Theorizing Sport, Social Class, and Status

John Sugden & Alan Tomlinson. Handbook of Sports Studies. Editor: Jay Coakley & Eric Dunning. 2000. Sage Publishing.

It was the American novelist and popular historian James Michener (1976) who suggested that, for most of this century, a glance at the boxing rankings in the American sports press was a reasonably accurate gauge of which social groups were situated towards the bottom of that country’s social order. When Jewish, Italian and Irish names began to appear less frequently, this could be taken as a clear indication that these groups had become socially mobile and that boxing was no longer considered to be an appropriate sport for those on a higher social plane. If this relationship between sport and social standing pertains for the lower orders, then it can be applied equally to social élites and gradations in between. For instance, in the context of British society, involvement in a polo match in the grounds of Windsor Castle, participation in Henley’s boating regatta or a trip to the grouse moors of Scotland can be taken as clear signals of high social status. Similarly, playing golf at Royal St Andrews, attending Twickenham for a rugby international, having a season ticket for a Premier Division football club, turning out in the park for the local pub’s football team, and keeping and racing pigeons, all convey messages about the social location of the participants.

In addition to such anecdotal evidence, there is strong empirical support for the view that sports preference, occupational status and social class are closely related (Central Statistical Office, 1993; Lüschen, 1969; Minten and Roberts, 1989; Renson, 1976). It is not our intention to summarize such sources or to add to this database. Neither do we aim to build towards a grand theory of sport and social class. Rather, in this chapter we outline and interrogate some of the classical theories of social stratification as they relate to sport. Through the following selective review, our objective is to provide the reader with a guide to thinking critically about the relationship between the sports people play, who those people are and what they stand for.

Sport and Social Class in Historical Context

We should not be too startled by the fact that in the modern world sport participation can be read as a rough shorthand for social differentiation. Sport and social hierarchy have always been close relatives. The key linkage between the two rests in the martial roots of sport and the significance of military prowess as a signifier of social standing. War and the heroic deeds of warriors are dominant themes of the classic writings emanating from the ancient societies of the southern Mediterranean. McIntosh (1993) notes that such tales are punctuated by episodes of athleticism whereby representatives of social elites demonstrated their physical abilities in sporting contests. At a time when the threat of war was omnipresent, and when the essential vehicle of battle was the male body and what it could wield or propel, it is not surprising that sports closely resembled actual war and vice versa:

Throwing javelins, throwing discoi, archery and boxing are several times referred to, while athletic similes are used to describe military combat. (McIntosh, 1993: 21)

Such sports were not open to all. McIntosh supports his argument by drawing on the work of Elias who believes that ‘the sport of ancient Greece was based upon an ethos of warrior nobility’ (1993: 27). Albeit in different ways, the city-states of Athens and Sparta both evidenced systems of social stratification which were rooted in militarism and which found further expression through participation in sport and games. Participation in athletic contests and equestrian events such as chariot racing, were restricted according to social rank, which to begin with was related to a military pecking order, but which, over time, also became associated with inherited status and the wealth which this was likely to bestow. McIntosh (1993: 24) argues that the fact that participants in the ancient Olympics were required to train for a minimum of ten months before the competition, suggests that these athletes must have been dilettantes, drawn largely from the upper echelons of ancient Greek societies.

By the time of the civilization’s imperial decline, sport in Greece had developed a quasi-professional dimension. Warrior-athletes were patronized by an élite which accrued prestige through the spectacles that it created, and through the success of its champions, who likewise gained kudos through demonstrations of sporting prowess.

Initially, the Romans drew heavily upon an imagination of Greece for much of their own cultural development, including an approach towards sports (1993: 29). Once more, in a society heavily dependent upon military achievement, prowess in warlike sport was highly acclaimed. However, the more universally dominant as a military force Rome became, and the more removed Roman citizens became from the actual scene of battle, the emphasis in sport switched from direct participation to patronage and spectatorship.

The circus developed as a central feature of the Roman social order. The capacity to own schools of gladiators, to nurture stables of chariot racers and to stage lavish games, in arenas like the Hippodrome or the Coliseum, came to be viewed as tokens of political authority and high social standing. Likewise, the quality of access a person had to the arena—where he could sit or stand, and how far he was away from the imperial vantage point—was linked to his status in the wider Roman society. The fact that women were not allowed to attend these events is a clear indication of their lowly status in ancient Rome.

A certain amount of respect accrued to slaves who fought in these spectacles. The most successful of them enjoyed star-like status (like many of today’s top sport performers), although their fame in the arena did not translate into social mobility outside of it.

