Sociology of Sport Research Paper

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I. Introduction

II. Origins

III. Interdisciplinarity

IV. Development of the Field

A. Reflection/Searching for a Sociology for the Sociology of Sport

B. Reproduction/Early Confrontations with Marxism

C. Resistance/Cultural Studies

D. Recent Developments/Disunity in Unity

V. Achievements/Winning “Respect”

A. Reflection/Searching for a Sociology for the Sociology of Sport

B. Reproduction/Early Confrontations with Marxism

C. Resistance/Cultural Studies

D. Recent Developments/Gaining Respect

VI. The Future of Sociology of Sport: “Disunity in Unity”?

I. Introduction

Organized sport, as an area of social life, has become increasingly significant in the last 150 years. Sport now attracts the attention, time, resources, and energy of many millions of people around the world. In addition to the significance of sport itself as a cultural form, it is an activity that is related to and has the ability to shed light on many other aspects of society such as education, the media, health, the economy, politics, families and communities, and to expose social processes such as globalization, democratization, and socialization to sociological analysis. Despite this, sociological attention to such a significant area of social life continues to be limited, with some suggesting that the sociology of sport has been the “Rodney Dangerfield” of sociology.

This research paper examines the origins of the sociology of sport and explores its interdisciplinarity particularly in terms of its dual “location” in the disciplines of sociology and physical education. The development of sociology of sport is examined over three phases, together with a consideration of recent developments; and this is followed by an examination of the achievements of the sociology of sport in adding to the body of knowledge in sociology over the same three overlapping phases and a consideration of recent developments and attempts to win “respect.” The paper concludes by speculating about the future of a field of study that Ingham and Donnelly (1997) characterized as “disunity in unity.”

II. Origins

The sociology of sport began to emerge as a formally recognized subdiscipline of sociology in the second half of the twentieth century. There were a number of earlier examples of sociological attention to the field of sport. In the United States, Veblen (1899) referred to sports as “marks of an arrested spiritual development” (1934:253) and to college sports as “manifestations of the predatory temperament” (p. 255) in his The Theory of the Leisure Class.W. I. Thomas (1901) and G. E. Howard (1912) dealt with “the gaming instinct” and the “social psychology of the spectator,” respectively in articles published in the American Journal of Sociology. Spencer, Simmel, Weber, Piaget, Hall, Sumner, Huizinga, and Mead all made reference to play, games, and/or sport in their work, but it was probably the German, Heinz Risse (1921) who first characterized sport as a sociological field of study in his book Soziologie des Sports.

Following World War II, there was growing interest in sport from a sociological perspective. By the 1960s, television was beginning to devote significant amounts of time to sport, professional leagues were developing and expanding, organized youth sports in communities and educational institutions were beginning to proliferate, and the Cold War was being fought at the Olympics and other international competitions. In the United States, social scientists such as Gregory Stone, David Riesman, Erving Goffman, Eric Berne, James Coleman, and Charles Page all produced works referring to sport. Their interests were reflected internationally in the emergence of the first academic association in the field in 1964. The International Committee for the Sociology of Sport (now named the International Sociology of Sport Association) was comprised of both sociologists and physical educators from East and West Germany, France, Switzerland, Finland, England, the Soviet Union, Poland, the United States, and Japan. The Committee/Association, which is affiliated with United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization through the International Council of Sport Sciences and Physical Education and the International Sociological Association, has held annual conferences since 1966 and began to produce a journal (the International Review for the Sociology of Sport, now published by Sage) in that same year.

The first English language books in the field also began to appear in the 1960s (e.g., McIntosh 1963; Jokl 1964). Kenyon and Loy’s (1965) call for a sociology of sport is considered to be a key programmatic statement, and the same authors produced the first anthology in the field, Sport, Culture, and Society: A Reader on the Sociology of Sport (Loy and Kenyon 1969).

III. Interdisciplinarity

The sociology of sport provides a large social scientific umbrella and may be one of the more interdisciplinary, or at least multidisciplinary, subdisciplines in the social sciences. In addition to sociology, researchers whose work is perhaps more recognized as belonging to other mainstream social science disciplines such as political science, economics, political economy, social psychology, cultural anthropology, history, human/cultural geography, and religious studies have all published in sociology of sport journals and presented papers at sociology of sport conferences. Thus, the sociology of sport is, in many ways, a shorthand term for the social science of sport. This occurred mainly because the sociology of sport became organized early and, because it remained open to a wide range of social sciences, organizations, journals, and conferences did not develop in other fields. Some exceptions include The Anthropological Association for the Study of Play, and its short-lived journal, Play and Culture; the history of sport, with its own national and international organizations and journals; and some researchers involved in economics and policy studies who have also become involved recently with sport management associations (e.g., the European Association for Sport Management and the North American Society for Sport Management).

