Running and the Sociological Ghetto

sociology of runningWhenever I get asked about the subject of my PhD I have to suppress the urge to launch into a sort of paranoid defence of the sociological relevance and intellectual seriousness of my research topic. Running – and sport as a whole – lacks the gravitas of heavyweight sociological topics like racism, power or poverty. It sounds suspiciously like an area belonging to one of those low-currency, smirk-afflicted new disciplines like leisure studies. I hear myself excusing the subject matter as an ‘interesting prism’ through which to examine wider, deeper social issues (aging, identity, community), or else gloss over the subject matter altogether in favour of explaining more esoteric aspects of the research design or data analysis. No doubt this has a lot to do with my own insecurities, but my reticence needs to be understood in the context of lingering academic prejudices surrounding the study of sport in sociology.

Early in our discipline’s history, classical sociologists worked hard to demarcate a distinct zone of expertise in contrast to more established sciences. Part of this process was to prise apart ‘social’ and ‘natural’ spheres, leaving the study of nature – including the human body – to biologists and establishing sociology’s authority over a social world hacked off at its biological roots. This division, underpinned by Descartes’ ontological dichotomy of mind and body, shaped the development of sociology for many decades, with the result that sport, the bodily activity par excellence, was largely neglected. And even today, following the ‘somatic turn’ in sociology, sport retains a whiff of disrepute. According to Carrington (2010)  ‘sport both hyper-accentuates and finds itself on the wrong side of a supposedly insurmountable (and deeply ‘classed’) dualism between useless physicality and purposeful intellectualism’. As a result, according to Bourdieu (1987) ‘there are, on the one hand, those who know sport very well on a physical level but do not know how to talk about it and, on the other hand, those who know sport very poorly on a practical level and who could talk about it, but disdain doing so, or do so without rhyme or reason’. Sport’s awkward marginality within sociology is neatly embodied in the person of Loic Wacquant, who, despite having authored a highly respected study of boxing in Chicago (Wacquant, 2004), remained at pains to deny that his subject was the sport itself, but rather ‘the twofold incorporation of social structures: the collective creation of proficient bodies and the ingenuous unfolding of the socially constituted powers they harbor’ (Wacquant, 2005 in Carrington, 2010). Elsewhere he said that following the success of his boxing study, his association with Pierre Bourdieu had saved him from ‘disappearing into the oblivion of the sociology of sport’ (see Miller, 1997). I can empathise with Wacquant’s resistance to attempts to ghettoise his work, and sympathise with his argument that sport can be studied as a manifestation of universal social processes rather than simply in and of itself. However, I would also argue that sport, and running in particular, are important social phenomena that deserve study in their own right. For sociology to neglect or downgrade sport, a category of social action as ubiquitous to and specifically shaped by our times as any other, seems to me a failure of sociological objectivity and a kind of wilful myopia. If as sociologists we aim to discern the deep bone structure beneath the fleshy face of society it is vital that we subject all of its undulations, all of its features, to serious sociological scrutiny, not just those we a priori deem worthy of attention. After all, would a study of the culture of ancient Rome be complete without reference to the amphitheatre? Or of classical Greece without mention of the gymnasium or Olympic Games?

One thought on “Running and the Sociological Ghetto

  1. Simon Cook

    Great post Neil – I’m trying to make the case to take running / sport seriously in geography so recognise many of the debates and tensions you raise here. Could make an interesting paper …

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