While Rome declined as a military and political force, many of its institutional features, including some aspects of its approach to sports, lingered in the cultural memory of feudal Europe. In a Hollywood version of the legend of Robin Hood, in the mid-1990s, there is a dramatic episode of a young boy being hunted down in Sherwood Forest by the Sheriff of Nottingham’s soldiers and their hounds. His crime was to have used his bow and arrow to bring down one of the ‘king’s deer,’ and if caught his likely punishment would have been death by hanging. As with all legends this fable is rooted in historical fact, inasmuch as across feudal Europe people were being imprisoned and, in some cases, put to death for hunting beyond their station. At this particular juncture, where one stood in any social hierarchy was encompassed by a series of rights and prohibitions. The public behaviour of members of the nobility was governed by a code of chivalry which, on the one hand, forbade them to engage in manual labour or common trade and, on the other, required them to train for combat and participate in related activities, such as hunting. ‘Kings, princes and lords, each within the limits of his own authority, everywhere tended to monopolize the pursuit of game in certain reserved areas’ (Bloch, 1961: 303). In effect, what one could hunt (deer, foxes, rabbits, rats and so forth), what weapon or animal one could hunt with (lance, arrow, hawk, dog and the like), and where this hunting could take place (king’s forest, private fiefdom or common land), developed as important signifiers of a person’s social standing. At the same time, the nobility monopolized those sporting activities which ‘bore the imprint of a warlike temper’ (1961: 303) such as swordsmanship and jousting. These were the centrepiece of the medieval tournaments which became the favoured pastime of the nobility in the Middle Ages.

In time a class of champions emerged, roaming the land and selling their martial services to other, usually more wealthy, knights. The latter’s status could be enhanced by the capacity to sponsor tournaments and, even if by proxy, win contests which ranged from one-to-one combat to full-scale mock battles (Huizinga, 1955a: 94-5). Prowess in war, and those sports which resembled it, along with the ceremonial adornments of combat, were read as tokens of where a person stood in the medieval social hierarchy:

Every order and estate, every rank and profession, was distinguished by its costume. The great lords never moved about without a glorious display of arms and liveries, exciting fear and envy. (Huizinga, 1955b: 9)

For the labouring and merchant classes, these principles of distinction were reversed. In the Middle Ages, engagement in work, that is labour and/or commerce, irrespective of its content, was an indicator of low social standing. It is only relatively recently, and certainly not before the eighteenth century, that occupation and status have been linked in positive terms (Plumb, 1974). The vast majority of people worked in agricultural production. The recreations of the lower orders were influenced by their closeness to nature and by the time rhythms dictated by the seasons and the yield of the land (Holt, 1989: 12-17). What they could do with any free time was severely limited by their frugal command over scarce resources and had to take account of both the clearly defined preserves of the nobility, and their own servile position within the feudal estate or fiefdom. Just as, both literally and metaphorically, serfs, vassals and other gradations within the feudal lower orders fed off the crumbs from the master’s table, their experiences of sport and leisure were similarly dependent on their presence at the margins of tournaments and festivals organized by aristocratic and religious élites for their own gratification (Bloch, 1962: 163-76).

With the waning of the Middle Ages, the rigid caste system characteristic of those times began to crumble, eventually to be replaced by a structure of social differentiation based on class. It is at this point that social standing becomes defined more in terms of what people do to make a living and how they might publicly display their new economic status, rather than simply through birthright, inherited rights and prescribed opportunities. In the societies referred to in this brief, historical introduction, social standing was not, in any simple sense, directly tied to the production and possession of wealth. The majority of people were born into fixed and fenced status groups or castes which governed life opportunities thereafter. This included people’s role in the production and consumption of wealth and, as we have seen, their relationship with sport and other leisure activities.

By the middle of the nineteenth century wholesale changes in Britain’s political and economic relations—the Industrial Revolution—precipitated concomitant adjustments in social relations and their cultural product, including sports. We will consider these changes in some detail later. At this point it is sufficient to point out that, on both sides of the Atlantic, by the death of Queen Victoria social class is established as the main dynamic of stratification and it is this, more than anything else, which influences the shaping of sport during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As seminal social histories and developmental sociologies of Association football/soccer (Mason, 1980) and rugby football (Dunning and Sheard, 1979) have shown, modern sports forms represented distinctive sets of values and in so doing provided a vehicle for the expression of social difference and differentiated social status. Association football in its amateur form was championed by the middle and upper classes, and developed in its professional form by the working and lower-middle classes. The attitudes and beliefs embodied in the particular sporting ethos expressed class-based status and values. The middle classes, for instance, believed that the amateur code of the game ‘was good for the physique, it helped to build character, it perhaps led to diminution in drinking, it brought the classes together’ (Mason, 1980: 229). Rugby football’s ‘Great Schism’ of 1895 saw the split between the Northern English mass spectator form of the game, and amateur, Southern English-based Rugby Football Union (Dunning and Sheard, 1979: 198-200). The Northern Union became the Rugby League in 1922. The commercializing of the game in the North had been ‘viewed with deep misgivings among the southern-based RFU, whose committee shared the distrust of their class for big crowds, especially working class crowds, at a time of growing industrial unrest’ (G. Williams, 1989: 313). Class patronage shaped many forms of sports provision, in the United States as well as in other advanced societies (Cross, 1993: 102-3). As Coakley has summarized the issue:

in the case of socioeconomic stratification. People with resources are able to organize their own games and physical activities in exclusive clubs or in settings inaccessible to others. When this happens, sport becomes a tool for élite groups to call attention to social and economic differences between people and to preserve their power and influence in the process. (Coakley, 1994: 230)

There is little dispute that the growth of modern sports was and in many senses remains interwoven with the class dynamics of the time. However, there is less agreement as to how, precisely, sport features in the class nexus of advanced industrial societies. It is to a discussion concerning the most influential theoretical models of social class and its relationship to sport that we now turn.