The sociology of sport has also experienced the same type of fragmentation as mainstream sociology in the last 30 years. The emergence of departments such as “policy studies,” “gender studies,” “media/communications studies,” and “race and ethnic studies,” many employing individuals trained as sociologists, produces another layer of social sciences. Scholars in these departments are also carrying out sport-related research and presenting and publishing work in the sociology of sport.

A third area of interdisciplinarity involves the relationship of sociology of sport to both sociology and physical education (now sometimes called kinesiology or human kinetics).

Many of the subdisciplines of sociology have dual affiliations—for example, the sociology of religion may be found in both sociology and religious studies departments. However, the connections between the sociology of sport, physical education, and sociology may be more striking and consequential. The sociology of sport began to emerge in North America at a time (1960s) when physical education (and other applied professional) departments in universities, which had until then primarily emphasized teacher preparation, were under pressure to develop an academic body of knowledge and to increase research productivity. The solution, proposed by physical educator Franklin Henry (1964) at the University of California, Berkeley, was to seek legitimacy in the disciplines. He proposed that “there is indeed a scholarly field of knowledge basic to physical education. It is constituted of certain portions of such diverse fields as anatomy, physics and physiology, cultural anthropology, history and sociology, as well as psychology” (p. 32). Thus, just as some sociologists were beginning to see sport as a legitimate area of sociological inquiry, physical educators were being encouraged to establish a disciplinary specialty, and graduate education in physical education soon began to emphasize those specialties, including sociology. The disciplinary emphasis in physical education became widespread internationally and was adopted in the university physical education curricula of most developed nations.

Sage (1997) provides a detailed account of the relationships between sociology and physical education in the sociology of sport, pointing out the closeness of the relationship, and its complexities. Describing “the development of the sociology of sport [as] a joint venture for physical educators and sociologists,” (p. 325) he points to examples such as the following:

  • Sociology of sport courses, required by physical education departments, being taught by sociology departments
  • Physical education graduate students specializing in the sociology of sport taking course work in sociology departments
  • Sociologists serving on thesis and dissertation committees for such graduate students
  • Professors employed by sociology and physical education departments being cross-appointed to the other department

The University of Massachusetts in the 1970s and, more recently, the University of Illinois are examples of places where extremely close relations developed between faculty members and graduate students in both physical education and sociology departments. Sage (1997) goes on to note that both sociologists and physical educators specializing in the sociology of sport have served together on the boards of national, regional, and international sociology of sport associations, and on the editorial boards of sociology of sport journals. In addition, the leading organization in the field (the International Sociology of Sport Association) exposes this dual affiliation by meeting biennially at the World Congress of Sociology (as Research Committee No. 27 of the International Sociological Association), and the Pre-Olympic (Sport Sciences) Congress, respectively.

Despite this closeness, relations are not always harmonious. For example, in countries such as Germany and Japan two different sociology of sport associations exist, one sponsored by physical education and the other by sociology. Membership may cross over, but attempts to merge the two organizations have been resisted. Issues of prestige and status are involved here. Sociology may not feel that it ranks very highly in university departmental prestige rankings, but it knows that it ranks more highly than physical education (which has found the “dumb jock” image to be stubbornly persistent).

Similarly, the study of sport carries little prestige in sociology departments, and Ingham and Donnelly (1997) noted that some individuals graduating with Ph.D.s in sociology, and whose doctoral theses had dealt with sport, were counseled against continuing work in that area—one noting that he had been advised to seek a more “mainstream and rigorous” area of sociology.

Sociologists of sport in physical education departments may find themselves in a double bind. Not only has their work carried little prestige in the discipline of sociology but it also may put them at odds with their colleagues in departments of physical education. As Hollands (1984) noted, “The very structure of sport study in North America ironically pairs the social critic [sociologist of sport] with those very individuals in sport science whose professional ideology reinforces ahistorical and functionalist approaches to the subject” (p. 73). Although the field of sociology of sport provides an important exemplar of interdisciplinarity, some 40 years of research in the field may also be characterized as an attempt to win “respect.”

