ISSN 1652–7224   ::   Published 30 August 2006
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Grant Jarvie, since 1997 Professor of Sport Studies at University of Stirling, takes on the broad and complex relationship between sport and society in his latest book. Sport, Culture and Society: An Introduction is one of several sociological introductions to the field of sport and society in the past years, following upon, among others, Giulianottis Sport: A Critical Sociology and The Uses of Sport: A Critical Study by Hughson, Inglis & Free. However, Jarvie’s book stands out from these and other titles, particularly in terms of its broad approach to the subject. In his review, Henning Eichberg emphasizes Jarvie’s knowledgeable, detailed and nuanced analyses, and his theory-driven critical assessment of the current fixation in sociology and sport sciences to the individual, whereby any attempts at structural models of explanation and understanding are lost. The reviewer is pleased to notice some influences from Nordic sport science research in Jarvie’s book. He also finds inspiration for his own future research in the field of sport and society.

Sport, study of culture, critique of society

Henning Eichberg
Centre for Sports, Health and Civil Society, University of Southern Denmark

Grant Jarvie
Sport, Culture and Society: An Introduction
414 pages, pb., ill.
Oxford: Routledge 2006
ISBN 0-415-30647-7

The study of sport can be more than just a sector study. The analysis of sports is important for critical social study in a broader perspective. It can be basic research in societal bodily practice.

During the last few years, several introductions to the sociology of sport have pointed into this critical direction. Richard Giulianotti followed the way of the theorists: from Durkheim, Weber, and Marx to the Cultural Studies (CCCS), Elias and Bourdieu, passing race, gender, body, spaces, postmodernity, and globalization.[1] John Hughson, David Inglis and Marcus Free (2005) summarized the theoretical approaches of  Marx, Tocqueville, Elias, Stuart Hall, Raymond Williams, Putnam, Lasch, Sennett, Lyotard, Baudrillard, Maffesoli, Brohm, the Birmingham School and the Frankfurt School, Merleau-Ponty, Bourdieu and others under keywords such as civilisation, community, public culture, popular culture, postmodernity, power and material relations, embodied experience, and ethnography.[2]

Grant Jarvie tries yet another way when composing his comprehensive guide to the humanistic – sociological, political, historical and anthropological – sport research. Jarvie, a sociologist teaching sport studies at the University of Stirling, Scotland, has previously published several volumes on sport in South Africa, on the Scottish Highland Games and on sport, ethnicity, nation-building and racism.[3]

The present study is structured into four parts. The first part examines the broader social-cultural context of sports, characterizing the current theories of values, of history and social change, and of politics and culture. The second part takes the world perspective from ‘above’ and draws sports into the light of globalisation and intercultural encounter. It touches nationalism and internationalism, the media market with its treats of exclusion and inequality, and the dimensions of international law and governance in sports. The anti-globalisation and anti-capitalist movements related to sports, which are often neglected in sociological studies of sports, are discussed as well as the post-colonial dimensions of sports. The appearance of ‘the other’ sport communities – in Africa, Asia, Latin America – change the international sports scene. The third part moves closer to the local practice of civil society, relating sports to identities, diverse body cultures and alternative lifestyles. Here one learns, among other things, about violence and deviance, sport and environment, sport and religion and social and ethnic recognition. The fourth part focuses on social division and social change, including aspects of social class, social capital and human rights in sports.

The examination of these fields is illustrated by living cases where the author uses his previous studies about British and Celtic sports cultures, sport in South Africa and sport in China. But he also includes illustrative narratives about native African sports, sport in Islamic countries and the history of socialist workers’ sport. The reference literature is mainly in English, but there are notable influences from Scandinavian research, especially from Nordic feminism and from the Danish studies of body cultures and bodily democracy. The use of continental theory is extensive, from Karl Marx to Norbert Elias, Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu and Zygmunt Bauman. The discussion of sport as a main field of civil society refers to the research of Robert D. Putnam and the debate about communitarism.

Aiming at a broad public of students, Jarvie’s introduction to sport, culture and society shows the diversity of theoretical approaches, with attention to detail and nuance. The intention is to broaden the perspective and to encourage future research. This intellectual strategy of broadening is, however, not all. What the reader learns is the necessity of more advanced study. Sport – being both a ritual of industrial productivism and a field of popular struggles – deserves a sharp theoretical approach. This type of theory is what we are still waiting for. Jarvie points into some directions which are worth following up.

One important feature is a sceptic view on individualism, which at present is dominating large parts of sociology and of sports studies. Sociological individualism – which may be a contradiction in itself – is widespread in two forms, either as methodological individualism or as the substantial thesis of ‘individualisation’.

The methodological solipsism is based on the epistemological separation of the human being and society: The human being is treated as if it were alone in the world; at first there is the individual, and then – secondarily – there is society. As if the individual could be thought of without sociality and without cultural interaction (and as if the human being could be thought of without gender). In the case of movement culture this means: As if the individual could be thought of without movement.

