Cultural Studies and the Sociology of Sport

Jennifer Hargreaves & Ian McDonald. Handbook of Sports Studies. Editor: Jay Coakley & Eric Dunning. 2000. Sage Publishing.

Put in simple terms, cultural studies is concerned with the social significance and systematic analysis of cultural practices, experiences and institutions. Its particular characteristic is to direct attention to, and analyse critically, ‘the everyday world of lived reality’ (Blundell et al., 1993: 2-3)—activities that people take part in, feelings engendered by them, and meanings associated with them. Since sport touches the lives of millions and millions of people across the world, the cultural studies perspective provides an important method of understanding its social importance. But other perspectives in the sociology of sport also make this claim, to the extent that the field has become highly contested. Nevertheless, it is widely recognized that cultural studies is one of the key players (Horne, 1996; Ingham and Loy, 1993; Morgan, 1994).

In this chapter we outline the origins and characteristics of cultural studies, assess the distinctive ways in which it has been applied to analyses of sport, and reflect on criticisms of its analytical value. Because we are sympathetic to the cultural studies tradition, we point to what we argue are the flawed arguments and theoretical misrepresentations of some of its critics.

The Origin and Characteristics of Cultural Studies

An immediate difficulty in anchoring cultural studies within a particular sociological tradition is that it is cross-disciplinary in nature, drawing on such diverse academic discourses as communication studies, film theory, history, literary criticism, philosophy, politics and semiology, as well as sociology. It has been characterized ‘not so much as a “discipline”, but an area where different disciplines intersect in the study of the cultural aspects of society’ (Hall et al., 1980: 7). Unlike functionalism (with Durkheim and Parsons), Marxism (with Marx and Engels) and figurationalism (with Elias), cultural studies is without an obvious canonical figurehead, although it is generally acknowledged that the work of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci has been pivotal.

The authors of a growing number of histories of cultural studies (for example, Blundell et al., 1993; Brantlinger, 1990; Grossberg et al., 1992; Turner, 1990) agree that its origin was located in England, and, more specifically, was linked to three major publications: Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy (1957); Raymond Williams’s Culture and Society (1958); and E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963). Collectively, these books established a radically different conception of culture from the one that was previously dominant in both academic and popular discourses (culture understood as synonymous with ‘high’ culture, embracing literary texts and artefacts), and they provided the inspiration for further analyses of the complexities of cultural formations, in particular social, political and historical conditions.

Williams’s Culture and Society is cited by both Brantlinger (1990: 38) and Turner (1990: 52) as the key text. Williams challenged the predominant conception of culture as high art and as the product of ‘creative geniuses.’ He took issue with literary thinkers like Matthew Arnold (1869: 6), who described culture as ‘the best that has been thought and said in the world.’ Williams (1958: 310) also protested against the reduction of culture to a set of artefacts, insisting that ‘a culture is not only a body of intellectual and imaginative work: it is also and essentially a whole way of life.’

Williams had moved away from an elitist, narrow definition of culture to a more generalized, anthropological definition that emphasized social practices—the gamut of ways in which people think, feel and act. Activities from football to brass bands were thus legitimized as culture every bit as much as opera and poetry. But, although Williams (1965: 364) eulogized football as ‘a wonderful game’ and argued that ‘the need for sport and entertainment is as real as the need for art,’ he did so only in passing and failed to explore the links between sport and popular consciousness.

Hoggart (1957: 91) was the same. He also understood the seductive appeal of sport when he wrote ‘[a]t work, sport vies with sex as the staple conversation. The popular Sunday newspapers are read as much for their full sports reports as for their accounts of the week’s crimes,’ but chose to concentrate on other cultural practices in his work. He embraced a similar understanding of culture to Williams, by insisting upon creative, authentic features of working-class life that could not easily be dismissed as vacuous and insignificant. He did so by providing a rich ethnographic account of an urban ‘culture of the people,’ although he deplored the growing commercial penetration of culture which was affecting the communities, families, language and sensibilities of working-class people. E.P. Thompson (1963) also opposed elitist conceptions of culture by showing how human experience arises from the connection between material circumstances and different, but historically specific forms of consciousness, linked to class identity. He captured the role of conflict and struggle as the crucial ingredient in the making of working-class cultures.

Although these three authors worked independently of each other, and had different political orientations, together their texts have been characterized as foundational, not only because they paved the way for the acceptance and systematic sociological study of working-class and popular culture, but also because they pointed towards a form of intellectual engagement that was openly interventionist. In their account of the genesis and development of cultural studies, Barker and Beezer (1992: 5-6) argue that:

always implicit in early analyses was the question: what can be done about the oppressive relations we are revealing? What forces are there, even if only potentially, that could lead to liberation? What strategies suggest themselves for supporting emancipatory forces? And in consequence, what will count as liberation and emancipation?

