Hands up if you want to be on Durkheim's team

September 16, 2005

Richard Giulianotti begins his almost magisterial "critical" review of sports sociology with the usual - though largely unnecessary - special pleading for his subject: a confetti storm of statistics concerning the vast, global audiences that are now dragged to television screens for the latest football World Cup finals, Olympic Games or American football Super Bowls.

We do not need too much of this kind of foreplay these days to know that sport is significant and deserving of serious study: a set of cultural and economic practices that is increasingly important for shaping bodies and identities, as well as for its financial bounties. That its economies are frequently booming; that its (usually male) stars have become iconic global celebrities and/or national heroes better known than pioneers, politicians and potentates; and that even highly commodified sport still seems to be deeply meaningful for both players and its many followers. Sport, in short, still manages to enthral and captivate by reaching into places, to paraphrase Ian Taylor, that remain, in crucial senses, beyond the narrow reach of market relations.

So what is so critical about this new approach to sports sociology? This remains a bit of a mystery because, even at his most insightful, Giulianotti fails, really, to spit it out: he has no obviously coherent manifesto. But, to be fair, he himself admits that it is easier to explain what he is "against" than chart an entirely convincing new course for this youthful sub-discipline. He does, though, offer some tantalising clues.

First, his approach is self-evidently critical in the sense that he lines up theorists from Emile Durkheim to Jean Baudrillard and gives pretty much all of them a metaphorical kicking for their various failings. Some fare better than others in this carnage: the Eliasians are (predictably) savaged, likened to "a curious religious sect", while the Foucauldians and followers of Pierre Bourdieu escape with only relatively minor bruising.

There are other useful markers. On "race" and sport, for example, Giulianotti is cogently critical of the too-strong research focus on Atlantic-triangle "colour-coded" forms of exclusion and prejudice at the expense of the fate of "other collectives". On the sporting body and gender matters, he usefully recommends the use of "structured polyphonic" ethnographies and also anthropology as a means of avoiding a reductive overemphasis on violent, aggressive masculinity in sport, a position that underlines a more general and important message in the text about sociology's relative underplaying of the importance of sport's aesthetics.

Less convincing, however, are the closing theoretical symbioses and overly simplistic "whose side are you on?" codas, influenced by Bourdieu and others. Here a critical sociology of sport appears to be a pretty uncritical ethnographic sociology of the "grass roots": a championing of the sporting underdog, set against the powerful elements in sport that are, inevitably, charged with its corruption and corrosion.

The author has a point, of course, but at its worst this kind of moralising leads here to the seductive but ultimately weak idealism of Jurgen Habermas's proposed "practice-community" applied to sport: a public sphere where debaters come, "leaving behind all titles, goods and vantage points that derive from their standing in other spheres". We wish. But at its best this book raises key questions about the meaning and future of sport. It deserves to be, and will be, widely read as a consequence.

John Williams is senior lecturer in sports sociology, Leicester University.

Sport: A Critical Sociology

Author - Richard Giulianotti
Publisher - Polity
Pages - 267
Price - £50.00 and £14.99
ISBN - 0 7456 2545 2 and 2546 0

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