Theorising a Critical Politics of Sport

Text of oral presentation at Political Studies Association Inaugural Sport Group Meeting, University of Reading

April 6 2006

Opening comments
In the book Power Games: A Critical Sociology of Sport (2002) critical sociology is presented, by John Sugden and myself, as one of six overlapping elements characteristic of our sociological approach to researching sport: its importance is, of course, amplified in the subtitle of the book itself. At its simplest, we wrote in the opening chapter of that book, ‘to be critical is to be sceptical – that is, never take things at face value … seek out official statistics, but expecting them to be unreliable, in some cases even fraudulent; go in search of evidence that contradicts official wisdom … question authority’ (p. 11). It is this sense of the ‘critical’ that underlies my reflections and commentaries in this presentation. It is in an undeniable sense Gramscian, recognising the constructedness – and therefore the potential deconstruction – of commonsense; and carrying with it echoes of the Marxist commitment to praxis in both the sense that human agents are the architects of the world that they inhabit, and the sense that such agents can become the architects of renewal, reform and change. Some of that might be pie in the sky of course: to lay bare the features of commercial sport spectacle or the minutiae of the business economics of sport is hardly to threaten the media barons or the business opportunists (though it depends where, how and for whom one writes). But the point is to recognise the inherently critical nature of the analytical exercise. To engage in critical work with no or little sense of the potential impact of one’s work in the world beyond the circuits of academic publication and communication, is to betray the second sense of praxis referred to above. This is not to say that critical work always has obvious repercussions and affects practices; too often it is too timid, not even seeking to reach out into the world of practices; too often it is undervalued when it does seek to reach out, elbowed aside by armchair theorists and dismissed as merely applied. But critical work itself is by definition a form of cultural practice, potentially interventionist and imbued with an incipient agency of its own. It is in this sense that the term critical is employed in this contribution to thinking about the politics of contemporary sport. In the following sections I will a) comment (very briefly) upon the strengths and weaknesses of some sociological approaches to the critical theorisation of sport, b) consider, in slightly more detail, some of the established approaches to researching the politics of sport, and ask whether a developed or sustained sense of the critical characterises those approaches, c) review the core meaning of critical in the work of Theodor Adorno. Apologia come best at the beginning: I am no political scientist, and this is a text for a 15 minute presentation (and therefore inevitably skeletal). It is an exploratory mix of methodological reflection, a contemporary history of ideas in sport studies, and review of the canon. So, in the spirit of the workshop and cross-disciplinary dialogue, I hope that these comments will provoke responses from which I as well as others can benefit.

a) Critical theory as developed in sociological work on sport includes Marxist and feminist work, more general cultural studies work (often linked to notions of cultural politics) and what one might call variants of political economy (in which the cultural and the economic feature equally in the analysis). Such work is geared towards not just the analysis of the object, but its critique and potential transformation, usually in terms of a leftist political perspective. The problem with such work is that the transformation may be a project conceived apart from the analysis of the case at hand: the critique is known and in place before the analysis. Let me take two examples. First, Garry Whannel’s Blowing the Whistle: The Politics of Sport, published in 1983 and soon to be re-released as a contemporary classic re-contextualised in terms of the changing politics of the last quarter of a century, and the author’s own personal and academic journey. In this splendidly accessible synthesis, Whannel looked at broad arguments about politics and the meaning of sport, key historical influences upon the history of sport in Britain, and capitalism and the state. His concluding chapter, ‘arguments for socialism’ (also the title of the Pluto Press book series in which the title appeared) was a form of manifesto: a clarion call for a ‘genuinely egalitarian sport system, with adequate facilities and finance’; a call for fuller more open debate on élite, national and competitive sport; and a discussion of what a strategy for a ‘socialist transformation of sport’ might be (unfortunately, the cited example of a ‘people’s culture of sport … built from below’ is Cuba). The main question to ask here is: did the final chapter need the preceding discussions? Garry would argue – indeed, did so with me over lunch earlier this week – that the conclusion (proffered as critical analysis cum cultural politics) is rooted in the book’s foregoing analyses. But I would argue that the final chapter can stand alone, that from a socialist point of view the politics of sport is a matter of projection of alternatives. You don’t need the chapters and the arguments so lucidly laid out in the main text: the answers lie in the socialism that is brought to bear on the analysis, the critique comes ready made, imposed upon the empirical phenomenon of sport in Britain from above. My second example, published in the same year, is Richard Gruneau’s Class, Sports and Social Development. Gruneau proposed that ‘the most obvious task of a critical theory of sport is to define the “problematic”, the field of concepts and arguments’ (p. 142) necessary to the task. His answer drew upon Raymond Williams’s categories of dominant, emergent and residual, linked to notions of class practice, privilege and cultural reproduction. But not all sport and play, he concluded, is locked into those processes: play has a profane dimension and can represent (Paul Willis is cited here) ‘a kind of revelatory probing of the world’ (p. 150); and sport could also be a form of metaphor for ultimate possibilities (p. 151). For Gruneau, then, the critique of sport becomes ‘a part of the much broader attempt to discern the alternatives within which human reason and freedom can make history’ (p. 153). The problem here is that for all Gruneau’s eloquent scholarship and intellectual stock-taking, this battle-cry doesn’t come out of the historical and sociological study of Canadian sport itself. It is a political vision, a notion of the critical stemming from a particular interpretive stance, not a methodological premise, and far from reliant upon the scholarly analysis at the heart of the book. There is a kind of top-down critique model that has become something of an orthodoxy in sociological work on sport, looking for power and cultural reproduction and finding it/them at work in the most innocent of everyday practices. And now, to some of the most prominent positions in established work on the politics of sport.

