Blog Post #1 – Sport as a Tool for Reinforcing Class Divisions and Social Hierarchies

Bourdieu’s sociological assessment of sport as a cultural phenomenon is built upon the idea that sports are a socially-mandated consumer product. His essay is primarily an analysis of how “sport” is valued and sold to varying classes of people. What was most interesting to me was Bourdieu’s articulating that sports are a means of reinforcing social divisions (in a modern context, we might say that sports carry varying amounts of privilege, or are evidence of such privilege, and actually serve to entrench those lines of privilege). He addresses this phenomenon primarily in the language of class “habitus”, or “how people are” based on their class. I found it unclear whether this was something Bourdieu thought was a product of sports (the industry of sports have imposed/strengthened social divisions by fostering certain class ‘tendencies’) or whether he thought the patterns we see in sports and the class divisions they enforce are a result of class habitus (people are a certain ‘way’ depending on their social class, therefore they value/enjoy/appreciate certain sports over others).

Which of the two positions do you subscribe to? In light of Bourdieu’s essay, and your own perception of which came first – the habitus or the sport – is the industry of sports a product of the socio-economic divisions we have created, or are they a tool to maintain socio-economic divisions? What follows from that might be a discussion about whether we can ascribe values of “good” or “bad” to the sports industry, and perhaps an evaluation of the role we give sports in shaping our social and cultural experiences.

I reject that sports are a reflection of some innate tendency dependent upon social class. Rather, they are a tool of the dominant social and cultural groups to maintain control over other groups. By providing the product of popular, vulgar sports (often in a spectator context) for entertainment and consumption of the masses, creating expectations to rally around a notion of regional, national, or other “team spirit”, and making “a sporting career… one of the few paths of upward mobility open to the children of the dominated classes”, the dominant classes can maintain a hold on economic, social, and cultural capital (Bourdieu, 349). We see this today, in our own society, in the relationship between sports and success for minority groups. Bourdieu articulates the phenomenon exactly: The dominant classes feed a product to the dominated classes (from the sale and consumption of which the dominant class obviously benefits) and in so doing keep them from moving upward for a combination of reasons. It’s not an original formula – the Romans had this winning combination, “bread and circuses”, thousands of years ago. All we’ve done in a modern context is legitimize it and integrate it more completely into our social and cultural fabric. In so doing, we entrench means by which those with socio-economic and cultural privilege can continue to monopolize that privilege.

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One Response to Blog Post #1 – Sport as a Tool for Reinforcing Class Divisions and Social Hierarchies

  1. cstabile says:

    Elsewhere, Bourdieu describes a habitus as a “structuring structure,” by which I take him to mean that the places from which we come structure our practices in deep and important ways. I’m not sure that the issue for Bourdieu is which came first (and it’s worth thinking about why that’s not an important question for him in this essay), but rather how the class and sport constitute one another in specific historical and social contexts. He’s interested in how these interact and relate to one another. I think he’d disagree with the comparison with bread and circuses, arguing that the means of domination in contemporary societies are far more complicated than they were in feudal or agrarian cultures. Which isn’t to say that the relations of force that you describe at the end of your post aren’t still relations of force grounded in very real disparities in power. But the functioning of power (which is really what he’s interested in) is quite different.

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