Abbas, A. (2004) 'The embodiment of class, gender and age through leisure: a realist analysis of long distance running', in Leisure Studies 23 (2): 159 - 175.
It is not enough just to promote activities such as running in the interests of equality, 'If leisure activities themselves systematically value some groups while devaluing others' (159). In particular, 'running culture' will display qualities 'of middle-classness, gender and age' (160). This has been known from feminist work showing how women's bodies are negatively valued, although it applies to class as well. Class is still important as a cultural dimension, despite recent attempts to deny its relevance. The pages of Jogging Magazine/Running/Runner's World can be analysed to displays some of the cultural barriers and constraints affecting and reproducing class, age, gender, ethnicity and disability.
The approach taken involves a realist philosophy which sees an interrelation between physical bodies, and the material and social world, rather like actor network theory. One implication is that 'magazines... are themselves constitutive of the embodiment of running' (161). This approach relies on Bourdieu and the idea of the embodiment of social class 'through engagement with class-based practices' (161), although his analysis is confined to human agents. The realist approach associated with Sayer (1992) 'sees the whole world as being made up of causal powers and causal liabilities', in the case of running culture 'those practices, ideas, objects and organisations that are necessary to it' (161). Practices that reproduce social class, age and gender divisions are necessary elements of causal powers and liabilities. Looking at embodiment helps to explain how it is that the body 'learns' about social inequalities and transfers them to the wider social world. Instead of a socialization model, it is possible to look at the links between 'bodies, the knowledges associated with them, leisure practices, class, age and gender', in a specific context (162).
It is a mistake to believe that social class is now less relevant. Class has been disguised by what looks like individualisation, but it is still embodied in the 'cultural, material and organisational aspects of running' (161). It is interrelated with age and gender. Running culture simply naturalises certain kinds of inequality, and individualises 'responsibility for bodily "defects"' (161). In particular, 'the young adult male body is presented as normal, superior and as the ideal to be achieved' (161) [and this young body is also a bourgeois one?]. 'Hard bodies are often symbolically linked to middle-classness', and running to a suitably bourgeois kind of '"reflexive individualism" of postfordist work culture' (162).
Analysis of the magazine (and interviewing some runners) demonstrate specific mechanisms which link these phenomena, especially the discussion of body fat and its negative value. For example, body fat is seen as 'dead weight' affecting the efficiency of runners. Women have a higher percentage of body fat than men, and so do older bodies. Since running is seen as a way of reducing the effects of fact and of ageing, people with fat bodies can be seen as responsible for their own condition. [some details are given from articles and letters, pages 163 - 5].
The social class dimension is less explicit, although Bourdieu is right to insist that it 'has always to some extent been encoded in practice and in the material goods utilized... [as in cultural capital]' (164). Specifically, 'middle-class language, cultural referents and ideals' are embodied in running and can be detected in the magazine (164). The letters were in 'middle class English' [pretty weak stuff here about middle-class euphemisms for sex, or references to travel]. Running particularly appeals to sedentary middle class people, and resonates with middle-class cultural pursuits [the examples given are enjoying the fresh air and fitting in with dancing, gardening and home maintenance]. Running seems to have been associated with the middle classes since the 1970s, possibly because it features 'a less aggressive bodily style... than is traditionally associated with working-class masculinity' (165). [Bourdieu's work, in Distinction..., on different kinds of bodies and their social meanings seems crucial here -- and is rather better grounded empirically?]
These traces of middle-classness can act to exclude members of other social classes [act as 'causal liabilities that inhibit participation' (165), in Abbas's terms].
Various 'knowledges' have been important in promoting running and running culture. These knowledges look neutral but also reproduce social divisions, especially of gender and age [with a reference to Foucault and the notion of objectivising knowledges, page 166]. These knowledges have their own independent effects [causal powers and liabilities] and interact in complex ways. For example, individuals can apparently select knowledges appropriate to their running -- 'however, age and gender hierarchies permeate the knowledges runners are asked to select between' (166).
