Crossley, N.  (2006) ‘In the Gym: Motives, Meaning and Moral Careers’, in Body and Society, 12(3) 23 – 50.

[Not a particularly original read if you are interested in people’s motives, although there is some useful detail and examples of differences.  The piece comes alive really when pursuing the general project on the body, offering a way to move beyond the theoretical generalisations to examine more concrete phenomena—see Crossley (2005).  There is also some pleasingly sociological material on motives].

Membership of health club seems to have risen spectacularly in the last 10 years, and gym membership is now just below trade union membership, twice as big as religious membership, and four times greater than membership of other public organisations (23).  This rise might be due to cultural changes that make us more reflective about our identity and bodies, as in Giddens, or it might reflect a greater emphasis on disciplinary techniques aimed at the body, as in Foucault, or even in a greater valuation of bodily capital as in Bourdieu.  All of these are popular theories but are very general,  fairly dated, and rather simplistic in identifying single factors.

However, it is more profitable to see working out as a particular kind of practice involving the body.  What is needed is specific information about such work that goes on in gyms directly, rather than, say, analysing fitness manuals.  It is not the case that gym users are bodybuilders either.  General descriptions also leave out the idea of a moral career of a gym user.

Ethnographic fieldwork was undertaken in a particular health club, and Crossley admits that his observations might well have been limited in several ways (26).  He began by noticing the motives that people gave for joining the gym, and how beginners differed from regular participants, and changed as participation lengthened as in a moral career.

Crossley wants to explain motives sociologically, and he relies on the famous work by CW Mills (‘Situated Actions and Vocabularies of Motive’).  People do not express in our mental events as motives, but talk about motives at particular times in order to do particular things.  Other people discuss motives by reference to social contexts – what looks reasonable in the circumstances—but so do actors themselves, often to remedy some social reach.  What happens here is a reflexive relation, as in Mead [and as explained in more depth in Crossley 2005]—we attribute motives to ourselves as if we were looking at ourselves objectively, but this then serves to justify and initiate further action in the future.  This commonly occurs when habitual patterns have broken down or been questioned.  Further, motives classically come in distinct vocabularies [compare this with Crossley’s 2005 use of the term ‘repertoire’], and these are shared by specific social groups.  Crossley found such shared vocabularies in his study.  He also wants to pursue the origin of these vocabularies and explore some implications.

People just starting at a gym, and those who stick at it have different vocabularies of motives.  Beginners often feel they have to explain their appearance and apologise for their lack of knowledge.  Such explanations or accounts themselves have a motivating role, since gym attendance reflects some disturbance in habitual patterns.  Attendance also involves costs and some initial administration such as form filling.  Joiners tended to be of two types—athletes, and non athletes who needed to lose weight primarily, and sometimes to get fit as well.  Needing to lose weight was sometimes accompanied with further statements about the moral or statistical implications.  The normal sense of self had been disrupted, and a disjunction opened between self image and actual appearance.

It might be tempting to explain this need to lose weight in terms of the emerging body projects in modernity, or the influence of bodily discipline.  However, it seems so that the reasons given were oriented more at recovering some ideal rather than pursuing some particular bodily narrative.  The reference point seemed to be some personal stake in the past rather than some socially accepted model of an ideal body.  So much for Giddens.  Bourdieu and the ideal of physical capital and investing in it also did not seem to match what gym users actually said.  Crossley is well aware that Bourdieuvians would simply argue that physical capital is an element of an habitus rather than a consciously available concept, but he argues there are difficulties in simply applying concepts developed in quite different historical and cultural circumstances to more contemporary behaviour.  Certainly, the behaviour would have to reflect a particular class fraction [no problem, it would be the new petty bourgeoisie].  Crossley found no particular patterns based on gender or social class however – but then he admits that his ethnographic study would hardly be in a position to gather such data.  [It will be very interesting to see what comes up from the ESRC study which attempts to replicate Bourdieu in modern British conditions].

Crossley identifies this as a case when bodies do not just reflect cultural changes, but have an effect of their own.  Gym users have become aware of the problems with their bodies, its aches and pains and dis-ease.  In an aside, he challenges the view that medical discourses are responsible for modern illnesses, arguing that medical discourse itself responded to bodily phenomena [rather debatable I would have thought, especially when we look at the construction of mental illness, or, indeed any kind of dis-ease where there are absent or ambiguous bodily symptoms].  We can accept the point that there is a bodily dimension to anxiety about fitness, of course.