Theories of Social Stratification and Sport

In the most general of senses, class is the social and cultural expression of an economic relationship. Classes are made up of people who are similarly placed in terms of the contribution they make to economic production, the command over resources this gives them and the lifestyles which this helps to generate. Thus, in modern societies, classes are generated by participation in the industrial and commercial process and the most significant measures of class distinction are wealth and occupation (Giddens, 1993: 215). While few would disagree with Giddens’s broad notion of social class as an economically grounded concept, there is considerable disagreement when it comes to analysing and interpreting precisely how social classes are formed, where they fit in the context of broader patterns of social stratification, and how they contribute to social construction and social change.

The remainder of this chapter presents some of the main lines of argument in this debate and is centred around the work of three leading theorists of social stratification: Talcott Parsons (1902-79), Karl Marx (1818-83) and Max Weber (1864-1920). In each case we have selected a number of authors who have sought to use the work of these classic theorists in their own investigations into sport. The order in which we have chosen to consider them is neither chronological nor reflective of their relative importance to mainstream sociology. Rather it implies the sequence and impact which these thinkers have had on the sociology of sport on both sides of the Atlantic.

Parsons: Functionalism, Sport, and the Social Order

Making sense of the high levels of social differentiation associated with advanced capitalism dominated the thinking of one of America’s leading twentieth-century sociologists, Talcott Parsons. He was intrigued by Durkheim’s views on the transition from rural-agricultural societies to those centred around urban—industrial activity, interested in particular in the question of the division of labour in industrial societies, and the effect which this had on forms of social solidarity (Durkheim, 1964). In certain respects, following Durkheim, Parsons’s view of social stratification is a mirror image to that of Marx. He accepts that classes are for the most part determined according to how people are grouped in relation to the process of industrial production and commercial distribution, but unlike Marx’s emphasis on class conflict, Parsons stresses the functional interdependency between social classes and the role played by a hierarchy of classes in the maintenance and development of the whole social system:

Such organization naturally involves centralization and differentiation of leadership and authority; so that those who take responsibility for co-ordinating the actions of many others must have a different status in important respects from those who are in the role of carrying out specifications laid down by others. From a sociological point of view, one of the fundamental problems in such a system is the way in which these basic underlying differentiations get structured into institutionalized status differentiations. (Parsons, 1964: 327)

In a seminal essay on this subject, Davis and Moore (1966), adopt a similar perspective, arguing that, ‘as a functioning mechanism a society must somehow distribute its members in social positions and induce them to perform the duties of these positions’ (1966: 47). The authors believe that this leads inevitably to the unequal distribution of rewards and opportunities. Like Parsons, Davis and Moore regard the principle of inequality as an absolute necessity:

Social inequality is thus an unconsciously evolved device by which societies ensure that the most important positions are conscientiously filled by the most qualified persons. (1966: 48)

Thus, the principle of inequality ensures a system of incentives which, over time, generates a stratified ebb and flow of effort, ability and talent. In this way, structured around occupations, a class system evolves which, in turn, generates a differentiated cultural product.

In terms of sport, early literature generated by North American sport sociologists was, at least in part, dedicated to revealing the relationship between social standing, occupational status and sport (Loy et al., 1978: 332-78). While there was an emphasis on class, other variables of stratification, such as race, ethnicity, gender and age, were also stressed. This literature tended to focus on three interrelated areas: identifying links between certain categories of sports and class categories—for instance, boxing and blue-collar workers (Stone, 1957, 1969); viewing sport as a microcosm of the whole social order and looking at the stratified distribution of positions within given sports—such as ‘stacking’ in gridiron football in the United States (McPherson, 1974) and Canada (Ball, 1973); and evaluating sport as a vehicle for social mobility within and between classes and occupational status groups (Loy, 1969; Lüschen, 1969).

In many respects, this type of scholarship considered how, through its relationship with social class, sport contributed to the smooth running of American society. The functionalist view of sport and social classes has been condemned for being uncritical, ahistorical, non-comparative, teleological and inherently conservative (Jarvie and Maguire, 1994: 20-5). It may have been helpful to paint a picture of some central aspects of the relationship between social class and sport, but this did little to address some of the more penetrating debates concerning how differentiated sport cultures were socially constructed and what role they played in the articulation of power within and between classes.

By the middle of the 1970s, inspired largely by the work of Rick Gruneau, a new generation of North American sociologists began to question the Parsonian model in relation to its applicability to sport:

When taken in its extreme formulations, the assumption that societies are purposeful goal-oriented systems seeking the fulfillment of a set of necessary ‘imperatives’ seems to have profound ideological consequences … the idea that social stability and systematic efficiency requires a certain amount of institutionalized inequality is more realistically explained as a reflection of power in the upper strata. (Gruneau, 1975: 143)

By introducing notions of ideology and power into the discussion, Gruneau was drawing attention to models of stratifaction within which there was room for the consideration of sport as a contested cultural phenomenon. He was led to this conclusion through a consideration of work in the tradition of British cultural studies and critical sociology. Specifically, Gruneau argued that an adequate model for understanding the relationship between sport and social stratification had to be located in the context of the debate between the respective legacies of Marx and Weber (Gruneau, 1983).

