Opportunities to participate in sport and fitness: Individualization and inequality on the playing field


Marie Larneby
Dept. of Sport Sciences, Malmö University


Mads Skauge
Non-levelled playing fields and the rise of fitness: Social inequality in late modern youth sport in Norway
428 sidor, paperback
Bodø: Nord University 2022 (PhD in Sociology)
ISBN 978-82-92958-56-8

Norway, as many other Western countries, has a high participation rate in organized children and youth sport. 93% of Norwegian youth have been a member in a sport club, in Sweden this number is near 90%. Some patterns are visible: there is an increase in drop-out from club sport at earlier ages than before, and also an increase in children and youth who never start being physically active. Simultaneously, youth who are already active are more active than before. How can this be understood? What do we know about physical activity participation patterns among youth today?

Mads Skauge, PhD in sociology, has successfully defended the dissertation Non-levelled playing fields and the rise of fitness: Social inequality in late modern youth sport in Norway at Nord University. Contemporary Western society sees two macro-trends rising that affect participation patterns in physical activity: individualization and social inequality. Inequality, in this study, is understood as systematic uneven distribution of social goods and burdens in society, and Skauge argues that inequality (as class disparities) could be a problem for participation in physical activities. As mentioned, on the one hand, more youths drop out of organized sports earlier. On the other hand, youths also activate themselves in other ways than sport, and the activities are more diverse. Of importance is to recognize that the number of youths who don’t report physical activity at all, increase. Against this backdrop, Skauge investigates and analyzes patterns in youth physical activity (aged 13–19).

The aim of the dissertation is to contribute to the understanding of inequality in organized youth sport and fitness participation. This purpose is further operationalized in each of the four sub-studies and also specifically approaches an overarching “why”: why are youths active, what are their motives, why do changes in physical activity occur (what kind, how, and how much), and why might there be differences between various social groups in relation to these questions?

There is a discourse, in Norway as well as in Sweden to the effect that club sport is of importance because youths with different background can meet and share/build social capital.

This research addresses various inequality issues regarding gender, ethnicity and class in club sport and fitness. The dissertation consists of 80 pages “kappa”, an introductory chapter of a compilation thesis that summarizes the full study, and the four sub-studies are presented in peer-reviewed articles (papers). Paper 2 (gender), 3 (class) and 4 (school engagement and ethnicity) are published, while paper 1 (literature review) is submitted and under review. Language-wise, Skauge has wisely chosen English for the majority of this dissertation (kappa, paper 1 and 3), which makes the results more accessible than writing the full dissertation in Norwegian. This is a well written important dissertation, and is a must-read, not only for a Norwegian audience.

Habitus, social capital and the reflexive self and the body

Drawing on a conceptual framework on first and foremost Bourdieu’s concepts of habitus and capital, with the addition of Giddens’ the reflexive self and the body, and Putnam’s and Coleman’s understandings of social capital, Skauge aims to illuminate and interpret results on why some physical activity patterns have changed and others not, and how they can be understood at group level related to gender, class and ethnicity. To some extent Skauge also reflects upon what implications these patterns might have for youths and for the organizers of physical activity. Skauge elevates a discussion regarding the (previous?) stance that drop-out of sport is problematic in relation to the sport-for-all policy in Norway. There is a discourse, in Norway as well as in Sweden to the effect that club sport is of importance because youths with different background can meet and share/build social capital. What happens with this socialization when drop-out rate increases? Is dropping out of sport – still – problematic? In the light of rising individualization, Skauge asks what meaning habitus and social capital have in relation to equality issues in sport and fitness participation.

Ungdata – the Norwegian youth survey/Young in Norway and ethical considerations

Skauge’s methodological approach is to interpret quantitative data from a social constructivist position, providing a ‘qualitativation of quantitative’ data. A strength and a weakness, in my opinion, is the data set for this research. Skauge uses a nationally representative cross-sectional electronic survey of Norwegian youth in secondary and upper secondary school (aged 13–18), annually collected 2010–2019 during school hours. This data-set is a goldmine for researchers, as it targets several societal areas, of which sport/physical activity and school engagement are two areas used in this dissertation. In addition, data on gender, class and ethnicity is available in the survey. Skauge uses different subsets of the survey for paper 2, 3 and 4 respectively, and uses logistic regression analysis. A weakness, as Skauge also discusses, is that the survey is constructed and conducted beyond the control of himself as researcher. The dissertation’s purpose and research questions are posed based on the information that is provided by the survey. However, the Ungdata survey is constructed by researchers and statisticians and is perceived as a reasonable data set to use. I do appreciate the quantitative approach Skauge has, because it is needed. Still, as Skauge mentions, some degree of qualitative approach would enhance the results. This dimension is to some extent covered by relating the results to previous research with various data and methods.

I am not sure all differences between groups’ motives and participation patterns shown in the results actually are inequalities in the sense that the groups have unequal access to sport (as in uneven distribution of social goods).

Inequality and individualization

The main results of the dissertation suggests, in summary, that 1) the social profile is more evident in youth sport than in fitness; 2) the Norwegian field of youth sport is gendered (girls emphasize bodily sport motives and participate in fitness at a higher rate than boys, who in contrast, at a higher rate than girls, emphasize competition and social needs and participate in club sport), 3) socioeconomic disparities are greater in club sport than in fitness participation, 4) higher school engagement goes together with high organized sport drop-out rates among minority youth, and vice versa for majority youth. There are, according to Skauge, systematic group differences in youth’s (sport) habitus and their social capital-led actions: a club sport habitus is more evident among boys than among girls, more evident among affluent youth than non-affluent, and more evident among school-engaged majority youth then minority youth.