On a socio-historical level, the theory of individualisation claims that modernity has blurred all social relations so that ‘individual choice’ is dominating in current society. This claim has become fashionable by Anthony Giddens’ writings about “self-identity” and by Ulrich Beck’s postulate of the post-modern “gesamtkunstwerk Ego”. The discourse of ‘individualisation’ spread in pop-sociology as well as in sports studies where sport is said to be no longer a matter of social and cultural context, but a ‘free’ choice among the rich offers of the sports market. Empirical sociology has, however, disproved this. Sport participation depends to a high degree of social indicators. And sport is a matter of social interaction – also in the case of those activities which cultivate ‘the lonely individual’. That is why Jarvie’s study consequently discourages adherence to the thesis of individualisation, though it does not neglect the decline of social capital, as described by Putnam.

At closer examination, both the thesis of progressing ‘individualisation’ and the methodological individualism are variations of liberal ideology: ‘Everybody is maker of his own fortune.’ Jarvie confronts this with the social patterns working in sports, among these especially the triangle of state, market and civil society: sport activity follows public, commercial and popular patterns at the same time – and in conflict.

As a reverse of methodological individualism, social theory has often tended to reify terms of collective life, like nation, religion and identity. What Jarvie proposes instead, with the authentic material of sports at hand, are terms like community and recognition, power and distribution, hegemony and popular struggle. These are relational and dialogical terms, not least relational to power. But of course, the danger of reification will never be completely excluded: Also relational and dialogical concepts can be turned into reified ‘objective’ terms. The historical fate of ‘community’ has shown this, but also the reification of ‘class’.

Sociological analysis benefits our understanding when proceeding from the superstructure of ideas and institutions down to the basis of people’s practice. This method is implicit in Jarvie’s set-up, going from global and international politics down to body culture, lifestyles and identities.

“Governments change, policies change, but the needs remain the same” – is the motto of this book of sports. It can, of course, be questioned whether the needs really remain unchanged, but anyway, this intellectual direction leads nearer to social psychology, which in past times often has been underexposed by sociology. Jarvie’s book deals extensively with gender and violence, but the field to be covered is much broader. Future critical theory would profit from further and more decisive steps towards subjectivity, phenomenology and psychoanalysis. Sport is not only a world of learning, fun and entertainment, as the affirmative discourses of the Olympic establishment would suggest, but also a field of fear, anxiety and stress. And the political is not only to be found in the ideological superstructure, in the ‘use’ of sports, but also in the basic patterns of movement where indigenous practices are confronted with colonialism, and where the colonisation of life-world is met by popular struggle.

On the surface of mainstream sports, where Muhammad Ali was boxing for the African-American nation, Tommie Smith and John Carlos – at the Mexico Olympics 1968 – raised theirs black-gloved fists for Black Power, and Cathy Freeman was racing for the Aboriginal cause, the euphemisms of ‘individualisation’, ‘free market’ and ‘global civil society’ can also be questioned. Sport can only be thought of as a world of contradictions, i.e. dialectically.

Last but not least, the study of sports – being so near to bodily practice in inter-human relations – leads from knowledge to action. The narrative of sports is a living discussion of which type of society we want, and how a friendly society of welfare and recognition would look like.[4] Jarvie hints at the ‘public intellectual’ whose task and duty it is to act as a safeguard against the one-dimensional world of global sports, challenging the normalised soundlessness of unseen power, and thereby offering empowerment to the powerless. But who also stands firmly against the anti-intellectualism of ‘popular’ sports.


[1] Richard Giulianotti 2005: Sport: A Critical Sociology. Cambridge: Polity.

[2] John Hughson, David Inglis & Marcus Free 2005: The Uses of Sport. A Critical Study. London, New York: Routledge.

[3] Grant Jarvie 1985: Class, Race and Sport in South Africa’s Political Economy. London: Routledge. – Jarvie 1991: Highland Games. The Making of the Myth. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. (Dissertation). – Jarvie 1991 (ed.): Sport, Racism and Ethnicity. London: Falmer. – Jarvie & Graham Walker 1994 (eds.): Scottish Sport in the Making of the Nation. Ninety Minute Patriots? Leicester, London, New York: Leicester University Press. – Jarvie & Joseph Maguire 1994: Sport and Leisure in Social Thought. London: Routledge. – Jarvie 1999 (red.): Sport in the Making of Celtic Cul­tures. London, New York: Leicester University Press. – Jarvie & John Burnett 2000 (eds.): Sport, Scotland and the Scots. East Lothian: Tuckwell. – Jarvie, Richard Cox & Wray Vamplew 2000: The Encyclopedia of British Sports. Oxford & Denver: ABC Clio. – Jarvie, Joseph Maguire, Louise Mansfield & Joseph Bradley 2002: Sporting Worlds: A Sociological Perspective. London: MacMillan. – Jarvie, Dong-Jhy Hwang & Mel Brennan: Sport, Revolution and the Beijing Olympics. Oxford/New York: Berg (in press).

[4] There is a certain logic to the fact that Grant Jarvie is among the initiators of the recently launched International Network for the Marxist Study of Sport: (p.12).


©   Henning Eichberg 2006

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