The Influence of Gramsci

It was the writings of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci—especially the Prison Notebooks, where the centrality of culture within relations of power was articulated—that provided a way of answering these questions. Gramsci showed that in Western societies the power of the dominant class rests mainly not on physical force and coercion through military-police apparatuses (as in totalitarian regimes), but on ideological leadership exercised through a network of voluntary institutions that pervade everyday life (‘civil society’)—for example, political parties, trade unions, the mass media, the family, schools, churches and all cultural processes (which would include sport, although it had far less cultural importance during the interwar period, when Gramsci was writing, than it has today).

Gramsci’s theoretical ideas were tied to his political position. His vision was to understand the complex ways in which culture was related to political domination and to work out strategies for a change towards socialism. Gramsci argued that control of culture was a prerequisite for social change. But he rejected Marxist economism with its crude base—superstructure metaphor which posits culture as a mere reflection of the economic base. He favoured a position that, as Grossberg (1993: 29-30) points out, ‘sees history as actively produced by individuals and social groups as they struggle to make the best they can out of their lives under determinate conditions.’

Gramsci used the concept of hegemony to explain how a dominant group or class establishes political and cultural leadership and control throughout civil society and the state, and how a whole complex series of cultural, political and ideological practices work to ‘cement’ a society into a relative—though never complete—unity (Bennett et al., 1979: 192). According to Stuart Hall (1980: 36), Gramsci’s use of the concept of hegemony was ‘always made specific to a particular historical phase in specific national societies,’ and, further, was ‘elaborated specifically in relation to those advanced capitalist societies in which the institutions of state and civil society have reached a stage of great complexity.’ Hegemony is a tool for explaining how ideas and practices which seem against the interests of subordinate groups are believed in and carried out by them so as to become ‘commonsense.’ Commonsense was understood by Gramsci to be the unconscious and unquestioning way in which the social world is understood and hence organized and lived day-by-day—a ‘cultural battle’ for the legitimation of ideas and practices so that they become ‘universal’ (1971: 348). Hegemony, then, is a process of experience, negotiation and struggle by individuals in real-life situations, rather than one in which subordinate groups are simply duped by dominant ideologies. In Gramsci’s formulation, it is not simply a matter of class control, but an unstable process which requires the winning of consent from subordinate groups. It is, then, never ‘complete’ or fixed, but rather diverse and always changing.

The concept of hegemony raises questions about the relationship between cultural, political and economic processes—Gramsci avoided the view of culture as distinctly separate from politics and economics, but saw it as reciprocally related to them. Although he did not look at sport, specifically, Pivato’s (1990) analysis of the bicycle as a political symbol in Gramsci’s Italy suggests that, in their struggle for power, both the nationalists and socialists used sport to mobilize different fractions of the Italian working class (Jarvie and Maguire 1994: 117-19). It could be argued that this was made possible, in line with Gramsci’s ideas, because, although at one level culture is an individual phenomenon, it is also an experience shared with other people. As he put it:

Culture, at its various levels, unifies in a series of strata, to the extent that they come into contact with each other, a greater or lesser number of individuals who understand each other’s mode of expression in differing degrees, etc. (Gramsci, 1971: 349)

Gramsci’s analysis of culture, embodying the concept of hegemony and a rejection of reductionism, in particular of economism, recognizes the importance of praxis—a term describing human activity, energy, expression, agency—a process through which people are involved in the making of history. It is understood to be the result of people’s positive reactions to values and beliefs, which in specific social and historical situations, support established social relations and structures of power (Anderson, 1976; Gramsci, 1971; Williams, 1977). This is very different from straightforward indoctrination or a strict system of ideological control. In summary, hegemony resists the idea that people are passive recipients of culture and keeps intact what is arguably the inherent humanism of Marxism. The concept of hegemony proposes a dialectical relationship between individuals and society, accounting for ways in which individuals are both determined and determining, and it allows for cultural experiences such as sports to be understood as both exploitative and worth while.

Institutionalizing Cultural Studies

Gramsci’s ideas became a seminal influence in analyses of British culture following the translation of the Prison Notebooks into English in 1971. This became possible because cultural studies had already become institutionalized with the formation of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) at the University of Birmingham in 1964. Under the intellectual leadership of Stuart Hall, who succeeded Richard Hoggart as Director in 1968, a distinctive critical approach to the study of contemporary forms of culture was developed.

