What is the sociology of sport?
The sociology of sport, while grounded in sociology, has always been much more of a social science of sport. In addition to sociology, work in the field encompasses history, political science, human geography, anthropology, social psychology and economics. Also, the new off-shoots of sociology such as cultural studies, media studies, and gender studies, are well represented in the field.
The aims of the sociology of sport are:
- To critically examine the role, function and meaning of sport in the lives of people and the societies they form
- To describe and explain the emergence and diffusion of sport over time and across different societies
- To identify the processes of socialisation into, through, and out of modern sport
- To investigate the values and norms of dominant, emergent and residual cultures and subcultures in sport
- To explore how the exercise of power and the stratified nature of societies place limits and possibilities on people’s involvement and success in sport as performers, officials, spectators, workers or consumers
- To examine the ways in which sport responds to social changes in the larger society
- To contribute both to the knowledge base of sociology more generally and also to the formation of policy that seeks to ensure that global sport processes are less wasteful of lives and resources
The sociology of sport also seeks to critically examine common sense views about the role, function and meaning that sport has in different societies. By challenging ‘natural’ and taken-for-granted views about sport, sociologists seek to provide a more social and scientifically adequate account that can inform both the decisions and actions of people and the policy of governments, NGO’s and sport organisations.
Although, as in sociology more generally, there are several different perspectives from which to examine the relationship between sport, cultures and societies, sociologists of sport do have certain assumptions in common. For example, sociologists, whether they examine the ‘micro’ or ‘macro’ aspects of sport, seek to embed their research in the wider cultural and structural context.
In the context of sport sciences, sociologists of sport seek to generate knowledge that will contribute to ‘human development’ as opposed to ‘performance efficiency’. That is, they seek to critically examine the costs, benefits, limits and possibilities of modern sport for all those involved, rather than focus on the performance efficiency of elite athletes. Those sociologists working with sociology departments examine sport in the same way they would examine religion, law or medicine – to highlight aspects of the general human condition.
Sociology of sport, then, seeks not only to contribute to its parent discipline, but also to changing the sports world. With respect to the latter, research seeks to ‘debunk’ popular myths about sport, critically appraise the actions of those more powerful groups involved in sport, and inform social policy towards sport.
Body of Knowledge
Although the first texts on sociology of sport appeared in the early 1920’s, this sub-discipline did not develop until the early/mid 1960’s in Europe and North America. A small number of scholars from both physical education and sociology formed the International Committee for the Sociology of Sport (ICSS) in 1965. From this point on, symposia, conferences and congresses were held annually and theoretical and empirical work was presented. Researchers from different sociological backgrounds began to develop sociological definitions of sport, conduct pioneering work in different aspects of sport, and develop undergraduate, Master’s and doctoral courses and programmes. Research areas include sport and socialisation, sport and social stratification, sport subcultures, the political economy of sport, sport and deviance, sport and the media, sport, the body and the emotions, sport violence, sport politics and national identify, sport and globalisation.
On this basis the sub-discipline has now developed a sophisticated understanding of how people become involved in sport; what barriers they face; and how gender, class, ethnicity and sexual relations work in sport. In addition, scholars have developed considerable knowledge about how sport is mediated, contoured by a complex political economy, and bound up in global identity politics.
Over the last thirty years theoretical and empirically based case studies have been developed on various sports in different societies. The sub-discipline has various edited works, handbooks and textbooks from North America and Europe. Sociology of sport has also been established in Asia and more recently scholars from South America and Africa are using sociological perspective to help make sense of the social problems that beset sport, and to understand how sport illuminates wider sociological issues.
Relationship to Practice
Sociology of sport, as noted, seeks to contribute to our understanding of sport and also to inform policy that will make the sports experience less wasteful of lives and resources. Sociologists of sport have sought to achieve this latter aim in several ways.
- By offering expert advice to government agencies, public enquiries and commission reports on areas such as drugs, violence and health education
- By acting as an advocate for athletes’ rights and responsibilities
- By providing research for groups who seek to challenge inequalities of gender, class, ethnicity, age and disability, particularly with respect to access, resources and status
- By promoting human development as opposed to performance efficiency models within physical education and sport science
- By encouraging better use of human and environmental resources and thus ensuring that there is a sporting future for generations to come