The Anthropology of Sport

Kendall Blanchard. Handbook of Sports Studies. Editor: Jay Coakley & Eric Dunning. 2000. Sage Publishing.

Anthropology is the most comprehensive of the social sciences. Its focus spans the entire range of human behavior, from the biological to the cultural and from the past to the future. Physical anthropologists study human anatomy and physiology, genetics, non-human primate biology and behavior, the fossil record, and evolution in all of its many manifestations. Archaeologists in most cases are anthropologists who study prehistory, the many centuries of human life that predate the advent of writing systems and the emergence of history. Anthropological archaeology relies on a variety of skills, methodologies and supporting sciences (such as paleontology, geology, paleo-botany, paleozoology). Linguistic anthropologists study human language as a process and specialize in describing unwritten languages and reconstructing those languages no longer spoken or those not recorded in written history. Cultural anthropologists, also known as social anthropologists, ethnologists, or ethnographers, study human behavior from the perspective of culture and social structure. In short, every facet of human life and history is a legitimate subject for anthropology. Its theories and methodologies have roots that extend across the entire academic community. Thus it is not surprising that the discipline has been called ‘the most humanistic of the sciences’ and ‘the most scientific of the humanities’ (Wolf, 1964).

Anthropology in general is characterized by the following reasonably consistent themes that give the discipline a distinctive flair.

  • A tendency to give primary attention to people who live in small-scale societies (for example, tribal, folk, traditional, band and pre-state societies). For this reason, British social anthropologists have sometimes referred to their discipline as the branch of sociology that studies primitive people (Evans-Pritchard, 1962).
  • A primary focus on process as opposed to results. For example, physical anthropologists are more likely to highlight the process of evolution than a particular moment in evolutionary time. Likewise, cultural anthropologists are more likely to emphasize the importance of the culture change process than a specific time or event in cultural history.
  • The frequent use of cross-cultural comparison as a methodology. The comparison of two or more cultures, particularly along the lines of a single institution (such as marriage), is a way of better understanding culture and validating or discrediting generalizations about human behavior.
  • The use of fieldwork as the most common methodology for basic data collection. For the cultural anthropologist this involves living and working among the people being studied and assuming the role as ‘participant observer.’ In other words, it means becoming a part of the group yet at the same time maintaining a scientific objectivity.
  • A tendency to identify with the concerns and causes of its research subject, frequently minority or disadvantaged peoples in the developing areas of the world.

Anthropology of Sport

The anthropology of sport is the application of the perspectives, theories and methodologies of the discipline to the study of sport. By implication, sport is viewed as a distinctive component of culture, not unlike marriage, religion, or music. It is treated as a separate institution, but, like all cultural institutions, it is thoroughly integrated with the other institutions that characterize any given culture. Sport in this context is analyzed from a cross-cultural or comparative perspective. Particular attention is paid to the description and interpretation of sport in small-scale, traditional or tribal societies.

By implication, the anthropology of sport is an academic enterprise engaged in only by anthropologists. However, in reality, the anthropology of sport is more of a perspective or an approach than a subdiscipline of anthropology. Scholars of various academic backgrounds from countries around the world are bringing to the analysis of sport an anthropological perspective and in this sense doing the anthropology of sport. These scholars include historians, kinesiologists, psychologists, geographers, sociologists and political scientists. To call their work ‘anthropology of sport’ is not simply to co-opt these efforts, but rather to recognize the importance of their contributions, even though the authors themselves might not think of themselves as doing anthropology or of their writings as anthropological in nature.

Historical Background

The anthropology of sport has it roots in the work of early European anthropologists. For example, Sir Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917), a British scholar sometimes referred to as the father of anthropology, published an article entitled ‘The history of games’ (1879) in which he described several simple, natural sports (for example, wrestling, ball tossing) and argued that these had been invented independently in many different geographical settings. However, he viewed other more complicated games, like the forerunners of modern-day football (soccer), as not so easily invented. These he saw as evidence of prehistoric diffusion and contact among the major cultural centers of the world.

