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Special Section Introduction: The Political Sociologies of Sport

by Paul Gilchrist, Russell Holden and Peter Millward
University of Brighton; In the Zone Sport and Politics Consultancy; Liverpool John Moores University

Sociological Research Online, 20 (2), 15
DOI: 10.5153/sro.3702

Received: 29 Apr 2015 | Accepted: 26 May 2015 | Published: 31 May 2015


1.1 This special section presents five articles from established and emerging scholars that coalesce around the theme of 'political sociologies of sport' that have grown out of the activities of the Political Studies Association's Sport and Politics Specialist Study Group (founded in 2005) in which we, as section co-editors, are centrally involved in.

1.2 Sport is not without questions about its ideological value and - as both a Study Group and a collection of articles - we engage with, rather than avoid, such critiques. Indeed the critical study of sport has been persistently confronted with the need for theoretical exposition of its ideological properties and potential, particularly in relation to the delivery of resistance and social change. This is a task which has routinely required dialogue with a range of critical voices that have denied or rejected the possibility of effective contestation of dominant values in sport. Two criticisms were offered by Theodor Adorno (1982), who argued that sport is tied to 'instrumental reason', meaning that it serves a purpose of habituating those in sub-ordinate social positions to the demands of material life, namely that if the proletariat worked hard s/he will gain rewards (i.e. sports victories) and that it presents a dystopian reality in which actors in the same social class quite literally 'fight' amongst themselves rather than galvanising against hidden but powerful structural forces that create the conditions they endure. Similarly, Umberto Eco (1986: 172) asked if it was 'possible to have a revolution on a football Sunday?'; answering that he thought not – sport served little socio-political function other than distracting the masses. Meanwhile, Noam Chomsky (2004) was only marginally less scathing in making similar criticisms by stating that sport that represents the capacity of 'ordinary people, not professionals, … [to apply] their intelligence and analytic skills [to] accumulate quite a lot of knowledge and, for all I know, understanding' and to question 'expert' opinion (p. 23). However because they are distracted by sport they do not think about politics, while when the same individuals (or others) talk about 'international affairs or domestic problems, it's at a level of superficiality that's beyond belief' (Chomsky 2004: 23). Most recently, arguments over the revolutionary potential of sport have been made in the context of the global sport mega event spectacle. Using the 1936 'Nazi' Olympic as an initial basis for his discussion, Marc Perelman (2012) makes much of the inherent links between political propaganda and sport, arguing that it has 'de-intellectualised' social actors and the societies they make up. In our Study Group and in this Special Section we seek to reverse this 'de-intellectualisation' by thinking more deeply about the inherent values and meanings of sport and connecting the analysis of sport to wider social and political concerns.

1.3 As our Study Group founded ten years ago, we gave ourselves the remit to provide opportunities for discussion, debate and research on sport politics. In doing so, we aim to interrogate the socio-political properties found in many sports activities, participations and events without essentialising their (subjectively viewed) 'positive' or 'negative' dimensions. We think the collection of five articles we present here do this, as do our annual conferences, which we have held 2007 and have attracted ever-increasing numbers of domestic and international scholars who have an interest in sport politics and policy (see www.sportpolitics.net for further details).

1.4 The initial impetus for the Group was to support new research and scholarship from an explicitly political science approach. This ambition has had a stuttering history. The academic study of sport and politics made an occasional appearance at the annual conferences of the Political Studies Association. Panels hosted at the 1984 annual conference in Manchester led to Lincoln Allison's edited volume The Politics of Sport (Manchester University Press, 1986) and two successor volumes - The Changing Politics of Sport (1993) and The Global Politics of Sport (2005). However, even into the new millennia it was recognised that political scientists continued to pay scant consideration to sport, considering it a diversion to the conventional themes of political study (Allison 1999; Grix 2010; Gilchrist and Holden 2011). Scholars drawn from established politics departments who have taken an interest in sport continue to observe a lacuna of serious disciplinary engagement with the subject, particularly when issues and concepts like justice, nationalism, democracy, conflict and power, standard fare in the teaching and research interests of political scientists, figure so prominently in the world of sport (Grix 2014: 217).

1.5 These observations raise interesting questions about the status of politics as a discipline and its capacity to shape emerging subfields. Brian Barry suggests that the study of politics in Britain is 'not reined in by the gravitational pull of the central core' (Barry 1999: 447), making it open to fragmentation. This is a view supported by the ESRC's International Benchmarking Review of UK Politics and International Studies which noted political study in the UK has a strong sub-disciplinary orientation: 'More than elsewhere, perhaps, the primary attachments of scholars of politics and IS [International Studies] in the UK are to sub-disciplines rather than to some larger, overarching discipline' (ESRC 2007: 11). Whilst the PSA provides an organisational umbrella for the political, the work of its specialist study groups is shaped by fields and concerns with porous intellectual boundaries and cross-disciplinary foci.

1.6 The themes of the annual conferences of the Sport and Politics Group have varied over the years but have been unified by a critical approach to looking at political issues that emerge in sport. However, the content of the papers has tended to be more typically 'sociologically' orientated, looking at the impact of politics on society rather than grasping concepts, models and approaches developed in political science in, for example, theorisations of the state or public administration. This perhaps comes as no surprise given the strength of sport studies as an academic subfield and the dominance of sociological approaches over the last 40 years, supported by specialist journals, international organisations such as the International Sociology of Sport Association (est. 1965), and disciplinary subgroups, such as the British Sociological Association's Sport Study Group (est. 1995), both of which encompass political science within their events and publications.