Marx: Sport and Class Struggle

For Marx, class was the most important principle of social organization and the chief motor of social development. He argued, with Engels—in The Communist Manifesto of 1848—that ‘the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle’ (Marx and Engels, 1971: 237). Marx drew on the materialist philosophy of Feuerbach, the transcendental idealism of Hegel and the economics of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, to devise a model of historical transformation with social class as its centrepiece. People have to produce to live, Marx argues, and how they produce and with whom they engage in the production process, determines the form of their broader social, political and cultural development. That is to say, how people relate to the production process governs how they relate to one another and how, once grouped in this way, these social classes relate to each other in any given social structure. In his historical analysis Marx observes that in previous societies (previous to capitalism in late nineteenth-century Europe) classes were generated through unequal experience of the production process, and that such inequality fostered resentment, encouraged class struggle and, ultimately, led to revolution. This, he argues, is how ancient, Asiatic and feudal societies experienced transformation, and it is the process that led to the emergence of capitalism.

Capitalism was the generic label used by Marx for societies that cohered around market-driven forms of economic development and corresponding labour relations (the capitalist mode of production). For Marx, while classes existed in previous epochs, it was under capitalism that they became most firmly established and clearly delineated. He accepted that stratification in this period had the appearance of being multi-staged, with vestiges of the aristocracy jostling for position, with industrial, commercial and professional status groups at one end of the scale, and agricultural workers (peasants), vagabonds, blue-collar workers and small traders (shopkeepers) occupying niches towards the other. This is best exemplified in Marx’s own works in The Eighteenth Brumaire, in which he delineated, in subtle analytical detail, the variety of class fractions (Marx, 1968).

However, he believed that as capitalism developed, its rapacious and insatiable appetite would lead inevitably to cycles of economic crises, forcing these class-fractions to form two, relatively monolithic and mutually antagonistic classes: the bourgeoisie (those who owned and/or controlled and benefited most from economic production); and the proletariat (those whose livelihood depended upon their labour power and the wages they earned). Marx theorized that an advanced stage would be reached when the proletariat would become conscious of its exploited position vis-à-vis the social order determined by capitalism, and would rise up to overthrow its bourgeois oppressor, heralding the establishment of communism, the first classless society. In this regard, for Marx, class was more than a static descriptor of social standing. It was, rather, a dynamic agency of revolutionary change.

Marx himself had nothing to say about sport and its relationship with social class. Since his death, as capitalism has continued to advance and as sport has developed in significance, both culturally and as an economic entity, it has been left to others to apply Marxist categories to the study of the relationship between sport and social class. Such applications have also drawn upon neo-Marxist debate and theory. The chief question which Marxists asked as the twentieth century progressed was, why, given the internal contradictions of the system, has capitalism survived so long? In other words, what has happened to class struggle? At least part of the answer, they believed, was to be found in the manner through which the ruling class and its agents were able to influence the world-view of the working class, thereby undermining the fermenting of revolutionary class-consciousness (Althusser, 1971; Marcuse, 1964; Miliband, 1977).

This analysis placed hitherto disregarded, or merely ‘superstructural,’ features of political economy on the Marxist agenda. In this regard, as one of the twentieth century’s most popular forms of cultural expression and mass communication, sport was (for the first time) considered worthy of serious treatment by mainstream Marxist scholars. As Ralph Miliband put it, ‘the elaboration of a Marxist sociology of sport may not be the most urgent of theoretical tasks, but it is not the most negligible of tasks either’ (Miliband, 1977: 53). The most significant question asked by scholars in this area was, what was the relationship between sport and class struggle?

Surprisingly, given the lack of an embedded tradition of radical socialist scholarship in the United States, it was an American, Paul Hoch, who, through his impacting book Rip Off the Big Game (1972), produced the first sustained neo-Marxist interpretation of modern sport. Hoch went beyond the antiestablishment sociology of sport, pioneered by Jack Scott (1971) and Harry Edwards (1973), and argued that rather than being corrupting in a piecemeal way, the whole American system of sport was ‘a microcosm of modern capitalist society’ (Jarvie and Maguire, 1994: 96). While he emphasized the labour-exploitative nature of both professional and intercollegiate athletics, Hoch was not exclusively interested in the political economy of American sports. He also argued that sport was an inherently conservative institution that not only diverted the attention of the masses from their systematic oppression, but also peddled values and ideals that supported the status quo and led blue-collar workers to conspire in their own exploitation. Drawing upon some of the ideas of Thorsten Veblen (whom we discuss later) as well as Marx, Hoch writes that:

the anthropomorphic cults, betting, and the predatory sporting temperament are good ways of keeping everyone drugged with animism and preternaturalism, thus ensuring that they will be no threat to the existing social dictatorship. This is more or less a refinement of Marx’s religion-is-the-opium-of-the-masses argument. (Hoch, 1972: 54-5)

In other words, sport undermined the development of a radical class consciousness, by generating playful diversion or reproducing the conditions of labour. The latter point was eloquently made by Aronowitz in his comments on the homologous temporal patterns of labour and leisure:

The structure of unbounded time reflects the conditions of bounded time. People join clubs that are organized, as workplaces are organized, and participate in do-it-yourself projects that resemble labour. Many workers of the generation that grew up in America in the 1920s and 1930s lead their leisure-time lives as if on a busman’s holiday because the patterns of their earlier lives did not permit an imaginary world that defied the dominant culture. (Aronowitz, 1974: 127)