At the beginning, the work of the Centre was predominantly concerned with the culture of the English working classes. Ethnography was a favoured approach to research because the endeavour was to understand how individuals made sense of their social worlds. Resistance to a sense of subordination along the lines of class and age, through the display of ‘spectacular’ styles and behaviour of young working-class English men, was a focus of the 1970s (Clarke et al., 1975; Cohen 1980; Hall and Jefferson 1976). In the later part of the decade, a Women’s Studies Group was set up which moved attention to gendered relations of power—a shift that was described by Stuart Hall (1992, cited in M.A. Hall 1996: 35) as a ‘specific, decisive and ruptural’ feminist intervention. Later, other structures of domination entered the cultural studies agenda, including analyses of the subcultures of adolescent girls, ethnic minorities, peoples in the Third World, and gays and lesbians. Cultural studies lost its initial ‘Englishness’ as it spread abroad and was institutionalized through research (mostly on aboriginal people) in university departments in North America and Australia. To a large extent, attempts to understand marginalized groups replaced class-dominated research.

However, Blundell et al. have argued that there has always been an intrinsic contradiction to the general theme of understanding subordination and the struggle for hegemony. From the early years of the CCCS, many of the academics carrying out the research were from different class and ethnic groups than the subjects under investigation. They were also predominantly male and the few female researchers were, almost without exception, the only ones who looked at female cultures. Blundell and her co-writers (1993: 6-7) claim that the situation has not changed radically, even with the expansion and diffusion of cultural studies:

This contradiction, embedded deep in the history and practice of cultural studies, raises the question of who cultural studies is for. Is it for those about whom cultural studies writes? Is it relevant to their lives? Can it make a difference? Or is it for cultural studies practitioners? Does it achieve little but advance the academic careers of those who engage in it? Does it always provide an ‘authentic’ critique as distinct from a voyeuristic celebration of all that is generated at the level of popular culture? And, at worst, does it function primarily to assuage the political conscience of those (predominantly white, bourgeois and male) who are conscious of difference and differences in power?

Problems for cultural studies were also created by new ‘critical dialogues’ and problematics arising from changes in political and economic structures (Morley and Kuan-Hsing Chen, 1996). The ‘culturalist tradition’ (favouring agency and experience) was challenged during the 1970s by the emergence of structuralist theories of linguistics and ideology (stressing determination and control). Stuart Hall argued that although the two paradigms appeared as incompatible, it was possible to achieve a synthesis through Gramsci’s concept of hegemony (1980: 286), which, though by no means universally used, became one of the organizing ideas at the CCCS. Hegemony theory provided the potential for understanding both the liberative and controlling features of culture. Feminists who at this time were involved in the debate around agency and structure introduced a new dimension, pointing to the inadequacies of theories which left out or marginalized patriarchal structures of power. In more recent years, the character of cultural studies has changed further with the development of global politics and economics, and with postcolonial questions of nationhood, identity and power. The continued topicality of these issues is reflected in the publication, in 1998, of a new Sage journal, entitled International Journal of Cultural Studies.

The latest shift in focus has resulted from debates over the fragmentation of culture in postmodernist societies and through engagements with post-structural theories. The term ‘postmodern cultural studies’ has been used by Lawrence Grossberg (1993: 58) to describe the increasingly transnational context of difference within which subjectivity and identity are constituted. He argues that:

Postmodern cultural studies returns to the questions that animated the original passion of cultural studies: what is the ‘modern’ world? How do we locate ourselves as subjects within that world? How do our investments in that world provide the possibilities for regaining some sense of its possible futures? (p. 64)

The Application of Cultural Studies to Sport

Although sport did not receive sustained treatment in the development of cultural studies at the CCCS, in the 1970s and 1980s the Centre supported a number of research projects into sport and leisure which were published in the Working Papers in Cultural Studies or the Stencilled Occasional Papers series. The focus was predominantly on working-class male subjectivities through such subcultural forms as football hooliganism or through the broader theme of sport and the media (Clarke 1973; Critcher 1971; Peters 1976; Watson 1973), but they also included research on marginal and innovative activities, such as kung-fu, pool, skateboarding and squash (Critcher et al., 1979). In 1974, following a symposium on Women in Sport, organized by the Physical Education Department at the University of Birmingham the previous year, the CCCS published two papers given at that conference—by Chas Critcher and Paul Willis. A CCCS 1982 publication on ‘Sporting Fictions’ (Jenkins and Green, 1982) was also the product of a conference with the same title.

The CCCS publications on sport, although spasmodic, were original, varied and well theorized and opened the doors for a specific cultural studies of sport which became institutionalized mostly in university departments of physical education, sport studies and leisure studies. Starting from the basic premise that sport and leisure are important for an understanding of power relations throughout society, the development of a cultural studies perspective in the sociology of sport has followed along similar lines and embodied similar problematics to those of cultural studies in general.