IV. Development of the Field

In 1988, Jean Harvey and Hart Cantelon provided a contemporary sociological rationale for the sociology of sport:

Sport is primarily a social activity, and the sports problems that the media report on every day are essentially social problems. Sport is neither an idle flexing of the muscles without cause or consequence, nor merely a series of motor gestures devoid of social significance. It is a set of social structures and practices whose orientations and objectives have been adopted or challenged from the very beginning by various social agents. (P. 1)

This rationale reflected over 20 years of development in the field and would not have been widely understood in the 1960s. Ingham and Donnelly (1997) identified three widely overlapping stages in the development of sociology of sport in North America, which they labeled (1) searching for a sociology for the sociology of sport, (2) early confrontations with Marxism, and (3) cultural studies. Donnelly (1996, 2003), borrowing heavily from ideas expressed by John Loy, characterized these three phases as “reflection” (sport reflects society), “reproduction” (sport is heavily implicated in social reproduction), and “resistance” (the status quo may be challenged through sport). The quote from Harvey and Cantelon (above) captures the third (“resistance”), more mature phase, but not the struggles to reach that level of analysis. The following section outlines developments in the field in each of these three periods and concludes with an examination of recent developments.

A. Reflection/Searching for a Sociology for the Sociology of Sport

The sociology of sport emerged at a time when U.S. sociology was dominated by structural functionalism and instrumental positivism. The prevailing view of sport in most countries where the sociology of sport was developing was that “sport reflects society”/“sport is a mirror (or microcosm) of society.” Functionalism and positivism provided a comfortable, if somewhat contradictory, fit for physical educators in the sociology of sport: Adopting a functionalist approach permitted them to “find support for the so-called ‘social development’ objectives of physical education” (Kenyon 1969:172), to identify the functions of sport, exercise, and recreation, and to determine how sport functioned to socialize individuals to set goals, maintain discipline, manage aggression, and adapt to change (Parsons’s four-system needs); adopting a positivist approach fitted well with the newly scientized departments of physical education, but scientific “objectivity” was compromised by seeking functionality and becoming what Kenyon (1969) termed “evangelist[s] for exercise” (p. 172).

However, this was also the 1960s, when both sociology and Western society were beginning to experience radical changes. In parallel with the emergence of a disciplinary sociology of sport, Ingham and Donnelly (1997) also identify the emergence of a (often overlapping) “social problems in athletics” orientation. Feminist critiques (e.g., Hart 1976) led eventually in the United States to the inclusion of sport in Title IX, the Educational Amendments to the Civil Rights Act, in 1972, and subsequently to gender equity provisions for sport in many other countries. Racial critiques of sport in the United States were manifested most obviously in Smith and Carlos’s “black power” demonstration at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, described by Edwards (1969) in The Revolt of the Black Athlete, and were then expressed internationally in the anti-apartheid movement. More general radical critiques of North American sport were provided by Jack Scott (1971) and Paul Hoch (1972).

This critique of sport was anticipated by neo-Marxist scholars in France and Germany (e.g.,Vinnai 1973; Brohm 1978; Rigauer 1981), but their work did not become available in English until later (cf. the publication dates noted above). Meanwhile, in England, Norbert Elias and Eric Dunning were beginning to develop a figurational sociology of sport, an approach that has continued to influence some research in both the history and the sociology of sport.

B. Reproduction/Early Confrontations with Marxism

The view that sport reflects society was an important starting point for the sociology of sport.2 It helped overcome the view, held particularly among some philosophers (e.g., Novak 1976) that sport was a distinct sphere of activity, somehow separate from and perhaps even transcending history and social life. Although the “reflection” thesis was an accurate description of the relationship between sport and society and persists even today in the way some sociology of sport courses are taught, it had no interpretive or explanatory power with regard to that relationship. By the 1970s, the increasing influence of the “social problems in athletics” perspective combined with an increased reading of critical social theory from both North America (e.g., Mills 1959, 2000; Gouldner 1970; MacPherson 1985) and Europe produced the start of a “critical shift” in the sociology of sport (a shift also evident in mainstream sociology). This was initially distinct from, but later combined with (under a “cultural studies” perspective), a growing interest in interpretive sociology in the sociology of sport.

