Some observations on social history and the sociology of sport
SOCIOLOGISTS frequently complain that historians lack a conceptual framework for their research, whilst historians tend to feel social theorists require them to compress the diversity of the past into artificially rigid categories and dispense with empirical verification of their theories. In truth both disciplines need each other, and distinguished authorities in both areas have recently emphasized the interdependence of sociology and history in the identification and pursuit of common problems in social science. The purpose of this short appendix, however, is not to hold forth about the elusive goal of interdisciplinary research nor to set out a sociology of sport. I simply wish to make more explicit the reasons for the thematic approach I have taken and to spell out the organizing concepts implicit in this study.1
History crudely weighted down with the apparatus of theory and couched in specialist language spoils the enjoyment of a subject without enhancing our understanding of it. Clarity must be a precondition of explanation. Hence I have avoided the formal vocabulary of much recent sociological research into sport with its ‘negotiation of hegemonic values’, ‘commodification of athletic products’, and ‘cultural reification’ amongst other highly abstract formulations. It seems particularly ironic that studies of phenomena that are by definition popular tend to be carried on in terms that even highly educated non-specialists have great difficulty in following. Few stay the course and the gap between the new theorists of sport and the ordinary historian can seem unbridgeable. Take the following sentence from a new journal which has published theoretical work on sport: ‘Massification as the negation of publics designates that moral inter-subjectivity as a process of need expression and sublimation is replaced by corporatized, desublimating modes.’ Most historians of sport would dismiss such writing out of hand as pretentious and incomprehensible. Such a reaction is quite understandable, and often sensible. Yet hacking through the thickets of jargon, there are some good (p.358) things to be found. The author of the excruciating sentence quoted above may have a serious point to make about the way sport historically has dramatized deeply shared community values. Nowadays, he argues, the power of big business and the media has turned moral ‘heroes’ into paid ‘stars’. Of course, such interesting ideas remain nothing more than assertions unless proper historical evidence for them can be produced. This is why the theorists and the historians should get together. We should be trying to talk to each other and we are not doing so. This is a further reason for my making explicit what limited theoretical borrowing I have done in the writing of this book.2
The first hurdle for the historian seeking assistance from the body of work loosely termed the ‘sociology of sport’ is the lack of any degree of consensus about what the subject entails or the guiding principles of analysis. Social scientists express little surprise about this. As there is no broad agreement on anything in sociology, why should sport be any different? ‘The defining characteristic of sociology ought to be the special tension between a critical attitude to the broad frameworks available and an imaginative approach to the sheer data’, as a recent practitioner aptly puts its. But the non-specialist expecting consensus may find all this perplexing at first, and some give up at this stage. There is a tendency for some historians to expect ‘sociology’ to hand them ready-made concepts ‘off the shelf’ that they can cheerfully take back and apply uncritically to their evidence. When they find that sociologists quite reasonably disagree profoundly about what it is they are trying to explain and how they should go about it, the historian retreats into the ‘facts’ and constructs his ‘stories’ based frequently upon the sequence of what seem to be significant events in a chosen individual activity. Such ‘selection’ of themes is based upon previous work in the area, existing evidence, and more or less shrewd ‘hunches’ about where to go next. However, though some fine work has been produced in this fashion, the criteria of ‘significance’ remain hard to pin down. Why do we focus on one set of themes rather than others? How do we pick out and define the problems we want to solve? This is without doubt the major obstacle for anyone writing a general history.3
The preoccupation of much contemporary research on sport has been of a fairly limited empirical kind—a positivistic sociology of who plays what. Whilst such data is clearly relevant to recreation management, which has emerged as a distinct specialism in recent years, relatively little of this kind of work has been done historically. More of this basic work is needed in history where problems of collecting data are often very (p.359) serious. What do we do after we have found out, for example, how many men/women, young/old, rich/poor individuals engage in certain sports? A simple explanation of patterns in terms of access to facilities or the resources required does not take us far. Why, for example, is Rugby Union a popular game in Wales and a middle-class one in England? The answer to such questions cannot come from mere reference to facilities. The social structure