In relation to previous research (paper 1), Skauge points out that an update of research is needed as societal changes affect sport motives and participation rates. In addition, Skauge links inequality in sport motives to inequality in participation. I am not sure all differences between groups’ motives and participation patterns shown in the results actually are inequalities in the sense that the groups have unequal access to sport (as in uneven distribution of social goods). Skauge also mention this – are the changes shown in the data inequalities, or is it equal access, due to the quite low differences? Still, I think this discussion is well performed by Skauge.

Whether results are to be explained as inequalities or not is a matter of interpretation: it might be perceived as an inequality by the individual to not be part of the “majority” group. I think it is a responsibility to point to (possible) sources of inequalities, albeit differences might be small, because it may have big impact at an individual level beyond the group level. For example, girls who to a lesser extent than boys appreciate competition in club sports, and specifically ethnic minority girls who have a lower participation rate then other groups, may feel unequal to boys. What I would have wanted more of is a further discussion on power relations – what is uneven, why, and for whom. We know that not all girls drop out of sport, and girls also do like the logics of competition and achievement. But these girls are not visible in the results, nor as a sub-category in the group of girls who are active in club sport, nor as a nuancing of the discussion. Instead, the girls visible in this dissertation are the ones who to a greater extent than boys choose and perform activities related to body, appearance and health.

(Shutterstock/BAZA Production)

Skauge mentions one limitation: that the dissertation might fall in the pitfall of over-interpretation. I don’t agree on this. On the contrary, I wish that Skauge had interpreted the results more. I don’t imply that Skauge’s results are not well interpreted or presented, because they most certainly are. I do understand that this pitfall must be avoided, but Skauge already presents some interpretations that are valid, and a bit more (of what is to read between the lines) would not harm the dissertation. One issue I’d like to know more about is the power relations Skauge reveals in the data. What do these imply at a greater level then that youths’ opportunities differ? This, of course, is an important result. Skauge enhances at the end of the discussion in the kappa that the Norwegian society has an established welfare system, and the fairly high participation is a positive and important result in general. Still, what about the ones who drop out, never start being active, or don’t feel that they fit in any of the offered organized physical activity arenas, due to habitus, individualization and expectations based on gender, ethnicity and class? As such, Skauge contributes to a sociological holistic understanding of the field of sport and fitness among Norwegian youth.

Some reflections

From my standpoint, being interested in what similarities and differences within and between social categories might mean, I come to reflect upon two things in relation to the data and the discussion of the results: research ethics, and to group gender, class and ethnicity.

First, regarding research ethics, I had wished for a more thorough elaboration on Skauge’s choice to use data from this national survey. As he explicitly states, the Ungdata survey is approved by the Norwegian Centre for Research Data, information was given to participants and parents, anonymity was ensured, and participation was voluntarily. Still, I miss an ethical discussion on topics such as the children’s perspective (what do they really “say”, or what can they say in a survey?) and also perspective of the child (how can the results be interpreted to provide meaning to children and youth?). I believe such a reflection would have strengthened the results, specifically in relation to gender and even more so to the quite sensitive matter of ethnicity. I am sure Skauge has handled the data with care, though it would have been interesting and relevant to know how collection of the data has been reflected upon. For instance, individuals not being/feeling like a “boy” or “girl”, what else can they answer in the survey’s background section? Should there be more categories? Would it matter to the findings? Such a (brief) discussion of Skauge would problematize Ungdata’s choice to have a dichotomous answer in the gender category. Had Skauge chosen the same questions in the survey, or altered some of them?

I think that Skauge is quite modest in his aim with the dissertation, since the results do more than contribute: this dissertation adds new knowledge of participation patterns and opportunities in a rapidly changing society.

This relates to my second reflection. In the data and results, gender, class, and ethnicity is managed at a group level (male-female, ethnic minority-ethnic majority, affluent and non-affluent). I agree with Skauge that such categorizations are necessary for quantitative measures and analysis, to find patterns and understand how they change, or not change. Under the heading “Limitations” in the kappa (p.73–75), Skauge mentions that the chosen group categories based on gender, ethnicity and class are very broad, and that the sub-categories are overlooked in his dissertation. Still, a further reflection on what it might imply to mainly discuss the patterns found on group level had enhanced the trustworthiness of the results, although it would be in a speculative way. For one, the concepts of gender and ethnicity are not defined in the kappa. The concepts are a bit more explained in paper 2 (gender and gendered group identities) and paper 4 (ethnicity). In the Ungdata survey, participants can answer (appendix, p. 38) if they are born in Norway or not; if not when they moved to Norway, and if one or two parents are born in Norway. Based on this, with no further explanation, youth with both parents born abroad are grouped as minority youth. This is probably a common way to categorize minority and majority, but for all readers this is not obvious – what do we need to take into account when analyzing and discussing ‘minority youth’ (all those whose parents are born abroad)? In what way does ethnicity come into play, and can this be applied at all “minority” individuals? It is a very heterogeneous group. Skauge is aware of this in paper 4, but while a brief definition and acknowledgement might be enough in that paper (perhaps due to reviewers’ comments), in the kappa a further elaboration would in my opinion have strengthened the results. It would also show the complexity in how we should understand these (new) trends in society and the patterns in physical activity choices, motives and opportunities to participate or not among the broad categories of gender, ethnicity and class.

Contribution of new knowledge

Skauge has certainly contributed to the understanding of inequality in organized youth sport and fitness participation. I think that Skauge is quite modest in his aim with the dissertation, since the results do more than contribute: this dissertation adds new knowledge of participation patterns and opportunities in a rapidly changing society. Changing times need new perspectives (or at least the old perspectives used in new ways), and that is what Skauge has initiated. I look forward to future research from him, where the described limitations and chosen delimitation in data, methods, perspectives, interpretations and nuancing of the group levels can complete this study’s key findings.

Copyright © Marie Larneby 2022

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