Sport Culture and Subcultures

Research and theoretical approaches to sport culture and subcultures in the sociology of sport fall into three overlapping periods: (1) early interest in sport subcultures from an interactionist perspective; (2) a transition period during which more critical theoretical approaches to culture and subcultures and more rigorous methodological approaches emerged; and (3) a wholehearted embrace of ‘‘cultural studies’’ and the consequent fragmentation of approaches to sport culture and subcultures. These changes were accompanied by parallel theoretical and definitional concerns about the meaning of culture and subculture.

Following the example of sociologists such as Howard Becker and Everett Hughes, some of the earliest work in the emerging subdiscipline of sociology of sport concerned sport subcultures. Weinberg and Arond’s (1952) study of boxers preceded studies of professional baseball players, professional wrestling, pool hustlers, ice hockey players, and the various jobs involved in horse racing. These were followed by a series of striking comparative studies of, for example, hockey players and Hollywood musicians, professional wrestlers and physicians, and female gymnasts and professional wrestlers.

These studies of occupational subcultures were grounded in the US tradition of subcultural research. Definitions of culture had not really developed beyond Tylor’s (1871) ‘‘complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities acquired by man as a member of society.’’ Culture was that which humans passed along socially, rather than biologically; subcultures were sub units of the larger culture; and even Fine and Kleinman’s (1979) attempt to ‘‘rethink’’ subculture maintained a basic interactionist definition in which ‘‘the referent group’’ encourages potential members to take on the cultural characteristics of a particular subculture. The original subcultural research in sociology, focusing on youth and deviance, had spread from ‘‘deviant careers’’ to other occupations and avocations, and Arnold (1972) provided justification for the study of sport subcultures by arguing that they ‘‘have a sociological importance in and of themselves.’’ Arnold proposed that membership in such ‘‘achieved’’ (as opposed to ascribed) subcultures provided an alternative identity status as the institutional significance of work decreased.

Ingham (1975) signaled the critical shift in the sociology of sport subcultures by combining Marx, Weber, and Goffman in his analysis of ‘‘occupational subcultures in the work world of sport.’’ His work was contemporary with a ‘‘cultural turn’’ in both sociology and the sociology of sport. Culture was no longer something relatively inert, ‘‘meanings and ways’’ that were passed from generation to generation; rather, it was a social construction, a site of struggles, something that was produced, reproduced, and resisted – and subcultures could now be seen as both the engines of cultural production and the battlegrounds for contesting culture. As Bour dieu (1993) pointed out: ‘‘The field of sporting practice is the site of struggles in which what is at stake, inter alia, is the monopolistic capacity to impose the legitimate definition of sporting practice and the legitimate function of sporting activity.’’

Thus, in sport, these struggles were fought over the ‘‘meanings and ways’’ of what was now being recognized as a dominant sport culture – a culture that was outcome, achievement, and record oriented; a culture that was characterized by homogenizing principles of governance and commercial interest. In the dominant sport culture, sport was rationalized and utilitarian – it was for the purposes of entertainment and/or to encourage civic/national pride; it was to demonstrate the effectiveness of a political ideology (e.g., Olympics during the Cold War); it was for the purposes of health (in the new era of privatized/personal conceptions of health); and it was primarily for socialization – character, work habits and discipline, individual achievement and teamwork, etc.; or even just to occupy the time of those considered to be ‘‘dangerous’’ or ‘‘youth at risk’’ (e.g., ‘‘midnight basketball’’ for the social control of urban youth).

Studies of sport subcultures slowly began to incorporate these changes, influenced both by Geertz’s (1973) ‘‘thick description,’’ which produced richer and more nuanced ethnographies, and by the more politicized ethnography and subculture theory that was developing at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in England. Although the broader notion of ‘‘career’’ was still at the root of most research, there was also the beginning of a change toward socialization and identity factors in sport subcultures, an interest in class cultures and sport, and the beginning of a focus on sport subcultures as sites of cultural production. Gruneau (1981) pointed out that the study of sport subcultures now concerned how ‘‘subcultures, with their various ‘establishment’ and ‘countercultural’ emphases, have been constitutively inserted into the struggles, the forms of compliance and opposition, social reproduction and transformation, associated with changing patterns of social development.’’ Bishop and Hoggett (1987) similarly argued that sport and leisure subcultures are crucial sites for the transmission, resistance, and negotiation of the dominant values of the larger society.

Research during this second period maintained an interest in careers – extending that interest to the life cycle of a career in sports, and to processes of socialization and desocialization or retirement from participation (for a collection of studies representing this type of research, see Coakley & Donnelly 1999). Identity issues also began to emerge in terms of how individuals developed appropriate subcultural identities and how those identities are negotiated and accepted (or not) by other members.