The European neo-Marxist critique of sport asserted that sport was implicated in socializing individuals into work discipline, assertive individualism, and hypercompetitiveness. In other words, sport not only reflected capitalist society, it helped reproduce it and reproduce dominant social and cultural relations in society as a whole (see Hargreaves 1986). This idea of social reproduction is developed in Bourdieu and Passeron’s (1977) work showing how the French education system helps reproduce the class structure of French society. Thus, in the sociology of sport, rather than passively mirroring society sport could now be seen as actively helping to maintain a particular set of power relations in an inequitable society.

the sociology of sport during the 1980s, placing greater emphasis on race and gender (and less on social class); and the reproduction thesis proved to be extremely valuable. Sport came to be seen as a “school for masculinity”—at a time of rapidly changing gender relations and increasing social power for women, sport came to be seen as one of the last bastions of masculine power, socializing in males a sense of gender superiority that was considered to extend beyond the bounds of sport. And, in addition to reproducing traditional gender relations, sport also came to be viewed as one of the barriers to changing race relations— helping to reify and promote certain stereotypical mental and physical racial characteristics.

The reproduction thesis is grounded in structuralist approaches to sociology, with no evidence of agency (or counter-hegemony) in analyses that focus on social processes rather than social relations. The thesis came to be considered as an accurate and dynamic but partial attempt to characterize the relationship between sport and society.

C. Resistance/Cultural Studies

The reproduction thesis describes a dynamic, but one-way relationship between sport and society. If the status quo was effectively reproduced from generation to generation, no changes in the relative power of social groups, and their social and cultural relations, would occur. Individuals are rendered as passive agents, falsely conscious consumers of the new “opiate of the masses” (sport), and unaware of the forces involved in producing and reproducing inequality and maintaining their subordinate status. As Coakley (1993) notes (see also Wrong 1961), structuralist views of socialization (both functionalist and critical/ social reproduction) see individuals “as passive learners ‘molded’ and ‘shaped’ by ‘society’” (p. 170). If individuals are believed to have some part in understanding, giving meaning to, and shaping their destiny, it is necessary to reintroduce agency. The resistance thesis attempts to capture the two-way process in which reproductive forces are resisted—in which agency articulates with social structure.

This synthesis of agency and structure was first characterized by Gruneau (1983), whose book Class, Sport, and Social Development is considered a theoretical turning point in both the sociology and history of sport. His solution, sometimes referred to as hegemony theory, was developed from the work of Antonio Gramsci (1971), Raymond Williams (e.g., 1977), Pierre Bourdieu (e.g., 1984), and Anthony Giddens (e.g., 1976), and relied heavily on Gramsci’s ideas about social power and hegemony. As Bourdieu (1978) noted, in an idea that resonated strongly with many sociologists of sport,

Sport, like any other practice, is an object of struggles between the fractions of the dominant class, and also between the social classes . . . the social definition of sport is an object 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. (P. 826)

These ideas permitted sport to be seen not only as dominated by elites (often characterized during the 1980s and 1990s as upper class, white males) and by hegemonic groups such as the International Olympic Committee, FIFA (the international soccer federation), sporting goods manufacturers, and media conglomerates but also as “contested terrain,” as the “site of struggles” over “the forms, circumstances and meanings of participation” (Donnelly 1993: 17).

In this way of understanding sport, individuals are seen as active, self-reflexive agents

  • who “might quite consciously value sports as meaningful and beneficial aspects of their lives, while at the same time being aware that ruling groups attempt to use sport as an instrument of control” (Hargreaves 1986:43);
  • who have the capacity to change the conditions under which they practice sport and recognize and change the conditions that maintain their subordinate status; and
  • whose attempts at resistance sometimes have an opposite effect, serving to reinforce the conditions of their subordination (see Donnelly 1988).

Thus, approaches to the sociology of sport adopting the resistance thesis focused on sport as an aspect of culture, produced (socially constructed and reconstructed) by the participants, but not always in the manner of their own choosing (to paraphrase Marx [1852] 1991).

