Useful book on narrative approaches to inequality in the sporting field

Mads Skauge
Nord University, Norway

Fiona Dowling, Hayley Fitzgerald & Anne Flintoff (eds.)
Equity and Difference in Physical Education, Youth Sport and Health: A Narrative Approach
190 pages, paperback.
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2014 (Routledge Studies in Physical Education and Youth Sport)
ISBN 978-1-138-79578-5

Equity and Difference in Physical Education, Youth Sport and Health: A Narrative Approach, edited by Fiona Dowling, Hayley Fitzergald and Anne Flintoff, gives important insights into the different ways in which narratives can be used for better understanding of the (in)equality processes in the field of sports. The book aims to enliven research conversations about differences and inequality in physical education (PE), youth sport and health. Ultimately it has a modest aim to help teachers and coaches to create more inclusive learning environments for young people in health contexts.

The 190 pages long anthology contains three main parts (1, “theoretical perspectives”, 2, “stories of inequality” and 3, “engaging with narratives”) and 20 chapters of varying length. 18 authors have contributed to the book, most of them academics from the UK, US, New Zealand, and Australia. The first part of the book offers some perspectives on (in)equality and why they matter for understanding young people’s experiences of being treated inequitably. Young people live in an increasingly differentiated world, where inequalities associated with disability, gender, ethnicity, religion etc., structures their experiences. This may be a problem since the sports, schools and public health systems of modern western societies have developed with a political goal of seeking to contribute equal opportunities for everyone regardless of social background, drawing on well-known mottoes such as ‘Sport for All’. The authors argue that there is a lot of ‘taken-for-grantedness’ of this policy rhetoric and that we may not so often actually reflect on what terms such as ‘inclusion’ and ‘exclusion’ actually means.

Narratives may have a range of functions related to inequality in health, PE and sport. Since we are not free to choose ‘our story’, the way we script out life is often a reflection of the socio-cultural locations we inhabit. Fiona Dowling uses the example of women’s bodies and particularly those of working-class women. These bodies have for a long time been pathologized via narrativity, and as a result, many women are, in direct or indirect ways, excluded from a variety of social arenas. In a similar way tales about dysfunctional bodies, heterosexual masculinity and racist’ narratives could give rise to social exclusion and white supremacy.

The collection presents various theoretical perspectives on inequality in the field of sports (part 1), and 15 short stories of inequality where a variety of ways to analyze narratives are outlined (part 2). Part 3 combines the theoretical perspectives and the stories from the two first parts of the book by showing how different narratives could be understood based on those different theoretical perspectives. A theory could work as a tool to help us understand the complexities of inequality, and for reflecting on practice. According to the authors, every practice is, in some way, underpinned by theory whether they explicitly state it or not. Different theories are useful in addressing different questions. If inequalities in sports participation rates should be explored by variables such as class, age, and gender, then categorical theorizing would be useful. Relational research, however, focuses on the social relations within and between different groups and how these are historically and culturally variable. To explore the meaning and place of sport within young people’s lives, a post-structural approach could identify the kinds of discursive resources available to draw on. For instance, some particular bodies become valued and celebrated, whilst others are marginalized or ignored. The authors claims that these inequalities are taken up and reproduced in everyday and institutional practices.

It seems like a great way to stimulate critical reflection and to examine taken-for-granted understandings of the social world.

The stories told in part 2 of the book vary in both form and content. Some of them are told from the perspective of the researcher or teacher, while others represent the voice of the youth. As I see it, part 3 contains the best and most important contributions, which increases our understanding of inequality processes in the field. Here the authors aim to illuminate ways in which one might engage with narratives by linking them to the readers’ personal experiences and to different theoretical lenses.

The authors share their own interpretations of the different narratives presented in part 2. This part is the one where I actually felt like I was getting a better understanding of the relevance of narrative approaches, and how they can be used as tools for better understanding of differences in the sporting field, even in my own research. It seems like a great way to stimulate critical reflection and to examine taken-for-granted understandings of the social world.

