Nancy L Struna. Handbook of Sports Studies. Editor: Jay Coakley & Eric Dunning. 2000. Sage Publishing.
The history of sport history stretches far back in time. Cave dwellers placed pictographs of their sporting pursuits on the walls of caves and shared their stories orally. Subsequently, in societies such as ancient Crete, Greece, Egypt, China and Rome, people recorded their experiences via symbols, hieroglyphics and other forms of writing. Centuries later in the West, late medieval and early modern chroniclers—Richard Carew and Joseph Strutt in Britain and the Flemish artist Jan Bruegel, for example—maintained the tradition of constructing scenes of popular sports. Many of us have used the records left by these people; they have become historians’ evidence. We should not forget, however, that before these pictographs, hieroglyphics, sagas and paintings were forms of historical evidence, they were histories. Moreover, to their makers they were social histories. They were stories people told of themselves in their times and places.
These ‘stories’ of peoples’ experiences located and understood in the context of their times and places are a part of the domain of contemporary social historians. Of course, we also construct larger stories from these particular stories, stories about patterns of change and persistence over time, stories that are critical to our understanding of social production and reproduction. A more succinct definition of the field comes from the British scholar Harold Perkin: ‘Social history is … all history from the social point of view’ (Perkin, 1973: 433). It is so, explained Eric Hobsbawm, because ‘the societal aspects of man’s [sic] being cannot be separated from other aspects of his being’ (Hobsbawm, 1974: 5).
Such positions will undoubtedly discomfort some sport historians; they see social and sport histories as distinguishable ventures, albeit ones with some common interests. As Larry Gerlach has suggested in a review of baseball history—and thus he was not addressing social history directly—such distinctions are deceptive, however. Any good history of a sport, of the economic dimensions of sports, or of ideas about health, the body, or sport, ‘is necessarily about more’ than a sport, economics, or ideas (Gerlach, 1994: 135). Such a history will also discuss the broader social setting, if not fully situate a practice in its complex social context, and it will identify social issues and trends even if it does not draw out the multiple levels of interaction between and among sporting performances, agents, structures and processes and the other dimensions of human social existence.
Precisely what do social historians of sport think and do? They examine sports as social practices, as social formations, or as social texts for the purpose of understanding both the sports and the society. Social historians ask and answer questions about the nature and ‘fit’ of sports in given times among given peoples, about how and why people constructed particular forms of sport, about the meanings that human agents assigned to sports, about conflicts and social contests evident or played out in sports, about patterns of continuity and change in sporting experiences and structures, and about the social significance of sporting practices in the context of other practices, processes and dynamics. We assume that sports are constitutive features of societies and, if a truth be told, we also assume that any given society would be quite different without its sports from what it was or is.
What follows in this chapter is a three-part essay about the social history of sport that draws on many historians’ studies, whether or not they were consciously written as social histories. It attempts, first, to discuss some of historiographical trends evident in the literature, both past and present. Secondly, it reviews some of the recent research in sport as this bears on social history. Finally, it suggests lines of inquiry for the future, most of which cross traditional disciplinary boundaries. Throughout, the chapter reflects this author’s own boundaries, especially in terms of languages; the histories consulted are English-language publications that concentrate on Western experiences. This chapter also relies on books and some of the journal literature. Thus the story constructed in the following pages is by no means a complete story; it is not even a comprehensive review of the field of sport history.
Before the 1980s one approach dominated Western sport historiography. Historians often intended to reconstruct the past, and they focused on particular events such as the Olympics, the origins and developments of particular sports (especially modern ones), individuals and organizations, and occasionally the social bases for and attitudes that supported sports. The resultant histories tended to be descriptive rather than analytic; they told who did what at what point in time. They were also largely uncritical, in all senses of the word, owing in part to the dominant empiricist framework. Researchers assumed that historical evidence existed independently of the historian, that the past as it had occurred could be reconstructed from that evidence, and that change over time was both inevitable and progressive. What interpretations emerged drew both from biology, especially biological evolution, and structural-functional sociology. The broader society appeared in references to milieu, the backdrop, rather than by way of context, or the ensemble of behaviors, meanings and events in which something occurred and must be examined and understood (Thompson, 1972).
The picture that resulted from these descriptive histories had a distinctive beginning in ancient societies and, if not quite an end, certainly a climax in modern, industrial societies. Participation in recognizable sports was clearly evident in places such as Sumer, Egypt, Greece and China. Some forms—archery and chariot races, for example—developed out of martial practices. Other sports evolved from necessary endeavors; hunting and horse racing are classic examples. Still other forms emerged as individuals contested for place in a society, or, as did ball games, in the course of religious rituals and festivals. Indeed, given the significance of religions in these early societies, many sports occurred in the context of festivals that honored the gods and became ritualized themselves.
