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Sports in Society:

Issues and Controversies

Chapter 1
The Sociology of Sport:
What Is It and Why Study It?

The sociology of sport is concerned with the deeper
meanings and stories associated with sports in society

Using sociology to study sports
• Sociology is the study of the social worlds that people
create, maintain, and change through their
relationships with each other.
 Therefore, sociologists are concerned with the actions and interactions
of people in particular social contexts.

• A social world is an identifiable sphere of everyday

actions and relationships (such as a family household,
a soccer team, an athletic department, a university, a
community, etc.).

Sociology is a tool for
studying sports in society
• Sociology provides useful
 Concepts
 Theories
 Research methods

• These tools enable us to examine social life in context and

see connections between our lives and the larger social

Key concepts used in sociology
• Culture—the shared ways of life and shared
understandings that people develop as they live
• Social interaction—people taking each other into
account and, in the process, influencing each
other’s feelings, thoughts, and actions.
• Social structure—the established patterns of
relationships and social arrangements that take
shape as people live, work, and play with each

Sociological knowledge is
based on research and theory
• This means that you will read and learn things that are not
covered in blogs, sport talk radio, ESPN Sports Center,
game commentaries, and most everyday conversations
about sports. Based on research and theory
• The tone of information about sports in this book may sound
negative when compared to the incessantly positive
comments you read and hear from those whose livelihoods
depend on you having an uncritical view of sports.

A precise definition of sports

. . . well established, officially governed competitive

physical activities in which participants are
motivated by internal and external rewards.

This definition distinguishes sports from other forms of

physical activities and from both play and spectacle.

Play vs. dramatic spectacle
• Play is an expressive activity done for its own sake (and
it results in internal rewards).
• A dramatic spectacle is a performance meant to
entertain an audience (for the sake of obtaining external

Sports contain elements of play and dramatic spectacle,

and athletes are motivated by internal and external

Play, Sports and Spectacle

Pros and cons of
a precise definition of sport

Pros: Cons:
Allows sport to be Privileges people
distinguished from with the resources to
other activities organize competitive
games and the
interest in doing so
Provides a common
focus for people
doing research and Overlooks those
without resources or
developing theories
inclinations to
Modern sports have seven characteristics that
have not appeared together in the past.

An alternative approach
to defining sports:

Determine the activities that people

identify as sports in a group or

Determine whose sports are most

strongly supported and funded,
especially with public facilities and

Current research in the sociology of
sport focuses on

which includes all forms of movement and physical
activities that people in social worlds create, maintain,
and regularly include in their collective lives.

Official definitions of sports
• These vary from one social world to another
 Organizations such as the International Olympic
Committee, the NCAA, and high school activities
associations each have their own official definitions of

• Official definitions are important because they

are formally supported with resources

“Cheer,” a competitive form
of cheerleading is now
considered to be an official
sport by high school activities
associations in 35 states.

This is college
cheerleading, which is
not considered a sport

Sports, as parts of society, are
social constructions that are given
form and meaning by people as they
interact with each other under the
social, political, and economic
conditions that exist in their

Sports are social constructions
. . . parts of the social world that are created by people
as they interact with one another under particular
social, political, and economic conditions.
 This means that sports can take different forms and be
given different meanings from one situation, culture, or
point in time to the next.
 Sports are not static activities—they are changed as people
and circumstances change

Viewing sports as social constructions may cause some people
to be defensive because they resist the idea that we can or ever
should change sports.

Sports are contested activities

This means that there are

struggles over:

 The meaning, purpose, and organization of sports

 Thepeople allowed to play sports and the
conditions under they play
 Thepeople and organizations that sponsor and
provide the resources needed to play sports

The Sociology of Sport
• A subdiscipline of sociology that studies
sports as part of social and cultural life, that
is, as social phenomena

• Focuses primarily on “organized, competitive


• Asks critical questions about sports in society

The Great Sport Myth

Sport is essentially pure & good,

and its purity and goodness are transferred
to anyone who plays, consumes, or sponsors sports

There is no need to study and evaluate sports for
the purpose of transforming or making them better
because they are already what they should be


• Sociologists
study actions and
relationships in terms of the social
contexts in which people live their

• Psychologists study behavior in terms

of attributes and processes that exist
inside individuals.

The goal of Sports in Society
is to enable readers to
• Think critically about sports
 Learn to identify and understand social problems and issues
associated with sports

• Look beyond performance statistics and scores to

see sports as social constructions

• Make informed choices about sport participation

and the place of sports in our lives

• Transform sports in progressive ways

SOCIOLOGY may create controversies

• Sociological research often provides evidence that

there is a need to change the organization of
sports and the organization of society.

• Those who benefit from the status quo are

usually threatened by such findings and may try
to discredit or ignore them.

Whose sports
count in society?