Although sport was not a central concern among nineteenth-century anthropologists, it did receive occasional attention from anthropologists other than Tylor. For example, James Mooney, an anthropologist and head of the Bureau of American Ethnology, published in 1890 a detailed description of the Cherokee ball game. The Cherokees, a Native American tribe located in the southeastern United States, traditionally played a racket game sometimes referred to as the parent game of lacrosse. The racket game was widely known and played among Native American tribes during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Cherokee version of the game was similar to that of other tribes. Each player was equipped with two ball sticks, hickory staffs with pouches of twisted bear sinew at the end. The ball, less than two inches in diameter, was made of tightly packed deer hair and covered with deer hide. Two teams of players competed in the attempt to throw or carry the ball up and down a lengthy field and strike the opponent’s goal and thus score points. The first team to reach an agreed-upon total was the winner. Rules for the sport were minimal. The most important and most frequently enforced rule was one which prohibited a player from touching the ball with his hand. The racket game among the Cherokees, as among other tribes, was an important community event with cultural implications that went well beyond the sport itself. Traditionally, it involved elaborate preparation by the entire community, fasting, religious ceremonies and celebrations, incantations and magical manipulations, and heavy wagering on the outcome of the game. Mooney’s contribution was important in that it documented first-hand the game and its cultural context. In addition, and perhaps more importantly, it analyzed the integral relationship between the sport and its social setting, recognizing that sport is not played in a cultural vacuum.

The early twentieth century witnessed an increased interest in games and sports among anthropologists and other students of culture. One of the most important figures of this era was Stewart Culin (1859-1929). Culin, a business person, developed an interest in archaeology early in his career. This led eventually to a position as a museum curator. He was particularly interested in games and as curator of ethnology at the Brooklyn Museum he collected many sport and game artifacts from around the world and brought together volumes of information about those artifacts. Out of these efforts came several important books on games, perhaps his most significant being Games of the North American Indians (1907). Referred to by one biographer as the ‘major game scholar of the past 100 years … in the field of anthropology’ (Avedon and Sutton-Smith, 1971), Culin, like Mooney before him, took the study and description of sport beyond that institution itself to elaborate on its full meaning for human society and culture. As one writer has noted:

Mr. Culin’s studies … not only afford an understanding of the technology of the games and their distribution, as well as their bearing on history … but they contribute in a remarkable manner to an appreciation of native modes of thought and of the motives and impulses that underlie the conduct of primitive peoples generally. [Culin] … creates the science of games and for the first time gives this branch its proper place in the science of man. (Holmes, 1907: xl)

European anthropologists were also taking an interest in sport during the early decades of this century. For example, German ethnographer Von Karl Weule wrote a lengthy article on sport that appeared in a volume on sport history that was published in 1925. In this article, entitled ‘Ethnologie des Sportes’ (Ethnology of sport), Weule wrote from the perspective of the culture-history school popular in Germany at that time to argue that the primary focus of an ethnology of sport should be two-fold. On the one hand, it should trace culture, and sport as an aspect of culture, back to its beginning. On the other, it should put sport into its proper theoretical perspective. Treating sport as an element of culture that had developed and evolved conjunctively with that culture, Weule argued that there were real differences between the sports of so-called primitive and modern peoples. Early humans, he claimed, the peoples of the pre-state world, used sport as a means for coping with the immediate problems of adaptation, survival and defense. Modern peoples, on the other hand, use sport for purposes of perfecting the human body, competing and pleasure. The ritual and practical aims of sport in a preliterate society have been supplanted by a new set of objectives endemic to life in industrial society. Although his work was notable for its excellent description, Weule remained largely dependent on secondary sources and maintained an implicitly racist view of what he called primitive society.

Also indicative of the interest in sport among anthropologists during this era is the work of scholars such as Elsdon Best, Raymond Firth and Alexander Lesser. Best was relatively generous in the attention he gave to sports in his ethnographic description. His 1924 two-volume work on the Maori is replete with details regarding the sport and play activities of this group of native New Zealanders. Firth (1930/31) likewise gave full attention to sport and games. In 1931, he published a lengthy article in the journal Oceania entitled ‘A dart match in Tikopia: a study in the sociology of primitive sport.’ This article, a detailed description of the Polynesian dart match, has become a classic, in part because of the way in which Firth documented the important role of sport and its many functions in small-scale society.

