Allowing thoughts to prosper: scrutinizing the socio-political

involvement and compromise of PE and Sport


Professor Adjunto na Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio Grande do Sul (PUCRS),

Faculdade de Educação Física e Ciências do Desporto (FEFID)

Pesquisador Coordenador do Grupo de Pesquisa e

Estudos Sociológicos em Educação Física e Esporte (GPES), FEFID/PUCRS

Professor Adjunto na Instituição Educacional São Judas Tadeu, Curso de Educação Física

Prof. Dr. Marcelo Olivera Cavalli







          The objective of the paper is to demonstrate that there are not only socio-political roles being performed by PE and Sport, but that there are also other roles that are not being performed – or are less emphasized – by PE and Sport. The main concept is that besides being socio-politically compromised, PE and Sport should also demonstrate awareness of and conscious involvement in socio-political actions taking place inside the field. Also, the social conception of physical movement and the effectiveness of the Sport culture in determining social patterns and values will be analyzed.

          Unitermos: PE and Sport. Sport culture. Socio-political roles

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Social conception of physical movement

    A generic profile of man, demanded and worshiped by contemporary society, is extensive to Physical Education (PE) and Sport. Moreover, PE and Sport have responsibilities over socio-political and pedagogical actions inside the school environment, as well as in other social segments. Once PE is compromised with movement, which is present in its praxis, PE should study movement in its various dimensions: as mechanical functionality, motor learning, ways of moving, ways of productive force (work), expression, or even as socio-political action. From there we can determine the importance of PE and Sport in developing and emphasizing these areas and their notions of movement.

    Moreover, the development of criticism, open-mindedness and awareness about social contradictions, as well as of the roles played/non played by PE and Sport should be present in the activities of those involved in PE. The acknowledgement of the ideological powers that influence man's life and society – and are strictly related to their actions and knowledge – suffer prejudice due to a unilateral process of physical, social and cultural information.

    In such a unilateral context, PE, which was institutionalized as the area/field of study responsible for and in charge of observing, developing and spreading physical manifestations, has been going through many structural and ideological changes. In the end of the nineteenth century, PE started to be developed and seen as a necessary practice for society. What was not clearly defined was the exact involvement and compromise of this 'practice'. Thus it can be presumed that various or different meanings were manifested, however the only one that was overly emphasized was the 'physical practice' meaning of movement, which is still acknowledged as physical activities, dance, gymnastics, Sport and games.

    Drawing on the ideas mentioned above, the objective of this research paper is to demonstrate that there are not only socio-political roles being performed by PE and Sport, but that there are also other roles that are not being performed – or are less emphasized – by PE and Sport.

    Societies in general can distinguish and recognize many different ways of performing physical activities. What is not very clear is whether they are capable of distinguishing between the different meanings of physical movement in regard to objectives, socio-political intentions, benefits or possible relation to other major social problems.

    The present conceptions of PE and Sport and the ways they are being used and influenced is easily observed in both western and eastern countries. The strong influences that PE and Sport have over other social structures and their apparent disconnection to major social problems can also be considered as happening in most countries. These assumptions are true if one takes as a parameter the research that is being conducted by many different scholars worldwide. Based on scholarly research it is interesting to mention here that PE and Sport are considered as worldwide phenomena.

    Associating these facts to the versatility, adaptability and influential characteristics of PE and Sport, they are both being used as a means to achieve other objectives than the ones that are perceived and practiced by societies. Moreover, those objectives are, many times, in discordance with and disconnected from social, political and economic democracy. They oppose better living conditions, disrupt nature, and are contrary to educational and social objectives. They are also strictly connected to the PE political role as a powerful ideological and manipulative instrument. These cause people's alienation, passiveness and impotence but also halt operations that could originate the necessary and real changes to reformulate modern societies.

    As a consequence of alienation and the non-awareness of the socio-political role of PE, which was emphasized over the past decades and can be easily verified in the PE historical background, PE has lost its original meaning and its objectivity. Another example of the society's manipulation and ideological control is the absolute 'hegemony' of competitive Sport, or as some prefer to say, high performance Sport.

    The acknowledgment of contemporary PE expressed by PE teachers, other professionals, the literature, and the public in general reflects this situation of control exerted by the dominant ideology or by the dominant social class. This is what Gramsci defines as "hegemony".

    It is the essence of ideological manipulation and the nature of hegemony that must be challenged by PE and other educational subjects. The objective of this challenge is to provide society with tools and conditions to acquire the necessary awareness and choose the right paths and methods to achieve the desired social transformation.

