Sport and Society (Issues in Society)
Open University Press, Buckingham
Sport and Society, part of the Open University Press's 'Issues in Society' series edited by Tim May, is an intriguing book. It looks and feels like a conventional textbook. It attempts a relatively wide-ranging analysis of the sociology of sport sub-discipline drawing largely, if not entirely, on existing material. It is written for an undergraduate readership and divided into three sections which one might expect to find in any 'normal' sociology of sport text book: the development of sport, issues in contemporary sport and theories of sport. But Sport and Society is not a 'conventional' textbook by any stretch of the imagination. It is not conventional, Scambler notes, in that a prominent feature of the text is a 'strong critical impulse'. A second aspect which is unconventional for a textbook is that its author holds something of an 'outsider' (or better newcomer) status to the sub-discipline, having worked largely within medical sociology and having published relatively little in the sociology of sport, and then only relatively recently. This may be reflective of a more general trend in which the sociology of sport has come to be seen as having greater relevance for mainstream sociology but, more pertinently for present purposes, the main consequence of this is that Sport and Society is a breath of fresh air for the sub-discipline. Where those within the sub-discipline may see it as riven with conflict and dissension, Scambler's text highlights areas of commonality and thus the potential for greater unity in the future.
Being part of the Issues in Society series, the format of the text is largely dictated to Scambler. In some ways this is a shame, for the initial, socio-historical, chapters of the book are the weakest, being largely descriptive and providing little beyond the existing literature. A subsequent chapter on sociological perspectives on sport again provides little that is new, but what is refreshing here is that, unusually, Scambler has no real axe to grind, so covers the theories in an even-handed and very lucid manner.
But alongside these chapters Scambler examines the health, drugs and sport nexus, violence in contemporary sport and the commercialization and mediatization of sport. Each of these chapters lives up to Scambler's claim to a strong critical impulse. As one might expect, his take on sport and health, and in particular aspects of politics and governmentality, is innovative (to sociology of sport textbooks at least) because it is enlightened by a broader, non-sociology of sport, understanding. Scambler also brings a refreshing view to debates about violence. His discussion of football hooliganism, by cutting through the personal and bitter rivalries which have tended to characterize this area, concludes with a synthesis which shows there to be a greater coherence to this body of research than often appears the case. And, though I may not entirely agree with Scambler's contention that since the professionalization in rugby union in 1995 players have been exposed to increased risk of injury (my own research has argued that epidemiological surveys on this subject are fundamentally flawed and that professionalization has led rugby clubs to take greater care of their key 'assets'), his attempt to combine Elias's theory of civilizing processes with what he sees as the increasing frequency and seriousness of violent practices in sports in disorganized capitalism provides an interesting and challenging read.
Scambler presents what he describes as 'a neo-Marxist sociology of disorganized capitalism buttressed by critical reflection'. Habermas is regularly cited as a central influence behind this approach, but similarly influential, though less explicitly acknowledged, seems to be the work of Elias. Interestingly, of the six sociological perspectives, which Scambler reviews in his theory chapter, only for figurational sociology are all the cited criticisms rebuffed. Perhaps the reason why Scambler does not draw upon Elias's figurational sociology more explicitly is that Scambler seems to think that one can't appreciate Elias's work without being a 'disciple'. Why? A second reason is contained in the closing section of the book, 'Towards a Critical Sociology of Sport'. Elias's stance on 'involvement and detachment' is regularly, and incorrectly, interpreted as a rejection of political intervention (within the sociology of sport, Dunning et al.'s work on football hooliganism and Waddington and Roderick's work on healthcare in professional football offer this dimension).
Ironically, I would argue that what makes this text so interesting and therefore valuable is Scambler's relative detachment from the everyday politics and feuding between rival 'schools' in the sociology of sport. The consequence is a refreshing read and a remarkably effective synthesis of which the competing (often warring) schools in the sociology of sport should take note.
School of Sport and Exercise Sciences, Loughborough University