D. Recent Developments/Disunity in Unity

During the 1990s, there was an evident “postmodern shift” in the sociology of sport, accompanied by the type of fragmentation, noted previously, evident in mainstream sociology. “Cultural studies” began to overtake sociology in the sociology of sport, “postmodern” theories, including “queer theory” came to the fore; new qualitative methodologies became fashionable (narrative sociology, autobiographical studies, case studies); and the subject matter of the sociology of sport broadened to include all forms of physical culture from sexual activity and dance to exercise in all its various forms. In 1997, Ingham and Donnelly asked, “whether the future of our ‘community’ [‘sociologists’ of ‘sport’] will be anchored in sociology or sport at all and, if not, what will be its alternatives?” (p. 395). While these trends are ongoing, research representing the whole range of development (from functionalist to “hegemony theory” to postmodernist) is still being produced, and there is some recent evidence of a “sociological revival” (noted below). While the field may not be concerned specifically with sociology in its traditional sense, or only with sport, and while there have been some debates in the field about a change of name (e.g., “cultural studies of physical culture”), a recognizable sociology of sport still exists as “disunity in unity.”

V. Achievements/Winning “Respect”

Some 30 years ago, Gunther Luschen (1975) argued that the sociology of sport could serve to (1) contribute to sociological theory; (2) contribute to the body of knowledge of physical education, physical culture (or sport science); (3) contribute to public policy problems; and (4) provide sport personnel with a better understanding of their own status and role within society (cited in Loy 1996:959). Since that time, while there is some question as to whether sociology of sport has contributed to sociological theory (although sport has provided an ideal forum for testing theory), it has certainly contributed to the body of knowledge in both sociology and physical education, contributed to public policy, and provided many sport personnel with “a better understanding.” In parallel with the previous section, the following provides a brief overview of the research accomplishments of the sociology of sport in each of the periods identified above, and concludes with an examination of recent developments and gaining respect.

A. Reflection/Searching for a Sociology for the Sociology of Sport

The research achievements during this period are characteristic of both the time and an emerging field of study.3 Initially, there was work to “legitimize” and justify the emergence of a new field of study, and definitional work identifying the meaning of, and differences between, play, games, and sport. Such attempts to develop rigid definitions eventually declined with growing acceptance that sports are social constructions, whose definition depends on contextual factors such as time and place.

A great deal of the early work in the field reflected the close relationship at the time between the sociology of sport and the psychology and social psychology of sport— a relationship that echoes an earlier (late nineteenth and early twentieth century) similar relationship in mainstream sociology. This relationship manifested itself in research on group dynamics, group cohesion, leadership, social facilitation, and what is now termed “social loafing.” The relationship was also evident in some of the early socialization research, which focused on roles and motivation; and some of the group dynamics research on sports teams subsequently led to research on sport subcultures. However, the socialization research, which was primarily developed at the University of Wisconsin and by graduates from Wisconsin, was where the functionalist and instrumental positivist aspects of U.S. sociology in the 1960s and early 1970s was best expressed. The approach led eventually to sophisticated statistical modeling (e.g., path analysis) of the ways in which people became involved in sport, only falling out of favor as the “socialized” came to be recognized as active agents in the process.

Research on sport and social stratification, social differentiation, and social mobility initially took the form of categorical analyses of class, race, and gender. Some early distributive analyses, combined with the emerging critiques characterized previously as the “social problems in athletics” approach, provided evidence for social policy changes that began to occur with regard to race and gender participation in sport. Perhaps the research that best characterizes this period is Loy and McElvogue’s (1970) distributive analyses of “stacking” and the related work of Loy, McPherson, and Kenyon (1978: chap. 3) on leadership. Combining research on group dynamics with social differentiation and social problems approaches, and incorporating research by H. M. Blalock and Oscar Grusky, Loy and McElvogue (1970) showed how (and provided a powerful interpretation of the reasons why), in baseball and football, white players were predominantly in “central” positions and black players were predominantly in “peripheral” positions. As Ball (1973) noted, “Stacking . . . involves assignment to a playing position, an achieved status, on the basis of an ascribed status” (p. 98). The work developed to describe and explain why coaching and administrative positions were occupied predominantly by individuals who formerly held “central” positions as players (i.e., whites) (Loy et al. 1978). This research fulfilled a number of Luschen’s (1975) predictions, not only adding to the body of knowledge and contributing to “middle range” theory development but also contributing to social policy and to the “understanding” of sports personnel. “Stacking” became a widely known phenomenon; professional team managers found it increasingly difficult to reassign player positions if such reassignment appeared to be on the basis of race, and the leadership (coaching and management) of teams is still being monitored for racial representation and critiqued for the underrepresentation of blacks.