Further evidence of transition during this period concerns what are now referred to as alternative or extreme sport subcultures – they were ‘‘alternative’’ to the dominant sport culture, openly rejecting many of the ‘‘meanings and ways’’ noted above. Earlier research on sports such as surfing and rock climbing had focused on the activities as deviant subcultures; research emerging at this time began to reinterpret the alternative nature of such subcultures as ‘‘resistance’’ rather than ‘‘deviance.’’ This work also led to recognition of the ephemeral nature of resistance to the dominant sport culture, and the ways in which activities such as freestyle skiing, skateboarding, and snowboarding were subject to commercial and media pressures, and to incorporation by the dominant sport culture. The life cycle of freestyle skiing, from its ‘‘hot dog’’ origins, resisting all of the trappings of mainstream sport, to almost complete incorporation into the international skiing federation (FIS) and recognition as an Olympic sport, represents a classic example of such resistance and incorporation (Donnelly 1988). Using Raymond Williams’s approach to hegemony and resistance, Donnelly (1993) also showed how alternative cultural formations were evident in both residual and emergent contexts.

Recent research on sport culture and subcultures represents a completion of the shift toward cultural studies evident in the transition period, and an increasing fragmentation of approaches to subcultures parallel to the broader fragmentation of approaches to sociology following the postmodern turn. In addition to an increasing interest in identity work in sport subcultures, there has been increased interest in (and opposition to) the idea of a global sport culture, increasing amounts of research on fan culture and celebrity culture in sports, and a substantial focus (given the embodied nature of sports) on body culture. Research in the sociology of the body now covers a wide range of bodily practices, including sports. As Bourdieu (1993) pointed out, the definitional struggles associated with sport also extend to defining the ‘‘legitimate body’’ and ‘‘legitimate uses of the body.’’ Definitional concerns have also reappeared with regard to the concept of subculture itself, with some contending that ‘‘subworld’’ represents a better descriptor than ‘‘subculture’’ of the cultures that emerge around sports; they argue that ‘‘subculture’’ implies a condition of domination and subordination that does not exist in some sport ‘‘subworlds.’’ And theoretical issues range from concerns that some researchers have over used the concept of resistance to the point that it no longer has a political impact, to concerns that studies of subcultures imply a homogeneity of culture where heterogeneity is widespread.

Recent research suggests that sport sociologists will continue to be interested in fan culture, celebrity culture, and body culture in sports, and interest in alternative sport subcultures is increasingly popular. To the extent that sport subcultural research continues to shed light on the historical processes by which a way of playing a sport becomes the way of playing the sport; on the ways that cultural meanings and ways are produced in sport subcultures; and on the ways in which sport subcultures are involved in larger processes of resistance, social reproduction, and social transformation, such research will continue to be of interest to sociologists. The recent reemergence of interest in class cultures in sport suggests that this is still the case.


  1. Arnold, D. (1972) The Social Organization of Skydiving: A Study in Vertical Mobility. Paper presented at the Pacific Sociological Association annual meeting, Porland.
  2. Bishop, J. & Hoggett, P. (1987) Clubbing Together. New Socialist (Summer): 32-3.
  3. Bourdieu, P. (1993 [1978]) How Can One Be a Sportsman? In: Sociology in Question. Sage, London, pp. 117-31.
  4. Coakley, J. & Donnelly, P. (Eds.) (1999) Inside Sports. Rouledge, London.
  5. Donnelly, P. (1985) Sport Subcultures. Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews 13: 539-78.
  6. Donnelly, P. (1988) Sport as a Site for ‘‘Popular’’ Resistance. In: Gruneau, R. (Ed.), Popular Cultures and Political Practices. Garamond, Toronto, pp. 69-82.
  7. Donnelly, P. (1993) Subcultures in Sport: Resilience and Transformation. In: Ingham, A. & Loy, J. (Eds.), Sport in Social Development: Traditions, Transitions, and Transformations. Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL, pp. 119-45.
  8. Fine, G. A. & Kleinman, S. (1979) Rethinking Subculture: An Interactionist Analysis. American Journal of Sociology 85: 1-20.
  9. Geertz, C. (1973) The Interpretation of Culture. Basic Books, New York.
  10. Gruneau, R. (1981) Review of ‘‘Surfing Subcultures of Australia and New Zealand. ICSS Bulletin 21: 8-10.
  11. Ingham, A. (1975) Occupational Subcultures in the Work-World of Sport. In: Ingham, A. & Loy, J. (Eds.), Sport in Social Development: Traditions, Transitions, and Transformations. Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL, pp. 355-89.
  12. Tylor, E. B. (1871) Primitive Culture. John Murray, London.
  13. Weinberg, S. & Arond, H. (1952) The Occupational Culture of the Boxer. American Journal of Sociology 57: 460-9.

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