Lesser’s major contribution to the anthropology of sport was his The Pawnee Ghost Dance Hand Game: a Study of Cultural Change (1933). The Ghost Dance was a nativistic movement that originated among the Paiute Indians of the American Great Basin in the 1880s. It was based on the premise that if American Indians engaged in this ritual, the Ghost Dance, their ancestors would return from their graves and help them recapture their lands from the white man and reestablish their dominance across the North American continent. One of the groups that became a part of the Ghost Dance movement was the Pawnee Indians, who played a distinctive hand game, a guessing game in which players hid special bones or dice in their hands. In a short period of time after the introduction of the Ghost Dance into Pawnee society, the hand game became highly stylized and ritualized and in many ways a part of the Ghost Dance ceremony itself. According to Lesser, what was originally a game became under these circumstances a ritual. Lesser used the Pawnee case to argue against an earlier assertion of Culin (1907) that the games of North American Indians were either rituals themselves or games that had evolved from rituals. Lesser demonstrated that the reverse could be the case.

During the 1940s and 1950s there were other contributions to the literature on sport and culture by anthropologists (for example, Opler, 1944, 1945) and scholars from other areas (for example, Brewster, 1956; Frederickson, 1960; Stumpf and Cozens, 1947). Perhaps the most critically important publication of this era was an article entitled ‘Games in culture’ which appeared in a 1959 issue of the journalAmerican Anthropologist (Roberts, Arth and Bush). This article was the first effort by anthropologists to deal with the issue of games from a strictly theoretical perspective. In this article the authors defined a game as ‘a recreational activity characterized by (1) organized play, (2) competition, (3) two or more sides, (4) criteria for determining the winner, and (5) agreed upon rules’ (1959: 597). They also classified games in three categories: those of (1) physical skill, (2) strategy and (3) chance. From here, the authors went to the Human Relations Area Files (HRAF), a systematic collection of basic ethnographic data from hundreds of groups from around the world (Murdock et al., 1961). Selecting 50 of these, they attempted to correlate the nature of games with other aspects of culture. As a result of this analysis, it was suggested that there is a significant relationship between games of strategy and social complexity; in other words, the more complex a society, the more likely the group to engage in games of strategy (chess, for example). They also found that games of chance appear to be associated with religious activities and that environmental conditions may affect the type and number of physical skill games engaged in by any particular group. Perhaps the most important contribution of ‘Games in culture’ is the fact that it brought attention to games and sports as important cultural phenomena and as legitimate subjects for anthropologists.

The 1960s witnessed the publication by anthropologists of various articles that had sport themes. One of the best known from that period is Robin Fox’s essay on ‘Pueblo baseball: a new use for old witchcraft’ (1961). This piece is a description of how baseball was introduced among the Cochiti Pueblo of New Mexico and how it provided for a new form of expression for old forms of witchcraft. Of equal importance was Leslie White’s 1964 presidential address to the American Anthropological Association. One of the most highly respected anthropologists of his time, White gave added credibility to the study of sport by suggesting that anthropology was an appropriate theoretical model for the analysis of professional sports, in particular baseball, which he saw as a microcosm of the larger American cultural system.

During the 1970s and 1980s the study of sport from a cross-cultural perspective and an interest in folk or traditional sport became increasingly popular among scholars in Europe and North America. In particular, American anthropologists developed a greater appreciation for the phenomenon. One of the most important publications of this period was Clifford Geertz’s (1972) essay on the Balinese cockfight (‘Deep play: notes on the Balinese cockfight’). In this article, Geertz described the cockfight and the betting and other intrigue that surrounds it. Painting a detailed picture of the event, he analyzed the nature of the wagering behavior that, though illegal, is an important part of the event. He then argued that what may appear to the outside observer to be irrational economic behavior is actually behavior driven by moral imperative more than by greed. In other words, it is as though there is a deep-seated moral compunction that drives participants to take great risks even though such risks may not be justified by the potential economic reward. Ultimately, the real value of the article is the way in which it illustrates the complexity, depth and broad meaning of sport in human society.