As early as 1975, Hoch’s thesis had been criticized by Gruneau for being too restrictive, in the sense that his argument could not account for human agency and resistance to the impositions of ‘the dominant institutional structure’ (Gruneau, 1975: 144). It was a French theorist, working in the tradition of Althusser, who developed most fully Hoch’s arguments to their theoretical and logical extreme. In his book Sport: a Prison of Measured Time (1978), Jean-Marie Brohm locates sport within the rubric of structuralism. In terms that would not be out of place in the functionalist lexicon, Althusser (1969, 1971) had argued that the productive mechanisms of capitalism dictate the form and content of social relations through institutional processes and agencies which automatically—that is, structurally—promulgate the interests of the ruling class. These ideological state apparatuses—the legal system, the family, the institution of education, the political system, the media, the trade unions and so forth—organize the production of ideas in such a manner as to negate the possibility of any proletarian and dialectical critique of capitalism. Brohm adopts Althusser’s framework and posits that within capitalism, sport too should be analysed as an ideological state apparatus. The following is an accurate summary of Brohm’s thesis:

Sport and recreation practices were viewed as part of the process through which a structure in dominance was secured or reproduced. In this sense sport: provided a stabilizing factor for the existing social order; provided a basis for reinforcing the commodity spectacle; provided a basis for reproducing patriarchy; provided a basis for regimenting and militarizing youth and reproducing a set of hierarchical, elitist and authoritarian values. If competitive sport is condemned to the dustbin then forms of recreation fare no better since they were viewed as ideological ways of running away from reality. That is, leisure practices were viewed as false techniques of escapism. (Jarvie and Maguire, 1994: 96)

Social change requires out-of-structure space for the working up and communication of antiestablishment ideas. Once this space is removed, as it is in structuralist accounts of social construction, how can social change be explained? The main failing of Hoch’s and Brohm’s theses was that they both grossly over-simplified the nature of the interface between individuals and institutions in the construction of cultural meaning. In each case working-class engagement in sport is represented as drone-like and uncritical. Furthermore, and particularly in Brohm’s case, by theorizing sport as a total (capitalist) institution, that is, one from which there is no physical or intellectual escape, they denied the possibility that sport is something that can be positively possessed and valued by the working class and used by that class for its own purposes (Gruneau, 1983).

In more subtle hands, a Marxist view of sport and social class is, at least partially, salvaged. Some of the best examples of this are in the area of British social history and cultural studies. In his weighty historical interpretation of the making of the English working class, and in several related articles, E.P. Thompson (1968) described how sport and leisure featured as sites for class struggle. His work demonstrated how those social forces that emerged to pioneer the development of capitalism also sought to shape the ideological and cultural production of the new age. For a relatively brief interlude in the eighteenth century, he argued, even though the commercial and social basis had shifted from agriculture to commerce, and from the countryside to the town, social hierarchy continued to be largely defined by pageant and display. As Thompson observed, this was a betwixt and between time, when the ties of dependency of the old order had been loosened or cut altogether and the regime of social relations supportive of industrialism was yet to be fully developed. It was, in Thompson’s words, a society of ‘Patricians and Plebs,’ who participated in a very theatrical and public culture, within which social distance was proclaimed by conspicuously distinctive styles of leisure (Thompson, 1974: 394-5).

However, as Thompson noted in an earlier article, even as the Regency aristocracy displayed its standing, the ground was being cut from beneath by the establishment of capitalism and the inexorable rise of an industrial and commercial bourgeoisie. To flourish, capitalism needed a disciplined and reliable labour force. One of the more pressing tasks for the new ruling class was the reformation of the working rhythms of those whose experience of labour remained anchored in a bucolic past and cycles of seasonal imperatives. Necessarily, the non-work habits of the masses formed part of the equation of reform, for what people did in their spare time had implications for how they related to the process of production. Thompson showed how an emergent bourgeoisie in England used its influence, both in government and within the church, to carry out a legal and moral crusade against the recreational habits of the lower orders. He catalogued seven ways in which the ‘new labour habits were formed, and a new time-discipline was imposed … by the division of labour; the supervision of labour; fines; bells and clocks; money incentives; preachings and schoolings; the suppression of fairs and sports’ (Thompson, 1967: 90). The fledgling working class did not readily surrender time-honoured customs and leisure practices. Such reform as did succeed only did so within a context of dynamics of resistance, struggle and domination between classes and class fractions (Thompson, 1967). Delves’s exemplary study of the decline of folk football in the English city of Derby is in the tradition of Thompson’s approach (Delves, 1981), illustrating how new cross-class alliances—the emergence of newly dominant class fractions with common interests in change and reform—accounted for the demise of the traditional form of folk football, and its supersession by the regulated, enclosed, more civilized and profitable sport form of horse racing.

Drawing on Thompson, and on Raymond Williams (1958, 1965, 1977), scholars such as Clarke and Critcher (1985), Hargreaves (1986) and Tomlinson (1986) developed the cultural studies position on the relationship between sport and leisure and social class. They used recent and contemporary history to reveal how, in general, the space for the generation of culture and ideas is highly contested territory and how, in particular, sport has featured in the ongoing struggle for power between dominant and subordinate groups in capitalist societies. These works are underpinned by the writings of Antonio Gramsci (1985, 1971), for whom society was the product of a relationship between political institutions—the formal apparatus of the state—and cultural institutions—the less formally structured and controlled theatre of civil society. It is within the latter, civil society, that the legitimacy of the state resides, or, in times of crisis, is challenged.

