“Where is the sport science in this?”: The crumbling of the coloniality of social sciences and re-existence of the otherwise

Sepand Mashreghi
Dept. of Sport Sciences, Malmö University

Do you hear?
It is the sound of our world resurging.
The day that was day was night.
And night will be the day that will be day.
Subcomandante Marcos

W here is the sport science in this?”, this was the question that was asked of me after I had presented my initial Ph.D. project plan which was about working with refugee students to explore the effect of physical activity in their lives in Sweden. After I had illustrated the problematic issues with ’expert’ driven research and explained my methodology and rational for choosing participatory action research instead – which was the assumption that people who are living with a problematic reality have a better insight to the what and how of solving those problems – hearing this question unsettled me. I did not have an answer to it and it bothered me that after all that I had presented, answering this question was even deemed important. I soon realized that this question was asked of any other colleagues whose research deviated from the normative research that was done at the department or the discipline as a totality. At the time, my theory and thought process, albeit critical, was still firmly centred in the Western hegemonic theory. Since then, my thought processes have radically changed and have moved outside the Western canonical theory, beyond sport and sport science but of course the question has still remained. I believe that this question signifies a desire to protect something but it also signifies an anxiety in the prospect of ending that same thing. In this paper, I will discuss what this something is and will expose its cracks and fractures. I will then illustrate the numerous attempts at saving it and finally delineate the praxis that my own research is based upon and the otherwise option I took. In this way I will demonstrate why answering the question “where is the sport science in this?” is irrelevant to my project and my praxis.

In 2016 the academic journal Quest dedicated a special issue on the future of higher education within the sports science (kinesiology). Despite the variety of arguments and different problematizations, the question at the heart of each article was how to save the discipline. Hopsicker and Hochstetler (2016), for example, problematized the marginalization of philosophy as a discipline in the larger field of sport science (kinesiology) and argued for the sport philosophy sub-discipline to be revamped and evolve along with sport science itself and take a more central role within the discipline of sport science. They also problematized the concept of ‘sport’ and drew attention to its constricting of the scope of the discipline as a whole. They, however, conceded that a name change might be a step in the wrong direction and jeopardize the existence of the whole discipline (Hopsicker & Hochstetler, 2016). In the same issue Block (2016) delineated several critical issues facing higher education as a whole, namely corporatization of universities, risk to academic freedom, and compromised intellectual integrity. She further encouraged sport science scholars to exercise their unbound academic freedom and collaborate with each other and other disciplines to create cutting edge research and programs (Block, 2016). She described that for sport science to survive in the age of post-humanism, where knowledge can be stored in chips and inserted in human brains, the sport scholars must also be cutting edge and learn to re-tool and use technology to their advantage (Block, 2016). The problematization of sport science disciplines, concepts and implications are not new. In fact, Jerry Thomas had criticized the physical education discipline as early as 1987 and argued that over-specialization has fragmented the discipline and therefore jeopardized its future. In his 1987 article, adequately named “Are we already in pieces or just falling apart?”, he claimed that the physical education and sport science field had become too narrow and for it to survive it would need to maintain its interdisciplinary and holistic approach to concepts (Thomas, 1987). In a later paper, Loland (1992) offered an example of this holistic approach when he analysed the mechanics and meanings of Alpine skiing from two different epistemological (and somewhat ontological) standpoints and argued for a pluralist research strategy that reflect an open-ended and infinite view of the process of research (Loland, 1992). These two different trajectories of critique, although coming in different times and with different recommendations, signify not only a desire for the sport science discipline to survive but also its inherent right to exist as a discipline of knowledge. It is interesting though, that the more recent critiques mentioned earlier have in some ways surrendered to the problematic, and yet inevitable (according to the authors) concepts that the earlier scholarship had critiqued.

This line of criticism and rethinking has shaped the post-humanist thought that is forming the current theories in the social sciences.

Despite the various reforms that the above-mentioned scholars have argued for, from holistic thinking and interpretation to advocating for creating interdisciplinary and cutting-edge research, none of the scholars have questioned the ontological basis of research. They have all assumed that what they believe to be research, in its current hegemonic understandings, is the only way to gain access to human and (life) experience and produce knowledge. It is not surprising, therefore, that the reforms that earlier scholars had proposed did not deliver on its promised solution to ‘save’ sport science and instead resulted in the submission of scholars to problematic issues that persist in sport science and the institution of higher education as a whole. I believe that questioning our ontological understanding of institutions of research, in this case sport science, can add a different layer of understanding as to why and where of this discontent. The full analysis of the genealogy of sport science is not within the limits of this essay; therefore, I only offer a brief overview of what I believe to be the ontological basis for what we call social sciences today. The social sciences in their current hegemonic form emerged from the European social thought of the Enlightenment era and consolidated themselves as disciplines in the nineteenth century in Europe (Heilbron, 1995). The social sciences expanded around the world and became the Western empire’s companion. In this way they were (and still are in their hegemonic form) part of building Western civilization and its imperial expansion (Mignolo, 2014). It is clear that these expansions were encountered by resistance and many scholars (in particular the Third World scholars) were denouncing the imperial bent of the social sciences. In the mid 1990s there was an attempt to ‘open the social sciences’ (Mignolo, 2014; Tlostanova & Mignolo, 2009), a reformative attempt that came from the hegemonic core of social sciences itself and did not intend to question the implicit and totalitarian ontological basis of social sciences. Instead, it aspired to ‘save’ the social sciences, their implicit ontological beliefs, and to a broader extent the totalitarianism of Western civilization (Mignolo, 2014). This is precisely why this reform and opening could not address the core issues that many scholars (both in the center and from the peripheries) considered problematic and disconcerting. The sport science reforms that were discussed previously reflect this idea of saving and protecting the discipline in its current hegemonic standing. Moreover, implicit in the question “Where is the sport science in this?” lies the desire to preserve and save the ontological totalitarianism of the discipline (and by extension Western civilization).