Among the works written by non-anthropologists during the 1970s that address sports anthropology themes, perhaps the most widely read is Allen Guttmann’s From Ritual to Record: The Nature of Modern Sports (1978). Guttmann, an historian, argued that so-called primitive sports are not sports in the strictest sense. These activities were more than ritual or pure religious expression. However, modern sports are different in that they are invariably quantified and involve the pursuit of a record. In his words,

When we can no longer distinguish the sacred from the profane or even the good from the bad, we content ourselves with minute discriminations between the batting average of the .308 hitter and the .307 hitter. Once the gods have vanished from Mount Olympus or from Dante’s paradise, we can no longer run to appease them or save our souls, but we can set a new record. It is a uniquely modern form of immortality. (Guttmann, 1978)

Throughout the course of anthropology’s history, writers have frequently given some attention to sport within the context of monographs devoted to the description of particular cultures (for example, Boas, 1888; Hoffman, 1896; Howitt, 1904; Perry, 1923; Spencer and Gillen, 1927). Few dealt with sport as their primary focus, although there were some (for example, Stern, 1949). However, it was not until the 1980s that full-length works devoted to the ethnographic description and analysis of sport became common. Some of these were written by anthropologists, for example, Azoy’s Buzkashi: Game and Power in Afghanistan (1982); Blanchard’s The Mississippi Choctaws at Play: the Serious Side of Leisure (1981); Lawrence’s Rodeo: an Anthropologist Looks at the Wild and Tame (1982); and MacAloon’s This Great Symbol (1981). Some of these were written by scholars from other disciplines, for example, James’s Beyond a Boundary (1984); Lever’s Soccer Madness (1983); Mandle and Mandle’s Grass Roots Commitment: Basketball and Society in Trinidad and Tobago (1988); Oxendine’s American Indian Sports Heritage (1988); Poliakoff’s Combat Sports in the Ancient World (1987); and Sansone’s Greek Athletics and the Genesis of Sport (1988).

This trend continued into the 1990s. From this decade, work of particular importance to social scientists who study sport are Klein’s Sugarball: the American Game, the Dominican Dream (1991); Lewis’sRing of Liberation: a Deceptive Discourse in Brazilian Capoeria (1992); Guttmann’s Games and Empires: Modern Sports and Cultural Imperialism (1994); and Vennum’s American Indian Lacrosse (1994).

The growing popularity and importance of sport themes in cross-cultural studies among anthropologists and others is reflected not only in the volume of publications but also in the number of persons involved internationally in organizations and special events that highlight the study of sports culture and folk or traditional sports. In the 1970s, the Association for the Anthropological Study of Play (TAASP) was organized by a group of scholars, largely American and Canadian, and included many persons whose primary interest was sport. In recent years this organization has changed its name to the Association for the Study of Play (TASP), its membership has broadened to include scholars from around the world, and it has begun holding some of its annual meetings in Europe as well as in Canada and the United States.

In Asia, under the leadership of the Japanese Office of Foreign Ministry and members of the academic community, a new traditional sports movement has begun (Ogura, 1992). It is a movement whose goal is to describe, analyze and preserve traditional sports (that is, those sports that have not as yet been tainted by commercialism and that are tied to traditional cultures in areas around the world). It is also a movement designed to use sport as a mechanism for enhancing international communication. In many ways, it can be viewed as an effort to rediscover the original spirit of the Olympics. The Japanese government and Japanese scholars have sponsored a variety of special programs and exhibitions in recent years, such as the International Conference on the Preservation and Advancement of Traditional Sport, held in Tokyo in 1993. Likewise, in China, meetings devoted to the study of traditional ethnic sports are now held annually (see Beijing Review, 1995a, b, c).

The Europeans have also developed a new enthusiasm for the study and preservation of traditional sports and games. Members of the academic community, professionals who are part of private or public sports organizations, and amateur sports enthusiasts are working together to give new prominence and exposure to the folk sports of Europe. A committee for the Development of Sport (CCDS) has hosted a variety of seminars on the topic in recent years. Also, there have been many special exhibitions featuring traditional sport. One of the most important of these was the First International Festival of Traditional Sports, held in Bonn, Germany, in 1992, an innovation that has continued.

The Major Issues

The major issues addressed within the framework of the anthropological approach to the study of sport that has emerged over the past few decades include the following.

