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Understanding Sport: An Introduction to the Sociological and Cultural Analysis of Sport

John Horne and Alan Tomlinson
Routledge: London
0419136401 (pb)
16.99 (pb)

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As the authors state at the outset, this book is 'designed as an introduction to the sociological study and cultural analysis of sport in modern Britain' aimed 'explicitly at the needs of undergraduates'. In line with this purpose, the book critically outlines most of the major texts in the sociology of sport to provide a detailed introduction into some of the main areas of research. The book begins with a discussion of the codification of modern sports at a group of English public schools in the mid 19th century and its introduction as a form of 'rational recreation' to the new urban populations later in the century. The authors return to this crucial transformation in the following two chapters, elaborating upon the change by further theoretical discussion and interesting empirical exemplification. From Chapter 4, the book changes focus and the contemporary condition of sport comes into view although the initial transformation of sport in the nineteenth century remains the abiding touchstone. There is a chapter on sport and stratification which examines the relationship between sport, class, gender and ethnicity; on sport and socialisation which essentially provides a social policy perspective; on sport and the media where the key role of the television is discussed; on sport and the state where the politics of sport in modern society is examined; on sport and work which looks at the labour conditions of professional players and, finally, the commercialisation of sport which examines recent what might be termed post-Fordist transformations. Within these chapters there are also some very informative general discussions about, for instance, Marxist theories of the state and the relationship between sociology and history. Each chapter concludes with suggested essays and exercises which lecturers and tutors may, or may not, find useful.

Although the book covers most of the major areas, a notable omission is any extended discussion of hooliganism or the literature on this phenomenon. While the sociology of sport should not be limited to the activities of violent fans, the absence of any sustained discussion of this violence is curious, especially in an undergraduate textbook. Despite this, the book is likely to be a useful addition to reading lists on sports-related courses. Moreover, the book is littered with contemporary vignettes to illuminate the specific nature of contemporary sport which may engage the attention of students since many will be familiar with the incidents which are discussed such as Eric Cantona's kung-fu kick or the sad decline of Paul Gascoigne.

Ironically, the strong historical opening of the book and the interesting vignettes included in it also highlight the central weakness of the book. While the discussion of the original modernisation of sport in Britain in the nineteenth century is successful, the book never sustains the same level of historically specific analysis in the rest of the chapters, although the discussions of class, gender, ethnic aspects of sport, not to mention the political and economic structure of sport, are finally inexplicable without situating these issues in particular historical eras. Indeed, the authors themselves rightly emphasis the importance of such historical analysis: 'the historically sensitive study of the place, role and nature of sport in modern societies has the potential to enhance the analysis and understanding of wider society and culture' (p.77). Despite the authors' own historical sensitivity, no systematic historical framework is developed after the opening chapters and, consequently, the text tends to jump from interesting anecdote to anecdote without any serious consideration of the sociological relevance of, for instance, figures like Michael Jordan or Shaquille O'Neal (discussed briefly on page 183). Given both the importance but also the complexity of recent transformations of sport, this constitutes a significant problem.

Significantly, Alan Tomlinson (with John Sugden) has provided exactly this kind of analysis of the transformation of sport in the new globalised environment with their excellent ethnography of the Byzantine politics of the World Cup (Tomlinson and Sugden 1998). That book highlights the wider economic and political realities which structure the World Cup and, thereby, genuinely deepens our understanding of this extraordinary ritual. Although publishing houses and academics are descending ever further down the road of text books and readers, the merits of a book like FIFA and the Contest for World Football highlights that the current bias of academic presses against research monographs in favour of student introductions, like Understanding Sport, may be somewhat misplaced.

Anthony King
University of Exeter


TOMLINSON, Alan and SUGDEN, John, 1998. FIFA and the Contest for World Football. Cambridge: Polity.

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