CRITICAL AND COMPARATIVE INVESTIGATIONS IN THE SOCIOLOGY OF SPORT
Notes on presentation at University of Buenos Aires, Argentina August 1 1997
Dr John Sugden and Professor Alan Tomlinson University of Brighton, England, UK
When both of us were first drawn toward the sociology of sport towards the end of the 1970s it was very much a new area of study. Then, there was still a lot of work to be done to convince both the academic community and a wider, popular audience that sport was more than something trivial which deserved to be considered, alongside the family, religion, the media and education as a significant social institution worthy of serious academic enquiry.
From a European base, one of our problems was that the earliest pioneers in the sociology of sport were north American. As such, almost all of the published output of the fledgling discipline was north American, directed towards the exclusive concerns of US sports. The outstanding works of this early north American period were radical critiques of the American sport's establishment - notably, the works of Jack Scott (the Athletic Revolution), Paul Hoch (Rip Off the Big Game) and a variety of interventions by the Berkeley based sociologist and black activist, Harry Edwards, a figure who had helped to orchestrate the black power salute during the 1968 Mexico Olympics.
Challenging as such interventions were, they did not lead to sustained developments within the north American academic community. Rather it was other figures, committed to the then dominant paradigms of north American sociology- namely forms of functionalism coupled with positivistic method - who established sociology of sport as a legitimate area of study and research within the university. I However, gradually, through the arrival in the USA of postgraduate students from the United Kingdom and Canada - people versed in other, more critical theoretical and methodological debates - the certainties of the functionalist schema were seriously challenged.
In a related development, when some of these scholars returned to the UK they discovered an incipient sociology of sport. Most prominent in this was the application by Eric Dunning at the University of Leicester of the works of the German scholar, Norbert Elias, to the social history and the sociology of sport. Not far away at the University of Birmingham, under the guidance of Stuart Hall, the burgeoning, interdisciplinary area of cultural studies also discovered sport as a focus of analysis, prioritising neo-Marxist categories, particularly ideology, hegemony and the state, gender issues and media discourse.
When within those universities with sports studies and/or physical education departments, new academic appointments were made, they drew upon sociologists, political scientists and historians already working within the cultural studies and critical sociology traditions. The first forum for this new wave of critical sport sociologists was the leisure and recreation study group of the BSA (British Sociological Association) and the LSA (Leisure Studies Association). It has been from these constituencies that some of the most significant work has emerged during the past ten to fifteen years.
In many respects we, in overlapping ways, embody this intellectual journey. One of us was the returning migrant having followed the study of politics and sociology at the University of Essex with postgraduate studies in the sociology of sport at the University of Connecticut, before returning to an academic post in the University of Ulster, Northern Ireland. The other stayed in the UK, studying humanities and sociology at the University of Kent and then sociological theory and the sociology of culture at the University of Sussex, before taking one of the UK's first lectureship4 n the sociology of sport at the University of Brighton. Our concerns with the critical, the comparative and the investigative have grown out of an ongoing engagement with these currents. So, what do the key components of approach amount to?.
Critical. In its most simple sense to be critical is to by sceptical - that is never take things at face value. It is main task of the sociologist to get under the skin of daily life and to understand what passes as 'routine' in the context of broader issues of power, control and resistance to domination. In our invocation of this concept we follow the example of the great USA sociologist, C. Wright Mills, in his exhortation to understand in integrated fashion, biography and history, self and structure, private life and public issues. Wright Mills was also masterful in his eclectic use of the most appropriate concepts and theories when applying his critical gaze. In similar ways one of the leading English language social theorists of our time, Anthony Giddens, has been an outstanding critical theorist whose mind has been open to wide ranging influences - from the classic founding fathers of European social theory to more contemporary theorists, not just in sociology, but also from social geography and critical philosophy.