The Study and Description of Sports Activities in Preliterate, Tribal, Non-Western, or Developing Societies

Consistent with anthropological tradition, the anthropology of sport tends to target the activities of simple or small-scale society. As indicated earlier, folk or traditional sport has been of particular interest to scholars in Europe and Asia in the past decade. The literature that has been amassed over the past several decades is a treasure trove of ethnographic descriptions of both sports behavior and its cultural context as these are part of traditional societies from around the world. Almost every area of the world is represented in this literature: Afghanistan (Azoy, 1982; Balikci, 1978); Africa (Baker and Mangan, 1987; Gini, 1939; Raum, 1953; Scotch, 1961; Stevens, 1973, 1975; van der Merwe and Salter, 1990);Australia (Harney, 1952; Howell and Howell, 1987; Moncrieff, 1966; Taylor and Toohey, 1995; Roth, 1902); Caribbean (Klein, 1991; Mandle and Mandle, 1988; Manning, 1981); China (Giles, 1906; Kanin, 1978; Knuttgen et al., 1990; Kolatch, 1972; Sasajima, 1973; Tien and Matthews, 1977); Traditional Europe (Renson, 1981; Renson et al., 1991; Renson and Smulders, 1978); Japan (Bull, 1996; Sogawa, 1991); Latin America (Arbena, 1988, 1989; Humphrey, 1981; Miracle, 1977; Pina Chan, 1968; Stern, 1949); Micronesia (Royce and Murray, 1971); Native North America (Blanchard, 1981; Cheska, 1981; Culin, 1903, 1907; Danielson, 1971; Eisen and Wiggins, 1995; Fox, 1961; Mathys, 1976; Vennum, 1994); New Guinea (Leach, 1976); New Zealand (Melnick and Thomson, 1996; Stumpf and Cozens, 1947; Sutton-Smith, 1959); Polynesia (Dunlap, 1951; Firth, 1930/31; Johnson and Johnson, 1955); and Turkey (Frogner, 1985).

The Relationship Between Sport and Play

Sports studies have evolved in tandem with the study of play. The reasons for this relationship are obvious. However, definitions and theoretical clarity as they relate to the concepts of sport and play are not so obvious. Anthropologists have generally dismissed the idea that work and play are antonyms or points at opposite ends of a work—play continuum (for example, Blanchard, 1995; Stevens, 1980). Work is viewed as goal-driven activity and is generally viewed as the opposite of leisure behavior, activity in which the goal of the activity is the activity itself. Anthropologists are not so consistent in their efforts to define ‘play.’ The effort to understand the nature and meaning of human play has been well served by the work of comparative primatolo-gists and their studies of monkeys and apes (for example, Bekoff, 1972; Carpenter, 1964; Fagen, 1981; Lawick-Goodall, 1971; Manson and Wrangham, 1991; Miller, 1973; Oakley, 1976). In fact, it was the observation of monkey play that led Gregory Bateson (1972) to a theory of play that many anthropologists find convenient. Observing monkeys playing at the Fleishhacker Zoo in San Francisco, he observed

a phenomenon well known to everybody … young monkeys playing, that is, engaged in an interactive sequence of which the unit actions or signals were similar to but not the same as those of combat. It was evident, even to the human observer, that the sequence as a whole was not combat, and evident to the human observer that to the participant monkeys this was ‘not combat.’

Bateson then suggested that play was paradox: what the monkeys appeared to be saying was they were not doing what they in fact seemed to be doing, fighting. This is the message of play, what Bateson (1972) calls ‘metacommunication,’ communication about communication. Play defined as paradox is a state that can in some cases characterize sport. Certainly, one can play at sport. However, one can also engage in sport in ways that cannot be viewed as playful. For that reason, it has been suggested that sport, depending on the context and the state of mind of the participants, can be characterized as play, not-play, work or leisure (Blanchard, 1995). However, sport is not play nor is it a form of play. It is simply an activity that can be play-like.

The Relationship Between Sport and Ritual

Anthropologists have debated over the meaning of this relationship for several decades. Sport is treated by some as secular ritual (for example, Lawrence, 1982; Miracle and Southard, 1993). On the other hand, it has also been argued that the idea of secular ritual is of little practical value and that rather than being ritual, sport is an independent institution that is ritual-like with a penchant for attracting a variety of ritual activities (for example, magic, fetishes, etc.; Blanchard, 1988). Sport is viewed by some as an activity that has evolved out of ritual (for example, Culin, 1907) and by others as a stand-alone phenomenon that has in some cases evolved into ritual (for example, Lesser, 1933).