Sport is part of civil society and as such is located within the terrain on which those responsible for the articulation and dissemination of ideas (in a variety of ways), attempt to attract the mass of the population and influence them towards certain values and aspirations. Although some of the functionaries of civil society are antagonistic to the dominant group and purvey oppositional attitudes to their public, in normal circumstances the majority act in such a way as to provide widespread acceptance, by the population, of the world-view expressed by those in positions of political power. The result is the cultural, ideological and moral authority of the ruling class, which Gramsci refers to as hegemony. At no time is this a static condition inasmuch as counter-hegemonic challenges continue to be made and the ruling élite is constantly obliged to renegotiate the conditions under which its ideologically embedded authority remains dominant (Sugden and Bairner, 1993).

According to Hargreaves, in contrast to over-determined, structuralist accounts of sport, the hegemony thesis allowed sport to be analysed ‘more as an autonomous cultural form,’ and, also, in a ‘more subtle analysis of class power and how it is related to other aspects of power relations—such as gender, ethnicity and the nation’ (Hargreaves, 1992: 263). This formulation introduces the possibility that sport and related activities can carry a range of meanings for different classes, some of which may be imposed through hierarchical institutional processes, but others of which may be generated by relatively unfettered subcultures of resistance and adaptation.

This is a view shared by Gruneau in his major study of sport and social stratification. After an exhaustive review of alternative positions, he opts for the concept of hegemony, ‘because it allows for the notion that the accomplishment of social interaction is always contested, sometimes in very subtle, other times, quite significant ways,’ though he argues for a shift in the application of the concept of hegemony to include power relations between elements of social stratification that are not the direct products of class relations (Gruneau, 1983). This is certainly the approach taken by George Sage, who adapts Hargreaves’s model to the study of American sport and utilizes hegemony theory to consider relations of domination and subordination around the themes of race and gender as well as class (Sage, 1990).

Hargreaves, though, views it as a violation of the concept’s essentially Marxist premises when hegemony is used to account for other layers of social differentiation, such as race, ethnicity and gender (Hargreaves, 1992). As Hargreaves himself admits, once economic determinism is questioned as the pre-eminent principle of social order, the door is opened for a more pluralistic and less class-dependent analysis of stratification—one which pays, ‘far more detailed attention … to the specific autonomous features of sport(s) and to the interactive relationship they have with social contexts’ (1992: 278). In order to reformulate a theory of social class and sport which accommodates both the determining power of economic relationships, and the plurality of social relations which cannot be explained in purely economistic terms, it is necessary to turn to the works of Max Weber and some of those who have followed him.

Weber: Class, Status, and Sport

Like Marx, Weber acknowledges the importance of economic dynamics in the overall design of the social order. However, unlike Marx, Weber believed that power and the determining forces and social groupings which flowed from it were not anchored, once and for all, in economic relations. Consequently, while he believed social class to be a very important variable of stratification, he also believed that there were other, equally significant, factors that influenced the nature and hierarchy of division in any given society. The main conceptual tool which Weber uses to counter-balance his own emphasis on the significance of social class is that of status. Status groups differ from classes inasmuch as they are identifiable according to socially constructed gradations which articulate around the attribution of honour or the lack thereof. Weber believed that political power was not necessarily synonymous with economic power or wealth and neither was political power sought solely as an avenue to riches:

‘economically conditioned’ power is not, of course, identical with ‘power’ as such. On the contrary, the emergence of economic power may be the consequence of power existing on other grounds. Man does not strive for power only in order to enrich himself economically. Power, including economic power, may be valued for its own sake. (Weber, 1971: 250)

Within Weber’s framework, the occupation of positions of honour and command over economic resources interact, to provide the social order with its distinctive pattern. Status groups not only share economic conditions but also participate in a common ‘style of life’ which, through routine social interaction, on the one hand binds them from within, and on the other hand offers tangible expressions of distinctiveness from other gradations. According to Weber, ‘such honorific preferences may consist of the privilege of wearing special costumes, of eating special dishes, taboo to others, of carrying arms’ (1971: 260). Certainly, this formulation helps us to better understand the relationship between sport and status in the Middle Ages as described in the introduction to this chapter. In terms of applying Weber’s model to sport and social stratification in recent and contemporary history we now turn to the works of Thorsten Veblen and Pierre Bourdieu.

It is an irony of capitalism that those who occupy the apex of a system that depends absolutely on the success of industrial enterprise, choose to express their social standing by distancing themselves completely from those activities which in any way resemble work, while engaging in the conspicuous display of dilettante forms of leisure which are premised on an infrastructure of labour and capitalist production. This is the kernel of Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class (subtitled ‘An Economic Study of Institutions’), his analysis of the social consequences of the workings of capitalism in late nineteenth-century United States of America, published in 1899.