1.7 In setting the theme of the special section, therefore, we wish to avoid the uninformed wonder of the rookie who remains blissfully ignorant of work achieved to date in sport politics (or the social sciences of sport more broadly) and the temptation to declare the political sociology of sport a terra nullius. The section was commissioned as part of a continuing engagement between theories, concepts, ideas and issues developed in wider fields and parent disciplines, both politics and sociology. This all leads us to the questions of 'what is political sociology?' and 'how does political sociology relate to political science?'. These questions are particularly pertinent since both politics and sociology are core social science disciplines that ultimately give understanding to human behaviour. To help answer the first of these questions, we turn to Faulks (1999: 1), who stated political sociology to be:

[C]oncerned with the relationship between politics and society. Its distinctiveness within the social sciences lies in its acknowledgement that political actors, including parties, pressure groups and social movements, operate within a wider social context. Political actors therefore inevitably shape, and in turn are shaped by, social structures such as gender, class and nationality. Such social structures ensure that political influence within society is unequal. It follows from this that a key concept in political sociology is that power, where power is defined as the capacity to achieve one's objectives even when those objectives are in conflict with the interests of another actor. Political sociologists therefore invariably return to the following question: which individuals and groups in society possess the capacity to pursue their interests, and how is this power exercised and institutionalized.

1.8 By unpacking this quote we are led to answer our second question: political sociology is concerned with issues with political actors and the power they exert upon a population or society but shifts its focus to examining how these operate within wider social contexts, mostly obviously exploring how social structures intersect and shape relations. Despite Bourdieu's (1987) regret that sport had been sidelined by sociologists, the last three decades have seen a growth in the number of investigations into the cultures surrounding sport which include studies into dominant norms, values and practices ( aggression, violence, deviance, and prejudice) to global processes and social transformations affecting nations, regions, cultures and communities. By exploring mainstream sociological interests through the prism of sport such research follows Norbert Elias' (2008 [1986]: 10) axiom that 'studies of sport which are not studies of society are studies out of context' and we wish to follow in this tradition in this special section. Thus the sociology of sport includes explorations of the social factors that shape physical activity and sport participation but is not restricted to them and includes a broad remit that also addresses issues related to the consumption of sport, the impact of sports mega events on society and the body as a site for understanding social issues. Similarly, the sociology of sport utilises a range of social/sociological theories in its analyses that include Marxism/Conflict Theory, Structural Functionalism, Symbolic Interactionism, Figurationalism and Critical Theory (amongst others). These theoretical approaches continue to influence the analysis of sport cultures and practices and have helped to identify the presence of power relations in various social contexts in ways that align with a wider understanding of the remit of political sociology. However, it is our observation that scholarship in this area can be accelerated and deepened by a more explicit focus upon actors operating in a more narrowly defined 'political' field, such as parties, parliaments, governments, interest and lobby groups, and the sports clubs and associations, in the creation of public policy, social justice agendas and campaigns, and struggles over resources and legacies, and the determining of state intervention into sport. Thus, in this special section we invite a mainstream sociological audience to consider how a political sociology of sport might manifest.

1.9 The five articles offered in this special section of Sociological Research Online specifically address these areas and, we believe, throw down a marker for a sub-field of 'political sociologies of sport' to grow. In the first of these, Emma Rich, Laura De Pian and Jessica Francombe-Webb explore the physical cultures of stigmatisation of social class and health policy. Most specifically, they add to the body of research that unpacks the need to tackle the 'obesity crisis' in the UK which has given greater impetus to modes of physical activity, sport and physical education in addressing a range of related public health agendas. Rich, De Pain and Francombe-Webb argue that these policies have a class prejudice in the framing of (un)healthy and (in)active bodies. As such, the working classes become stigmatised in official health policy discourses. Second, thirteen years after the 2002 Commonwealth Games were held in Manchester, Camilla Lewis provides an ethnographic account of the experiences of residents who have lived in the Beswick and Openshaw districts in the city (which hosted most of the events) throughout this period. 'Legacies' have become widely promised after a city has hosted a sports mega event, such as the Commonwealth Games, and Lewis' detailed and prolonged qualitative data collection sheds light which suggests that (widely accepted but subjectively defined) 'positive' impacts do always come to fruition. Third, Anthony May explores the impacts of the 'Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act' or, as it is often referred to, the 'anti-Sectarian Act' which came into force in 2012. This Act criminalises violent incidents and threatening behaviour related to the expression of religious hatred towards football fans, players, and officials. May argues it is significant because in the contemporary era, much of what is termed 'sectarianism' in Scotland is directly related to British and Irish national identities that have little to do with 'religion', giving the article strong political traction in an era where debates about Scotland's independence continue. Fourth, John McManus provides a multi-site on and offline ethnography of a spatially dispersed Diaspora community that follows the Turkish football club, Beşiktaş. In doing so, McManus' article tells us about how a transnational group of fans mediate the place-making practices of chants and displays of banners. The final article offered in the special section is by Stacey Pope, who draws upon 85 semi-structured interviews conducted with female fans of men's football and rugby teams. Utilising a Bourdieu-inspired theoretical framework, her findings allow her to argue that social class is no longer a primary source of identity and, indeed, many of those in her sample denied any class identity. As such, she finds that sport operates as a unique space in which people openly discuss class distinctions. Together these articles draw upon core political sociology ideas and frames - state, nation, legacy, place-making - to place down a marker in the call for further engagement with an emerging 'political sociology of sport'.


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