of Welsh rugby needs to be set in the context of a new kind of ‘Welshness’ that grew out of the impact of economic growth and immigration upon pre-existing cultural traditions. Additionally this ‘Welshness’ of rugby has to be set against a kind of ‘Englishness’ based upon the triumph of a code of amateurism nurtured in the social élite. Hence an apparently simple question takes us straight into the heart of a complex debate about the class structure of Britain and the relations between different historical components of the state. Awareness of the nature of the problem comes both from a historical understanding of the national structure of Great Britain and from a theoretical standpoint that sees sport not just as a straightforward physical activity but as a social process through which cultural meanings are produced.4
This leads us into the thick of sociological argument. Until quite recently the sociology of sport tended to see organized physical activity as unproblematic. Sport was a natural human phenomenon, the specific forms of which were determined by the ‘modernity’ of the context in which it took place, i.e. by the levels of industrialization and urbanization and by the accompanying degree of bureaucratic control and regulation. The trouble with such ‘modernization’ theories of sport is precisely that they do not account for the distinctiveness of sports within and between different classes and nations. ‘Modernization’ sees sport as a natural activity which has simply been adjusted to fit the changing demands of space and time in a new world of factory and clerical labour. ‘Traditional’ society with its agricultural rhythms and religious holidays gave way to ‘modern’ industrial society, and sport accordingly became time-conscious, codified, and nationally administered. The appropriateness of a game like Association football to urban life in the late Victorian city is a useful point to make. We must not throw out the baby with the bath water. ‘Modernization’ must not be swept aside just because it is simple. The trouble is that such an explanation does not take us very far in understanding why certain groups of people preferred one activity to another and why quite culturally specific meanings were attached to (p.360) sports in different places and at different times. To assume all sports are essentially similar in their significance just because they mainly take place in industrial cities is deeply misleading. It is not so much that a ‘traditional/modern’ typology of sport is wrong in itself but that it simply does not tackle the most interesting questions. It is precisely the differences between England and Ireland or France and America, for example, or between working-class and middle-class forms which prompt our curiosity. The crux of the matter for historian and sociologist alike is the perception of sport and the varying cultural meanings that are attached to games—sometimes to the same game—by different social groups or by different forces within the state that command our attention. This is what sets the serious study of sport apart from the enthusiast's unthinking and happy absorption in it. On the basis of my previous research on France and as I progressed with research for this book, the tension between fairly obvious changes in the material context of sport— hours of work, rates of pay, communications, urban densities, and so on—and the power of ‘traditional’ aspects of sport (especially its role in sustaining various forms of male community) emerged as the central theme. In other words, beneath the apparently simple transformation of sport into a ‘modern’ activity lay a whole range of arresting ideas about the role of sport which were positively obscured by the assumption that sport could be reduced to a kind of automatic response to the forces of industrialization.5
If the historian wishes to go beyond ‘modernization’ an approach which accepts the plurality of sport is vital. This is harder to find in the realm of social theory than one might imagine. Theorists are by the very nature of their purpose generally concerned with the inner coherence of a body of ideas. Whether the resulting theory corresponds to the diversity of the subject it seeks to explain is another matter. When it comes to sport ‘the problem’ is usually perceived to be establishing the ‘essence’ of sport. This involves defining some of the chief characteristics either a priori or by examining what those activities held to be sports have in common. Of the latter kind we have assertions about the ‘religious’ nature of sport, its transcendence of utility, and the personal growth it is held to promote. As a radical alternative there is one Marxist view of sport which concentrates on the extension of capital into leisure (the ‘commodification’ thesis). There is a neo-Marxist theory, which combines Marx and Freud to assert that sport is in essence a way of repressing the potentially liberating forces of the libido—of sexual energy—into alienated forms of exercise which emphasize the worklike and competitive. For followers of J.