b) Work on the politics of sport – in the second, 2003 edition of The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics, Lincoln Allison notes how definitions of sport have changed through time, but that modern sport has been characterised by moral and political aims, and emphasises that modern sport has been widely conceived as a form of political socialization, has expressed political struggles, and has been seen as having political functions. Allison stresses the defeat of amateurism as the outcome of the long struggle between an amateur-élite ethos and a professional-commercial one; and sport’s contribution to the ‘development and preservation of national identities’ (p. 508), citing the history of sport in the British Isles, post-1945 Soviet Union and post-colonial African states as indicative examples. In many respects this encyclopaedic cameo captures the essence of work in the field of the political analysis of sport. In his own three (edited) volumes – The Politics of Sport, The Changing Politics of Sport, and The Global Politics of Sport – Allison has contributed to this sort of work in commissioning valuable work on nationalism and national identities, and on the political influences upon and uses of sport in a variety of contexts and settings. An overview of the politics of sport by Barrie Houlihan, in the Dunning and Coakley Sage handbook (2000) reaffirms these concerns as central emphases in the politics of sport. Research has recognised the state as an organ of political socialization, generating policy outputs in a variety of national settings, stimulated by a range – or an interlocking mix – of motives including, in the domestic sphere, social control, military preparedness, social integration, nation-building, and image-enhancement (pp. 215-16); and on the international scene, sports diplomacy (from bridge-building to boycotts). And sports organizations (the IOC, FIFA) can provide a focus for understanding the inherently political nature of sport, including its commercial and capitalist dimensions and issues of equality.

Numerous other valuable contributions have confirmed the importance of these directions of research, but the question that I want to pose is whether such works have a less developed (or at least less explicit) critical edge than what one might call the sociological/cultural studies orthodoxy and if so, why? My own answer is that the notion of critical has been, relatively speaking, underplayed in a lot of work on policy and politics, anchored as such work has been in useful and revealing analyses of political and policy processes, practices and ideologies. Of course there are exceptions, including the reforming and campaigning zeal of a John Hoberman. But is there a source from which political work on sport more generally might derive a more critically theoretical edge? The following section considers some aspects of the work of Frankfurt School theorist Adorno.

c) Critical theory – ‘How is critical theory possible?’, the late Gillian Rose asked in an article in Political Studies in 1976, subtitled ‘Theodor W. Adorno and Concept Formation in Sociology’. Her answer was ambivalent, but her sympathy for the project clear. She summarised Adorno’s distinction between critical sociology and a non-critical sociology: ‘Critical sociology or theory is oriented to the idea of society as a subject in spite of all experience of reification, and critical sociology gives direct expression to that experience. Non-critical sociology, on the other hand, accepts reification, repeats it in its methods, and thereby loses the perspective according to which society and its laws reveal themselves’ (1976: 76). Rose notes that Adorno writes recurrently of the complete reification of society and consciousness of society – reification being ‘when a relation among men appears in the form of a property of a thing’ (p. 73). So the role for critical theory is to expose the hold of what Adorno labelled the cultural industry upon what we would now refer to as the processes of meaning production , cultural practice and identity-formation: for Adorno, then, much of popular culture, including passing references to sport and the stadium, is implicated in the domination of the consciousness of the masses: his critical theory must, then, question the reification characterising the present state of society, and offer a form of thinking differently – this is his notion of the negative dialectic, in which a critique of the reified nature of the current situation and relations of domination celebrates artistic and cultural innovation, and points to the (utopian) possibilities of a different future and an alternative consciousness. To be critical here, across the complex and wide-ranging body of Adorno’s work, means to read the relations of mass production and ideological domination into the products and practices of mass culture. It is to find the politics – a populist authoritarian one – in the everyday practices of the culture: so for Adorno there is little point in studying close-up the meanings of an act – a sport contest, a form of popular music – for its meanings are simply those of the wider characteristics of the society. Take an example from the world of sport, the English Premier League and the Championship. If Adorno were in England in 2006 he would see the big money, the dazzling marketing, the corporate profiles, the intertextuality of sporting contest, fashion and consumption. He would be able to offer critical analyses of the increasing commodification of the game, the reach of capital, the reification of consciousness: his negative dialectic would label the sport as oppressively ideological. But he would know nothing of the tradition, the passion, the life-affirming dramas of the matches; nothing of the aesthetics of the body; nothing of the patterns of fandom, of regional identity and the symbolic expression of locality, of the wit and riposte of sport gossip between encounters. Despite claims that Adorno’s thinking/philosophy is a process of ‘interpreting minute particulars’ (Simon Jarvis, Adorno – a critical introduction, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1998, p. 10), Adorno’s interpretive analyses are locked in the limits of his macro-theorising.

In Adorno’s negative dialectics the study of the cultural form or practice itself is un-necessary: the aphoristic comment replaces rigorous cultural analysis. Critical theory is just that: too uninformedly critical, and too theoretical for its own good.

Closing comments
In developing a critical theorisation of politics of sport, it is not, then, Adorno and the Frankfurt School that will provide the answer. The negative dialectic is the tool of a social theorist/philosopher, not the social scientist: but the notion of cultural analysis as critique is a powerful one, and should not be altogether abandoned. A critical social scientist of sport must be more prepared than were the likes of Adorno to do basic empirical analysis, detailed and convincing analyses of selected ‘minute particulars’, and so to tease out the politics of participation in and affiliation to sport; and to bring a sceptical perspective to the processes and practices within the sports world and sports (cultural) industry. The illuminating and rigorous work already established in the politics of sport provides a basis for this, but spiced with some investigative herbs could develop a more critical flavour – and do this the right way round, the critical theorisation arising from the empirical analysis. This could show some of the sociological critical orthodoxy a thing or two about concept formation and theory generation in the social scientific analysis of sport.


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