Part 3 (the ‘engaging with narratives’-part) is the shortest part of the three in the book, and I found this somewhat strange. The 15 narratives presented in part 2 (the storytelling part), seems like a few too many, where more space could be used to discuss practical implications for teachers and researchers wanting to gain more insight into the use of narrative approaches in the field. The explorations of theoretical perspectives of difference and narrative ways of knowing in a wide range of physical activity contexts in part 1 and 2, are undoubtedly well-written and very interesting. Nevertheless, I see these parts mainly as a preparatory introduction to part 3. Therefore, I would have preferred more reflections from the authors on differences in PE, youth sport and health in this part of the book, drawing on the theoretical perspectives introduced in part 1 and the storytelling examples from part 2.

As the book exolicitly claims, it is important to reflect on differences in the field of sports and physical activity, since large numbers of young women and men are not afforded the opportunity to become physically educated because social categories in various ways tend to exclude them. Their experiences of PE and sports take place within unequal relations of power in society and within relations of dominance and subordination. Socially constructed and value-laden social structures position us throughout life. These structures could, and sometimes should, be questioned and challenged because of their potential of being unjust and discriminatory. For example, as the authors point out, sports coaches should ask themselves to what extent the so-called ‘traditional masculine values’ are dominating the field of sports and what the consequences may be. Teachers, coaches and researchers should reflect on what we mean when we’re talking about ‘inclusive’ education and sports, the authors argue. By reading stories about young peoples’ varied experiences in PE, sports and health contexts, there is a potential to enter into the imagined worlds of those whose lives we want to influence. I find this very true, and for that reason I would have liked more of it in the book as well – I mean more interpretations and implications of the presented stories and how theory can help us unpack the narratives.

All in all, I found myself relatively engulfed in and fascinated by the book throughout almost every little part of it. I would like to recommend the book to others, especially to teachers and researchers looking to reflect on their own practice through narrative approaches of inequality in PE, sports, and health. For my own part, I found the book inspiring for future research projects using narrative approaches to studies of inequality in sports. That is a big compliment, I think.

Copyright © Mads Skauge 2019


Table of Content


Part One: Theoretical Perspectives

Chapter One
Theorizing Difference and (In)Equality in Physical Education, Youth Sport and Health
Anne Flintoff and Hayley Fitzgerald

Chapter Two
A Narrative Approach to Research in Physical Education, Youth Sport and Health
Fiona Dowling

Part Two: Stories of Difference and (In)Equality

Run Rabbit Run
Lisette Burrows

Young Men, Sport And Sexuality: A Poetic Exploration
David Carless

Inclusion in National Curriculum Policy and Physical Education
Dawn Penney

‘Miss Whitney’ And ‘Miss, Are You a Terrorist?’: Negotiating A Place within Physical Education
Anne Flintoff

The Spark and Discouragement of an Innovative Male Physical Educator
Nate Mccaughtry and Kimberly Oliver

Second Toe Syndrome
Catherine Morrison

Gendered Running, Gendering Research: A Collaborative Trans Narrative
Heather Sykes and Satoko Itani

Looking and ‘Feeling’ The Part
Anne Flintoff and Sheila Scraton

Holly Goes To School to Become A PE Teacher… and Doesn’t! A Three Act Play
Antony Rossi

Them, Us, We, Me: Negotiating Being a Muslim Girl In Australia
Kelly Knez and Doune Macdonald

It’s Not for the School to Tell Us Charlie … After All, To Us You Are Healthy Big
Emma Rich

Them Special Needs Kids and Their Waiters
Hayley Fitzgerald

Making the Grade
Fiona Dowling

Dances with Wolves
Kitrina Douglas

‘You Hurt Me Fizz-Edd’: The Socially Classed Discursive Practices of the PE Lesson

Part Three: Engaging with Narratives

Chapter Three
Engaging With Narratives In Order To Better Understand Difference and (In)Equality in Physical Education, Youth Sport and Health
Fiona Dowling

Chapter Four
Exemplar One: Health, Physical Education, Pupils, Parents and Teachers
Fiona Dowling

Chapter Five
Exemplar Two: Disability and Difference in Schooling and Home
Hayley Fitzgerald


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