Sport Over Time: Eight Propositions

By | January 15, 2014

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.  The orientation towards the sociology of sport suggested here can be summed up in four straightforward propositions.


My starting point is an acknowledgement of human agency (the agency proposition), which can be represented for now 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.


It is of the essence for the approach posited here that social structures (1) are relatively enduring, (2) nevertheless evolve and change over time, and (3) endure/change in ways that make neat divisions of human history into discrete time-periods awkward, to say the least.  If sociologists are prone to favour typologies by time (e.g. pre-modern to modern to post-modern), or by place (e.g. Occidental versus non-Occidental), historians like Braudel are at hand to remind them that social change is rarely clear-cut or straightforward.  Some sociologists of sport, like Elias, also developed an appropriately historico-social cast of mind.

Sociologists are undoubtedly more prone than historians to attach significance to the patterning of events.  It is a commonplace that while sociologists criticize historians for focusing on the mere documentation of events, historians criticize sociologists for being over-ready to infer underlying structures that purport to explain what for historians are often dubious event-patterns.  Sociologists, it might be said, are prone to seduction by theory, historians by facts.  Yet it is not possible for historians to avoid theory altogether, even if they are predisposed to try.  The identification and selection of events to study, the questions asked about them, and the methods adopted to provide answers to those questions, all betray provisional theoretical commitments.  The doing of sociology, and for that matter of history, simply is theoretical (the theory proposition), whether practitioners like it or not.

Of course sociologists and historians have different interests.  One longstanding interest of sociologists has been the tension between ’social order’ on the one hand and ‘social change’ on the other.  Comte, that nineteenth-century high priest of a reductive (biological to psychological to social) positivism, believed that the new, all-seeing and subsuming discipline of sociology comprised complimentary studies of ‘social statics’, explaining order, and ‘social dynamics’, explaining change.  The social change proposition rejects Comte’s reductionism, but (1) commends a core sociological focus on social change, and (2) insists that this focus be both historical and comparative.  The present bears witness to past and future.  For example, capitalism may be a feature of the modern world, or modernity, but its origins are unambiguously pre-modern, it continues to co-exist with pre- and non-capitalist modes of interaction and transaction, and in its midst are found actually-existing and blueprints for alternative social formations.  The study of social change advocated here acknowledges this temporal complexity.

It may be expedient for sociologists to divide humans’ time on the planet into ‘periods’ for all this recognition of temporal complexity.  Structurally and culturally and in the exercise of agency too there is much of the ‘ancient’ in the early centuries of the games at Olympia from 776 BC.  By common consent these games differed significantly from the Victorian-English, amateur and ‘modern’ Olympiads issued in by the Anglophile French aristocrat de Coubertin from 1896, if rather less from the games of the post-1970s or ‘postmodern’ era of professional global sports.  The theory and social change propositions are the parents of the social formation proposition, which asserts that credible types of social formation can be discerned by time and place with positive theoretical effect.

The last of this second quartet of propositions is the institutional proposition.  The rationale for its inclusion is that sports can only be grasped sociologically within a prevailing nexus of social institutions.  Agency and culture may be structured, but they are also organized, and necessarily within the institutional complex of the day.  The options of black baseball players in the southern states of the USA in the 1950s were undoubtedly structured by ethnic as well as class relations, but they were also processed via an array of institutional procedures with some kind of life or momentum of their own.  Processes and procedures can survive even structural change.


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