Biomedical knowledge has been important in promoting running as healthy. The body developed from running and similar exercises became an ideal. In particular, body fat came to be seen as standing for being unfit and unhealthy. First a slender body, and then 'an increasingly muscular one' featured in the magazine. However, women had to be persuaded that muscle was desirable, leading to the various materials that 'counteracted the idea that running would undermine femininity' (167). This emphasis simultaneously devalued women and older people as lacking 'natural' muscle tone. Fact was seen as unhealthy and also as 'indicative of moral lapse... physical incapacity and social worth' and this may have carried over into the world of work -- 'the lean bodies of employees have come to stand for the fit organisation' (167). Reducing fat also increases individualisation in that people analyse their circumstances differently.
Sports science appears to be universal, but its knowledge 'quite clearly categorises the male senior (18 - 40) body as the most desirable' (168). This can be seen in advice about exercise, which assumes that female or older bodies are inferior [not very convincing evidence on page 168]. Sports science tends to measure performance in terms of time, and this can clearly devalue older bodies [supported by some remarks from the interviews, page 169]. Sport science tends to focus on elite athletes where 'money is spent on performance enhancement', hence basing its categories on the fastest performance (169) [looks far too simple to me]. It looks as if the concept of the running race is egalitarian [the London Marathon would be a good example], since such races are open to all adults -- but the participants are still easily differentiated in terms of time of performance, which reproduces categories valorising the young male body.
Holistic notions of health have had a part to play in the development of running culture, via inputs from hippy notions and from its use as a part of general rehabilitation for heart patients. This strand is probably more important in America than in Britain, although British runners also describe experiencing 'a transcendental state' (169). On the surface this looks like a non-competitive form of running, but it can still feature a focus on personal performance and personal bests -- 'This infuses a self focused development with a competitive sporting ideology' (170) [all a bit abstract and determinist for me]. This sort of activity looks 'flexible and individualised', and 'competitions with self' can be combined with non-competitive pleasures -- but the notion of 'continuous self-improvement through running practice is common to all' (170). Again, this offers a link with the notion or continuous improvement of the work force in organisations.
Each of these specific knowledges has been important, but 'the emergent running practice was presented as superior to any single knowledge' (170). Thus runners are able to select between these knowledges -- to balance biomedical knowledge of injuries against holistic health benefits. This is an example of how individualisation seems to work, especially of a bourgeois kind [hints of Bourdieu's notion that the middle classes see their bodies as something to be invested in]. This choice is driven by an interest in continuous improvement, a tendency to take responsibility for deficiencies and to explain them as a lack of effort, somehow combined with a notion that abilities are natural (171).
Thus some women runners often choose to run because they see running as more egalitarian than other sports and as offering various health benefits. However, running culture itself still sees male bodies as superior 'and this preserves distinctions between male and female and younger and older bodies' (171). Running and other activities may empower individuals, but will not benefit women as a group, unless 'a lot of women running for health promoting reasons start winning races' (171). Some women are able to achieve faster times than some men, at all levels of competition, but 'vast numbers of these groups would have to participate and succeed in running at all levels to overturn gender hierarchies' (171), and there are many barriers outside running which make this unlikely -- 'involvement in domestic labour'; being defined as having naturally inferior bodies; risking harassment while running on the street (172).
Even the health benefits of running and aerobic exercise are now being debated, and it is difficult to disentangle measures from 'bodily aesthetics' (172). There is some commercial interest in slim and muscular bodies, possibly because they symbolise organizational fitness. This inevitably promotes 'middle-class forms of masculinity', and 'devalues women's and older bodies' (172). Running appears to be individualised, but it does not possess the capacity to challenge social hierarchies.
This means that equality for women in sport is unlikely to be achieved, since the male body is considered to represent the default value. Attempts to increase participation do little to challenge running culture itself, especially 'the knowledges underlying sporting praxis' (172), the connection with preventive medicine, and a strong interest in 'manipulating the aesthetics of the body' (173). Nevertheless, the fitness industry is seen as important, both politically and economically. Policies aimed at extending participation to women and older people [we seem to have forgotten social class at this point? Not addressed at all in British policy, of course, or only indirectly] should understand the values associated with these activities. Otherwise, 'The further spread of some sporting praxis might undermine, rather than improve, equality' (173).
back to key concepts