B. Reproduction/Early Confrontations with Marxism

It was during this period of development that the influence of C. Wright Mills (1959) began to become apparent—both the duality of “private trouble/public issue” and the idea that “no social study that does not come back to the problems of biography, of history, and of their intersections within society has completed its intellectual journey” (p. 4). The “social problems in athletics” perspective merged with critical theory to become indistinguishable— as evidenced in the best-selling textbook in the field (Coakley 1978, now in its ninth edition). Also, the “cultural turn” started here, and the sociology of sport began to take on an Anglo-Canadian critical theoretical perspective. These changes were reflected in the kind of research carried out.

Historical sociology of sport, following Mills’s call for a temporal context, resulted in a number of important studies. These include sociologically informed studies of the origins and development of specific sports (e.g., Dunning’s work on soccer and Dunning and Sheard’s (1979) classic study of rugby) and theoretically informed studies of the social development of sport in Canada (Gruneau 1983) and the United States (Ingham 1978).

These studies examined the processes of industrialization, urbanization, and modernization in the second half of the nineteenth century and showed how the commercialization and professionalization of sport resulted. However, the reification of these processes tended to obscure the social relational struggles involved (see Hardy and Ingham 1983).

Establishing a temporal context inevitably led to consideration of the spatial context of the social development of sport. Initially, social historians considered the struggles over the use of urban space (e.g., Rosenzweig 1979; Hardy 1982; McDonald 1984). More recent studies of urban space relate primarily to stadium construction, and this resulted in a rich body of work from a political economy perspective (e.g., Lipsitz 1984; Ingham, Howell, and Schilperoort 1987; Kidd 1995). Studies of the origins, development, and spread of sports are still being carried out, particularly by figurational sociologists exploring the civilizing process, parliamentarization, and sportization; and the ongoing use of public funds to finance Olympic facilities in various countries and professional sports stadia in the United States (Canadian taxpayers made it clear in the 1990s that they would no longer support such funding) continues to provide rich data for research.

Interpretive sociology, particularly in the form of research on sport subcultures, also developed during this period (see Donnelly 2000). Initially, this work took a “career” focus emphasizing professional sport subcultures (e.g., Ingham 1975; Theberge 1977). However, “career” subsequently came to be defined more broadly to include analyses of any time spent progressing in sport. Although this view of careers in sport was widely evident at the International Committee for the Sociology of Sport (now ISSA) Regional Conference in Vancouver, 1981 (Ingham and Broom 1982), two additional influences on sport subcultures research also became evident for the first time: (1) a shift to much richer and more nuanced ethnographic analyses exemplified by Geertz’s (1973) approach to “thick description” and (2) more politicized and theorized analyses of sport subcultures derived from the work of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham (England). Researchers in the sociology of sport were now beginning to show 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” (Gruneau 1981:10). By the 1990s, subcultural research was beginning to focus on “alternative” sport subcultures such as skateboarding, snowboarding, and windsurfing.

A third strand of research that saw important changes during this period was the sociology of gender. By the end of the 1980s, Hargreaves (1990) was able to declare that “gender [was] on the sports agenda,” and Birrell (1988) characterized the shift in approach during this period as being “from women in sport to gender relations.” There was a brief period in the early 1980s when gender research took a critical political economy perspective (e.g., Bray 1984), showing how domestic labor carried out by women supported men’s access to sport. This approach was picked up in the United Kingdom and New Zealand (e.g., Thompson 1999); however, much of the research in the United States still involved distributive analyses, supporting a liberal feminist search for “equality.” Despite Birrell’s theoretical declaration of “gender relations,” few studies involved relational analyses. One of the most significant of these (Birrell and Richter 1987) involved a study of feminist softball leagues and placed the issue of feminist resistance to, and transformation of, “malestream” sport firmly on “the sports agenda.” Studies of race and sport still largely involved distributive analyses, and there were no parallel theoretical breakthroughs; and studies of social class all but disappeared during this period.

C. Resistance/Cultural Studies

During this stage of development, the “cultural turn” was completed, and “cultural studies” became the predominant perspective in the sociology of sport. Major research trends evident during this period include media studies, sociology of the body, studies of masculinity, globalization studies, and an increasing number of ethnographic studies.

