Sport and Social Class

Sport is a significant contributor to relations of social class in that people in elite groups have the resources to organize and maintain games on their own terms and in spaces inaccessible to others. This ultimately serves to reproduce social and economic distinctions and preserve the power and influence of those who control resources in society. The growth of modern sports cannot be fully understood unless this key influence and core dynamic is fully recognized.


In it most general sense, social class refers to the social and cultural expression of an economic relationship. Classes are made up of individuals located and identified by (1) their contribution to economic production, (2) their access to and control over resources, and (3) their distinctive class cultures and lifestyles. In modern societies social classes are based on the individual’s and the group’s place in the industrial and economic process, with the most significant measures of class distinction being wealth and occupation. Explaining the relationship between these indices of class position and other sources of status and identity has long been a focus of sociological theory and research. For example, at the end of the nineteenth century, Veblen (1953) stressed that people in the ruling class recreated imagined lifestyles of the elites from previous times and constructed a life of leisure that set themselves apart from lower classes and less privileged groups. Veblen explained that the accumulation of wealth and conspicuous consumption in sport and leisure were inextricably linked. As the leisure and consumer economies of the twentieth century consolidated and expanded, this link would become increasingly important for social classes that could balance work–leisure choices, and not just for those who could afford to dispense with paid work or employment altogether.

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Sport and Social Class: Historical Context

Forms of inequality and exploitation characterized the civilizations of the ancient world, where participation and spectatorship in Greek festivals and Roman games were based upon position and rank in the social and economic order. In the European Middle Ages, when the military rationale of the jousting tournament receded, it was maintained by despotic rulers as a spectacular public display of power and a form of theater in which participation and spectatorship were based on social status and class position.

In comparable ways, a structure of social differentiation based on class characterized the emergent social order of the West’s early modern period as industrialization and urbanization reshaped the basis of society and culture. Ascribed status, leaving little option for social mobility, was superseded by achieved status that, in theory, held the promise of a change in status, according to the individual’s economic position and potential. Social standing came to be defined in terms of what people did to make a living and how they publicly displayed their acquired economic status rather than in terms of inherited status and prescribed opportunities (Sugden & Tomlinson 2000). Yet, in practice, social class, defined in terms of economic status and its associated cultural dimensions, reproduced the status quo and contributed to the consolidation of power relations and cultural distinctions.

Seminal social histories of sports in Britain – association football/soccer (Mason 1980), rugby football (Dunning & Sheard 1979), and cricket (Birley 2003) – have vividly demonstrated how the emergence and the evolution of modern sports forms were rooted in class relations. Association football in its amateur form was championed by the middle and upper classes, and developed in its professional form by the working class and lower middle classes. The attitudes and beliefs embodied in the ethos of particular sports expressed class based status and values. The middle classes, for instance, believed that the amateur code of the game built character, strengthened the body, discouraged drinking, and unified social classes (Mason 1980: 229). Rugby football’s ‘‘Great Schism’’ of 1895 saw the split between the Northern English mass spectator form of the game, and the amateur, Southern English based Rugby Football Union (Dunning & Sheard 1979: 198–200). Class patronage shaped many forms of sports provision, in the US and advanced societies generally. Marxist influenced accounts have had a widespread impact upon how such class dynamics and relations have been theorized.

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Sport and Social Class: Neo Marxist Accounts

Miliband (1977) noted that the development of a Marxist sociology of sport was not an outstandingly urgent theoretical imperative, but added that neither was it the most negligible of tasks. Marxist and neo Marxist analysts of sport have been concerned mainly with two themes: sport’s ideological role and sport’s potential as contestation and resistance.

Marx said nothing about sport or its relationship with social class, but neo Marxists have explored the nature and histories of class dynamics and class struggles. Thompson’s (1968) historical interpretation of the making of the English working class describes how sport and leisure often were sites for class struggle, as the social forces that pioneered the development of capitalism emerged and sought to shape the ideological and cultural production of the new age. The establishment of capitalism and the inexorable rise of an industrial and commercial bourgeoisie demanded a disciplined and reliable labor force. A priority for the new ruling class was the reformation of the working rhythms of those whose experience of labor was based in rural rhythms past and seasonal cycles. Necessarily, the non work habits of the masses formed part of the equation of reform, for what people did in their spare time had implications for how they related to the process of production. Thompson showed how an emergent bourgeoisie in England used its influence both in government and within the church to carry out a legal and moral crusade against the recreational habits of the lower orders. He also explained that new labor habits were established through the imposition of time discipline, a division of labor, the supervision of labor through the use of fines, money incentives, and bells and clocks, the words of preachers and teachers, and the suppression of fairs and sports (Thompson 1967). The incipient working class did not willingly surrender long established customs and leisure practices. Such reforms succeeded only through processes of resistance and struggle between classes and class fractions. For example, Delves’s (1981) study of the decline of folk football in the English city of Derby illustrated how new cross class alliances – the emergence of newly dominant class fractions with common interests in commerce, change, and reform – accounted for the demise of the traditional form of folk football, and the rise of horse racing – a more regulated, enclosed, civilized, and profitable form of sport.