The Caber Toss is an

important sport in
Scotland’s Highland Games.

. . . who decides?
. . . what criteria are
used to define sports?
Sports are social phenomena
• Sports are related to the social and cultural
contexts in which we live

• Sports provide stories and images used to

explain and evaluate these contexts

• Sports provide a window into culture and


Why study sports in society?
• Sports
are socially significant activities
for many people
 e.g. World cup, Rugby World Cup, Tennis Winbledon etc.

• Sports reaffirm important ideas and

beliefs, including ideologies
 Gender, racial, social class ideologies etc.

• Sports are integrated into major spheres

of social life:
 Family, economy, media, politics, education,
and religion

Ideologies =
. . . interrelated ideas and beliefs that people in a
particular culture use to give meaning to and make
sense of what occurs in their social worlds.

• As people use and promote their ideologies, sports

become relevant because they can be organized to
reinforce or challenge important ideas and beliefs.

Ideology =

. . . a shared interpretive framework

that people use to make sense of and
evaluate themselves, others, and
events in their social worlds.

Dominant Ideology =

• Represents the perspectives and

ideas favored by people who have
power and influence in society

• Servesthe interests of people

with power and influence

Gender Ideology =

. . . interrelated ideas and beliefs that are widely

used to define masculinity and femininity, identify
people as male or female, evaluate forms of sexual
expression, and determine the appropriate roles of
men and women in society.

• Gender ideology is a basis for

 Determining what is natural and moral related to gender
• Dominant Gender ldeology: prevailing notions of “common sense”
about maleness and femaleness in a group or society

Racial Ideology =
. . . interrelated
ideas and beliefs that are widely
used to classify human beings into categories
assumed to be biological and related to attributes
such as intelligence, temperament, and physical
• Racial ideologies vary around the world, but they
are powerful when people use them to classify
humans into racial categories
• Dominant Racial Ideology: prevailing ideas about
the meanings of skin color and the characteristics of
people classified in various racial categories

Social Class Ideology =
. . . interrelated ideas and beliefs that are widely
shared and used by people to evaluate their material
status; explain why economic success, failures, and
inequities exist; and what should be done about
economic differences in a group or society.

• Class ideology in the U.S. is organized around

 The idea of the “American Dream” of unrestricted economic
 The belief that American society is a meritocracy

• Competitive sports provide a vocabulary and stories that

reaffirm dominant social class ideology in the U.S.

Ableist Ideology =
. . . interrelated ideas and beliefs that are widely
used to identify people as physically or
intellectually disabled, to justify treating them as
inferior, and to organize social worlds and physical
spaces without taking them into account.

• Ableist ideology is grounded in ABLEISM, that is

attitudes, actions, and policies based on the belief
that people classified as physically or
intellectually disabled are incapable of full
participation in mainstream activities and
inferior to people with “normal” abilities.

The characteristics of ideologies:
• People are usually unaware of their own ideologies
because they simply take them for granted; but
people spot the ideologies of others quickly.
 They emerge in social worlds as people struggle over the
meaning and organization of social life
 They resist change
 They are complex and sometimes inconsistent
 They change as power relationships change in society

Sports are integrated into major
spheres of social life
• Family • Economy

• Education • Politics

• Religion • Media

Families & family schedules often are shaped by sport
involvement that sometimes interferes with family
relationships sometimes creates enjoyable family time.

Sociologists view the body
in social and cultural terms
• The body and body parts have been identified
and defined in different ways through history
and from one culture to another.

• Changes in the ways that bodies have been

socially defined or “constructed” influence how
people think about
 Sex, sex differences, sexuality, ideals of beauty, self
image, body image, fashion, hygiene, health, nutrition,
eating, fitness, racial classification systems, disease,
drugs and drug testing, violence and power, etc.

The ideal male body?

Sports play an influential role

in how people define the
body and determine the ideal
body, especially for men

Major professional organizations in
the sociology of sport:
• The International Sociology of Sport Association (ISSA)
• The North American Society for the Sociology of Sport
• The Sport Sociology Academy (SSA) in AAHPERD
(American Alliance for Health, Physical Education,
Recreation & Dance)
• European Association for the Sociology of Sport
• Asociación Latinoamericana de Estudios Socioculturales
del Deporte
Note: associations in Japan and Korea are larger than the

Different approaches in the
sociology of sport
• Some scholars in the field see themselves as
sport sociologists concerned with sport science
 Their goal: understand sports and use sociological
knowledge to improve sport experiences

• Other scholars see themselves as sociologists

concerned with social and cultural issues
 Their goal: learn about and transform social life in

The sociology of sport
Will continue to grow if:
• Scholarsin the field conduct and
publish research that people find useful
as they
 Seek to understand social life
 Participate as citizens in their communities
and societies