Media studies, up to this time, had largely taken the form of distributive analyses of gender coverage in the media. However, MacNeill (1988) and Duncan (1990) introduced the tools to enable a closer textual reading of photographs, text, and commentary, which showed how women were not only underrepresented and marginalized in the sports media but also sexualized and trivialized. Numerous studies have since applied these methodological tools to various sports media and events and have also gone beyond gender to consider representations of race, nationality, and violence in the sports media. Some of the more insightful media studies, however, took the form of case studies of specific incidents such as the following:

  • Birrell and Cole (1990) on Renee Richards and the issue of transgendered athletes
  • Kane and Disch (1993) on Lisa Olsen and the issue of female reporters in male professional team locker rooms
  • King (1993) and Cole and Denney (1995) on Magic Johnson and AIDS
  • McKay and Smith (1995) on the O. J. Simpson case
  • Messner and Solomon (1993) on Sugar Ray Leonard and wife abuse
  • Young (1986) on coverage of the 1984 soccer riot at Heysel Stadium in Belgium
  • Theberge (1989) on media responses to violence at the 1987 World Junior Hockey Championships

The first production ethnographies (e.g., MacNeill 1996) added a whole new dimension of media analysis to the outpouring of textual analyses.

Since sport is such a completely embodied experience, it is surprising that the sociology of the body did not emerge earlier in the sociology of sport. However, research in this area was at least contemporary with a wider sociological interest in “the body,” and the “body” became the main theme (“The body and sport as contested terrain”) for the 1991 conference of the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport. Shilling (1993) affirmed that the athletic body was an important part of this field of study, and Pronger’s (2002) recent book Body Fascism: Salvation in the Technology of Physical Fitness captures current approaches to the body and exercise.

The emphasis on gender relations from a feminist perspective spurred male scholars to begin to consider gender relations from a masculine perspective. Connell (1987) and Messner and Sabo (1990) raised the issue of “multiple masculinities” and sexualities (see Pronger 1990) and “showed that men were capable of deconstructing their own sexual politics” (Ingham and Donnelly 1997:389). The sociology of the body and the sociology of gender formed an obvious connection but also began to combine in an interesting way in a branch of research relating to “risk” and to sports injuries (see Young 2004). The high rate of injuries, the emphasis on treatment for rehabilitation rather than prevention, and the clear links that are made between playing with pain and injury and “character” have led a number of researchers to explore the “masculine” nature of that character, and to struggle to understand the recent complicity of female athletes in playing with pain and injury.

The shift to cultural studies led to an increased number of ethnographic studies of sport groups and subcultures and to the emergence of new qualitative methodologies (and an increased discussion of the politics of ethnography). Identity issues formed a major part of this research, and identity politics took an increasing part in research relating to gender, race, and sexuality.

Finally, identity politics were also evident as the sociology of sport began, at around the same time as mainstream sociology, to deal with globalization. This began with a debate (a series of articles responding to Maguire’s [1990] article on American football in Britain) about how to best approach globalization issues theoretically and was followed by a special issue of the Journal of Sport and Social Issues (Vol. 20, No. 3 1996) attempting to determine whether the primary process we were experiencing in sport was “globalization” or “Americanization.” The same issue also introduced the articulation of the local and the global in sport. A number of the topics noted above came together in a special issue of the Sociology of Sport Journal (Vol. 13, No. 4 1996) where “a postmodern shift in American cultural studies . . . resulted in concerns with consumption, commercialization, and images of race—all wrapped up around NIKE and Michael Jordan” (Ingham and Donnelly 1997:384).

D. Recent Developments/Gaining Respect

The theoretical fragmentation described above, and characterized by Harvey (1990) as being “de l’ordre au conflit,” continues in the sociology of sport, and the subject matter now covers a wide spectrum of issues relating to sport, body culture, and social life.

Recent research issues that appear likely to continue into the future are discussed in the concluding section. What remains is to determine how the sociology of sport has won “respect” over the last 40 years.

There are now four English language journals devoted specifically to the sociology of sport—the International Review for the Sociology of Sport (now in its 40th year of continuous publication, making it older than many sociology journals) and the Journal of Sport and Social Issues are published by Sage in the United Kingdom and the United States, respectively; the Sociology of Sport Journal is published by Human Kinetics in the United States and Sport in Society is published by Taylor & Francis in the United Kingdom. Sociology of sport journals are published in other languages (e.g., Japanese), and sociology of sport research regularly appears in various social sciences, sociology, and physical education journals. There are now probably 40 to 50 books published in English each year relating to the sociology of sport, and several dozen textbooks and readers are available in English.