Wright Mills railed against the use of grand theory and of measurementled research ('abstract empiricism'). Likewise Giddens, although himself an exclusively library based theorist, preaches against an overdependency on quantitative methods and recommends more interpretive and ethnographic approaches. Our own work encapsulates both an informed eclecticism, as Wright Mills put it, and a research mission which is located at the point of agency and structure - i.e. where and how humans live out there lives in particular times and places. The outstanding example of this mission in practice, often cited by Guldens, is Paul Willis's Learning to Labour.
At all times, while not claiming to be either reformers or revolutionaries, we recognise the potential of critical social science to act back upon the world which it seeks to understand. In developing our own work we have demonstrated the grounded utility of major conceptual categories such as: hegemony; globalisation; nationalism; development; ideology; contestation.
Comparative. The fundamental purpose behind a methodology which embraces the comparative is to learn more about ourselves by understanding more about 'the other' - both horizontally across space and vertically through history. This is more than an abstract academic principle, it is also a premise of contemporary global citizenship which undermines the formation of ethnocentrism and stereotyping - the basis of so much conflict in the modem world. We do not claim that the comparative method always demands the study of more than one case.
Nevertheless, the study of single cases should always be informed, however implicitly, by a wider understanding of how a particular society stands in relation to others.
In a developing corpus of work we have sought to generate studies, which, when taken together constitute a broader comparative -project. For instance, our edited volume on world football cultures - Hosts and Champions - offers the reader a choice from a range of individual cases which stand alone, but also have an accumulative impact in terms of a more comprehensive understanding of football cultures and politics worldwide. Likewise Boxing and Society, in perhaps a more concentrated example, offers deeply grounded, free standing commentaries on the social location of boxing (in the USA, Northern Ireland and Cuba) which, when read together constitute a comparative international analysis.
Investigative. Investigative sociological research is an important dimension of the critical gaze. It is not a new category (although, it has for some years lay dormant within the social scientist's methodological repertoire). Classic subcultural studies by Robert Park and his contemporaries in the Chicago School in the 1920s and 1930s were in part dependent upon the methods of investigative and muck-raking journalism. In the 1960s and 1970s, Jack Douglas at the University of California, retrieved this tradition, arguing that any valid critique of what is really going on must go beyond passive observation and embrace the investigative. His investigative mission combined a quest for truth with the recognition that observation is essential: 'Direct observation of things in their natural state (uncontrolled) is the primary basis of all truth this bedrock facticity of concrete experience and observation pervades our everyday lives.' Also recognising, with Douglas, the unpredictable complexities of the researcher's place and role in relation to the topics and human subjects of research, we believe that an investigative imperative is faithful to the spirit of a critical social science. In the journalistic tradition we have been able to learn much from the likes of Vyv Simson and Andrew Jennings whose work on the politics and economics of international sport has challenged ivory Lower academics to go beyond second hand and removed sources, and enter the field in pursuit of the truth. However, the investigative journalist is over-dependent upon sensationalist headlines and juicy stories. For us what separates the investigative journalist from the investigative social scientist are: the pursuit of objective understanding; the generation of theory; and the value of interpretation and explanation rather than mere expose.
A final note on the approach which we have tried to outline. We are interested in sport as a window into the society itself, not a mere reflection of that society. There is a critical difference. Sport does more than passively reproduce a society's more salient features. It is both determined by and determining of its wider social context. As we hope the body of this presentation will reveal, through the application of our model, we can inform our audience not only about sport but, perhaps most importantly, about sport's relation to other cultural forms and social institutions, and the dominant social forces prevailing in a given society or global network as the case may be.
What we present today in illustrative mode is a selection of our research studies, which in different ways exemplifies the various strands of the critical, comparative and investigative framework. This selection draws particularly upon fieldwork in Cuba, South Africa, the USA and Northern Ireland; and textual and archival work on the culture of Olympism and sports spectacle, and our study of world football politics (FIFA and the Contestfor Worldfootball: Who Rules the People's Game?, to be published by Polity Press, 1998).
John Sugden and Alan Tomlinson
Brighton, England, UK
July 24 1997
Lecturas: Educación Física y Deportes. Año 2, Nº 7. Buenos Aires. Octubre 1997