The publication in 1982 of Jennifer Hargreaves’s edited collection, Sport, Culture and Ideology marked a watershed in the development of sports sociology. Many of the authors adopted a cultural studies perspective and collectively produced the first sport sociology book with this orientation. It was very much a reaction to the orthodox Marxist tendency in sport sociology to reduce sports to a mirror of capitalist society, thoroughly infiltrated by commercialization, and acting as an efficient repository for dominant ideology (see Brohm, 1978; Hoch, 1972; Vinnai, 1973). It was argued that the concept of hegemony would avoid this reductionism and encourage questions about the specific nature of dominance and subordination in sport:

If cuts in welfare services close a community swimming pool, for example, or a notice is erected outside council flats where families are housed, ‘NO BALL GAMES ON THE GRASS,’ such questions as ‘Who made the decision?’ and ‘In whose interests?’ direct attention to the relationship between power in society and the lived experiences of ordinary people. (J.A. Hargreaves, 1982: 15)

The key problematic of the book was the complex relationship between sport, ideology and the wielding of power. As well as theoretical explorations, it included chapters on a range of issues relevant to sport at the time: for example, the significance of the media treatment of sport in the hegemonic process; the patriarchal character of sport and the importance of sport as a site for feminist intervention; the relatively autonomous and oppositional nature of specific youth sports cultures and the interpenetration of class with other factors such as race, sex and deviance; football hooliganism as an aspect of the historically specific totality of social relations which have generated it and particularly relating to the crisis of the British state at that time; the highly specific forms of state involvement in cultural hegemony in the USSR and South Africa, respectively. It was claimed that:

This collection as a whole has identified the way in which sport is ‘constitutive and constituting,’ recognizable only in a dialectical relationship to political, economic, ideological and other cultural forms. Sport exists as a paradox—it has been shown here how its manipulative manifestations need to be counterposed to its liberative tendencies. (1982: 22-3)

In this perspective of cultural studies, sport is perceived to be an aspect of culture embodying struggle and contestation, and the concern is with the processes through which cultural practices and the ideologies and beliefs underlying those practices are created, reproduced and changed through human agency and interaction.

Following the parent tradition, the use and interrogation of the concept of hegemony has been pivotal in both the British and North American variants of sport cultural studies. Hegemony has been applied specifically to the classic sociological agency-structure problematic which Gruneau refers to as the ‘paradox of sports’ (1983: 147-53).

For example, in The Devil Makes Work (which includes numerous references to sport), John Clarke and Chas Critcher (1985: 225) set out to apply to the analysis of leisure an approach derived from cultural studies. They selected this approach because it embodies a double sense of culture—‘culture as a whole, connected to economic, political and social arrangements’ and the sense of culture ‘as subsets of meaning actively created by individuals and groups’ (p. 227). From this perspective, sport and leisure are understood as neither wholly determined nor completely autonomous, but areas of life that can be sites of contestation between dominant and subordinate groups. Furthermore, hegemony is a concept that Clarke and Critcher find useful in explaining: (a) the effectiveness of leadership by persuasion—in particular through everyday events in our lives, and (b) the incompleteness of, and tensions intrinsic to, cultural conflict. They argue that, ‘leisure has been, and remains, integral to the struggle for hegemony in British society,’ manifest through cultural conflict over meanings and through the control of free time in people’s lives (p. 228).

Richard Gruneau also explores the double sense of culture in several of his publications, including Class, Sports, and Social Development (1983), and Popular Cultures and Political Practices (1988). He utilizes the concept of hegemony to explain how sport is a contested zone and to illuminate fundamental differences in the ways ‘modern’ sports have developed their unique forms of institutional and cultural expression in Canada, Britain and the United States. Simply, he shows how the regulation of cultural life is central to class relations. By examining the development of Canadian sport from colonial times until the 1980s, and relating it to the wider class structure, the state, political life, militarism and religion, Gruneau is able to tease out the dynamic behind the commercial and ‘rational-bureacratic’ forms of organization predominant in Canadian sport. He demonstrates how some cultural forms and practices are ‘driven out of the centre of popular life, actively marginalized, so that something else can take their place,’ and that in sport ‘the focus of these struggles has been the monopolistic capacity to define the dominant forms and meanings of sport practices and the “legitimate” uses of time and the body’ (Gruneau 1988b: 20).

In Sport, Power and Culture (1986), John Hargreaves also uses hegemony as his central conceptual tool, to argue that sport was integral to the class and cultural struggles of the nineteenth century. His central thesis is that ‘sport was significantly implicated in the process whereby the growing economic and political power of the bourgeoisie in nineteenth-century Britain was eventually transformed into that class’s hegemony in the latter part of the century’ (1986: 6-7).

Arguing that sport must be understood historically, he points to its centrality in the culture of twentieth-century capitalism and to the ways in which it can be penetrated by ideology as well as autonomous from it. As Charles Critcher (1986: 339) points out, both Gruneau and Hargreaves view hegemony as a process and sport ‘as part of the contestation of meanings that arise in class societies’ (p. 336). Using historically specific and culturally specific examples, they demonstrate the dialectical and changing relationships between human agency and social and political structures.

