Brilliant introduction to a critical sociology of sport

Anne Tjønndal
Faculty of Social Science, Nord University


Eric Anderson & Adam White
Sport, Theory and Social Problems: A Critical Introduction (Second Edition)
198 pages, paperback, ill.
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2018
ISBN 978-1-138-69992-2

In this second edition of Sport, Theory and Social Problems (first published in 2010), Eric Anderson has gained a new co-author in Adam White. Anderson, who wrote the first edition of this book by himself, is a professor of Sport, Masculinities and Sexuality at the University of Winchester (UK). Anderson is a well-known researcher who has published 17 books and over 70 peer-reviewed articles, and by many known for his work on inclusive masculinity in sport and for his commitment to the issue of concussions in sport. His co-author Adam White is a lecturer at the University of Winchester (UK). White’s doctoral research examines head trauma in sport.

David Hoff has previously reviewed the first edition of this book on idrottsforum.org. The review of the first book was written in a Scandinavian language (Swedish), and therefore I have chosen to write this review of the second edition in English. This second edition of the book contains three new chapters: chapter 4 on brain injuries in youth sport, chapter 5 on the governance of youth sport and chapter 9 on sport’s use in subordinating racial minorities. Furthermore, the second edition is updated in terms of research and evidence for each chapter and includes a more in-depth discussion of the tremendous dropout rates in competitive organized youth sports.

Sport, Theory and Social Problems is an outstanding introduction to critical theory in sport sociology. Anderson and White say it best in their opening paragraph: “There is a good chance that you are reading this book because you love sport. If this is the case, you need to know that our aim is to help you divorce yourself from that love” (p. 1). The book deflates common myths associated with sport, such as “team sports teaches us how to work together, and get along with others” (p. 5), or that team sport is an effective solution to many of the issues related to the social inclusion of ethnic and sexual minorities, racialized people and women. What is unique to this book is how it goes about devaluing these myths and introducing the reader to critical sociological theories along the way. Throughout the book, the chapters are all structured in the same manner. Each chapter begins with a sports-related vignette – a true story of an athlete, relevant to the chapter topic. These are highly engaging, and illustrate the social problems associated with (youth) sport in a practice-oriented way. Each vignette is reflected in an introductory-level discussion of relevant social theory. Some of the theories included in the book are Goffman’s concept of the total institution; Elias and the civilization process; Marxism; hegemony theory (Gramsci); hegemonic masculinity (Connell); inclusive masculinity theory (Anderson); Bourdieu’s concept of masculine domination; and contact theory (Allport)—just to mention a few. Each chapter continues with the theoretical discussion being related to sport before finally, the chapters end with the authors addressing major research findings on how sport continues to reproduce socio-negative attributes.

If I were to point out one drawback of the book for Nordic/Scandinavian readers it is that they might not recognize Anderson and Whites’ descriptions of how sport functions and is organized all of the time. The empirical examples and the sports vignettes portray a very American view on sport, with stories from sports that are more popular in the U.S. than in Scandinavia (such as American football, lacrosse, basketball, cheerleading and so on). While the myths about the ‘good of sport’ certainly are relevant for organized sport in Scandinavia, there are cultural differences in terms of how sport is organized, that I suspect most Scandinavian readers will react to. Some of these differences are especially apparent in the book’s conclusion. For instance, requirements to obtain a bachelor’s degree (in sports coaching) in order to work as a coach (p.162-164) is already practiced in Iceland.  Personally, as a nationally and internationally certified boxing coach I have never experienced “how not to get sued” (p.163) as a topic in any coaching course I have taken, and the thought that anyone would sue me for anything sports-related is foreign to me (as a Norwegian).

In my opinion, this book is a brilliant addition to the curriculum of any introductory course on the sociology of sport. Most readers (sport science/sport sociology students at least) will find that this book confronts them with many of the cultural ‘truths’ we believe about organized sport in Western cultures. Students at both bachelor and master level would benefit greatly from reading Anderson and White’s introduction to critical perspectives on the sociology of sport. This book is powerful, engaging both intellectually and emotionally, pedagogically structured and well written. It highlights how damaging organized, competitive team sports can be, without claiming that all sport is all bad all the time, or that sport cannot be socially good.

Copyright © Anne Tjønndal 2018

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