    Because of this conceptual uncertainty, present-day PE has been in a state of disturbance since the beginning of the 1980's. Here, it could be, and should be, said that PE is going through a period of 'identity crisis' which has to be seen as an essential and extremely important period in its history. According to Gramsci (1971, p. 275), "the crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear". It can be understood that the present moment may be seen as an 'interregnum', and that changes are to come. After, and only after, the birth of the 'new' will it be possible to effectively establish new social and individual patterns and values. To do that, it is necessary to let the 'new' be born. This involves complex agreements and arrangements between the mass of the people, the leading groups of society, and the hegemonic ideology and various other structural systems. What can be observed in the field of PE is that there are many teachers, scholars, citizens and students working on the ‘re-discussion’ of the theme. This discussion will continue over and over until redefinitions of the objectives and values of PE within societies are solved. It also asks questions related to effective changes at social-political-economic-environmental levels.

    Certainly, this process of re-discussion of the objectives and values, not only of PE itself, but of all structures, did not originate by accident. It is a reflection of discussions that are taking place worldwide, and it assumes great potentiality and emphasis, especially in PE’s scientific field, though manifestations have also occurred in non-scientific environments.

The existence of socio-political roles

    Since PE and Sport are our subject matter, it might be a good idea to relate some of the principles frequently professed in our field of study and bring them closer to more practical situations.

    When thinking about the political roles performed by PE and Sport, the first two questions that must come to mind are:

  1. Whose politics are PE and Sport working for?

  2. Whose politics are PE and Sport not working for?

    If one is capable of expressing any answer to these questions, it is assumed that he is able to see political connections and/or is aware that some kind of political role is/is not being performed.

    As many scholars state and it is common knowledge, there is no action taken without a political intention, and every person possesses a certain level of political power. By these two assertions it can be assumed that every single institution, school subject, speech or book presents a political ideology. In fact, even non-political positioning implies a political decision, which unfortunately, will support the dominant political ideology.

    Therefore it is necessary to prove that the statements implicit in these two questions are true, that is:

  1. That PE and Sport are being used as political tools to achieve other objectives than the professed ones; and that there are some possible linkages between their educational structures and other structures; and

  2. That PE and Sport are lacking in consideration on some other political objectives; that they are under nourishing equity, fairness and socio-political awareness.

The Sport 'world' and its social repercussion

    Without considering any philosophical theory in special, let us consider a division of the world in which there are inanimate things and living beings that belong to the physical world. Some philosophers such as Karl Popper distinguish between this world, what they call ‘world 1’, and the world of emotions, what they call ‘world 2’. Other philosophers consider world 1 and 2 as part of the same one, the world of the human beings. However, an interesting alternative is the formation of another world – ’world 3’ –, that is, an objective, abstract, autonomous, and simultaneously real and acting world. It is to this distinct world that other social structures, institutions, PE and Sport belong. They were created and developed in accordance with man's 'needs and desires', and their presumed function is to promote better living conditions and to technologically 'develop' the present world. However, this does not seem to be exactly what is happening.

    The idea of analyzing PE and Sport through a prism is here introduced to determine many of the structures mentioned above. The common and widespread idea that is considered by society as the 'ideal' is represented in the following figure:

    These five social components are the main ones perceived by a society in general, and the ones through which PE and Sport assume such important and essential positions in contemporary societies. PE and Sport 'accepted' and incorporated them in their daily social practices, and they are conceptualized or based on these five components regardless of the presiding political system.

    The following figure characterizes another way of analyzing PE and Sport. It is much more critical and contains some components that also belong to ‘world 3’. The social components defined here are connected to some of the various problems that our world is suffering from, and which PE and Sport are still emphasizing during their daily practices.

    According to its historical background, present PE pedagogical methods are basically characterized by the ‘Sport Model’. Once this presupposition is clear, the critique to PE will be also carried out indirectly through a direct critique of the Olympic Games. The Games must be understood as Sport's most representative event and a top objective of PE and Sport.

Concluding remarks

    Regarding the sociological study of PE and Sport, as well as of cultural studies, much research work has been conducted throughout the world, especially in North America and Britain. The lack of homogeneity within the field suggests an ongoing struggle over definitions and meanings. Moreover, theories tend to contest each other both internally among the field itself as well as externally at practical levels. The contestation does not produce effective changes at practical levels. This 'disconnection' between PE's discourse and practice, plus the achievement of misrepresented objectives are some of the reasons that lead those involved and interested in PE – with or without 'political' interests – to make effective Betti's (1991) "pyramidal model" of PE and Sport. What Betti states in his work is in accordance with contemporary society’s definition of PE and Sport and resembles its internal structure when referring, for example, to social climbing, economic ascension, individuality and personal victory.

    In this context, PE and leisure are subordinated to the objectives of high performance sport. It is difficult for people to acknowledge PE and Sport as autonomous areas, that is, disciplines that are independent and have their own objectives. It is quite obvious that there are plenty of reasons to contest the terrain of social, cultural and political construction, as well as the embodiment and meaning of PE and Sport. Establishing better connections between PE's theory and practice is also important. Based on these many assertions, the necessity to develop this line of research becomes evident.


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