Reflecting on these (and other) studies, Holt (1993: 365) notes that:

The ‘cultural’ approach fits well into the established pattern of British social history which has taken the relationship between classes and levels of class-consciousness as a central issue for discussion.

The identification with popular subjectivities flows from a political commitment to the struggles of subordinate groups and oppressed classes. For example, Garry Whannel’s socialist analysis of sport,Blowing the Whistle (1983), puts the case for more progressive forms of sport, rooted in social ownership and democratic control. Class is also central in Stephen Jones’s Workers at Play (1986), a detailed account of the ways in which working-class sport and leisure practices were part of the various political struggles of the interwar period (1918-1939). Jones examines these practices as cases of counter-hegemonic struggle which (at least implicitly) challenged the values and organization of bourgeois sport.

As a result of advances in media technology and communications, and because of the exceptional popularity of sport, the question of media-based representations has been a key issue in the work of cultural studies writers. One of the first media-sport-based interventions was made by Alan and John Clarke in 1982 when they demonstrated how sport is ‘enmeshed in the media’s reproduction and transmission of ideological themes and values which are dominant in our society’ in ways that are contested and contradictory (p. 68). Ten years later, in Fields in Vision (1992), Garry Whannel examines the cultural and economic relations between television and sport, and highlights the ways in which television and sponsorship have reshaped sport in the context of the enterprise culture. But he is aware that this process is not a cohesive one and he highlights the changing and ambivalent characteristics of representations of sport. For example, in a discussion about race and Britishness, Whannel shows how representations of black athletes can appear as radical and transformative views of blackness at the same time as they reflect commonsense racist views based on the myth of ‘natural ability.’ He argues that:

As with gender, there is a degree of ambivalence around images of race in sport on television. While sport offers a fund of positive images of talented black athletes succeeding, it does also serve to reproduce elements of stereotypical attitudes. (p. 129)

Whannel uses empirical material to show how ‘blackness, Britishness, physicality and femininity are not unchanging terms, but are subject to negotiation.’ He conceptualizes popular culture as ‘neither imposed from above nor generated spontaneously from below’ (1992: 9). In common with other cultural studies writers, his central concern is with power and, specifically, with the complexities of the media—sport—power axis. In a more general account of power in sport, Gruneau (1988a) identifies three key dimensions: (a) the capacity to structure sport in preferred ways; (b) the capacity to select sports traditions; and (c) the capacity to define the range of ‘legitimate’ practices and meanings associated with dominant sports practices.

The concepts and issues outlined above that have informed the development of the cultural studies of sport remain topical today. In 1993 Ingham and Loy edited a collection of papers in a publication entitled, Sport in Social Development: Traditions, Transitions and Transformations that are anchored around Raymond Williams’s (1977) theme of ‘dominant-residual-emergent,’ chosen, the editors explain, because ‘it highlights the compexity of social development and provides insights into the currently fashionable theory of hegemony’ (p. 1). Although some of the authors are English, or originated in England, the book was produced specifically as a challenge to what the editors describe as ‘the conventional, statistical, neo-positivistic paradigm that has been dominant within North American sport studies’ (p. vii). The anti-positivist stance in North American sociology of sport literature has followed the British anti-positivist/reductionist trend. However, unlike Ingham and Loy’s (1993) collection, the work of some writers does not fit so obviously into a cultural studies perspective and the umbrella description, ‘critical’ paradigm, has been used as a replacement. For example, in Sport in Society: Issues and Controversies, Jay Coakley (1990) suggests three major theoretical frameworks for studying the relationship between sport and society, namely, ‘structural functionalism,’ ‘conflict theory’ (by which he means Marxism) and ‘critical theory’ (which subsumes cultural studies along with other approaches, such as variants of Marxist, socialist and feminist approaches). However, although Coakley emphasizes the importance of changing social relations, there is no explicit discussion of the concept of hegemony in his ‘inclusive’ procedure, so that he runs the risk of losing the specific character and meaning of the cultural studies project. But in other US publications, such as Sage’s (1990) methodical analysis of Power and Ideology in American Sport, the application of cultural studies has not been diluted. Sage explains that the ‘critical’ in critical theory has two meanings:

First, it is critical of the ideas that form the conventional wisdom about sport in American society. In the realm of sport, as in many others, dominant groups use political, economic, and cultural resources to define societal norms and values to sustain their influence. Their interests are legitimized by compatible ideologies disseminated by schools, mass media, and various agencies of social control, and the processes they use to suppress alternative versions. Second, … critical through my use of the orientation of hegemony, which is directly linked to social criticism of modern capitalist society. (p. 3)

Although the original impetus for a cultural studies of sport sprang from Britain, a wealth of research in the field has followed in other Western countries—notably, Canada and the United States, and also Australia (Rowe, 1995; Rowe and Lawrence, 1986). In spite of culturally specific differences, Jarvie and Maguire (1994: 124) summarize some general aims of the cultural studies of sport tradition: (i) to consider the relationship between power and culture; (ii) to demonstrate how a particular form of sport or leisure has been consolidated, contested, maintained or reproduced within the context of society as a whole; and (iii) to highlight the role of sport and leisure as a site of popular struggle.

