Thick ethnographic descriptions abound, paucity of critical feminist thinkers

Alan Bairner
Loughborough University, UK


Trygve B. Broch
A Performative Feel for the Game: How Meaningful Sports Shape Gender, Bodies, and Social Life
209 pages, hardcover.
London: Palgrave Macmillan 2020 (Cultural Sociology)
ISBN 978-3-030-35128-1

There is no denying the amount of thick ethnographic description around which the arguments presented in this book are assembled. However, I found it to be a challenging read. In part, I suspect that this was due to the fact that the sport of handball, which is at the heart of Trygve Broch’s study. is alien territory for me as it is for the vast majority of my British compatriots.  A knowledge of the sport, something that is possessed by many people across the length and breadth of continental Europe, would almost certainly ease readers’ way into the book. I should add at once, however, that although handball has a central role to perform, it is as a lens through which wider issues related to sport and gender are examined. Before turning to the book’s content, one additional difficulty which might be problematic for many readers is that the book is written in a style which would seem more appropriate for a doctoral thesis than for engaging a wide readership. Put bluntly, the book is undoubtedly worthy but nevertheless, in its theoretical sections, unnecessarily verbose.

A Performative Feel for the Game is divided into an introduction, a first part consisting of two chapters and a second part comprised of two chapters. There is also a conclusion, annoyingly given the title ‘By way of a conclusion’. The book is a contribution to a series on Cultural Sociology, one of the editors of which, Philip Smith, rightly points out in a preface that Broch’s work ‘is more than a study of Norwegian women’s volleyball’ (p. viii). Indeed it is, although a considerable amount of the content is undeniably taken up with women’s/girls’ (and boys’) handball in Norway.

As it transpires, Broch has lofty ambitions. He is concerned with ‘the reproduction of the gender order in sports’ (p. ix). He recognises that this is a subject that has attracted numerous authors and a vast amount of literature.  He argues, however, that ‘the global sport/gender nexus is twisted in ways that allow us to pursue blind spots and challenge the alleged universality of prior studies’ (p. 3). He does not tell the reader who is guilty of alleging this universality in a field that is actually increasingly marked by diversity. His empirical ethnographic examination of the daily experience of handball in Norway leads him to question certain binaries as if no one has ever thought of doing that and claim that ‘the handballgirl as an icon of women’s power has long been present in the media and at the sport arenas of Norway’ (p. 24). This reminds one of the legendary status of specific generations of female volleyball players in both Japan and the People’s Republic of China whose exploits have on occasions eclipsed those of their countries’ male athletes. For Broch, however, Norway’s female handball players, the ‘girls’ to whom he refers, have done more than eclipse the performances of their male counterparts. They have forced the boys metaphorically to throw like girls.

Some readers might feel that these new viewpoints are rather less novel than the author believes them to be.

The ethnographic data that is enlisted to support these claims is rich and thought-provoking. It is in his ‘By way of a conclusion’, however, that we get a true indication of what Broch wants to achieve. He writes that his ‘journey into Norwegian handball’ has sought out ‘the prospects of a new Durkheimian theorizing and confronted this approach with the most compelling intellectual alternative available, a critical sociology of sport and gender’ (p. 187).  His main targets appear to be what he refers to as cultural Marxism and presumably, at least by implication, feminist sport sociology, the flaws in which are addressed by ‘two new viewpoints’ (p. 187).

Some readers might feel that these new viewpoints are rather less novel than the author believes them to be. First, there is the assertion that ‘gender is central to social life, but cultures recognize gender in both subtly and clearly varied manners’ (p. 187). Thus, ‘meaningful sports cannot be credibly retold through the lens of inequality structures alone’ (p. 188). Perhaps not, but Broch himself notes that the gender gap in sport ‘has almost vanished in Norway’ (p. 23). Good news indeed, but sadly, in many/most parts of the world, it remains subject to the impact of wider inequality structures. Indeed, when all is said and done, didn’t Ada Hegerberg, one of the world’s best female footballers, refuse to take part in the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup because of what she regarded as a lack of respect for female footballers in Norway?

Second, Broch uses Karl Popper’s critique of Marx to argue that ‘competition makes sports dramatic’ (p. 188). Once again this may be a credible point of view from the vantage point of wealthy Norway, and it is hard to think of a sports loving Marxist or feminist who would deny this claim. However, the dramatic appeal of competition does not negate the argument, paraphrased by Broch, that ‘sports are both a byproduct of patriarchal capitalism and a machinery that in its own right breeds masculine winners and feminine losers’ (p. 188).  Things are improving, no doubt, but there is still a distance to travel.

Ultimately Broch sees potential in what he calls ‘a cultural sociology of performance’ (p. 193). He accepts that this might not please ‘the diehard critical thinker studying how categories and institutions force all too simple identities’ (p. 194).  But would anyone disagree fundamentally with his opinion that ‘sports are not only battle zones of social conflict. Sport is also institutionalised play’ (p. 195)? All that I would say, however, as a ‘diehard critical thinker’ is that we should be very careful not to replace the former with the latter.  It is instructive that in his conclusion, Broch makes no reference to the work of contemporary critical feminists working in the area of sport studies. Only Iris Young’s 1980 essay on throwing like a girl gets a mention.  In fact, throughout the book, Broch appears reluctant to go head to head with the proponents of theories of which he is dismissive. It’s one thing to mention at the outset that he was inspired by the work of Mike Messner and Don Sabo but to ignore so much of the literature that has emanated from the critical feminist sociology of sport is disappointing to say the least.

I would encourage anyone with an interest in sport and gender to read this book, challenging as it might be, primarily for the stories about the lives and interactions of the young handball players. I would also encourage them, however, not to rely exclusively on the book if they want to get a fuller understanding of how sport continues to promote countless discriminatory practices in relation to gender.

Copyright © Alan Bairner 2020

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