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Sport Cultures: Class, Habitus, and Reproduction

Bourdieu (1978) notes that sports emerged in exclusive English public schools, where the sons of wealthy, powerful, and aristocratic families appropriated popular games and changed their function to suit their interests. He connects the rationalization of games into modern sport forms with a class based philosophy of amateur ism that expressed the moral ideal and the ethos of the most powerful segments of the bourgeois class. To play tennis or golf, to ride or to sail, was, as Bourdieu argues, to bestow upon the participant what he called gains in distinction. Sports in which lower middle class or working class people participate develop as spectacles created for the people as mass commodities. Sports, therefore, are not self contained spheres of practice, and it is class habitus that defines any meaning conferred on sporting activity, and any social value that is associated with the sporting practice. From this perspective, then, sports participation is not a matter of personal choice or individual preference; it depends upon the financial resources available to the potential participant, the social status of those prominent in that activity, and the cultural meaning of a sport and the individual’s relationship to those meanings.

Far from being an open sphere of limitless possibilities, sport is a social phenomenon and cultural space that operates in Weberian terms as a form of social closure, in which potential entrants are vetted and excluded to suit the incumbent gatekeepers. At the same time, the inner world of the sports culture is tightly monitored and controlled, as in golf or tennis club membership committees, and in other sports institutions in which formal or informal entry requirements are barriers to open participation. The recruitment and induction processes into such clubs are operational expressions of and examinations in cultural capital. For example, entrance into a tennis club requires that new comers must communicate competently with the gatekeepers of a club; read the social interactions and etiquette and conventions of a club; comply with the dress code; be equipped with relatively sophisticated technology; and have the ability to play at an acceptable level of competence. This apparently open choice is in reality a possibility or trajectory based upon what Bourdieu recognizes as the power of economic and cultural capital, so that class variations in sporting practice can be understood as shaped by not just the basic financial costs of an activity, but also by the perceived benefits that will accrue, either immediately or later, to the participant. Sporting practices, and associated physical and body cultures, are therefore aspects of the class habitus. Practices, in the Bourdieuian framework, are articulations of habitus.

Bourdieu is sensitive to the fact that classes are not monolithic. He argues that there can be divisions within classes and these too can be reflected in sports. An interesting example that he uses is that of the gender dimension of the class habitus that produces a sexual division of labor that in turn affects participation in particular sporting activities. But in general, for Bourdieu, the analysis of sport is a form of class analysis. Sport acts as a kind of badge of social exclusivity and cultural distinctiveness for the dominant classes; it operates as a means of control or containment of the working or popular classes; it is a potential but unlikely source of escape and mobility for talented working class sports performers; it articulates the fractional status distinctions which exist within the ranks of larger class groupings; and it reveals the capacity of the body to express social principles and cultural meanings, for physical capital (Wacquant 1995) to connect with forms of economic and cultural capital. Bourdieu described his study Distinction (1986) as an attempt to think through Marx and Weber’s rival conceptions of class and status, and his major achievement was to connect the study of class position and concomitant lifestyles and statuses. The lesson here for the sociologist of sport is to recognize the need for a complementary and integrated analysis of both the class dimensions of a sport and its associated lifestyle dimensions.

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Studies of sport and social class continue to pose the question of how important social class is as an influence upon participation and/or spectatorship. A Canadian study (White & Wilson 1999) reports the primary influence of socioeconomic status upon sport spectatorship; a Scandinavian study (Thrane 2001) questions this, disputing any linear influence of household income upon spectatorship, and claiming a further complexity by seeking to measure the influence of education, cultural capital, and sport participation. Unsurprisingly, the more that is measured, the more confusing the picture gets. However, analyzing data from the US General Social Survey in 1993 and drawing upon Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital, Wilson (2002) is much more analytically unequivocal: cultural capital enables people to do more sport, and social class provides the knowledge, tastes, skills, and preferences that motivate individuals towards particular types of sport consumption.

An overemphasis upon the potential of sport to offer social mobility to a few can distort this picture of sport’s reproductive capacity. It is often thought that working class males take up boxing in order to get out of the ghetto. Some do; a few more may. But Sugden’s (1987) insightful ethnography of the Burnt Oak boxing gym shows how for the majority who will not graduate to the professional ranks, boxing is a form of exploitation, giving them little more than survival skills, honing skills and fueling hope, but confirming their ghetto culture.

In societies such as Britain sport participation in a general sense has demonstrated a relative stability. National participation figures are notoriously difficult to unravel in completely reliable ways, but it is clear that there was no boom in participation during the 1990s. In fact, sport participation rates and the patterns of participation between different social groups have remained largely unchanged since the early 1970s, with the exception that more women now participate in fitness activities (Rowe 2003). The 2002 General Household Survey in Britain showed enormous differences between groups classified by socioeconomic criteria: 20 percent of adults in the higher occupational cum economic groupings did keep fit; for those not working, or long term unemployed, it was 4 percent; 59 percent of the former group took part in at least one physical activity in the 4 week reference period compared with 30 per cent of those in routine jobs. One in 10 of the top occupational group had played golf, the same figure for running/jogging; only 1 in 50 of those in routine jobs had participated in these activities (Fox & Rickards 2004).

National studies confirm such persisting patterns of class based inequality; local and regional studies provide parallel confirmation, as in analyses of urban space and sport and leisure consumption. Twenty first century consumer society without doubt offers numerous opportunities for the expression of experimental identities, for a kind of project of the self to which sport can be one contributing source, as work on lifestyle and extreme sports has shown. Cultures can and do change, but as Williams (1977) noted, in subtle ways in which the dominant, residual, and emergent elements sometimes intermesh. Dominant cultures resist transformation though, and in this wider context sport, at its various levels of performance, participation, and spectatorship, continues to show how class habitus and cultural capital remain major determinants of everyday practices and cultural institutions.

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