Thoughtful and astute observations of the complex relationship of sport and social issues

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Alan Bairner
Loughborough University


David Ekholm
Sport as a Means of Responding to Social Problems: Rationales of Government, Welfare and Social Change
311 sidor, paperback.
Linköping: Linköping University 2016 (Linköping Studies in Arts and Science)
ISBN 978-91-7685-725-0

This theoretically rich study began life as a doctoral dissertation for which the degree of Doctor of Philosophy was awarded by Linköping University. Like many such works, the attention to detail, the range of the discussion and the depth of the analysis at times prevent it from being an easy read.  That it is the work of a well informed and thoughtful commentator is, however, undeniable.

Critical sport studies appear to be divided nowadays into two distinct camps, one consisting of those who believe that sport can respond positively to social problems, the other comprising those who would argue that sport not only reflects but also magnifies and potentially exacerbates most, if not all, of the most pressing social problems in the world, including sexism, homophobia, violence, class inequality, xenophobia, corruption and so on.

Rather than align himself to one or other of these camps, Ekholm offers a sober assessment of the role that has been assigned to sport as a means of steering social change and as a method of responding to diverse social problems. To this end, his thesis seeks to answer four questions – (1) How is it that sport can be thought of and articulated as a means of responding to social problems? (2) How are sports practices assumed to operate as a means of responding to social problems? (3) How are social problems represented when sport is promoted as a means of response? (4) What conduct, subjectivity and citizen competencies are shaped within this regime of practice? (p. iii)

In seeking to provide answers to these questions, Ekholm offers eight chapters together with four journal papers, two of which had already been published at the time of his doctoral defence. Following an introduction and an explanation of the theoretical framework adopted for the study, Chapters 3 and 4 examine the key elements that make up the context in which the study took place. These are welfare state transformations, with particular reference to Sweden, and the relationship between sport and welfare more generally. Chapter 5 focuses on methodology and methods. Chapter 6 provides results and analysis based on a summary of the four journal articles. Chapter 7 consists of an analytical discussion and Chapter 8 is used for reflections.

As Ekholm notes in his introduction, ‘in considering means and strategies to deal with and even solve social problems and to promote social inclusion in a Swedish context, it is easy to assume (even take for granted) that this is first and foremost a task for social services (p. 3). In this study , however, recognition is given to ‘the emergence of a formalized sport-based regime of practice in response to social problems’ (p. 4), seen by some as part of the gradual shift from welfare statism to advanced liberalism which includes what Ekholm refers to as ‘the de-statization of social work in practice’ (p. 54).

The theoretical and contextual discussions that appear in Chapters 2-4 are well-informed, thoughtful and insightful and address a number of concepts including regimes of truth, power, governmental rationality, and technologies of social change. Sport evangelism and the sociology of sport are also quite rightly addressed. Ekholm acknowledges that sport is often examined in relation to problems that it generates. It is perhaps unfortunate that he regards this research as beyond the scope of his study and instead notes that ‘globally, a wide range of agencies and authorities express faith in the power and potential of sport’ (p. 45) This is undeniably the case but, almost needless to say, this does not mean that these agencies and authorities are correct, particularly if they themselves are implicated in the persistence of certain social problems.

Would that this were the case in other western democracies, such as the United Kingdom, where austerity measures have reduced public spending to the bare minimum.

Ekholm discusses contemporary illustrations of sport evangelism with specific reference to Sweden. He notes that the evidence suggests that ‘sport practices have the potential to contribute to social objectives when, for instance, they are used rationally with a clear idea of means and ends’ (p. 48).  He then qualifies this statement referring, amongst other things, to the importance of this taking place in ‘non-competitive settings’ (p. 48). Much as one might empathise with this aspiration, what is being called for is arguably non-sport or anti-sport, if one considers competition to be an essential criterion for defining sport.

Ekholm proceeds to examine the rationales of sport for social objectives in Sweden. He notes that ‘in many ways, the sport movement can be seen as intertwined with the Scandinavian and social-democratic way of doing welfare, with aspirations of universal outreach and far-reaching ambitions to reduce risk and combat social inequalities’ (p. 58). However, at its best, this approach was aided by substantial amounts of public investment supported, in large measure, by a policy of high taxation. Without that investment, we are left with sport operating, one might imagine, in some distinctly unfertile social spaces. However, according to Ekholm, ‘in contemporary Swedish social policy, welfarist and advanced liberal rationales arguably co-exist: one rationale does not simply replace the other’ (p. 307). Would that this were the case in other western democracies, such as the United Kingdom, where austerity measures have reduced public spending to the bare minimum.

Nevertheless, it is undeniably true, as Ekholm astutely observes, that increasingly ‘sport is conceptualised and fixed in discourse as a means of promoting social objectives and responding to social problems when associated with technologies of agency (activating individual agency) and technologies of community (establishing moral bonds and genuine personal relations)’ (p. 143).  As a consequence, sport almost certainly draws some individuals away from anti-social behaviour and thereby addresses significant social problems. However, one cannot help but think that only a return to a renewed and reinvigorated welfare agenda can effectively confront the socio-economic factors that are responsible for youth alienation in peripheral housing schemes throughout the developed world in which gang culture, substance abuse and support for extremist views of various types are able to thrive. Throwing footballs at such fundamental problems is little more than window dressing which fail to adequately address inequality and related social issues.

It is to Ekholm’s great credit that he has explained in such detail the rationales for the advanced liberal use of sport as response to social problems.  It is to be hoped that either he or others will in due course take up the challenge to evaluate what has or has not been achieved by this particular manifestation of ‘the shifting governmental rationality of the welfare state’ (p. 144).

Copyright © Alan Bairner 2017

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