The Feminist Critique

A major criticism of the sport cultural studies trajectory is its failure to grasp the relevance of sport to sexual politics. It has been argued by sport and leisure feminists, who themselves work in a cultural studies perspective, that there has been a huge gender imbalance of focus (Deem, 1988; Hall, 1996; J.A. Hargreaves, 1994). Rosemary Deem (1988: 347) is extremely critical of John Hargreaves’s (1986) failure to acknowledge or engage with research carried out by feminists about gender, leisure and sport, and his failure to carry out research in the field. She points to the way in which, in common with Clarke and Critcher (1985), he alludes to gender as if it is an ‘extra’ which must not move attention too far away from the priority of class. Most cultural theorists of sport are male and, without exception, though in different ways, they marginalize gender relations of cultural power and by doing so reproduce one feature of the cultural dominance that they set out to critique. Although references are made to the relationship between class and gender, and even to the way that class and gender divisions are constructed together, there have been no attempts to explore this relationship rigorously nor to look at the specific complexities of male hegemony. In so far as they fail to do so, they can be accused of perpetuating sexist sociology (see Critcher, 1986: 338-9).

In Sporting Females (1994), Jennifer Hargreaves has attempted to address this deficiency by applying the concept of hegemony specifically to male leadership and domination of sports. In a critical account of the development of female sports from the nineteenth century to the present day, she looks at both the lived experiences of women in sports and the structural forces influencing participation in order to reveal the complex and paradoxical character of female sports. By applying the concept of male hegemony specifically to male leadership and domination of sports, she argues that it is possible to recognize the advantages experienced by men, in general, in relation to women, but also the inability of men to gain total control. She goes on:

Some men and some women support, accommodate, or collude in existing patterns of discrimination in sports that are specific to capitalism and to male domination, while other men and women oppose them and struggle for change. Male hegemony is not a simple male vs female opposition, which is how it is often presented, but complex and changing. (1994: 23)

Ann Hall (1996: 29-48) argues for a specifically feminist cultural studies applied to sport. She states that, ‘Increasingly, and primarily in the United States, it is suggested that the theoretical underpinnings of a truly radical, gendered (and non-racialized) theory of sport lie in the combination of feminism and cultural studies’ (p. 34). For Ann Hall, such a project would include: more historically grounded research; a sensitivity to difference; studies of men, sport and masculinity; acknowledgement of the significance of the body; and work that relates feminist cultural politics to sport.

The feminist cultural studies initiative has re-enlivened the politicization of theory. Feminist researchers of sport have systematically related their work to practice. They are not merely researchers who describe what women do; they also set out to transform the structures that oppress women in sport and to create liberating changes (Hall, 1996: 29). By focusing on gender and its relationship to other structures of power, their work has also drawn attention to the diversity of women and to other subordinated groups. Their work also makes clear that hegemony is by no means restricted to class and gender divisions alone. Indeed, the essential usefulness of the concept is its sensitivity to questions of domination and subordination as expressions of the totality of social relations.

Feminist interventions have had a lot to do with the fact that such categories as race, age, disability and sexuality, as well as class and gender, have become important considerations in cultural studies research. And it is not only women who have characterized themselves as sports feminists, but men as well. Arguing that sports feminism is a necessary way forward, Michael Messner and Donald Sabo (1990), editors of Sport, Men and the Gender Order: Critical Feminist Perspectives, are examples of the growing number of men who adopt a feminist stance and who concern themselves with multiple structures of power and their interrelationships. They propose a liaison between critical sport sociology and feminism and the formulation of a ‘non-hierarchical theory’ which ‘allows us to conceptualize varied and shifting forms of domination in such a way that we do not privilege one at the expense of distorting or ignoring the others’ (p. 10). This is why sports feminists point out that they were articulating the need to take account of difference and diversity before the postmodern claim of authorship (Scraton, 1994). But in spite of the fundamental contribution that feminist scholars have made to advances in sport cultural studies, most debates about the field generalize from male examples and fail adequately to recognize or integrate women’s contributions.

