Sociology and Sportization

By | January 16, 2014

A grasp of contemporary Western sport might be attained via reflections on its parentage; and there is widespread agreement among historians and sociologists that the birth of modern sport, if not necessarily its conception, occurred in England from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. Departing from the rather formal analysis of Guttman and others, Dunning and Sheard differentiate between what they call the ‘structural properties’ of pre-modern folk games or pastimes and modern sports.

While these sets of properties are broadly consonant with Guttman’s schema, they add considerable flesh to the latter’s well-picked bones. Elias and Dunning make a case for a twofold process of sportization of English pastimes. The first phase took place in the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and witnessed the radical transformation of pastimes like cricket, fox-hunting, horse-racing and boxing, while the second phase occurred during the early and mid-nineteenth century and saw such pursuits as soccer, rugby, tennis and track-and-field athletics adopt modern formats. Maguire has added three further phases of sportization to this early couplet. This leaves us with the following five phases:

1      Early transmission of English pastimes like cricket, horse racing and boxing into sports in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

2      Further sportization of English pastimes such a soccer and rugby in the early to mid-nineteenth century.

3      The ‘take-off’ and differential diffusion of English sports throughout continental Europe and to the formal and informal British empire during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

4      Western (Anglo/Euro-American) hegemony over sport, including sports organizations, the surplus and ideology associated with sporting festivals, from the 1920s to the 1960s.

5      Changing balance of power over rapidly globalizing sport, with African, Asian and South American nations increasingly challenging Western control since the 1960s.

The fifth of Maguire’s phases stands in need of considerable elaboration, if not revision or a complete re-write. This is not because it is inaccurate, let alone erroneous, but because it leaves out too much. As with Guttman’s frame, it is decidedly skeletal; and as the first chapter’s notes on the contemporary era of financial capitalism have indicated, sociologists’ documenting and theorizing of social change from past to present is as illuminating for sport today as it is for many other institutions.

I have elsewhere looked in detail at the emergence of track and field athletics in England and its subsequent export and spread oversees, culminating in its celebration in the four-yearly mega-events, or ‘circuses’, of the ever-evolving Olympic movement. I will revisit parts of this analysis in future blogs, in particular on sport in its current guise, via detailed accounts of the development of cricket and association football (or soccer).


Dunning,E & Sheard,K (1979)  Barbarians, Gentlemen and Players: A Sociological Study of the Development of Rugby Football. Oxford; Martin Robertson.

Elias,N & Dunning,E (1986)  Quest for Excitement: Sport and Leisure in the Civilizing Process. Oxford; Basil Blackwell.

Guttman (1978)  From Ritual to Record: the Nature of Modern Sports.  New York; Columbia University Press.

Maguire,J (1999)  Global Sport: Identities, Societies, Civilizations. Cambridge; Polity Press.


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