A Sociological Autobiography: 65 – ‘Sport and Society’

Medical schools are strange institutions, replete with personnel and, more to the point, managers whose grasp of non-laboratory routes to knowledge and understanding is often restricted. I cited Professor Semple at the Middlesex HMS in a previous blog. He asked a sub-committee attended by Ted Honderich as well as myself: ‘this ethics, is it respectable at all? is it a science?’ Yes, and No, Ted replied, referring thereafter to ‘Professor Simple’. This may help explain why I hid what might in other circumstances have been judged an accomplishment.

I have always been interested in sport. As a schoolboy I participated to the extent of my talents and I have ever since followed certain sporting endeavours with avid enthusiasm. Rugby, track-and-field and cricket, the three I engaged with, have always won my attention, but I can dip into almost any sport – even darts – as long as I want one competitor/team to win. I can engage with English football, personally abandoned as a right-footed left back at prmary school at the age of 11, if it involves Bolton Wanderers (ever since their FA Cup victory over a post-Munich Manchester United in 1958) and Brighton and Hove Albion; and I can on occasions support those habitual under-performers post-1966, England.

At some point I elected to contribute to the sociology of sport. I diffidently emailed Tim May, editor of the Open University Press’ Issues in Society series. This was the series into which I had injected ‘Health and Social Change’ in 2002. He responded favourably, so I beavered away. To anyone who asked, I said I didn’t play golf; my leisure time was instead given over to writing about sport.

The fruit of this hobby was ‘Sport and Society: History, Power and Culture’, which was published in 2005. Looking back I am not displeased with it. It may, like Bolton under Sam Allardyce, be a touch solid and defensive (that light-footed – and maybe just a little flashy – culturalist Ellis Cashmore said in a The Times Higher Education Supplement review that it reminded him of a 0:0 draw … Sod him. Here’s what I think a decade on.


What rummaged throughout the book was a commitment to a critical realist/critical theoretic approach. I drew particularly on Bhaskar and Habermas. The book was divided into three sections. The first was largely historical. Notwithstanding its reliance on secondary sources, I remain largely content with the opening chapter on the ancient games at Olympia. The second chapter – on the genesis of modern sport (a peculiarly English affair) – is ok too. The third chapter focused on modern Olympiads and I now have reservations: its narrative is perhaps overly Whiggish, though I halted to address foci like the Nazi Olympics in 1936 in some detail.

The second section offered a hint of originality. I distinguished between exercise and sport and, drawing on the available evidence-base, assessed the health implications of each. I then wrote about sport and violence, advancing the hypothesis that in the ‘noughties’ we were living through an Eliasian ‘de-civilising spurt’. A scenario was in my mind then as now. My conjecture was and is that if two of my UCL students had advertised (and maybe sold tickets for) a fight, then a number of their fellow students would not have blinked and would have turned up to watch and record it on their mobile phones. Elias, you might recall, wisely allowed for reverses in what he called the ‘civilising process’. It was an argument that was part and parcel of my thesis that modernity has witnesed a progressive (systemic) colonisation of sport. Habermas once more!

The third section ran the gamut of rival – though I argued, potentially complementary – schools or perspectives within the sociology of sport. Interestingly, this was welcomed by knowledgeable reviewers, who commended my neutrality re-combative paradigms. Sociologists who become specialists – and which of us doesn’t? – do indeed tend to dig in and defend our orientations and positions. The volume concluded with what I hoped was an embryonic critical realist/theoretical statement and research programme.

Maybe I was prudent to slip this book out of view. Medics were and are fixated not only on illness, medicine and health care, but on peer review articles in high impact journals, as I was shortly to discover when hauled before a head of department who had not introdcued himself to any of us medical/health sociologists, anthropologists and psychologists (ok, to one psychologist) during his six-year tenure as department head.

I should add at this point that I tried to revisit my interest in the sociology of sport a few years later. I signed a contract for a second book. This project, however, hit the buffers. I kind of knew that the publishers wanted to plant a ‘basic’ textbook into a burgeoning marketplace; but it was not the book I had in mind. I hold my hands up. When asked to forward two draft chapters for feedback I anticipated the outcome: ‘they’re good but not what we were expecting/wanted’. For my part I aspired to deliver a text that moved ongoing, controversial debates forward; for their part they wanted an introductory text for neophyte, first-year undergraduates. Fair enough: I was at fault. I moved on (which is not to say that I will never move back).

A final point is worth rehearsing. Sitting in cafes and bars in London, my city of workmanship for four decades, I can see, as I did in my inaugural lecture at UCL, the surprising degree of continuity of theme in my published studies and reflections.

Maybe I will eke out an opportunity in a future fragment to pull together and bind the assorted, ad hoc threads that constitute my – wait for it – ‘oevre’!







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