Paradigm Wars

The development of the cultural studies of sport has not been without opposition. Some of the most vociferous criticisms have come from proponents of figurational sociology. Chris Rojek (1992: 26) considers the possibility of transference between the two perspectives, arguing that both would view sport as historically constructed and would agree that there is no single culture (p. 27). More importantly, however, he also points to a range of discrepancies between them, some of which are foundational and clearly irreconcilable. Citing Clarke and Critcher (1985) as key cultural studies theorists, Rojek argues that the concept of hegemony hardly constitutes a theory and that Clarke and Critcher’s work is really ‘nothing more than the recording of history’ (p. 8); that the authors have a ‘Little Englander mentality’ by focusing on home territory and omitting the global dimension (p. 10); and that they tend to ‘conflate every aspect of social practice into culture’ (p. 27). The more serious denunciation of cultural studies is the claim that it fails to escape from class reductionism (p. 9). Eric Dunning and his co-writers (1988: 218) berate cultural studies proponents for reifying social life through their insistence that, in the last instance, the economic base is the key to identity, practice and association. Rojek (1992: 26) concurs, by arguing that:

cultural studies writers insulate themselves from the criticism that class relations in the post-war period have become less important in explaining sport and leisure relations and that lifestyle has become more important, by dismissing lifestyle as an epiphenomenon of class.

Finally, Rojek points out that, ‘On the question of social and political involvement, figurational sociologists and cultural studies proponents, really are poles apart.’ With reference to the figurationists’ support of methodological detachment (Elias and Dunning, 1986: 3-5), he goes on, ‘Figurational sociologists … regard ‘praxis’ … as the betrayal of science because it continuously involves political values muddying the quest for objectivity’ (p. 28).

The debates between the two positions are complex and cannot be dealt with fully here. In defence of cultural studies we would argue that in their critiques of it, opponents, and especially Dunning (see, for example, his entries in Dunning and Rojek 1992), have returned to selected extracts from the original texts of Marx and Lenin, have ignored ‘cultural’ Marxist interpretations, and have chosen not to engage with the complexities of the concept of hegemony as explicated in Gramsci’s original writings (1971). The irony is that the cultural studies approach was developed precisely to avoid the reductionism and economism that it is purported to embody. Gramsci understood the power and complexities of culture in non-totalitarian, fast-developing capitalist societies, but explicitly refused the idea that it was a mere reflection of the economic base. In figurational sociology, because class is seen as one form, rather than the fundamental form of power, it has not featured as a determining structure of social relations, and has tended therefore to be used as a descriptive category of difference. In the cultural studies tradition there is no inevitability about social and cultural developments, and writers in the field have used a wealth of empirical examples to explain the complexities of culture as everyday, commonsense experiences in specific historical and cultural contexts. Referring to the work of cultural studies, John Horne and David Jary (1987) argue that:

theoretical analysis and empirical research on relations between cultural forms and state, class and economy are handled—actually or potentially—more fully than Figurational Sociology, reflecting what, following Gramsci, … researchers recognize as the need to capture the ‘current moment’ of hegemony. (p. 107)

Much of the figurational critique of cultural studies does not address the large range of research that has been carried out, but engages only with limited examples and huge generalizations. For example, the work of feminist cultural writers, and their critiques of power and male domination have not been integrated into the main debates, and in their specific engagements with sports feminism, they do not engage adequately with the bulk of the literature in the field (Hargreaves, 1994: 12-16).

The figurational critique of praxis is also rejected by cultural theorists, who argue that it is possible to carry out worthwhile and ‘scientifically’ sound research without the spurious pretence of objectivity (Hargreaves, 1994; Horne and Jary, 1987). Although figurationalists deny the possibility of ‘objective’ or ‘value-neutral’ research, their methodological adherence to a balance between ‘involvement’ and ‘detachment’ has in practice distanced researchers from struggles over power, an action, many cultural studies writers would argue, that can implicitly support those who dominate.

A related methodological critique has come from John MacAloon (1992), who claims that cultural analysts of sport have failed to carry out ethnographic research and depend on ‘large processes and structures’ (he cites late capitalism, dependency, and commodification as examples) (p. 112), derived from predetermined historical accounts and theoretical ideas, so that ‘all comparisons are automatically controlled comparisons’ (p. 113). He argues that ‘identification and depiction of large historical structures and social logics, if such things exist at all, can never initiate any interesting or truly comparative analysis because methodologically manipulable differences are suppressed in absentia’ (p. 112).

MacAloon seems to forget that the traditional methodologies of cultural analysts were ethnographic, used specifically in order to understand the everyday experiences and feelings of individuals and sub-groups—and that current researchers continue to use this method. But MacAloon also objects to the social contexting of cultural events, which, he says, should itself be investigated. MacAloon is arguing that a tendency has developed among analysts of sport not to engage in sufficient investigative research and to work within a pre-ordained frame of analysis. It is ironical that Joseph Maguire is one of the theorists criticized by MacAloon (for using the concept of ‘Americanization’ uncritically as an overriding structure of power) because he is usually identified as a figurational sociologist, and because, in his joint publication with Grant Jarvie (1996: 54), he supports MacAloon’s assertion that hegemony theorists have tended to overuse the concept at the expense of providing sufficient substantive evidence to support their arguments. Jarvie and Maguire (1994: 112) claim that:

To some extent, a violence of abstraction has occurred in the sense that some writers have been quick to highlight the importance of hegemony at the expense of other aspects of Gramsci’s thinking or worse an abstraction of hegemony has been exercised at the expense of concrete modalities of historical and cultural situations … The gulf between theory and evidence has still to be closed.

