Does critical research make a difference to equity and inclusion in sport, health & physical education?

Faculty of Education, Monash University

Richard Pringle, Håkan Larsson & Göran Gerdin (eds.)
Critical Research in Sport, Health and Physical Education: How to make a difference
260 pages, hardcover.
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2019 (Routledge Research in Sport, Culture and Society)
ISBN 978-1-138-57167-9

The editors’ final word captures a tension at the heart of work by critical scholars (henceforth Criticals), ‘the value of critique, without action, is underestimated. [the position that standalone critique is of no value] fails to recognise that transformative efforts evolve through processes of critical analysis.’ (p. 244). The articulation of an uneasy relationship between critique as action, and further action as a result of critique, speaks to the value of critique itself. Perhaps this unease is a necessary destabiliser: Criticals must never be stable or comfortable, they always work at the uncomfortable, inconvenient, uneasy edges; and to turn the metaphor around, they burrow into the apparently stable and benign centre, to reveal the hidden, masked, conveniently overlooked and unpleasant at the core.

Whether you subscribe to ‘destroy the joint’ practices, ‘change by education/awareness raising’, ‘action by stealth’ or ‘old wine in new bottles’, many scholars who work with critical theory and its relations are driven by a wish to ‘make a difference’. This new book, edited by Richard Pringle, Håkan Larsson and Göran Gerdin, aims to capture work with such an intent. The editors ‘consider the capacity of critical research within the fields of sport, health and physical education to challenge injustices and produce social transformation’ (p.1). By ‘critical’ they call to fairness, inequity, inequality and injustice. There are many ‘critical’ researchers in HPE as well as in health, movement and sport. Some are captured in this book. Some have made a difference. Some justify their work on the grounds it makes a difference. Some re-create difference in ways that reduce suffering for some but create indifference or generates suffering for others. In this book, the researchers’ willingness to engage (and engage with) the reflexivity embedded in the critical project lies at the heart of their work – but does it make a difference? Is that very reflexivity under critique here? These are some of the questions this book raises for its authors, and for me.

The editors acknowledge the growth in social activism and critical research amidst contemporary examples of ‘one step forward two steps back’ social change; iterations of wins for social equity and justice amidst more extreme examples of disadvantage. Evidence of ‘making a difference’ is articulated and difference to whom and by whom is an enduring focus of the critical theory that sits behind much of the work in the book.

The two main subgames that act as sites of construction, and therefore sites of critique, in this book, are sport and HPE. The book is divided into three parts, each consisting of six chapters. Part 1 focuses on critical socio-cultural examinations of sport, Part 2 on critical perspectives and social change within school physical education, and Part 3 on critical health examinations in education and other socio-cultural contexts. Contributing authors reveal a network of scholars, mostly from Australasia with Scandinavian and some related North American links. As such, the book acts as a useful counterpoint for European and USA counterparts – particularly given that in these contexts ‘health’ is positioned differently with and against physical education (differently to the Australasian context). For me, the organisation of the book itself speaks to a continuation of an (I argue) unfruitful and damaging H-PE binary (lisahunter, forthcoming) and further, the strange uneasiness of ‘sport’ and its problematic relationship with physical education. The tenacity of this construction of the field speaks to critical scholarship as not having ‘made a difference’ in this particular debate (yet!!). Importantly, Louise McCuaig, Janice Atkin and Doune MacDonald’s chapter did pay attention to this. They investigated the politics behind the resistance to a critically-based HPE curriculum: A resistance which worked hard to reinstate dominance for a hegemonic vision of sport and ‘PE’. This sheds light on where Criticals can work next, or keep working.

Nevertheless, looking past these separatist notions of sport, PE and health, there is much here to guide those wishing to employ critical theory to make change. Some of the early scholars who brought ‘critical theory’ to the fields targeted in this book, Richard Tinning (chapter seven), David Kirk (chapter eight), Jan Wright (chapter fifteen), and Doune MacDonald (chapter nine) reflect the depth and something of the history of this work. Their legacy is alive in many of the other authors.

And the unifying idea of ‘the critical project’ needs to get over itself as something to be rather than to do. For me, criticality is both necessary and not enough. We must also seek out new/suppressed/emerging onto-ethic-epistemologies to speak with, against and to the critical project.

The editors reinforce the importance of the relationship between political labor and activism, research and theory. To be able to interrogate power and politics opens the door to action, and, as some chapters show, praxis is possible. Without a political vision, social injustices can be obfuscated and actions misinformed, as highlighted in Simon Carnell’s chapter, where he puts sport for development and peace (SDP) in the spotlight. Employing a political vision can drive transformation, such as the patient challenging the doctor (Burrows, Leahy & Wright), and awareness raising of social injustices, such as in the example of homophobia in Soccer (Caudwell & Spacey). The power of theory is also highlighted in several chapters including Pirkko Markula advocating for poststructuralist theory (chapter sixteen), Brendan Hokowhitu for Indigenous theory (chapter seventeen), Carolyn Pluim and Michael Gard for political analysis of policy using Foucault (chapter thirteen), and Chris Hickey and Amanda Mooney for posthumanist theory (chapter eleven).

