Centre for Sports, Health and Civil Society, University of Southern Denmark
The book Social capital and sport organisations by Richard Tacon is published some twenty years after ‘the big splash’ in research on social capital in sport that followed the publication of Robert Putnam’s book ‘Bowling alone’ in 2000. Putnam’s book had a solo bowler on the front cover to illustrate the decline of social capital in USA. Further, Putnam ascribed voluntary organisations – including sports clubs – a central position in the development of social capital in society, which set the scene for extensive research into social capital within the realm of sport.
Despite more than twenty years of research into social capital in sport, there is still a contribution to be made by Richard Tacon’s book. Even though much qualified research has been conducted, most of it has taken the form of quantitative survey studies, which leaves a need for qualitative in-depth studies with a focus on the mechanisms that lead to social capital formation in sport. This is equivalent to the purpose of Tacon’s book.
Tacon is a Senior Lecturer with the Department of Management at Birkbeck, University of London, where he also wrote his PhD on social capital in sports clubs that formed the background for the book reviewed here. Tacon has previously worked with sports policy in both research and practice, which is visible throughout the book in the sense that it includes content relevant for both research and practice, including a chapter dedicated to recommendations for practitioners and policy makers.
First section: Literature review and conceptualisation of social capital
The first section of the book consists of chapters 1 to 3, where Tacon delves into empirical studies and theories regarding social capital and provides an overview of the research conducted, including the main research gaps, and develops a conceptual framework for social capital.
Taking into consideration the extensive amount of research on social capital, the literature review in chapter 2 is by no means complete but provides a well-balanced introduction to a selection of central studies, particularly within – but not limited to – the sports domain. From this review the research gap appears, which justifies the focus of the book. Though other texts have provided extensive reviews of social capital research, the chapter does offer a good overview of twenty years of research on social capital with a particular emphasis on the realm of sport.
However, what sets aside Tacon’s book from much of the research on social capital is that he does not depart from one of these theoretical approaches, but rather develops his own definition that combines different conceptualisations of social capital.
The conceptual discussion of social capital in chapter 3 departs – as many other texts on social capital – from the work of Pierre Bourdieu, James Coleman, Nan Lin and Robert Putnam. However, what sets aside Tacon’s book from much of the research on social capital is that he does not depart from one of these theoretical approaches, but rather develops his own definition that combines different conceptualisations of social capital. He defines social capital as ‘resources available through membership of social networks or other social structures’ (p. 44). He then describes the central elements in the definition and highlights the need to separate the outcomes of social capital from the definition – a criterion that is not met by all previous conceptualisations (e.g., Putnam’s definition that includes both social networks and norms of reciprocity and trust). Also, Tacon encourages a stronger focus on context in research on social capital.
Though conceptualisations are always debatable, and despite the generality of Tacon’s definition it does have merit because it paves the way for research on social capital in which the researcher do not ascribe to, e.g., either Putnam’s or Bourdieu’s version of social capital. The ‘resources’ mentioned in the definition can be tied to the individual as emphasised in Bourdieu’s definition, or they can concern society as emphasised in Putnam’s definition.
Second section: Case study of social capital in sports clubs
The second main section of the book consists of chapters 4 to 9 that draw on empirical data from Tacon’s study of social capital using observations and interviews in three sports clubs spread across London: a small cricket club, a medium-sized football club and a large tennis club. Following an introduction of the case studies in chapter 4, he utilises his empirical data to examine the formation of social ties (chapter 5), the mechanisms of social capital formation (chapter 6), the outcomes of social capital (chapter 7) and the role of the context for social capital formation (chapters 8 and 9). Though Tacon is not the first to use a qualitative approach to the study of social capital in sport, the depth of his case studies does make for a valuable contribution to the field.
My purpose here is not to sum up the many interesting findings in the case study section of the book, but merely to provide a few noteworthy highlights. One highlight concerns how social ties are formed in sports clubs, and the finding that ‘like-mindedness’ in a broad understanding is central to the formation of ties. The saying that ‘birds of a feather flock together’ is mainly confirmed by Tacon’s study, albeit with the important nuance that this ‘like-mindedness’ need not be based on socio-economic background, but can also more broadly concern a similarity of, e.g., interests or life situations.
Further, with his interviews Tacon gets at the nature of the ties formed in the clubs and, in particular, the ties formed in sports clubs that do not extend beyond the club. Normally, these are regarded as weak ties, but Tacon finds evidence that these are, indeed, weak in the sense that they are restricted to the club and cease to exist if a person leaves the club, but stronger in terms of reciprocity and emotional depth than the rhetoric surrounding such ties most often seem to indicate.
Tacon’s findings from the case studies also questions the assumption – building on Putnam’s approach to social capital – that when people meet face to face in a sports club, the specific trust and reciprocity built between members extend to society in the form of higher levels of generalised trust and reciprocity. The interview persons in the case studies mainly report to have experienced and built specific reciprocity and trust, and – in the larger clubs – mainly towards the members in their social circle within in the club, i.e., their group or team.
This leads me to the central finding in the case studies that context matters with regard to social capital formation, and that context should be understood as both the personal context (e.g. life situation) and the club context (e.g., club size, activity, structure and culture). Though it seems relatively straightforward that such elements are of relevance to social capital formation, it is often neglected in research on social capital in which it is assumed that membership in sports clubs can be viewed as a relatively uniform concept.
Third section: International evidence, implications, and recommendations
The final section of the book consists of chapters 10 to 13 in which Tacon discusses his findings in relation to international evidence on social capital in sports clubs (chapter 10) and in relation to research within other fields (chapter 11). The book ends with Tacon presenting the implications and recommendations from his study targeted at practitioners and policymakers (chapter 12) and, finally, with a conclusion (chapter 13). These chapters are all worth a read in that they bring together findings and international evidence regarding social capital, which highlights the contribution of the book, and because of the attempt to convert the findings into recommendations – a notoriously difficult task for most researchers.
For an academic these days, communication about theories and empirical research mainly takes place in journal articles. With this in mind, I enjoyed reading the coherent narrative about social capital in Tacon’s book.
I suspect the recommendations posed by Tacon will have trouble finding their way into practice and policy for two reasons. First, because of the widespread believe in Putnam’s version of social capital in most sports policy contexts, as also indicated by Tacon. Second, because the recommendations take the form of more general propositions rather than concrete policy suggestions. This is a sound choice by Tacon taking into consideration the nature of his empirical studies, but I suspect it comes with a trade-off in relation to applicability in the view of practitioners and policymakers.
For an academic these days, communication about theories and empirical research mainly takes place in journal articles. With this in mind, I enjoyed reading the coherent narrative about social capital in Tacon’s book. Despite the large quantity of studies on social capital, the book has a place in the literature as a contribution that takes the less frequent methodological approach of in-depth case studies with a focus on the mechanisms that are at play in relation to the formation of social capital in sports clubs.
As a quantitative researcher that have contributed to the literature on social capital in sports clubs, I have highlighted the need for studies that examine the mechanisms of social capital formation. With this book, Tacon has contributed significantly to this call for studies, which is also echoed in numerous other articles on social capital. I look forward to future contributions on other topics related to sport that call for the kind of in-depth qualitative study that lies behind this book.
Copyright © Karsten Elmose-Østerlund 2023