Purdy, L., Potrac, P., and Jones, R.  (2008) ‘Power, consent and resistance: an autoethnography of competitive rowing’, in Sport, Education and Society, 13 (3): 319 – 36.

[An interesting account using autoethnography to tell a personal story, but with much more sociological reflection and commentary on this occasion, including discussions of power and resistance, drawing on Giddens.  There is still a problem of linking the details of the personal critical incidence with the sociological theory, and, at times, it looks as if the sociological theory is a rather massive sledgehammer to support a personal whinge.  Similarly, the commentary moves away from the details of the critical incidence quite quickly, and it is hard on occasion to see what the details actually provide.  There are theoretical agendas as well, defending autoethnography and also defending Giddens’s view of power.  There is also an interesting issue which might have been explored for anyone interested in the academic dimensions of power.  Purdy says she is the main author and that these are her personal experiences – so what are the other two there for?  Is it just that it’s easier to get published if you have a couple of famous co-authors’ names to add, or did she do the critical incidence while they did the bits on power?].

This article makes a contribution to the growing literature on the detailed interactions between coaches and athletes, adding an important discussion of power.  The intention is to develop a theory of power that is negotiable and multi dimensional.  Autoethnography was adopted in order to clarify personal feelings [possibly for personal reasons?], and the method is justified in a broader discussion.  However, the intention is to use personal data or to ‘illuminate’ broader concerns rather than sticking just to emotional disclosures, to ‘relate the personal to the cultural’ (321), and thus to inform others.  She wants to do something critical something that explains a play of power in this case, not just to write for aesthetic reasons.  She picks up aspects of post structuralist critique here, which she calls postmodern research practice, in suggesting that they can never be simple telling or showing without interpretation.  Autoethnography has been used to uncover issues of personal identity and to illuminate the ‘clandestine, largely taken for granted world’ of the sports coach (321).  In particular, the claim is that such an approach can get beneath the surface of ordinary accounts of practice. 

This writer used extracts from a training diary, emails and her own memories, and she then constructed stories from critical incidents.  She admits that her selection of these incidents arose from a theoretical interest in more general issues.  This, and the necessary alterations to protect privacy leads her to admit that ‘might fail would be most accurately interpreted as creative nonfiction as it contains the fashioning and dramatisation of real feelings and, to some extent, events...  It is as much concerned with evocation as with “true” representation’ (322).

Three stories were chosen to illustrate the changing relationship with the coach, tracing initial acceptance and liking through doubts to open resistance.  Giddens on power is summarised here: power is involved in any attempt to transform social worlds, everyone has some resources to access it, and this means that some resistance is always possible.  This is supplemented by reference to Nyberg (1981) on educational power, which points out that an element of consent is always necessary, and that there are different types of consent which can explain types of withdrawal of consent and thus resistance.

[The stories are fairly banal.  Longish extracts are used for subsequent commentary, with the problems that I have identified initially.  In fact, it is really hard to see the point of the verbatim accounts at all, and, not being interested very much in personal emotions, I couldn’t really be bothered to read them after the first one or two]

In the initial phase, the author felt comfortable and secure with her coach, which illustrates Giddens’s discussion of the importance of ‘ontological security…  The sense of confidence, continuity and trust in society…  The security of being’ (325), the sense of being secure and at ease in the company of others.  The author was consenting in Nyberg’s sense of accepting the claims to power of the coach and being willing to delegate power to her.  Nyberg also distinguishes between consenting attitudes and consenting actions, in order to pin down the difference between general agreement and specific compliance.  He also identifies three parts of the power relationship –‘the plan or system of ideas to be implemented, the person in the delegating position, and the particular assignment given to an individual’ (325).  The author consented fully in terms of both attitude and action, and respected the coach is an individual as well as a technician.  This made her think of her relationship as a special one, a feeling which Nyberg identifies as important in securing cooperation rather than mere compliance.  She also notes a similarity with Bourdieu, who argues that a certain complicity is required in the exercise of power, some willingness to submit, a process of entanglement.

In the middle phase, difficulties arose and the coach’s attitude appeared to change.  She became more arbitrary and authoritarian, and began to treat the crew like robots.  The author decided to reassert for control as coxswain.  There was no problem with her technical expertise and knowledge, by feeling that the special relationship had been betrayed, and shared power withdrawn.  The crew also felt this.  The author and the crew began to attempt to regain their ontological security, and to fight off growing feelings of ‘anxiousness and anomie’ (328).  [The first sign of intrusion of functionalist notions.  Later, the relationship is seen as dysfunctional].  The crew had a condescending nickname for the coach, and began to develop sarcasm and mockery, a particularly significant form of resistance according to Nyberg, and rather like the banter identified by Willis.  The crew also began to withdraw their best efforts, indicating the real power of subordinates.

In the final phase open dissent arose, and the crew had a particularly disastrous and argumentative race.  The coach was openly criticised by one of the crew, who was promptly dropped without being told.  The author withdrew from the team, and so did the coach, shortly afterwards, probably because she had also lost ‘the deference and esteem of the athletes’, which threatened her own ontological security, again showing the power of subordinates (331).  The respect of athletes seems particularly important to the credibility of coaches [supporting the work of Jones], and they should remember that it is important to gain and keep that respect.

This piece of work illustrates the particular structure of power relationship, especially that it is variable and constantly changing, and that ontological security and confidence is at the heart of it.  It also shows that subordinates can and did resist.  There is some support for the theories of Giddens’ and Nyberg, and thus a role for social theory in the training of coaches.  More specifically, discourtesy and disrespect annoys athletes, especially if they feel that some special relationship has been abandoned.  In this case, the coach’s attitude seem to undermine the crucial role of coxswain as intermediary [and middle manager]. Autoethnography has shown that it can both illuminate the personal and comment on matters such as power and resistance, and is particularly useful for approaches which want to understand the detailed every day relations and activities involved in coaching.

Nyberg, D. (1981) Power over power, London: Cornell University Press