Sport and the Body

Given the centrality of the body in sport performance, it might be assumed that the corporeality of athletes has been an essential facet of sport sociological analysis. Despite its vital role, however, the body has occupied ‘‘an absent presence’’ in this research and only since the late 1980s have sport sociologists expressed a growing interest in this topic.

This rather late awakening to the social construction of the body can be attributed to the persistent mind body dualism that has had a deep impact on how the sociology of sport and sport studies view themselves as academic disciplines. The break of sport sciences from physical education reflected the move away from the bodily experience into an intellectual understanding of sport and a validation of sport as a scientific discipline. Opting for the science route, in its early phase from the mid 1960s to the early 1980s, sport sociology was dominated by structural functionalist theorizing that focused on examining human beings as role actors within social structures ignoring the embodied actor. However, in the late 1980s and during the 1990s, along with other social sciences, the ‘‘non body bias’’ started to lift and there was an increased awareness of the importance of studying how the sport ing body has been constructed within power relations.

Examinations of the sporting body have evolved through several theoretical traditions. Inspired by the work of Norbert Elias, several sport sociologists have looked at how the (male) sporting body has become more civilized when molded through different figurations of power over time. This has evolved into further process sociological examinations of interrelation ships between the body, power, and identity construction.

Interpretive sociology, particularly the dramaturgical work of Erving Goffman, has inspired sport scholars to examine the presentation of the body in its everyday context. In addition, phenomenological approaches have been used to examine how the lived body is experienced within the sporting context.

Critical cultural studies examine how the body has been shaped by the ideological construction of sport and by the dominant groups that maintain the current structure of sport. In addition, researchers using this approach have drawn attention to how different bodily identities – such as gendered bodies, lesbian/gay bodies, disabled bodies, ethnic bodies, and aging bodies – have been constructed within commercialized, globalized sport. They have also examined how a body can act as site of agency to resist the dominance of the powerful groups in sport.

More recently, the work of French poststructuralists such as Pierre Bourdieu and particularly Michel Foucault have become increasingly visible tools to examine the social construction of the sporting body. Bourdieu’s work has enabled sport scholars to locate the body within the context of social fields where different sport practices construct distinctive habitus for its participants. Foucault’s understanding of the body as a material site of disciplinary, discursive practices has been used to examine sport as a technology of domination. However, there is also an expanding literature on how the body might act as practice of freedom from the truth games that dominate sport and subvert the ethics of self care. Feminist sport research, particularly, has contributed to growing Foucauldian interpretations of sporting bodies (Markula 2004).

Against this theoretical backdrop, several major topics emerge. One of the major premises for the current investigation of the sporting body as socially constructed is not just about how it is shaped but also about how individual bodies are shaping the power relations in sport. From the modernist perspective, the sporting body is seen as a contradiction: simultaneously being constructed by and constructing the dominant ideologies of sport. Sport, therefore, has been identified to act as a social field that has potential to liberate such oppressed identities as women, lesbian/gay people, disabled, aged, minority ethnicities, or economically underprivileged groups, but who simultaneously conform to the current dominant ideologies of sport. Similarly, different sports, such as male contact sports, have been identified as particular sites for oppressive bodily practices, whereas other sports, such as women’s team/contact sports or women’s bodybuilding, have been analyzed as sites for liberation from the structures of power.

Poststructuralist/postmodern theorists aim to expand the possibilities for the body’s ability to change the existing power relations by assuming the embodied human being as an antiessentialist self who, instead of struggling to resist against power that someone else exclusively holds, assumes a certain amount of power themselves. In this scenario, power relations turn from something to be resisted and eventually overturned into a potential source of creative and positive change through bodily practices. These examinations have also transgressed the boundaries of ‘‘traditional’’ definitions of sport to examine bodily dimensions of such popular phenomena as extreme and adventure sports, ‘‘trash sport’’ events such as the performances by World Wrestling Enterprise (WWE), and the fitness industry within the increasingly global economy of leisure.

While sport scholars have used a variety of methods, their examination of the sporting bodies can be located within two broad categories: textual readings of the sporting body and the sporting body as experienced by the athletes. The textual readings range from the representation of women athletes’ bodies in the media, to the signification of celebrity athletes in the current socioeconomic climate. Individual bodily experiences have been mapped primarily by interviewing athletes within a diverse range of sports and at diverse levels of sport. These studies have focused on such bodily issues as violence, physicality, the impact of injury in a sporting career, body image, disordered eating, sexuality, sexual harassment, sport for disabled, and becoming disabled through sport. Several researchers have also embarked on interview studies to determine whether a particular sporting body can be interpreted as a transgressive body. In addition to interviewing, ethnographic studies have been conducted to trace the social construction of sporting bodies within such contexts as bodybuilding, boxing, the fitness industry, sport spectatorship, football hooliganism, football industry, adventure sports, WWE, women’s ice hockey, and rugby union. There is also a growing literature of autoethnographically based examinations of bodily experiences. These studies trace, through the authors’ personal experiences, how the physically active body has been lived into existence within the structures of power.

The sporting body has been examined from diverse theoretical perspectives using multiple methods to create a rich and varied body of literature. This multiplicity is likely to characterize future research on the social analyses of sporting bodies. However, there appears to be a theoretical trend toward the postmodern/poststructuralist analysis of the body. Therefore, while the modernist body as ideologically constructed into such categorical identities as gender, class, race, or sexuality will persist as part of sociological examination of the sporting body, the performative, postcolonial, queer, cyborg, and embodied postmodern body that is fragmented and in constant flux in the hyperreal, global economy of the sign will feature strongly in future research, as scholars expand their research horizons to further transgress the definitional boundaries of sport. In addition, the storied bodily writing continues to challenge social science research texts through their engagement in performance and performative writing.


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  9. Shilling, C. (1993). The Body and Social Theory. Sage, London.
  10. Sociology of Sport Journal (2001) Special issue on disability and sport. 20(1).

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