Success from intervention projects such as the UK’s ‘Football 4 Peace (F4P) v Homophobia’ festival and symposium highlights how raising awareness on issues of social justice can have ripple effects that inspire change; change that is taken up by others once they have become aware. In describing the initiative and its ripple effects, Jayne Caudwell and Graham Spacey (chapter three) illustrate a palpable ‘making a difference’. At the same time, more subtle changes, often taking a lot longer and in less obvious ways, but nevertheless powerful, are illustrated in small spaces captured by Håkan Larsson’s gendered ‘performative pedagogy’ (chapter twelve).

The book marks a moment in critical research: marking some of the frustrations, failures and successes, recognising the ups and downs of doing critical research AND inspiring us to continue. It also captures anger and hopelessness at social injustice in the forms of ongoing racism, colonisation, sexism, and homophobia for example… words that often get drowned out by catchphrase ‘inclusion and diversity’ that, at times, refuses to pay attention to exclusion/erasure and the real systemic and political reasons for social injustice. In their closing chapter the editors reveal they are not providing what the title suggests, a ‘how to’ approach to making a difference, or as they put it, ‘an erudite and novel ‘research recipe’ on how to make the world a better place’ (p.249). Instead they suggest ‘more’ of the same sorts of research AND innovation, challenge, critique and theoretical development, including in the politics of knowledge in knowledge production sites such as universities.

I agree with Richard Tinning that ‘the mission of the critical project’ is still relevant ‘and criticality is still a necessary disposition to prosecute the mission’ (p. 290, original emphasis). AND the unifying idea of ‘the critical project’ needs to get over itself as something to be rather than to do. For me, criticality is both necessary and not enough. We must also seek out new/suppressed/emerging onto-ethic-epistemologies to speak with, against and to the critical project.  I write from my 7th month of full lockdown in a global pandemic. A pandemic which is as much a socio-political and human relational problem as a biomedical one, and which has laid bare for many the patriarchy, colonialism, racism, sexism, anthropocentrism and homophobia which still plague us. This is the work for Criticals.

I commend the book as an assemblage of power and representation at this point in time when it seems many humans have still not got ‘the lesson’ of interconnected and therefore political humanity who are part of a bigger system – planet Earth (and beyond). I praise the book for the energies of the authors and their projects, their ongoing willingness for reflexivity and critique. The book provides a depth and breadth suitable for those new to critical research and critical theory, with accessible illustrations of practice and provocations for future possibilities.

This book also reminds me that I have more to say about the constraints and enablers of that ampersand in Health & Physical Education. Writing is action.

Copyright © lisahunter 2020

Table of Content

      1. Introduction:Are we making a difference?
        Richard Pringle, Håkan Larsson and Göran Gerdin

Part I: Critical socio-cultural examinations of sport

      1. Exploring the place of critical research in Sport for Development and Peace
        Simon C. Darnell
      2. Football 4 Peace v Homophobia: A critical exploration of the links between theory, practice and intervention
        Jayne Caudwell and Graham Spacey
      3. Autoethnography and public sociology of sport in Caribbean: Engagement, disengagement and despair
        Roy McCree
      4. Critical research on Black sporting experiences in the United States: Athletic activism and the appeal for social justice
        Billy Hawkins
      5. Problematizing practice: Coach development with Foucault
        Jim Denison & J. P. Mills

Part II: Critical perspectives and social change within school physical education

      1. Critical pedagogy in physical education as advocacy and action: A reflective account
        Richard Tinning
      2. A new critical pedagogy for physical education in ‘turbulent times’: What are the possibilities?
        David Kirk
      3. In pursuit of a critically oriented Physical Education: Curriculum contests and troublesome knowledge
        Louise McCuaig, Janice Atkin, Doune Macdonald
      4. Socially critical PE: The influence of critical research on the social justice agenda in PETE and PE practice
        Rod Philpot, Göran Gerdin and Wayne Smith
      5. Critical scholarship in physical education teacher education: A journey, not a destination
        Chris Hickey and Amanda Mooney
      6. Gender in Physical Education: A case for performative pedagogy?
        Håkan Larsson

Part III: Critical health examinations in education and other socio-cultural contexts

      1. Schools and health: An argument against the tide
        Carolyn Pluim and Michael Gard
      2. Is asking salutogenic questions a way of being critical?
        Mikael Quennerstedt and Louise McCuaig
      3. Cruel optimism? Socially critical perspectives on the obesity assemblage
        Lisette Burrows, Deana Leahy and Jan Wright
      4. Critical research in exercise and fitness
        Pirkko Markula
      5. Un-charting the course: Critical indigenous research into Sport, Health and Physical Education
        Brendan Hokowhitu
      6. “What do we want? When do we want it? Now!”: Some concluding observations
        Richard Pringle, Håkan Larsson and Göran Gerdin
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