The attempt to ‘open the social sciences’, although somewhat limited and totalitarian in its intentions, has however shed lights on the cracks of this totalitarian space, and through these cracks a different kind of yearning has oozed out (Stein et al., 2020; Walsh, 2015) and, in effect, has signalled the end of the totalitarianism of social sciences (Mignolo, 2014). These yearnings are about imagining an otherwise research and generation of knowledge. They aim to reformulate the principles and structure of knowledge by being grounded on otherwise ontological and epistemological grounds and re-constitute what Eurocentric social sciences have disavowed (Stein et al., 2020; Tlostanova, 2019; Walsh, 2015). I will discuss the specifics of these yearnings later but it is important to clarify that these thoughts share their critique of social sciences with existing post-modern and post-human thoughts in the core of social sciences; however, they diverge in their offering of different ontological and epistemological standpoints (Mignolo, 2018). That is, they do not want to merely change the content but offer the option to change the terms of the conversation (Mignolo, 2018; Tlostanova, 2019). For instance, Richard Tinning (1997) critiqued various aspects of sport and physical activity research. He questioned the dominance of performance discourses in the field that reproduce the commercialization of sport and the marketing of the bodies. He also addressed the tenuous assumption that fitness equals health, which has resulted in negating the health costs to individuals. His recommendations represented a rethinking of the nature of sport and physical activity that goes beyond the gym and the field (Tinning, 1997). These recommendations, however radical, still came from the core and did not consider periphery and outside thoughts regarding sport and physical activity. I believe that this is yet another attempt to save the sport science field by pushing its boundaries to include more agendas. This line of criticism and rethinking has shaped the post-humanist thought that is forming the current theories in the social sciences. I believe, however, that the post-human thought, similar to critical theory, has merely changed the content of the conversation and not the terms of it. This is because these theories (along with Marxist and critical theories) can trace their genealogies to European modernist Enlightenment thinking which centres on human emancipation/salvation by the western theory (Mignolo, 2018; Tlostanova, 2019; Tuck & Yang, 2012). In another word, within these frameworks, ‘where is sports science is this?’ may still be answered.

I am not concerned with answering the question “where is the sport science in this?” I am also not interested in saving the discipline of sport science, even though I have benefitted from its existence.

The yearnings that I mentioned before, are asking different questions. That is because they were shaped and created at the moment of the establishment of the totalitarianism of Western/European thought (coloniality of being) in the thought process of those whose ways of thinking and being were negated and deemed outside of this totalitarian thought system (Mignolo, 2009; Tlostanova & Mignolo, 2009). That is, they were formed at the borders and are rooted in the ‘darkness’ of the colonial wound. This ‘darkness’ according to Audre Lorde are places of possibilities “because they are ancient and hidden; they have survived and grown strong through darkness” (Lorde, 1984, p. 36-37). They ask different questions because they are about giving life and sustenance to the otherwise and are not concerned with saving a discipline (Mignolo, 2009; Walsh, 2015). They are trans-disciplinary (not multi- or inter-disciplinary) because they reject the disciplinary decadence and aim to un-discipline the knowledge (Tlostanova & Mignolo, 2009). Mignolo (2009) refers to these yearnings as the decolonial option. The decolonial option, he argues, rises out of the life force, consciousness if you will, that has become destitute as a consequence of coloniality of being, in this case the Eurocentric totalitarianism of knowledge and knowledge generation (Mignolo, 2009). It “starts from the principal that the regeneration of life shall prevail over primacy of the production at the cost of life” (Mignolo 2009, p. 161), even if that production is of a discipline or a field of study. Decolonial option assumes that knowledge is required to live, but this knowledge has never been solely produced in the academy and the disciplines. The living experiences and historical struggles also generate knowledge and bring about survival (Freire, 2005; Tlostanova & Mignolo, 2009). This is especially important in the case of those otherwise who have not only survived but thrived in the margins despite the totalitarian nature of coloniality of knowledge and being. My work is concerned with the survivance of the otherwise and although it has been a journey from the core to the periphery and finally to this otherwise, in my research, I have opted for the decolonial option. My aim is to contribute to decolonizing knowledge and being and to make the survival of the otherwise possible. I am not concerned with answering the question “where is the sport science in this?” I am also not interested in saving the discipline of sport science, even though I have benefitted from its existence. What I am interested in my work is to illuminate the fissures of the Eurocentric totalitarian order. I am concerned with how the disavowed peoples, ontologies and epistemologies have managed to sustain their disavowed meanings and relationships despite the totalitarian concept of ‘sport’ and have survived and even thrived on the margins. I do this so that I can enable the sustenance of the disavowed in ways that go beyond mere resistance and rather enact a re-existence.

Copyright © Sepand Mashreghi 2021


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