Not surprisingly perhaps, the Middle Ages, which stretched for nearly a millennium between c. 500 and 1500 CE, constituted a second stage in the evolution of sports, according to this approach. During these centuries as societies multiplied and became more complex, not only did the evolution of ancient sports continue but newer ones also emerged. Given their persisting belief in evolution, historians continued to find the roots of more recently organized sports in ordinary tasks and religious festivals. Northern people added sports like skiing and skating, both derived from modes of transportation, to the record. Villagers in many places developed locally popular versions of football and many gambling games that pitted one’s luck or skill against the fates. Elites continued to transform their martial practices into sports; examples include jousting and tilting in England. Animal sports such as cock fighting also emerged as ritual battles tied to conflicts among ethnic groups.
The Middle Ages came to a close as a series of processes—expanding trade, communication, exploration, education, nation-building, religious ‘reformation,’ and inventiveness—moved human society into a third and climactic period in human history, at least in the West: the modern era. This period, especially the century and a half after 1800, witnessed the development of industrial capitalism, large urban areas, and complex, highly organized sports. Outside of Europe, where earlier periods retained their significance to sport scholars, historians have concentrated on sports in modern societies. Not surprisingly perhaps, it is precisely this historical type of sport, ‘modern’ sport, that has served for years as the classic, even paradigmatic definition of sport.
Historians operating in this empiricist, descriptive approach examined three major questions about modern sports. First, where, when, by whom and in what steps were modern sports developed? Second, how and where did the organization, commercialization and institutionalization of sports proceed? Finally, how did major public sports in various countries reflect and express national interests and characteristics? What resulted were articles and, to a lesser extent, books that described particular sports, the lives of significant individuals, and broader movements that supported, opposed, or even impeded developments in sports. In many countries as well, historians uncovered sport clubs, chronicled the workings of sport federations and detailed the ideological underpinnings of sports in schools and religious and military organizations. Still others probed the role of the media in shaping and promoting sports, the development of transportation and communication infrastructures that permitted the geographic spread and cultural power of sports, the beliefs that institutional agents held about sports and the ways in which institutions embraced and promoted sports.
In Britain, Europe and North America especially, these descriptive works reached their apogee in the late 1970s, and they resulted in a fairly detailed map of some people and some sports. It was also a map with clear limits, not the least of which were meaningful explanations and generalizations. However, some historians had already begun to reconcile the field’s traditional interest in the particular with the need to generalize, both across time and across societies and social groups. They had also begun to draw on social theories that helped in the search for explanations and encouraged a conscious reframing of questions, of evidence, and of historians’ relationships to the data.
During the past 15-plus years, much of the published historical research about sport has been theoretically grounded, even if it has not aimed at grand theorizing and prediction à la sociology. Some scholars have drawn on varieties of historical materialism to ask questions about social relations, processes, structures and significations. Gramscian historical blocs and hegemony, Giddens’s structuration, the French Annales school and the approaches of E.P. Thompson and Raymond Williams and, in central Europe, Louis Althusser, are influential. Other historians have turned to a number of feminist perspectives and to post-structuralist theorists such as Lacan and Foucault; both perspectives are particularly apparent in the research on women, gender and the body. Still others have employed concepts and methods from cultural anthropology, especially its symbolic structures frameworks. From French social history Pierre Bourdieu’s social fields and his earlier system of schemes, which theorizes how people dealt with contingencies in the past, have become influential. Finally, the positivist modernization theory has retained some adherents, particularly in the United States.
What has also become clear in recent years is that historians employ these theoretical frameworks in distinct genres of social-historical analyses. The most common form is the deep, internal history of sport. Commonly such works hold that sporting experiences were distinctive and separable sets of social experiences that bore on the making of society, even as they were affected by and exemplified larger social movements and issues. In effect, scholars maintain, sports had particular internal histories that warrant telling, and in fact, the history of a society is incomplete until its sport history is understood. No subject thus is too small for social historical analysis: particular games or other contests, organizations, movements (including those related to health and the body), ideologies and sets of attitudes. Such studies also often address the interests and experiences of dominant and/or subordinate groups in sport contexts, as well as issues such as control and power, in comparatively short time frames.
This genre owes much to British historians, especially James Walvin and Tony Mason, who recognized quite early in the modern history of social history the importance of particular sports in the experiences of ordinary people. Their respective works on soccer, The People’s Game (Walvin, 1975) and Association Football and English Society, 1863-1915 (Mason, 1980), set a standard for impeccable scholarship and secured a place for sports in social history, especially insofar as it was history ‘from the bottom up.’ Wray Vamplew’s Pay Up and Play the Game (1988), which explored the class and commercial bases underlying the development of professional sport, and Sport in Britain (Mason, 1989), an anthology whose contributors identified the social bases for and the patterns of many sports, extended our understanding of both the place and the significance of sport in British life.
