Sociology and Sport

What has been called ‘the athletic imperative’ has been defined as intrinsic to the human condition. Every person, one historian maintains, is born with athletic capability and every person is predestined, ‘hard wired’, to develop that physical potential. Moreover, ‘competition’ is of impressively ancient lineage, even if it is not inborn. It has to do with evolution and survival. The inclination to assume that athletic activity or ‘sport’ today is much like sport yesterday, and that sport here – in the West – is much like sport elsewhere, is strong and natural enough, but it is an assumption requiring qualification. All concepts emerge from and reflect local circumstances. A trial or competition of speed, strength or skill was a different matter for a Neolithic hunter, an Egyptian, Spartan or Incan than it is for an American in the twenty-first century; and it is a different matter too for a contemporary Bangladeshi villager than for a Brazilian footballer. This much is a sociological commonplace, a convenient starting point for engagement and analysis. Where do we go from here?  The answer proffered here is: where our sociological imagination leads us.

Sociology cannot be defined without causing offence to some at least of its practitioners, let alone to those outside the discipline; and it is one thing to respond positively to C Wright Mills’ injunction to be imaginative, quite another to agree on what this means or on exemplars. Sociology here is recognized as a broad church comprising an array of rival, even contradictory, perspectives and stances. Further, it is accepted that sociologists who sign up to theories and methods to which I am unsympathetic may nevertheless contribute significantly to our understanding of how things are, and why. It takes a dogmatic turn of mind to reject insight and inspiration from colleagues and sources pre-defined as unsound. The orientation adopted in this blog can be summed up in four straightforward propositions.

My starting point is an acknowledgement of human agency (the agency proposition), which can be represented as the freedom to opt for A rather than B, even in the least fortuitous of circumstances. Matthieu in Sartre’s Roads to Freedom spears his own hand in demonstration of a gift of free will that is at one and the same time species-defining, exciting and terrifying (after all, choosing A involves rejecting or foregoing B, C, D …). But free will can be less apparent on a day-to-day basis than what looks suspiciously like weakness of will.   Much of our lives seems to be characterized less by decisions or choices than by drift.

To accept agency or free will, at least in principle, is not to deny that decision-making, existential palm-stabbing notwithstanding, is always contextualized, circumscribed or structured (the structural proposition). We cannot just decide to become a Wimbledon singles champion. As Marx insisted more generically, we can only make history on the basis of where and how we find ourselves, which is never simply a product of deliberation or choice. Nor is the social the only relevant parameter. Circumscription or ‘boundedness’ can occur via biological and psychological as well as social relations. Making the Brazilian soccer team is not just a product of a favourable upbringing. And even this is to deploy a slightly disingenuous short-hand. Take the biological input into aspiration and achievement for example: salient here are not only our genes and our nascent ‘constitutions’ (or body capital), but the effects of any chemicals ingested wittingly or otherwise, and so on. As for the psychological, our personalities and learned predispositions may be no less influential. In short, social relations can have only partial explanatory power.

While biological, psychological and social relations, most often in combination, give direction to our lives – enlivened every now and again by free will, and re-directed by contingent or ‘chance’ happenings – we should avoid all forms of reductionism (the anti-reductionist proposition). Causal mechanisms can operate ‘upstream’ (the biological affecting the psychological affecting the social) or ‘downstream’ (the social affecting the psychological affecting the biological); but it does not follow either that the social reduces to the psychological reduces to the biological, or that the biological reduces to the psychological reduces to the social. In short, social relations act independently and can be examined as such.

Culture provides the resources that allow sociologists and others to define their situations and frame their projects (the cultural proposition). Culture comprises those more-or-less coherent beliefs, values and orientations to action that characterize any given social formation. Clearly the cultures of Athens in the fifth-century BC and of the London Olympics in 2012 differ markedly; so too those of sports-loving Scottish émigrés to North America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and of their hosts. Culture, like agency, is structured, if not structurally determined.

Pulling these propositions together, sociology can be seen as the study of the ways in which distinctive but slowly changing social structures help inform both the cultures that resource and frame decision-making and the more-or-less agential process of decision-making itself.  Moreover there is a degree of autonomy to the social: it cannot be reduced to the non-social (biological, psychological) and thereby vanquished or sidelined.

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