Along with Weber, Veblen acknowledged a debt to Marx, agreeing that, in his day, the basic form of hierarchy was tied to capitalism and the uneven distribution of wealth which this entailed. However, he makes the astute observation that, once established through ‘pecuniary emulation’ (making money), the ruling class sets itself apart from lower gradations by recreating the imagined lifestyles of the élites of previous eras. An exemption from work is a key feature of this imagery:

From the days of the Greek philosophers to the present, a degree of leisure and of exemption from contact with such industrial processes as serve the immediate everyday purpose to human life, has ever been recognized by thoughtful men as a prerequisite to a worthy or beautiful, or even a blameless human life. In itself and in its consequences the life of leisure is beautiful and ennobling in all civilized men’s eyes. (Veblen, 1953: 42)

For Veblen, status was not passively linked to wealth. On the contrary, ‘wealth or power must be put in evidence, for esteem is awarded only on evidence’ (1953: 42), through the ‘nonproductive consumption of time.’ In short, in order to maintain their status, the ruling class had to be seen to be busy, spending both time and money, doing nothing. In this regard, ‘a life of leisure is the most conclusive evidence of pecuniary strength, and therefore of superior force’ (p. 42). Suitable ‘evidence’ for a life of leisure comes in rich variety and includes styles of dress, modes of travel and tourism, appreciation for and possession of art and literature, honorary titles and insignia, and all other attributes of exclusive and ‘good taste’ in a wide variety of cultural products.

In Veblen’s hands class and caste merge in the ways through which ruling élites, once established through economic success, bond and can be identified through shared participation in categories of activities which are exclusive and generative of high status. It is in this context that Veblen pays special attention to sport which, after war, he views as an ideal medium through which the ruling class can: display its physical superiority; recreate the imagined conditions of a more barbarous and yet, simultaneously, more ‘chivalrous’ past; promote socialization and character development of its children; and, finally, evaluate parvenus who would seek to join its ranks by using sport as a proving ground:

Hence, the facility with which any new accessions to the leisure class take to sports; and hence the rapid growth of sports and of the sporting sentiment in any industrial community where wealth has accumulated sufficiently to exempt a considerable part of the population from work. (1953: 176)

Moreover, given the prohibition on work, other than war, sport, argues Veblen, is the only legitimate terrain where the ruling class (males) can engage in public displays of physical prowess:

From being an honourable employment handed down from the predatory culture as the highest form of everyday leisure, sports have come to be the only form of outdoor activity that has the full sanction of decorum. (p. 172).

Veblen saw sport in his day as one of the ‘modern survivals of prowess’ (p. 172). He believed that the warlike temperaments, actions and nomenclature associated both with field sports (hunting) and athletics, legitimated ruling-class participation in them. Veblen recognized that sports provided élite groups with the perfect opportunity to define their boundaries, both from within, and in the eyes of outsiders. But he was acerbic in his condemnation of the posing and posturing which accompanied many of these activities:

It is noticeable, for instance, that even very mild mannered and matter-of-fact men who go out shooting are apt to carry an excess of arms and accoutrements in order to impress upon their own imagination the seriousness of their undertaking. These huntsmen are also prone to a histrionic, prancing gait and to an elaborate exaggeration of the motions, whether of stealth or of onslaught, involved in their deeds of exploit. Similarly in athletic sports there is almost invariably present a good share of rant and swagger and ostensible mystification—features which mark the histrionic nature of these employments … The slang of athletics, by the way, is in great part made up of extremely sanguinary locutions borrowed from the terminology of warfare. (p. 171)

Veblen’s thesis concentrates almost exclusively on the activities of society’s uppermost strata. However, in his work there are hints that he understood that the overlap between class and status operated at all levels of a social hierarchy which, as capitalism developed, became increasingly differentiated and complex. For a fuller understanding of how this pertains in contemporary society we must now turn to the work of the French social theorist, Bourdieu.

Like ourselves, Bourdieu recognizes that at least in part the relationship between sport and class is rooted in history. As a starting point for his discussion, Bourdieu notes that the emergence of sports in the strict sense … took place in the educational establishments reserved for the ‘élites’ of bourgeois society, the English public schools, where the sons of aristocratic or upper-bourgeois families took over a number of popular—that is, vulgar—games, simultaneously changing their function’ (Bourdieu, 1978: 823). He connects the rationalization of games into modern sports forms with a class-based philosophy of amateurism: ‘the modern definition of sport … is an integral part of a “moral ideal”, i.e. an ethos which is that of the dominant fractions of the dominant class’ (1978: 825). To play tennis or golf, to ride or to sail, was, as Bourdieu argues, to bestow upon the participant ‘gains in distinction’ (1978: 828). Sports in which lower-middle-class or working-class adolescents participate develop ‘in the form of spectacles produced for the people … more clearly as a mass commodity’ (1978: 828).

Sports, therefore, are not self-contained spheres of practice: ‘class habitus defines the meaning conferred on sporting activity, the profits expected from it; and not the least of these profits is the social value accruing from the pursuit of certain sports by virtue of the distinctive rarity they derive from their class distribution’ (Bourdieu, 1978: 835). From this perspective, then, sports participation is not a matter of personal choice, of individual preference. It depends upon the financial resources available to the potential participant, the social status of those prominent in that activity, and the cultural meaning of a sport and the individual’s relationship to those meanings.

Far from sport being an open sphere of limitless possibilities, it is a social phenomenon and cultural space that can operate, in Weberian terms (Parkin, 1974) as a form of social closure, in which potential entrants are vetted and excluded as suits the incumbent gatekeepers, and the inner world of the sports culture is tightly monitored and controlled. The same processes may be at work in golf club membership committees, and in other sports institutions in which entry requirements—written or unwritten—operate as potential barriers to open participation.

