READING GUIDE TO: Bourdieu, P. (1993) Sociology in Question, London: Sage

by Dave Harris

Ch. 15 How Can One Be a Sportsman?

Bourdieu's remarkable contribution to the sociology of sport offers a complex argument about sport in the context of the struggles between fractions who constitute the whole 'field', the social classes who use sport to express their aesthetics and distancing strategies, and the need to focus on legitimate uses of the body. To take these issues and summarise them briefly in turn, the field of sports is normally seen as organically linked to pre-industrial games, festivals, and activities such as hunting, but this conceals the difference between modern sport and those pre-modern pastimes. Bourdieu describes the relation between them as a  'break which is itself linked to the constitution of a field of specific practices, endowed with its own specific rewards and its own rules' (118). This break is associated with an elite practice, abstracting bodily activity from its cultural and social contexts, and treating it disinterestedly: this in turn permits using the body for abstract purposes (sport for its own sake), developing whole artificial rules to govern sports, permitting the emergence of professionals as opposed to amateurs, and finally generating the whole population of the field, including physiotherapists, academics, specialists and so on.

Turning to the second issue, it is clear that disinterestedness and abstraction are key elements of the  'high aesthetic' which represents in turn the unconscious dispositions  (the 'habitus') of the aristocracy. The easiest way to note this is to explore the connection between elite schools and the emergence of modern sports: the cult of fair play 'is the way of playing the game characteristic of those who do not get so carried away by the game as to forget that it is a game, those who maintain the  "role distance"... that is implied in all roles designated for the future leaders' (120). This also feeds into the growing autonomy of the sport and the way which it is regulated. Sporting excellence, and the cult of the amateur also played a part in distinguishing aristocrats from  'other fractions of the dominant class' (121), or other classes who might appear as rivals. Bourdieu argues that this basic process of distinction can be detected behind a number of other oppositions found in the sporting field, such as  'the male and female, the virile and the effeminate' (122). Ironically, having developed this abstract and detached, professional, organized version of sport, the product is then offered for popular consumption but as a spectacle. The consumers themselves add to the spectacular qualities of modern sport, precisely because they cannot occupy the aesthetic that produced it The fans are  'condemned to an imaginary participation which is owned in illusory compensation for the dispossession they suffer at the hands of experts' (125) : they have to concentrate on 'incidents' or on the results instead.

It is clear that sport in particular is centred on  'struggles over the definition of the legitimate body and the legitimate use of the body' (122), struggles which invite participation from all sorts of other contributors, such as moralists, the clergy, doctors, educators, and clothes designers. It is also important to note that sport is sometimes merely a pretext for organising (business or social) meetings, as in games of golf or shooting. Sciences of the body emerge, to rival aesthetics of the body. Claims are made about the inner effects of developing the body, such as the cultivation of leadership and discipline, or the use of disciplinary regimes in schools or other total institutions. Controlling movements of the body produces dispositions, which compare well with other mechanisms to install dispositions, and are  'reinserted into the unity of the system of dispositions, the habitus' (127). Different sorts of bodies are the outward signs of these dispositions -- strong bodies or healthy bodies, representing working-class and middle-class dispositions respectively. Other sports offer chances to relate to the body differently, to establish that one can endure pain and suffering  (boxing), or to demonstrate a willingness to gamble the body (motorcycling, athletics, dangerous sports). Some physical activities work on the outside of the body and its surface, such as those to develop  '"physique", that is, the body for others' (130). There is a working class instrumentalism towards the body, while the middle class preference turns on activities which are designed to maintain and invest in the body as an end in itself . Keep fit regimes express an interest in scientific knowledge about the body, anatomical knowledge (such as that of the specific muscle groups), and demonstrate a willingness to undergo deferred gratification, which fulfils  'the ascetic dispositions of upwardly-mobile individuals' (130). Finally, the female body shows the trends particularly, such as the intersection between the concern for health and the concern for beauty --'women... are more imperatively required to submit to the norms defining what the body ought to be, not only in its perceptible configuration but also against motion, its gait, etc' (130). 

Finally, Bourdieu attempts to explain why it seems so natural and inevitable that we like the kinds of sports that are provided. We have a clue in the earlier discussion about aristocratic definitions of sport being returned to the working classes in a popular form. The competition between different fractions in the sporting field generates novel products, such as different schools or specialisms. These producers are also able to affect the habitus:  'They are therefore predisposed to give voice to the more or less conscious expectations of the corresponding fractions of the lay public and, by objectifying those expectations, to realise them' (131).

more notes on Bourdieu and other social theorists