Ritual can be defined as culturally patterned behavior, ‘the symbolic dimension of social activities that are not specifically technical in nature’ (Blanchard, 1995). ‘Technique has economic consequences which are measurable and predictable; ritual on the other hand is a symbolic statement which says something about the individuals involved in the action’ (Leach, 1954). In this sense ritual can be either sacred or profane. Like language, ritual serves to transmit culture and exercises a ‘constraining effect on social behavior’ (Douglas, 1973). For this reason, it is easy to see why anthropologist William Arens would call American football a ritual:

… football, although only a game, tells us much about who and what we Americans are as a people, and if an anthropologist from another planet visited here, he would be struck by the American fixation on this game and would report on it with the glee and romantic intoxication anthropologists normally reserve for the exotic rituals of a newly discovered tribe. This assertion is based on the theory that certain significant symbols are the key to understanding a culture; football is such a symbol. (Arens, 1975)

Nevertheless, it is not generally agreed that simply because behavior is repetitive and symbolizes the basic values of a particular society that it is ritual. Clearly, though, sport has certain characteristics of ritual and because of its risks and uncertainties invites various types of ritual, such as magic (Gmelch, 1972; Stevens, 1988).

Perhaps more useful than the assertion that sport is ritual, is the observation that like ritual, sport is a window on culture. Sport becomes a vehicle for the manifestations of those norms and values fundamental to the culture of the society within which it is performed. Thus it is when the Trobriand Islanders of New Guinea play cricket, a game they learned from the British in the early part of this century, they play it in such a way that it becomes a Trobriand sport (Leach, 1976). What one observes during Trobriand cricket matches is a slice of Trobriand life. The same thing can be said about the baseball played by the Japanese (Kusaka, 1987; Whiting, 1982), the basketball played the Navajo Indians of the American Southwest (Blanchard, 1974), and the soccer played by the Zulu of South Africa (Scotch, 1961). In this regard, one might argue that sport is more perspective than ritual.

The Definition and Description of Sport from a Cross-Cultural Perspective

A one-size-fits-all definition of sport, one that works in any cultural setting, has proven as illusive as a single definition for an institution like religion. The subtleties and nuances of sport behavior in any given cultural setting are difficult to encompass in a transcultural definition of ‘sport.’ Likewise, the diversity of theoretical orientations that social scientists bring to the study of sport make it difficult for any one definition to find widespread acceptance. Nevertheless, some definitions, such as the following, are cited more frequently than others:

[Sport is] … a physically exertive activity that is aggressively competitive within constraints imposed by definitions and rules. A component of culture, it is ritually patterned, gamelike and of varying amounts of play, work and leisure. (Blanchard and Cheska, 1985: 60)

The Application of Sports Study Results to the Solution of Real Problems

The applied anthropology of sport frequently grapples with problems of social and cultural change (for example, Allison and Lüschen, 1979; Glassford, 1976; Tindall, 1975a); education (for example, Glamser, 1988; Miracle and Rees, 1994; Tindall, 1975b); physical education, recreation, and health (for example, Blanchard, 1977; Cheska, 1978; Cozens and Stumpf, 1951; Johnson, 1980); violence (for example, Collings and Condon, 1996; Sipes, 1973; Zoni and Kirchler, 1991); gender issues (for example, Howell, 1982); the analysis of popular culture (for example, Chandler, 1978, 1988); international relations (for example, Heinila, 1985); immigration and adaptation (Allison, 1979; Blanchard, 1991; Frogner, 1985; Robinson, 1978); the Olympics (for example, MacAloon, 1981; Wright, 1977); and the anthropology of sport in the college classroom (for example, Miracle and Blanchard, 1990).