The recruitment and induction processes into, say, golf and tennis clubs, bear testimony to this. Take the apparently open-minded and egalitarian basis of a newcomer playing him or herself in at a tennis club. In order to do this the potential member must: communicate competently with the gatekeepers of a club; read the social interactions and etiquette and conventions of a club; comply with the dress code; be equipped with relatively sophisticated technology (today the aspirant would be unlikely to get far with a wooden Dunlop Maxply); and be able to play at a level of acceptable competence. This apparently open choice is in reality a possibility or trajectory based upon what Bourdieu recognizes as the power of economic and cultural capital:

Class variations in sporting activities are due as much to variations in perception and appreciation of the immediate or deferred profits they are supposed to bring, as to variations in the costs … Everything takes place as if the probability of taking up the different sports depended, within the limits defined by economic (and cultural) capital and spare time, on perception and assessment of the intrinsic and extrinsic profits of each sport in terms of the dispositions of the habitus, and more precisely, in terms of the relation to the body, which is one aspect of this. (Bourdieu, 1986: 212)

The notion of the habitus is central to the Bourdieuian framework: ‘different conditions of existence produce different habitus—systems of generative schemes applicable, by simple transfer, to the most varied areas of practice’ (Bourdieu, 1986: 170). The habitus embodies both that which is structured and that which is structuring: ‘As a system of practice-generating schemes’ it ‘expresses systematically the necessity and freedom inherent in its class position and the difference constituting that position’ (1986: 172). Rojek provides a useful summary of the concept: ‘Habitus refers to an imprinted generated schema. The term “generative” means a motivating or propelling force in social behaviour. The term “schema” means a distinctive pattern or system of social conduct. For Bourdieu, the socialization process imprints generative schemata onto the individual’ (Rojek, 1995: 67).

As with the neo-Marxists, Bourdieu recognizes that sport and leisure activities feature in an ongoing struggle for cultural domination which itself is linked to broader political contexts. As Jarvie and Maguire observe, however, Bourdieu emphasizes that the appropriation of distinctive, class-related lifestyles—including sports—are, through habitus, ‘the product of an unconscious assimilation of tastes’ (Jarvie and Maguire, 1994: 202), and that this itself is a highly complex and transhistorical process. Furthermore, Bourdieu is sensitive to the fact that classes are not monolithic. He argues that there can be divisions within classes and these too can be reflected in sports. His main example here is that of gender:

An analysis of the distribution at a given moment of sporting activities among the fractions of the dominant class would bring to light some of the most hidden principles of the opposition between these fractions, such as the deep-rooted, unconscious conception of the relationship between the sexual division of labour and the division of the work of domination. (Bourdieu, 1986: 218)

For Bourdieu, then, sport is variously implicated in any class analysis: it acts as a kind of badge of social exclusivity and cultural distinctiveness for the dominant classes; it operates as a means of control or containment of the working or popular classes; it is represented as a potential source of escape and mobility for talented working-class sports performers (an elusive eventuality which, like state and national lotteries, work to keep the lower orders cowed yet hopeful); it articulates the fractional status distinctions that exist within the ranks of larger class groupings; and it reveals the capacity of the body to express social principles and cultural meanings, for physical capital (Wacquant, 1995) to connect with forms of economic and cultural capital.

In his subtle way, Bourdieu weaves with the threads of Marx, Weber—he refers to his study Distinction as an ‘endeavour to rethink Max Weber’s opposition between class and Stand’ (Bourdieu, 1986: xii)—and Durkheim, and with many others whose own work derives from interpretations of these classic theorists, to articulate not a grand theory of sport and social class, but a way of thinking about how, in a dynamic way, sports participation and sports preference are intrinsically bound up with the production and reproduction of social hierarchies. It is the central significance of sport as a signifier of status which allows Bourdieu to overcome some of the more restrictive interpretations of both functionalism and Marxism.


As some of the other chapters in this volume reveal, people form significant social groups in society for a wide range of reasons, not all of which are tied up with their position vis-à-vis the production process. Some may be bound at birth through the status which accrues to their race, gender or ethnicity. Others may be placed in categories through their religious beliefs, their sense of national identity or simply through their age. As Dahrendorf emphasizes in his neo-Weberian approach, ‘life chances are a function of two elements, options and ligatures’ (Dahrendorf, 1979: 30). In this formulation, options refer to possibilities of choice, and ligatures are allegiances, bonds or linkages. The social habitus (Elias, 1993: 32) can be conceived in this fashion, with the tribe or the community placing the individual in the particular context, and the development of individual strands, at the level of instincts and feelings, indicating options for the future. All social groups feature, in different ways, in the process through which the social order is constructed, maintained and reformed. In other words, there is more to social stratification than social class and, while it remains a vital component, there is more to the articulation of status and power than class struggle.

It should be clear that we believe sport to be both reflective and constitutive of the plurality of power relations between classes and other status groups. In trying to make sense of this, we are struck by the utility of the concept of hegemony. However, like Gruneau (1983) and Sage (1998), we (see Sugden and Bairner, 1993; Tomlinson, 1988), suggest that the explanatory power of the hegemony thesis can be enhanced once it is released from its traditional anchorage in class relations (see, too, Bennett, 1986: xvi-xvii). Then the contest between political and civil society to shape and control the social order can be revealed, in given historical contexts, as one featuring all of the significant components of that order. It is only then that we can begin to understand, with the subtlety of Bourdieu, that sports and what they stand for are intimately connected to the way societies are constructed and changed.