-M. Brohm, for example, sport is a (p.361) ceaseless and absurd struggle for records at the expense of more sensible and sociable impulses. Another ‘essentialist’ position is put forward by Allen Guttman in a thoughtful book which seeks to rebut the neo-Marxist argument. In From Ritual to Record he suggests that the key distinguishing feature of modern sport is the expression of Weberian rationality, the triumph of the scientific and bureaucratic world-view. The Protestant ethic has triumphed as sport has become a matter of keeping records of performance and constantly trying to improve upon them. Finally, mention must be made of the important contribution of Norbert Elias and his disciple Eric Dunning, who insist that sport must be seen as part of a wider ‘civilizing process’ involving the gradual internalizing of standards of self-control and gentility percolating down the social structure over centuries. Like Guttman, Elias and Dunning have gone to some pains to attempt to prove their case historically. Indeed historical change is built into their theory, although to the historian their impressive work still seems to be a little ‘one-dimensional’, lacking context; it involves ‘reading off’ changes in the past as part of a linear ‘developmental sociology’.6
My purpose is not to elaborate upon such ideas or to evaluate them. It is simply to highlight a few of the many theories put forward to explain sport and to indicate the difficulty facing anyone seeking to draw upon theory to explain the general development of sport over time. The person who attempts a synthesis soon realizes that sport may be a single word but it is not a single thing; this is the nub of the matter. There is casual play, organized participation, and full professionalism; there are team-games and individual ones. Perhaps we should pay rather more attention to the warnings of Wittgenstein and his followers over the use of words. Social theorists want to give precise meanings to words. If we can define sport, runs the argument, then perhaps we can explain it. Any right definition presupposes that the phenomenon can be reduced to the kind of manageable proportions required for the isolating of its ‘essence’. But language is just not like this. Words are not used in a forensic fashion. Language is social and changing; meanings depend upon the context in which words are used and there is no reason to suppose a common core of meaning can be attached to a single word.7
(p.362) Hence the recent difficulty of the Sports Council in getting any agreement about what constituted ‘sport’ and their weary, anodyne formulation to the effect that it should involve ‘an acceptable balance of physical effort and skill’. Most of those questioned thought sport should have a competitive element but this view was not universally accepted. ‘Physical recreations’ are often also played as ‘sports’ and referred to as such. Swimming and fishing are two of the most popular ‘sports’ in Britain even though most are content to splash around the pool or sit peacefully by the canal without catching much. Some people even thought gardening and cooking were ‘sports’ as both required physical skill and can be competitive. This clearly is going a bit far, but common sense requires us to admit that when a person says ‘I like sport’ it can mean ‘I like fierce competition’, ‘I like a jog round the park’, or ‘being part of a big crowd’, or ‘watching athletes of all kinds on television’. Sport, therefore, is not reducible to a single essence. The writer of a historical synthesis is not out to champion one theory or another. What may seem conceptually confused and unacceptable to the theorist may be appropriate and right for the historian drawing on different theories to illuminate different aspects of what is in reality not a single phenomenon but a set of loosely related activities shifting their forms and meanings over time. Eclecticism is justified provided it is reasoned and critical. There are certainly aspects of high-performance sport, which in recent years have been turned into ‘commodities’, though the history of sport as a business belies facile generalizations about the origins of this in the nineteenth century—at least as far as Britain is concerned. Similarly, the drive for scientific rationality casts light on the reorganization of sport into national structures but tells us little or nothing about the attitudes of those who participated in or watched the activities thus administered. The social historian wants to know how most participants and spectators responded most of the time, and this may have little to do with any alleged ‘essence’.8
It is at this point that the value of what may be termed the ‘cultural Marxist’ approach becomes evident. Instead of looking at sport in terms of ‘surplus value’ or ‘alienation’, sport is seen as one of a range of processes through which the values of a dominant class are passed on to the bulk of the working population. The importance of this is that it does not impute any inherent values to sport but instead concentrates on the use made of it. Sport is seen as part of a process through which a consensus is reached about existing economic and political arrangements. This position derives from the work of Gramsci on ‘hegemony’ and, though useful, has several important pitfalls for the (p.363) unwary. First, of course, it assumes that there is a body of unreconciled and potentially hostile opinion which will destroy the state if it is not assimilated into the dominant culture. Secondly, it seems to suggest a preponderant role for the state, which may have made sense in Mussolini's Italy, but works less well in the context of nineteenth-century