly Gay Athletes: Contesting Hegemonic Masculinity in a Homophobic Environment. Gender and Society 16(6): 860-77.
  2. Bairner, A. (2003) Political Unionism and Sporting Nationalism: An Examination of the Relationship between Sport and National Identity within the Ulster Unionist Tradition. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power 10, 4 (October December): 517-35.
  3. Bosma, H. A., Graafsma, T. L. G., Grotevant, H., & de Levita, D. J. (1994) Identity and Development: An Interdisciplinary Approach. Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA.
  4. Burgess, I., Edwards, A., & Skinner, J. (2003) Football Culture in an Australian School Setting: The Construction of Masculine Identity. Sport, Education, and Society 8, 2 (October): 199-212.
  5. Cote, J. E. & Levine, C. G. (2002) Identity Formation, Agency, and Culture. Lawrence Erlbaum, Mahwah, NJ.
  6. Donnelly, P. & Young, K. (1988) The Construction and Confirmation of Identity in Sport Subcultures. Sociology of Sport Journal 5(3): 223-40.
  7. Goffman, E. (1959) The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Doubleday, Garden City, NY.
  8. King, C. (2004) Race and Cultural Identity: Playing the Race Game Inside Football. Leisure Studies, 23, 1 ( January): 19-30.
  9. Snow, D. A. & Anderson, L. (1987) Identity Work Among the Homeless: The Verbal Construction and Avowal of Personal Identities. American Journal of Sociology 92(6): 1336-71.
  10. Stevenson, C. L. (1990) The Early Careers of Elite Athletes. Sociology of Sport Journal 7(3): 238-53.
  11. Weigert, A. J., Teitge, J. S., & Teitge, D. W. (1986) Society and Identity: Toward a Sociological Psychology. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

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