In addition to the International Sociology of Sport Association, there are major regional organizations such as the European Sociology of Sport Association, the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport, and the Societe de Sociologie du Sport de Langue Francaise. There are also national associations in a number of countries, including Japan and Korea, and interest in the sociology of sport is growing in places such as China and South America. In some countries, sociology of sport is a branch of the national sociological and/or physical education association. The sociology of sport associations hold annual conferences, and national and regional sociological associations frequently organize conference sessions on the sociology of sport.

This is by way of establishing that the sociology of sport is now a well-established subdiscipline, producing a great deal of research each year. Leading theorists such as Norbert Elias and Pierre Bourdieu considered sport a legitimate field of study; leading publishers of sociological books and journals recognize the sociology of sport as a legitimate (and profitable) field of study; dictionaries, encyclopedias, and handbooks of sociology such as this one now often include the sociology of sport; and national and international sociological associations include the sociology of sport at their annual conferences. Clearly, a degree of “respect” has been won, and yet Maguire and Young (2002) recently pointed out that

over the past decade, despite some exceptions, sociologists have failed to emancipate themselves from the discipline’s dominant value system in which primacy is given to work and the other so-called “serious” aspects of society. [Sport] is confined to the “non-serious” sphere. Rarely, if ever, is discussion of sport provided in introductory sociology texts. (P. 7)

VI. The Future of Sociology of Sport: “Disunity in Unity”?

Making predictions about the future is always risky, and the best that can be achieved is to attempt to “divine” the future from current events. Although the types of research outlined previously are continuing, there is also evidence that some changes are occurring. For example, there appears to be an increasing level of theoretical and methodological sophistication in analyses of the following:

  • Sport and globalization: There are an increasing number of studies of the local-global nexus and an emerging area of research deals with sport and social development in developing nations.
  • Sport and social class: This has reemerged as an area of study, employing both qualitative and quantitative data and theoretical approaches that are shedding new light on the relationship.
  • Community studies: These are beginning to explore issues of sport and social capital, and to compare and contrast Bourdieu and Putnam in their approaches to the issue of community.
  • Sport and identity issues. These are being problematized and theorized in new and interesting ways.
  • Race and ethnic relations: Recent studies employing critical race theory and postcolonial theory suggest potential theoretical breakthroughs.
  • Democratization studies: Issues of participation in sport, and barriers to participation, are being examined again in terms of, for example, social inclusion/exclusion.
  • Sport media studies: In addition to ongoing content and textual analyses, there are an increasing number of audience and production studies.
  • Sport spectators: There has been a reemergence of interest in spectators, using both survey and ethnographic methods.

There are also increasing signs of the reemergence of more traditional forms of sociology in the sociology of sport. This is not to say that cultural studies have not been sociological, but the adequacy of evidence has been limited in some postmodern approaches to research. Tilly (1997), writing with reference to the contrast between the relativism of some aspects of postmodernism and the accumulation of verifiable and reliable social knowledge, notes that postmodernism may undercut

all interpersonal procedures for assessing the relative validity of competing propositions about social life in general or in particular. It attacks any claim of superior knowledge and thereby removes all justification for the existence of social science as a distinctive enterprise. (P. 29)

Evidence for the reemergence of sociology lies in an increasing number of well-theorized quantitative studies; in several recent books exploring sport and social theory and the contributions of both classical and modern theorists to the study of sport (e.g., Maguire and Young 2002; Giulianotti 2004); in the very recent emergence of a Marxist studies group in the sociology of sport; and in more demanding reviews of research, especially concerning the adequacy of evidence and the limits of interpretation.

Finally, there is increasing evidence of “disunity in unity” in the sociology of sport. Not only is an extremely broad range of theoretical approaches, topics of research, and methodologies represented in the field but also there are an increasing number of subfields of study. For example, “football studies” are growing in Europe, and this subfield has its own journal. Policy studies are also growing, spurred by an increasing number of research contracts with governments and sport organizations in countries such as the United Kingdom, Canada, and Norway and an increasing call by governments for “evidence-based social policy.” Despite Maguire and Young’s (2002) warning that such research will result in a loss of “the critical and sceptical character of sociology of sport” (p. 1), there are no signs of this occurring. Research of this type is still dealing with key sociological issues such as social inequality and democratization, abuses of power (e.g., sexual harassment in sport), and community studies of, for example, volunteerism, which are concerned with the development of social capital. This diversity (disunity) is still, for the most part, holding together under the umbrella of sociology of sport. The field of study is now quite well established and, while there are internal stresses, there are no signs at this time that these cannot be negotiated.

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