Many gym users seem to have suddenly noticed a bodily deterioration, after ignoring changes that had been under way for some time.  Perhaps this shows that people are not as ‘self obsessed and self surveilling as the literature suggests’ (33).  Body work seems to be prompted by ‘episodes of shock and self discovery’ instead (33). [Compare with binge and bust diets]

Crossley makes an obvious point,  that the increase in gym membership might simply have been caused by the increase in obesity, leaving aside any of the cultural changes mentioned by the general theorists.  He recognizes of course that weight gain has to be seen as ‘mediated through agents’ concern and resolve to doing something about it’ (34), which obviously smuggles culture back in.  Nor does everyone respond to increased obesity in the same way—some diet, some celebrate and engage in ‘fat politics’ (34).  [Certainly, something odd is going on here: people are not conscious enough of their bodies to avoid weight gain, and then they suddenly become conscious of it and attend the gym? While we are at it, how would the 'body as project' school explain tattooed people who let themselves get fat. or the generally gross who nevertheless spend lots of time acquiring a sun tan?] Crossley wants to give this as an example of a bodily dimension itself again—people respond because their bodies have changed, not because they entertain particular views about bodies.  Changes in bodies is ‘the key mediating mechanism’ between social behaviour and economic and social change (35).

Continuing at the gym involves different sets of motives.  People can undergo a moral career, joining as marginal at first and then coming to belong, with gym-going becoming a routine, maybe even a central routine of their lives.  It made just be that being a routine is what is important here: the general assumption is that following a routine becomes unmotivated, habitual.  However, Crossley found that even regular attenders periodically have to review their motives, not only if they experience some crisis like illness, but because they have recurrent problems in motivating themselves to attend.

The motives they give can be classified:

1.       Enjoyment.  The thing is that it takes a while to experience the effects of gym work as enjoyment, just as marijuana smokers have to experience the disorienting symptoms as enjoyment.  Gym users refer to their understandings that they will enjoy working out as a way to motivate themselves to attend.
2.        Social interaction.  Regular users make friends.  The gem provides some of opportunities to relax and have human contact, or to participate in the lives of others as in a kind of soap opera, or to meet specific others who have useful skills.  These social bonds occasionally service obligations on each other to turn up, a ‘moral pressure for attendance’ (38), usually expressed and recognized in a jokey way.  Gym users also like meeting and looking at members of the opposite sex – ‘the ogling motive’ (38).  Occasionally, friends made at the gym become more important than friends outside.  Attenders can also make ‘side bets’ as in Becker’s discussion of commitment [actually of commitment to teaching]: they provide additional incentives for carrying on, such as betting each other that they will lose weight.  This can bond gym attenders still more firmly together so that people become ‘dependent upon the gym for social capital’ (39).
3.       Relaxation and release.  Exercise can be seen as a good way to expend energy, better than what goes on at work, producing good forms of fatigue as well as the physical pleasures of rest after exercise.  Again this has to be learned.  The activity has to be framed as a pleasurable one: ‘the muscular tiredness that follows a good workout, for example, can be framed either as discomfort or as a state of relaxation’ (40).  Experienced users will be able to develop techniques to deliver pleasure and avoid injury, to become absorbed.  Pain and discomfort can help users focus on their body.  Repetitive work also ‘demands imagination’ (41) [fantasy, for example, role play].  Relaxation and release generates excitement in the figurational sense of ‘tension release’, as often applied to sport, which is both cathartic and mimetic—sport ‘invokes in a euphemised form the structure of situations that are prohibited in everyday life but that the agent might be disposed towards, such as combat, and allows playful enactment’ (41).  In the gym, there is much talk of personal challenge which takes the place of competition, and sometimes reference back to frustrating situations at work.
4.       Physical selfhood—‘a largely tacit confidence in and competence of the body’ (42).  It is common to experience feelings surve being put back in control, feeling comfortable, boosting self esteem, expressing the need to do something physical.
5.       Escape.  Taking one’s mind off worries, spending time on one’s self, enjoying self initiated activity.
6.       Guilt.  Members feel guilty if they miss the session, especially if this is seen as a failure of character, or a moral lapse.  Sometimes weight gain can be seen as a moral lapse.  Sometimes working out makes people realise that they have an unhealthy diet, and they feel guilty about that.
7.       Slippery slope—missing sessions is an indication of lapsed discipline and principle which will have permanent consequences  or make restarting difficult.
8.       Sport.  This refers back to the athletes who joined in order to train up for a sport.  Sometimes gym attendance can lead to taking up the sport—Crossley did notice people taking up long distance running or martial arts, but not bodybuilding despite what is often thought.
9.       Money and the need to get your money’s worth, or value for money.

Vocabularies of motives seem to be crucial in deciding to participate, to continue, and to recover from absences rather than single overwhelming ones.  It is rare to talk specifically about put health or fitness, and more to talk about the wellbeing of the ‘lived’ body.  Social interaction is also important.  Recapturing a former bodily state seems to be common, sometimes linked to a discussion about letting one’s self go.  The involuntary gaining of weight seems to be particularly important.  What is been left out is the activity of ‘moral and economic entrepreneurs’ and their marketing activities (46).  Lots more people join rather than manage to stick at gym membership—different vocabularies is only one aspect of this issue, together with the growth of commitment through ‘side bets’. General theories are too general, as above.  In particular, they have missed the pleasures of physical activity, and the bodily dimension itself, especially bodily changes.  Dropouts need to be investigated further.

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