liberalism, especially the ‘small government’ variety of which Britain was the supreme exemplar. Thirdly, and most importantly, if crudely handled the idea of hegemony simply degenerates into a bland proposition about the manipulation of the masses by controlling cliques, Vulgar ‘social control’ models assume that popular culture is a blank book upon which the ruling class can write what they wish. The British school of ‘cultural’ Marxism have been shrewdly aware of such dangers. E. P. Thompson set out in uncompromising terms the power of the working class to ‘create itself’ and produce a political culture of ‘resistance’. Raymond Williams has refined the theoretical tools to create a model of cultural change in which there is a permanent dialogue between imposed values and autonomous, self-generating ones. Richard Gruneau in Class, Sports and Social Development has recently attempted to synthesize this line of thinking with specific relation to sport by setting a case-study of the development of Canadian sport alongside a more lengthy and highly sophisticated theoretical discussion.9
Sport, Power and Culture by John Hargreaves is an important recent attempt to present a coherent theoretical account of the growth of sport in modern Britain in terms of what he calls ‘the hegemonic project’. He interprets nineteenth-century sport as the conquest of bourgeois values embodied in the ideology of amateurism. This helped to create a unified elite of birth and wealth. Alongside this process there was also a ‘philanthropic strategy’ which transmitted these hegemonic values to the working class so as to reinforce the separation of the more skilled and articulate elements from the rest. Here the argument obviously links up with the much wider debate about both ‘social control’ and the emergence of a ‘labour aristocracy’ in Victorian Britain. Hence sport both solidified ‘the ruling class’ and split the working class. The theoretical neatness of this account, however, leads to problems when dealing with the complex historical reality—problems which cannot be properly resolved in the hundred or so pages of a single book which also provides a detailed analysis of what has taken place in British sport in the late twentieth century. As these issues—the ideology of amateurism, the (p.364) doctrine and practice of ‘rational recreation’, the ‘relative cultural autonomy’ of sport—have been examined in some detail in the text, especially in Chapters 2 and 3, I do not propose to go over the historical evidence again here. For the moment I simply want to state a number of reservations about the use of ‘hegemony’ as a tool of analysis. The first is simply that there is a danger of thinking of ‘hegemony’ as unproblematic whereas in fact it is a strongly contested concept both within the Marxist tradition and without. Hargreaves certainly takes account of this—if anything his history’ is too packed with abstract formulation elaborately qualified at the expense of concrete historical examples—but there is a real danger of others simply taking a ‘hegemonic’ approach as a convenient ‘catch-all’ concept and applying it crudely. A convincing account can only be provided by a wealth of detailed evidence. The claims for sport as a tool for the moral leadership by the bourgeoisie of a divided working class needs to be treated with great caution. Which sports? When? How? The agencies of hegemony have to be made clear. As the debate over Victorian ‘social control’ revealed, it is not enough to show that there were individuals with the intention of exercising control over the workers. It has to be established that some kind of moral influence was in fact exercised. The hegemonic argument cleverly accepts that such control was only partially and incompletely achieved, and in fact interprets this cultural independence as ‘resistance’, thereby providing further proof of the strength of the concept. We are presented with a closed system of thought which can account for all manner of conflicting interests and responses. Yet sport did not unite the middle and upper classes in any straightforward way. Despite the manifest importance of amateurism, northern business men were paradoxically excluded from a ‘bourgeois’ amateur consensus (as, for example, the Northern Union in rugby revealed). Furthermore, it could easily be argued that the public school ideal of ‘fair play’ was not so much a ‘bourgeois’ doctrine as an adaptation of older aristocratic traditions of honour and style which created the ideal of ‘effortless superiority’. The extent of working-class incorporation into the ideology of amateurism appears to have been fairly restricted. Working-class sportsmen seem to have been more or less indifferent to amateur values, though the game of cricket in its MCC-dominated county form did embody an unquestioned subordination of the professional to the amateur which could be construed as ‘hegem19;, i.e. involving manual workers freely accepting the moral leadership of the ruling elite. My point is not that hegemony is valueless but that it needs to be carefully confined to precise contexts within sport rather than used as blanket ‘explanation’.10
