Well-conceived introduction to the diverse academic field of physical cultural studies

Frida Wågan
Nord University, Norway

Susanne Ravn & Signe Højbjerre Larsen (ed.)
Krop og bevægelse i idræt og sundhed: Kulturanalytiske tilgange
170 sidor, paperback.
Odense: Syddansk Universitetsforlag 2020
ISBN 978-87-408-3267-9

Although the tradition for cultural analysis as well as cultural analysis of the body and bodily movement is strong (at least the last 60 years), there is a tendency in the field that books and articles addressing the different traditions and methodologies within the tradition are quite narrow (e.g., addressing only one methodology or tradition) or characterized by a main focus on the development of the tradition rather than offering “practical advice” for students or professionals wanting to apply cultural analysis in their research. To fill this gap, Susanne Ravn and Signe Højbjerre Larsen wanted to create a book that presents different cultural approaches used in the understanding of body and bodily movement inside the context of exercise and physical activity, as well as practical advice for applying the different approaches in research.

Their solution became this anthology, consisting of 11 chapters, each addressing an approach to cultural analysis. Each chapter aims to provide an understanding of the approach itself, together with a practical example of how the approach may be used in research, exemplified through one empirical study using the actual approach in the analysis of culture. Since the contributors to the anthology are researchers from Aarhus Universitty, University of Southern Denmark, Aalborg University, University of Copenhagen and Norwegian School of Sport Sciences, all with a special interest in the body and bodily movements, the main theme of the empirical studies is the body and movement in a physical activity or sports contexts. By putting the body and bodily movements in the center for empirical analyses in all chapters of the book, the authors efficiently illustrate why body and bodily movement are crucial themes in cultural analysis demonstrating, the main contradictions within different understandings of culture, namely the narrow and wide understanding of culture and the traditional “nature vs. culture” definition of culture.

Camilla Damkjær and Signe Højbjerre Larsen introduce us to cultural analysis in chapter one, by outlining the historical development of the cultural analysis tradition as a whole, briefly reviewing the different cultural understandings, traditions and research methods that today’s diverse field of cultural analysis builds upon. A rough overview of the field is sketched by categorizing different traditions and methods for cultural analysis by their methods and traditions, which sets up a useful starting point for the remaining chapters.

Each chapter aims to provide an understanding of the approach itself, together with a practical example of how the approach may be used in research, exemplified through one empirical study using the actual approach in the analysis of culture.

In chapter 2, Jørn Hansen presents the tradition of cultural-historical analysis in his study of the construction of the Body Mass Index (BMI) scale. Through a critical reflexive approach he breaks down the concept of normality when it comes to body composition, and shows how the construction of the “average” person is built by the emergence of the instrumental approach to the human body. In the next chapter, Lone Friis Thing and Stine Frydendal outline the processual-sociological analysis by exploring why swimming lessons directed by the school becomes a difficult body-cultural task for some individuals. Touching on the societal development of PE, they describe how cultural concepts like going swimming in a public bath as a way of exercise are processual and dynamic concepts rather than static cultural practices.

Stine Agergaard and Verena Lenneis present the anthropological representation in the book’s chapter 4, where they problematize the unvarnished and wide use of the term “culture” in political and public settings, exemplified by the discussion of gendered swimming in schools. In particular, they review the limitations related to the use of culture as a homogeneous and delimited size in relation to the political use of the culture concept on minority women as a cultural unity when it comes to participation in sporting activities. In both the fifth and the sixth chapter of the book, the reader is introduced to two ways of approaching discourse analysis. Annemari Munk Svendsen and Jesper Tinggaard Svendsen use discourse analysis to take a closer look at which representations of body, health and exercise we find when digital technologies are used in sports education in chapter 5, while Michael Fehsenfeld, in chapter 6, shows us how more critically oriented discourse analysis can be used to demonstrate how individual movements often are part of more superior movements in the society.

Representing organizational psychology and practice-oriented research, Louise K. Storm in chapter 7 shows how a functionalistic understanding of culture and social life inside an organization can insert organizational changes by analyzing the organizational culture inside a sports academy in Denmark. Focusing on the basic beliefs of the individuals inside the organization, she illustrates how problems can be solved on an organizational-cultural-level rather than as an individual problem, and how a more nuanced understanding of the basic beliefs inside an organization can be a starting point for change of practice.

Throughout their studies of two different movement practices, both Camilla Damkjær’s performance-focused analysis of ashtanga yoga in chapter 8, and Susanne Ravn’s phenomenological exploration of alternative movement-cultures like “natural movement” and “fighting monkey” in chapter 9, demonstrate how critical and constructive analyses of different body-practices in a culture can be based lived bodily experiences. Furthermore, they show how cultural structures are central in how a practice materializes and develops in subgroups in the community.

In the tenth chapter, Signe Højbjerre Larsen and Kenneth Aggerholm guide us through some of the classical philosophical terms inspired by Henning Eichberg’s philosophical approach to cultural analysis, by looking at how we could approach the growth of fitness parties inside traditional fitness cultures that do things outside a fairly rational view of health and fitness. Summing it all up, Susanne Ravn and Annemari Munk Svendsen reflect upon six central questions one should ask during the planning of a cultural-analytical project, centered around the nature of the research question and the empirical material, which cultural understanding dominates the research context, how data is collected and analyzed and what the societal relevance of possible findings from the study may be.

To the extent that it’s possible to describe the diversity of data collection methods and data analyzing strategies included in the broad field of cultural analyses, this book captures the essentials. By moving through a wide range of empirical examples of different movement cultures, sports and exercise practices, nine cultural-analytical practices are illustrated, and reflected upon. In many ways, the authors succeed in creating some distinctions between the different cultural-analytical practices, yet there is inevitably a certain overlap between the different traditions of cultural analysis. A clever turn to distinguish the different traditions and practices is the box with facts introducing every chapter, summing up the basis for the culture-analytical practice used in the chapter, in which societal setting this type of analyze may be fruitful to use, and the form of the empirical data used in the analysis.

Despite their endeavor to outline the more practical aspects of using cultural analysis to understand different theoretical traditions and practices, I sometimes miss a more distinct outlining of why the presented empirical study is a good example of the particular cultural-analytical perspective presented. Due to my sociological perspective, I further miss more explicit references to cultural-analytical traditions like the dramaturgical analysis (Goffman), symbolic interactionism (Blumer), ethnomethodology (Garfinkel) and postmodern perspectives like feminism (Smith), although I recognize the overlap with the traditions included in the book, as in chapter 4 on anthropology and chapter 9 on practical analytical perspectives. In its ambitious aim to reach out to both students and professionals working within physical activity, health, movement and body culture, it somehow falls somewhere in between a clarifying and detailed textbook, and a low-threshold introduction to cultural studies. Because of this, I’d probably recommend more detailed and conceptualizing international literature like Routledge Handbook of Physical Culture Studies (Silk, Andrews & Thorpe, 2017) or Qualitative research for physical culture (Markula & Silk, 2011) to more advanced students. Still, by its offering of a great variety of empirical subthemes and analyzing methods, the book is a well-written introduction to the academic field of physical cultural studies that I would certainly recommend to students relatively new to cultural studies and diverse qualitative methods.

Copyright © Frida Wågan 2021


Markula, P., & Silk, M. L. (2011). Qualitative research for physical culture. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Silk, M. L., Andrews, D. L., & Thorpe, H. (Eds.). (2017). Routledge handbook of physical cultural studies. Taylor & Francis.


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