The Description and Analysis of Sport in Prehistory and Early History

Unfortunately, the anthropology of sport has been better at asking than answering the questions attendant to the origins and prehistoric development of sport (Fox, 1977). The archaeological evidence remains scanty, and, with some exceptions, much of the discussion about origins depends on early historical references and is sometimes speculative (for example, Guttmann, 1978; Palmer and Howell, 1973). One sport that archaeologists and prehistorians have studied extensively is the Mesoamerican ballgame. Among all the sports known from human prehistory, the rubber ballgame of the Olmecs, Toltecs, Maya (pok-ta-pok) and Aztecs (tlachtli) is perhaps the best documented (for example, Blom, 1932; Coe, 1966; Ekholm, 1961; Humphrey, 1981; Schroeder, 1955; Stern, 1949). Much attention has also been given to the early history of sport as the institution first emerged and developed among such groups as the Egyptians, Etruscans, Greeks and Romans (for example, Gardiner, 1930; Harris, 1972; Howell and Sawula, 1973; Ioannides, 1976; Miller, 1991; Mutimer, 1970; Poliakoff, 1987; Sansone, 1988; Sasajima, 1973; Sweet, 1987).

The Analysis of Human Performance from the Perspective of Anatomy, Physiology and Genetics

Physical anthropologists have studied body types, morphology and function for decades. Some of this work has been done with particular reference to sport and sports performance (for example, Adrian and Cooper, 1989; Carrier, 1984; Kukushkin, 1964; Malina, 1972; Malina and Bouchard, 1986).

The Application of Theory to the Analysis of Sports Behavior

The anthropology of sport is not done in a theoretical vacuum. As is true of all the social sciences, it works from within paradigms, models and theories to attempt to understand better its primary subjects, in this case, sport. The wide range of theoretical models employed by social scientists as well as others are contexts within which those studying sport from an anthropological perspective frame their fundamental questions. Such models can be either explanatory or interpretive. In other words, they can suggest cause-and-effect relationships or simply expand the subject and provide alternative ways of understanding.

The anthropology of sport literature is shaped in many ways by the nature of the theoretical arguments that underlie the description and analysis. Questions about the nature and meaning of sport are addressed from these perspectives and debates over the meaning of sport, particularly sport in small-scale, Third World, or developing societies, are waged along theoretical lines and in many cases these debates become a battle among theories. As examples of the way in which sport is analysed with an aim toward explanation, there is the evolutionary perspective (for example, Guttmann, 1978), the functionalist perspective (for example, Gmelch, 1972), the structural-functionalist perspective (for example, Fox, 1961), the cultural materialist perspective (for example, Blanchard, 1979) and the conflict perspective (for example, Klein, 1991). Sport is also studied with an eye toward interpretation from such perspectives as symbolic anthropology (for example, Manning, 1981), ethnoscience (Kew, 1986) and postmodernism (Lewis, 1992). Sport, looked at from an anthropological point of view, remains a fertile ground for the application of theory.


The anthropology of sport is the application of the methods and perspectives of anthropology to the study of sport. It is grounded in the basic tenets, distinctive methodologies and theoretical assumptions of anthropology. It is also tied to the idea that sport is an institution and a component of culture.

The anthropological study of sport is becoming increasingly popular worldwide. The literature on sports culture, sport in small-scale society, sport in early history and prehistory, traditional sport, ethnic sport and folk sport is expanding rapidly (as the references and further reading to this chapter indicate). Nevertheless, the opportunities for additional research remain virtually unlimited. The issues falling under the anthropology of sport umbrella that deserve the most attention include the following:

  • The description and preservation of traditional, folk, ethnic, or aboriginal sport and sports culture. There is still a real need for good ethnographies so that the record of sporting diversity around the world will not be lost as a result of the homogenizing influence of globalism.
  • The continued debate over theoretical issues, particularly the meaning of sport, its relationship to other activities (for example, work, ritual and play), and its role in human society.
  • The continued collection and analysis of archaeological data. As the techniques of archaeological science become more sophisticated, it should become increasingly possible to retrieve and interpret the artifacts of sport culture and reconstruct the process by which human sport originated and evolved.
  • The relationship between sport and violence. There is much to be learned about this critical area from the cross-cultural analysis of sports behavior.
  • Sport as a model for international relations. The dream of world peace is well served by efforts to understand sporting diversity, encourage international and interdisciplinary cooperation, and revisit the original spirit of the Olympics.