(p.365) The ‘cultural’ approach fits well into the established pattern of British social history which has taken the relationship between classes and levels of class-consciousness as a central issue for discussion. The attack on old sports by middle-class reformers, the emergence of amateurism as a new kind of élite ideology, and, most importantly, the attempt to impose ‘rational recreation’ on the workers all relate to the wider definition and implementation of a theoretically dominant bourgeois culture. Even those who had no ideological axe to grind have found themselves caught up in such discussion. For my own part I have tried to do justice to the undoubted activism of middle-class reformers whilst stressing their failure to dominate the working class. Fair play, rationality, and amateurism on the one side were more than compensated by partisanship and professionalism on the other. Here I follow Gareth Stedman-Jones in his analysis of the self-sufficient and inward-looking culture of the London working class in the later nineteenth century, especially his view of the cultural significance of the music-hall. I have stressed the ‘relative autonomy’ of working-class culture. For it seems to me that one can address these problems without having to accept the full implications of their premisses, i.e. the intention to control can be accepted without believing that success was crucial for the stability of the state. Like Molière's ‘bourgeois gentilhomme’ social historians have found themselves talking ‘prose’ (i.e. in this case discussing class relations in a ‘hegemonic’ sense) without realizing it. Theoretical formulations have served mainly to make explicit a concept of which historians were already implicitly aware.11
In trying to understand what constituted the popular culture of sport the role of shared masculine and community values has proved very important. For there was no ‘socialist’ culture of resistance to control expressed through sport but rather a fierce commitment to locality, a pride in belonging to a neighbourhood, or a wider sense of a specific regional or urban identity. Here a feminist-derived awareness of sport as a means of constantly re-creating and sustaining male identity becomes important. I developed the theme of sport as a male institution in earlier work on France and subsequent feminist writing has reinforced my belief that sport, both spectator and participant, has been central to the maintenance of male sociability in all classes. The degree to which sport carries class meanings is more difficult to establish than the obvious cult of masculinity—hardness, strength, courage, and durability alongside physical skill—that is promoted through sport. A ‘cultural Marxist’ view of working-class sport, which neglects the role of sport as a source of (p.366) sexual identity will be inevitably incomplete. Trying to understand the watching of professional football in terms of whether or not the game offered a compensation for loss of skill at work or conversely a reinforcement of the idea of ‘work-rate’ and specialization of functions may be interesting, but it is inevitably speculative and inconclusive. However, the celebration of a distinctive brand of popular ‘masculinity’ is pretty obvious and incontestable. This may be contrasted with the more refined ‘manliness’ of the gentleman-amateur, which gave the same prominence to physical prowess but overlaid it with moral considerations of ‘uprightness’ and gallantry towards women. Class and gender values meshed together to create socially distinctive ways of playing and watching.12
This brings me to a final and related consideration: the role of sport as a source of sociability and a new kind of identity both at the level of the street and of the city. The links between popular sports and fairs, holidays, and feasts is a frequent theme of research into traditional recreation, and the historian is naturally struck by what became of the communal character of sport in a heavily industrial and urban context. This, in theoretical terms, ties in with the concern of Durkheim and his followers over the social consequences of the division of labour. Durkheim believed that there was a real danger of isolation and disintegration of collective life in the city. Solidarity was under attack. ‘A whole series of secondary groups near enough to individuals to attract them strongly in their sphere of social action and drag them, in this way, into the torrent of social life’ were needed. Durkheim's own solution was a return to a kind of guild sociability which would provide institutions where men could gather ‘principally for the pleasure of living together, for finding outside of oneself distractions from fatigue and boredom, to create an intimacy less restrained than the family and less extensive than the city’. A more settled and supportive network of groups did in fact emerge within the mature industrial city in the late nineteenth century. The kind of ‘Gemeinschaft/Gesellschaft’ division raised by Tönnies between intimate communities and mass society turned out to be more of a problem in theory than in practice. The social life of workers was not impoverished. Obviously sport was only one way of sustaining collective life; by stressing ‘solidarity’ I do not mean to propose a crudely functionalist view of sport but rather to suggest that within the broad class cultures of sport the role of locality and the power of regional identity were extremely powerful. While we should not forget that sport was always a minority activity even at the spectator level, it did have (p.367) an important place in pub and shop-floor gossip amongst men in general—a point I have developed in more detail elsewhere. For the present I wish simply to stress the convergence between classic problems in the sociology of the city and the sense of belonging that came from membership of a football or cricket team or for that matter turning up each week to watch ‘your’ team with a group of workmates, kin, or neighbours.13
