Needs more methodology and more sports history to live up to its title

Robert Svensson
School of Health Sciences, Örebro University

Wray Vamplew & Dave Day (eds.)
Methodology in Sports History
191 pages, hardcover.
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2018 (Sport in the Global Society: Historical Perspectives)
ISBN 978-1-138-74058-7

In Sweden, sports history researchers – ranging from masters students to professors emeriti – meet once a year to present and discuss their finished, ongoing or planned research projects. A personal reflection is that the focus in these seminars is on what we are doing research about, i.e. the topic, and why we are doing it, i.e. why Swedish sports history is important and how and to whom Swedish sports historians can contribute. However, less focus has been on how research is done. Missing this discussion in general, and being a Ph.D. student of sport science and the sub-discipline of history who is currently putting my analytical framework (or theory), two different methods and four different types of source material together as a whole, a book entitled Methodology in Sports History looked both promising and welcome. My understanding is that methodology is about how research is done and is informed by an analytical framework or theory, which in turn adheres to certain ontological and epistemological claims. But I was rather disappointed with the book and will explain why in due course.

Methodology in Sports History consists of two different types of texts. These consist of article-length studies, which the editors Wray Vamplew and Dave Day call particular methodologies (such as working with digitized sources, quantitative methods, visual sources and oral history), and brief responses from experts in their field (for example physical education, labour history, sociology and literary studies) to the question “what can sport historians learn from other disciplines?” According to the introduction, these different types of texts are placed in two different sections in the book (p. 6f). What is somewhat confusing, though, is that the sections are not apparent, but the methodologies and the experts’ answers are, as far as I can tell, randomly distributed throughout the book.

First, “methodology” is never defined and clearly separated from “method”

Regardless of the rather unclear disposition, Methodology in Sports History does have something to offer. For example, Fiona Skillen and Carol Osborne’s paper “It’s Good to Talk: Oral History, Sports History and Heritage” (pp. 169-180)is a good introduction to oral history within sports history. Furthermore, it is rewarding to see scholars from other disciplines contributing to the field of sports history. However, there are three main aspects that make the overall impression of the book disappointing. First, “methodology” is never defined and clearly separated from “method”. Throughout the book, these two terms are used interchangeably, as for example in Dominic Malcolm’s abstract (p. 94). Not separating methodology from method makes the discussions indistinct, especially when the various contributors talk about different things. This is not to say that the they do not elaborate on the “methodology level”. Shannon R. Smith, for instance, merges epistemological dimensions into a method in her paper on sports history and literary studies by discussing her close reading and how it can support the treatment of the literary text as an historical object that sport historians can use to add “another dimension to the ongoing work of the sport historical project” (p. 119). However, what I can say is that an explicit definition would have helped me as a reader to follow the arguments, the authors to sharpen their arguments, and the editors to delete paragraphs that do not contribute to the arguments.

Second, when the various experts try to show what sports history can learn from their discipline, some draw a picture of an historian or history as a discipline that I have difficulty recognizing. The reason for this is that they pay more attention to presenting their field than becoming acquainted with sports history and how their discipline could contribute to it. This does not mean that sports history has nothing to learn from other disciplines, but sometimes I feel that they prescribe medicine for a disease that does not exist. Even though I am still getting acquainted with the sports history field myself, when Daniel A. Nathan from cultural studies tells me that the views of the past are impregnated with visions of the present and the future and that more sports historians “in the name of intellectual honesty and self-reflexivity” should embrace that (p. 138f, quote p. 139), my definite impression is that this is a lesson that has already been learned.

Third, the authors often talk about history in general. I would like to see a bit more about sports history and what connects sports to a specific methodology. There is one example where this is done. When talking about visual approaches, methodologies, and sources in sports history, Mike Huggins starts by arguing that sport is in many ways visual (p. 99f). With that framing, the paper feels relevant and worthwhile. A similar framing would have helped a few of the other papers to focus more on the topic. surmise

To summarize, Methodology in Sports History offers some food for thought, but in order to fully live up to the title, I would like to see a clear definition of and focus on methodology and more time spent on sports history.

Copyright © Robert Svensson 2018

Table of Content

  1. Introduction: Sports History Methodology: Old and New
    Dave Day and Wray Vamplew
  2. A Bird’s-Eye View of the Past: Digital History, Distant Reading and Sport History
    Murray G. Phillips, Gary Osmond and Stephen Townsend
  3. Diplomatic and International History: Athletes and Ambassadors
    Heather L. Dichter
  4. Still Playing Together(?): A Recall to Physical Education and Sport History Intersections
    Geoffery Z. Kohe
  5. Towards a Critical Dialogue between the History of Sport, Management History, and Sport Management/Organization Studies in Research and Teaching
    Matthew L. McDowell
  6. Geography and the Methodological Ballpark: Putting Place into Sports History
    Chris Perkins
  7. Methodology in Sports History: Learning from Legal Scholarship?
    Jack Anderson
  8. Parallel Fields: Labour History and Sports History
    Matthew Taylor
  9. Economics and (Modern) Sports History
    Stefan Szymanski
  10. The Development of Sport in Museums
    J. Reilly
  11. Archives and Historians of Sport
    Martin Johnes
  12. Ways of Seeing, Ways of Telling: From Art History to Sport History
    John Hughson
  13. The Philosophy of Sport
    Andrew Edgar
  14. Durkheim and Sociological Method: Historical Sociology, Sports History, and the Role of Comparison
    Dominic Malcolm
  15. The Visual in Sport History: Approaches, Methodologies and Sources
    Mike Huggins
  16. Complexity, Critique, and Close Reading: Sport History and Literary Studies
    Shannon R. Smith
  17. In Praise of Numbers: Quantitative Sports History
    Wray Vamplew
  18. Cultural Studies and Sport History
    Daniel A. Nathan
  19. Narrative Methods in Sport History Research: Biography, Collective Biography, and Prosopography
    Samantha-Jayne Oldfield
  20. It’s Good to Talk: Oral History, Sports History and Heritage
    Fiona Skillen and Carol Osborne
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