MacAloon urges change, because, he says:

the exploration of cultural conceptions underlying one context of practice will reveal connections to other institutions and contexts that may be quite surprising or unexpected, that is, concealed or suppressed by cultural commonsense, everyday speech, disciplinary or professional boundaries. In this way inquiry into sport can broaden toward the very general social morphologies that cultural studies researchers are most interested in, not by a theoretical reductio but by demonstrated relationships among widening circles of actors and contexts. (p. 117)

Hargreaves and Tomlinson (1992) disagree with MacAloon’s argument and defend the methodology under attack. In particular, Hargreaves (1992: 132) claims that cultural researchers link sociology with history in fundamental ways and ‘in the sense that both disciplines attempt to produce theoretically informed, testable propositions about social events, relations, and processes, there is no real difference between them.’ He points out that historical research precludes participant observation and interview techniques and that although primary sources are important, the use of existing historical evidence ‘constitutes some of the most important work in the social sciences.’ He emphasizes the role of theory—that is, the use of analytical processes in order to make sense of the social world of sport.

David Andrews and John Loy (1993: 270) recognize that cultural studies ‘is a continuously evolving, materialist, anti-essentialist, and anti-reductionist strategy for analyzing conjuncturally specific relationships between culture and power.’ However, they also criticize most of the writers in the field because, they claim, they have failed to ground their ideological analyses ‘in the realm of corporeality’ (p. 270). Whilst in some instances this may be the case, there is a growing attention to the body in recent literature, and, in particular, on representations of masculinity, femininity and sexuality in sport.

Of course, among the researchers from every tradition, it is possible to identify weaknesses in procedures and in the application of theoretical ideas, but by association they do not render the whole field as weak. The extensive work that has emanated from the cultural studies tradition has been produced, in the main, by researchers who skilfully combine empirical material with theoretical concepts and who do not have predetermined ideas about their findings. Together, they have produced an extensive and insightful analysis of sport in culture.


There is no question that in spite of the uneven development of and critical comments on the cultural studies paradigm, it has made a major contribution to our understanding of the complex relationships between culture (sport) and power, and about the activeness of culture. Indicative of the important influence of cultural studies to the development of the sociology of sport is the fact that most of the authors of the Key Topics section of this book are either from, or have directly engaged with, the cultural studies perspective.

Nevertheless, there have been contestations within the field itself and it has never produced a static set of ideas, but, rather, has adapted to developments in (mainstream) social theory, and, in turn, has spearheaded new approaches in the sociology of sport. Radical work is currently being produced by cultural theorists who are engaging in debates with postmodernism and with the work of post-structural theorists, with the literature on globalization and postcolonialism, and with developments related to the body and identity.

The challenge facing cultural studies within the sociology of sport is to continue the engagement with other and new paradigms, whilst maintaining its distinctiveness. This requires an understanding of what we have characterized as ‘good’ cultural studies research, which, we argue, has three critical attributes. First, it is receptive to, and engages with, different theoretical traditions. Secondly, unlike much of contemporary social theory within the academy, its starting point has been the real world, linking theory to empirical investigations and producing theoretically grounded research. And, thirdly, it has taken sides politically—by developing a form of intellectual engagement that is interventionist. Cultural studies exposes power relationships where none have been assumed, and respects the contribution and creative potential of marginalized, oppressed and exploited groups.

One of the best examples of good cultural studies writing on sport is also one of the oldest—Beyond a Boundary, written by C.L.R. James in 1963. Quite properly, it is still considered a classic account of sport as a social and cultural form, and should provide both a benchmark and an inspiration for good cultural studies research. Intertwining autobiography, political prose and penetrating portraits of the greats of West Indian cricket, James presents cricket in the West Indies as simultaneously a form of art, politics and philosophy, thus challenging the aestheticians who have ‘scorned to take notice of popular sports and games’ (1963: 195). It is an account which enables James to identify and agitate around cricket as a privileged site in the struggle for West Indian independence against colonial rule. By raising questions about the role of sport in emergent constructions of postcolonial national identities, and exploring the complex relationship between sport and resistance to racial oppression, Beyond a Boundary transcends the specifics of its own socio-historic moment. Above all, it demonstrates that the question posed by James in his preface in 1963, ‘What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?’ is one that still needs to be asked about all sports 25 years later.