At the intersection of sociology, sport and society: a summary of the Norwegian Journal of Sociology’s special issue on Sport

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Anne Tjønndal
Nord University
Jeremy Crump
Translation from Norwegian


On the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the International Sociology of Sport Association (ISSA), Professor David Rowe (Western Sydney University) wrote several pieces about the development of the sociology of sport and described how sport has gone from being a marginalised subject to take its place as a natural part of sociology. Rowe’s texts were the starting point for a special issue of the Norwegian Journal of Sociology on sport.

The aim of the special issue is to promote empirical and theoretical analyses of the connections between Norwegian sociology, society and sport. The special editor, Hans Erik Næss (Westerdals School of Arts, Communication and Technology), introduces the issue with an introduction about sociology, sport and social research. Næss describes four strands which run through Rowe’s texts about the historical development of the sociology of sport.

The rest of the special issue consists of four peer reviewed articles, an essay and two book reviews. In this summary, I shall look at two of the articles in more detail.

The disconnect between ideals and reality in organised sport

In their article ‘The Norwegian model of sport – out of step with the times?’ Professor Kolbjørn Rafoss (University of Tromsø) and Professor Jan Ove Tangen (University College of Southeast Norway) discuss the extent to which the Norwegian model is suited to current social conditions. By analysing government announcements about sport, local councils’ sector plans and sports organisations’ own business plans, the authors identify what they describe as four underlying principles of organised sport in Norway:

  1. sport and physical activity should be for everybody
  2. more sports facilities lead to more activity
  3. physical activity and sport make for better health, and
  4. elite success creates mass participation

According to Rafoss and Tangen, these theories are the fundamental pillars of the Norwegian model of sport.

In their analysis, Rafoss and Tangen show how these fundamental theories give rise to a disconnect between the ideals and the reality of the Norwegian model. The authors point out that informal exercise does more to make for an active population than does organised sport. Private gyms, long distance footpaths and open countryside are the locations most used for exercise. Rafoss and Tangen also argue that there are few research findings to support the assertion that elite participation creates mass participation.

Altogether, the article provides insight into the complex challenges which confront organised sport in contemporary Norwegian society. The authors argue that while the relationship between the state and sport have changed little since the 1950s, changes in people’s activities and the ways in which they use sports facilities have created a disconnect between the aims of sports policy in relation to health and people’s activity patterns.

Nowadays, the greatest gains in health from physical activity come from outside organised sport. In conclusion, the authors issue a challenge for critical reflection about how changes in sports policy might lead to positive consequences for the population’s development in both health and sport.

Class differences in young people’s sport

In their article ‘Youth, sport and class: past, present and future’ Åse Strandbu (Norwegian School of Sports Sciences), Elisabeth Gulløy (University College of Southeast Norway), Patrick Lie Andersen (NOVA), Ørnulf Seippel and Håvard Bergesen Dalen (Norwegian School of Sports Sciences) research class-based recruitment into young people’s sport in Norway over a period of 60 years.

In his introductory editorial, Hans Erik Næss writes that the Norwegian field of sports sociology has been and remains fragmented.

Their analysis of research into class differences in youth participation in sport shows that by the 1980s and 1990s, the wide class differences in sporting activity of the 1950s had narrowed. By contrast, the authors identify clearer signs of class differences in studies from the last ten years. By way of explanation of this worrying trend, the authors describe three processes which may contribute to greater social exclusion in youth sports:

  1. professionalisation
  2. rising costs, and
  3. the demand for more intensive parental involvement.

The first trend which the authors identify in contemporary youth sport is professionalisation. As sport becomes more and more serious, it demands greater resources and more intense effort. This makes it difficult for young people to participate without high investment of money, time and knowledge.

Playing sport is a costly business, and the greater the involvement, the greater the costs. Consequently, young people in families with limited means have limited opportunities to participate in sport. The authors discuss how rising costs of sports for children and youths are driving more and more young people away from organized sport.

The final exclusive practice which the authors identify is increased parental involvement. There is not much Norwegian research for the authors to base their conclusions on here, and the extent to which the demand for more intensive parental involvement is a factor making for exclusion in Norwegian youth sport remains uncertain.

In their article, Strandbu, Gulløy, Lie Andersen, Seippel and Bergesen Dalen scrutinise significant challenges of social inequality and exclusion in organised sport. In their conclusion, the authors assert that the important role of sport in peer group solidarity and the pleasure of taking part for its own sake are reasons for securing access for all who want to participate. Barriers originating in the economy and class background are difficult to legitimise from the perspective of sports policy.

A special edition for a broad readership?

Altogether, the special issue on sport gives an insight into some of the scope of theoretical, analytical and thematic approaches in the sociology of sport in Norway. In his introductory editorial, Hans Erik Næss writes that the Norwegian field of sports sociology has been and remains fragmented. Nevertheless, he continues, experts in the field have made important contributions to our understanding of society in general, as do the pieces in this special issue. It achieves its goal of promoting analyses of the connection between sociology, sport and society, and of stimulating ideas for the future development of the field.

This special issue will be of interest to a broad readership extending beyond the professional circles of sports sociology. The articles I have picked out in this summary highlight important aspects of social development and challenges linked to health, politics and inequality. These are themes which are of great sociological interest.

The Norwegian Journal of Sociology’s special issue on sport offers professional material and inspiration for Norwegian and other Scandinavian sociologists of sport. At the same time, it should encourage the choice of sport as a field of study for sociologists in other sub-disciplines. The introduction, the articles and the essay offer thorough analyses and sound consideration and pose questions of current relevance for Norwegian sport.

I also found Daniel Arnesen’s review of Bjørn Barlands Accounts of doping and body building (Fortellinger om doping og kroppskultur) helpful and recommend everyone with an interest in the intersection of sport, sociology and social research to take a look at both the special edition of the Journal and Barland’s book. Love it or hate it, sport is a theme which arouses strong interest, engagement and feelings for many people.

The issue is open access.

Copyright © Anne Tjønndal 2017

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