Sport as a ‘tool for conviviality’ and a source of cultural continuity between generations and within classes concludes this brief review of some of the concepts that have informed Sport and the British. Historians are pulled in different directions by the evidence to hand—in my case this was frequently determined by the choice of approach that other historians of sport have made—and the more rigorous and abstract propositions of theorists. The first requirement of the historian is to try to construct an account which acquires a ‘cumulative plausibility’. But smuggled into any general interpretation there will be also a fair degree of subjectivity in the choice of organizing ideas. I have played down the role, for example, of the ‘rationality’ of sport, of the significance of setting down rules and keeping records, in favour of looking at the kinds of emotional bonds sport creates between people. Here my own experience of playing sport and my early memories of watching professional football have unavoidably influenced me. If I had ever raised my performance above the run-of-the-mill I might have had more interest in the competitive rather than the social, the high-performance sportsman rather than the ordinary athlete or spectator. This brings us back to a basic distinction between psychological and sociological theories of sport. This book has been concerned with the social meanings of sport but it also broadly accepts that sport is ‘natural’ in the general sense that people simply enjoy playing or watching it. Sport provides immediate pleasurable sensations—Caillois called it a sense of the ‘Vertiginous’— which will always have to be balanced against the historical significance of organized play at a particular moment in the past. It is the tension between timeless impulses and historical time, between the need to play and to be sociable on the one hand and the structure into which such needs have been incorporated on the other, that underlies any enterprise of this kind. There has to be fun, friendship, spontaneity, and thrills, but equally there is the sense of social change, the role of sport in the construction of class and national identities. Both aspects are real and my purpose has been to try to keep them in balance.
(1) For example, P. Burke, Sociology and History (1980), and P. Abrams, ‘History, Sociology and Historical Sociology’, Past and Present, May 1980, which summarizes his more extensive Historical Sociology (1982).
(2) J. Alt, ‘Sport and Cultural Reification’, Theory, Culture and Society, 1983 (3), pp. 99, 102.
(3) J. Eldridge, Recent British Sociology (1980), p. 36.
(4) P. Mcintosh and V. Charlton, The Impact of the ‘Sport For All’ Policy, 1966–84 (1986), summarizes research on patterns of participation and stresses the need for more work on the perception of sport ‘from below’ rather than the provision of facilities ‘from above’,
(5) For a critique of ‘modernization’ see T. Judt, ‘A Clown in Regal Purple’, History Workshop Journal, Spring 1979, pp. 66–92.
(6) For a broad hegemonic survey see J. Hargreaves (ed.), Sport, Culture and Ideology (1982), chs. 1 and 2; J.-M. Brohm, Sport: A Prison of Measured Time (1978) asserts the displacement of libido view; the most convenient introduction to Elias and Dunning is E. Dunning (ed.), The Sociology of Sport (1971), and their recent Quest for Excitement (1986). I have made use of the ‘civilizing process’ but I cannot accept it as an all-embracing and unifying principle.
(7) J. M. Hoberman, Sport and Political Ideology (1984) surveys the different uses made of sport by conflicting ideologies; see also T. Mason, Sport in Britain (1988), ch. 3, ‘Theory and Opinion’. I am grateful to Dr G. Kitching, who is currently working on Wittgenstein and the social sciences, for bringing the relevance of his work to my attention.
(8) For a variety of contemporary definitions of sport see ‘What is Sport?’, Observer, 22 Aug. 1982, p. 18.
(9) S. Hall, D. Hobson, A. Lowe, and P. Willis (eds), Culture, Media and Language (1980); Hall surveys the growth of this body of thought through the work of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies whose publications, especially Working Class Culture (1979), debate these issues thoroughly; R. Gruneau, Class, Sports and Social Development (1983).
(10) John Hargreaves, Sport, Power and Culture (1986).
(11) G. Stedman-Jones, ‘Working Class Culture and Working Class Politics in London, 1870–1900’, reprinted in Languages of Class (1983), which also contains the important ‘Class Expression versus Social Control?’
(12) D. Whitson, ‘Structure, Agency and the Sociology of Sport Debates’, Theory, Culture and Society, 1986 (1); see also the related contributions of Dunning and of Jennifer Hargreaves in the same issue.
(13) E. Durkheim, The Division of Labour (1964), pp. 12, 28. There are some inspiring passages on sociability in Fred Inglis, The Name of the Game (1977). R. Holt, ‘Working Class Football and the City’, BJSH May 1986.