Lucid and accessible, an excellent example of the deployment of the sociological imagination

Malcolm MacLean
University of Gloucestershire

Timothy Marjoribanks & Karen Farquharson Sport and Society in the Global Age 256 pages, paperback. Basingstoke, Hamps.: Palgrave Macmillan 2012 ISBN 978-0-230-58469-3
Timothy Marjoribanks & Karen Farquharson
Sport and Society in the Global Age
256 pages, paperback.
Basingstoke, Hamps.: Palgrave Macmillan 2012
ISBN 978-0-230-58469-3

This is an engaging, stimulating and refreshing exploration of some of the key issues in the contemporary sociology of sport, and while targeted at undergraduates contains some topical and vital state-of-the art discussions. What is more, it is written in such a way that I could use it with first year students as an introductory text and do use it with my third year students as a more challenging and focussed way into some of the more advanced issues in the subject area (there are two chapters that regularly feature on the ‘must read’ list for my third years). It is not only its presentational style that is refreshing, but also its global focus and emphasis on global and globalising forces that exist in and help shape contemporary sport.

Perhaps because its authors are Australian, the book manages to avoid many of the traps of North American and British sociology texts, which remain nationally focussed and (at the risk of being harsh) seem to be based in a principle that using an example, from time to time, from another national context makes them ‘global’: Marjoribanks and Farquharson effectively defamiliarise global networks and challenge many of the taken-for-granteds of sport sociology when seen from the North Atlantic cultural core – perhaps because they are writing from outside that core geographically, but concurrently within and on the margins of that core culturally (as a fellow antipodean I know that I bring a different set of presumptions and ways of seeing to my engagement with British society and history, and to its global contexts).

The book is organised around four broad themes – doing sociology (theorising and researching sport in sociological terms), sport and social processes (issues of ‘race’, gender, bodies and nations), governing sport (clubs, national and international federations, governments, and social justice) and sports’ cultures (athletes, fans and media) – while being woven through with a theoretical approach centred on sport as a site of social conflict, difference and struggles that both reflect and shape its social context. Many of the useful undergraduate texts we currently have are now well into multiple editions (one key North American text is now into its 11th edition with multiple national variations, while a widely used British text is now into its 5th edition) and in some cases retain a basic structure that has been updated but do not do as well as they could at effectively engaging with social patterns and forces that we have seen develop since the early 1990s. Marjoribanks & Farquharson are more effective than most at these contemporary social, cultural and political-economic and structural connections by drawing on theories of the networked society (á la Manuel Castells and others); in addition, they also retaining a basic outlook grounded in what North American sociologists like to call ‘conflict’ theory – that is, a presumption that when understood sociologically, sport is a site for the exercise of power, and that grasping these power dynamics is essential to understanding sport as a social process.

Three elements stand out. The inclusion of ethical governance and corporate social responsibility in the chapter on sport and social justice (so, including sports organisations and how they work alongside discussions of human rights social inclusion); the serious treatment of new media forms, including e-gaming (although four years after publication some of this has been superseded, even though the framework remains relevant), in the discussion of the sport-media complex, and the argument that the extensive and intensive use of computer technology to analyse performance is as much a sign of the athlete as cyborg as Oscar Pistorius’s ‘cheetah’ blades.

My concerns with the book are much less significant. First, the treatment of historical research is cursory (I’ll concede that there may be some disciplinary self-defence in a historian raising that point). Second, there is the use of the phrase ‘sport and society’ (especially in the title) that risks reinforcing the reflective model (that is, sport ‘reflects’ its social context rather than makes it) that the authors critique; the politics of publication might mean that the use of ‘and rather than, for instance, ‘in’ was the publisher’s choice. Third, the discussion of social inclusion/exclusion might have benefited from a critical analysis of how this language seems to have replaced the language of class and to a lesser degree ‘race’ in sociology and politics.

The book is lucid and accessible, an excellent example of the deployment of the sociological imagination, and deserves to be widely used. It has particular salience in the North Atlantic world in that its writing position destabilises the social and cultural views from the ‘centre’ that dominate scholarly literature and text books we regularly use; as such, it challenges students to see their own practices from the outside, as just one of many examples. Given the tendency of sport, sport scholars and sport students to see through national cultural lenses, this challenge is crucial to the development of critical perspectives: ‘critical’ there is not a code for ‘left’, but for scepticism about the inevitability of the way things are. Marjoribanks and Farquharson have given us a useful way to open up a range of contemporary and challenging topics in sport sociology, and in a way I hope many of my students and others will continue to find both novel and accessible.

Copyright © Malcolm MacLean 2016

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