Scholars have also analysed the development of modern sports as an historically specific social formation in the context of a nation’s history; the internal history thus is a story of a movement rather than a sport. A number of fine books explore how and why modern sports were shaped, commercialized, institutionalized, promoted and politicized, as well as how this historically specific type and style of sport affected the larger society. Richard Cashman, for example, explored all these processes in Australia in his Paradise of Sport (1995), while many of the articles in Sport and Society in Latin America (Arbena, 1988) focused on the introduction, spread and impacts of modern sports in South and Central America. Alan Metcalfe’s Canada Learns to Play (1987) remains the classic work on the social patterns and dynamics and the process by which modern sports became the dominant forms in capitalist, industrializing Canada through 1914. Bruce Kidd’s The Struggle for Canadian Sport (1996) explored the Canadian story after the First World War and attributes the making of the country’s major sports and its sport system, which are integral dimensions of Canadian life and society today, to four major organizations. In the United States, urban rather than national social histories represent this genre. Melvin Adelman’s A Sporting Time (1986) and Steven Riess’s City Games (1989) both explicated how and why modern sports emerged in urban areas and how facilities, teams, entrepreneurs and popular interests shaped the city and urban living. A similar urban focus emerged in Robert Edelman’s Serious Fun: a History of Spectator Sports in the USSR (1993).
The second genre is more akin to classic Western social histories. Such works address sports and society, with the conjunction signifying equal attention, in contrast to the interior histories’ sports in society perspective. One of the goals of this kind of social history is the telling of a ‘large’ story about the nature, fit and meanings of sporting practices as these were embedded in society; hence, the common focus on the making of sporting life as an inextricably linked dimension of the making of a nation, a people, or a sub-period. These works also often draw upon other social histories to compare and contrast sporting forms, relations and structures with other social practices. In effect, such histories describe and analyse sporting life, or at least some episodes, in the context of a web of social activities and processes, an effort that facilitates the historian’s quest to assess sport’s historical social significance.
In writing these histories of sport and society, British historians again defined the genre and set the standards. One of the earliest and most important books was Robert Malcolmson’s Popular Recreations in English Society, 1700-1850 (1973). Malcolmson simultaneously challenged conceptions of linear change and demonstrated the social power of sports in local experiences and social relations and on institutions and individuals. Subsequently, Peter Bailey (1978) and Hugh Cunningham (1980) produced fine books that explored sporting movements as dimensions of leisure patterns, which they situated within the social, ideological and industrial transformations of England during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. More recently, in Sport and the British (1989a) Richard Holt examined patterns of persistence and change in popular sporting experiences and accounted for critical nineteenth- and twentieth-century transformations in the context of larger structural and ideological processes occurring in Britain. Outside of the British sphere, in Judas at the Jockey Club (1987) William Beezley explored the social locus and base for and tensions evident in sporting contexts during a dynamic period in Mexican history, a period marked by conflicting traditional and emergent modern patterns and interests. My own People of Prowess: Sport, Leisure, and Labor in Early Anglo-America (Struna, 1996a) examined the making of sports and the dynamics of sporting practices as contested domains in the context of transformations in labor and leisure practices and relationships in the Anglo-American colonies of the early modern period.
The third genre frames sport within the study of popular culture or leisure. These kinds of works are first and foremost histories of popular culture or leisure. An insightful work in this vein is Phyllis Martin’s Leisure and Society in Colonial Brazzaville (1995), which explored the interplay of indigenous and imperial interests and patterns of leisure and sport. Other authors frame popular sports as a set of instances or practices of leisure or popular culture, and they intend to explore a range of experiences in which a people engaged in order to understand the ideological interests, social relations and structural conditions in a locale. Such is the case with Donald Wetherell’s and Irene Kmet’s Useful Pleasures: The Shaping of Leisure in Alberta, 1896-1945 (1990), Workers’ Culture in Imperial Germany: Leisure and Recreation in the Rhineland and Westphalia by Lynn Abrams (1991), and Richard Waterhouse’s Private Pleasures, Public Leisure: A History of Australian Popular Culture (1995). Anthologies in this genre also permit a thematic approach to popular experiences and thus describe experiences that actively link sports and other forms of leisure. Workers’ Worlds: Cultures and Communities in Manchester and Salford, 1880-1939 (Davies and Fielding, 1992), for instance, located and analysed organized betting in the context of street life. It thus tantalized a reader with clues about how sports might be connected within the web of social practices, as well as about how popular interests and traditions might have shaped sporting practices.
I have emphasized the differences among these kinds of social-historical studies because I believe that they are real and substantial. At the very least, the genres represent different ways of framing both sports and the relationships among sports, other social practices and formations, and societies. Beyond the pale of difference, however, we should also realize that these genres are actually complementary, rather than antagonistic. Indeed, considered as a body of literature, these works have produced considerable knowledge about the particulars of sports and for generalizations about the processes of social production and reproduction across sports and across countries. It is to these particulars and processes, via a topical discussion, that this chapter now turns.
The recent literature in sport history can be read as a primer on social history writ large. Physical spaces and places, traditions, demography, community building, the construction of social categories and discourses, social structures and structuring and more, constitute research interests that cross scholars’ national and political interests. Further, as the discussion of genres suggests, the broader realms of work and leisure, popular culture, national ideologies and movements such as industrialization and globalization have also received the attention of historians.
These social-historical interests cut across periods, as some of the recent research on sports in ancient and medieval societies makes clear. Drawing on both new and traditional sources of evidence, ancient historians have attempted to locate sporting practices in the contexts of the social experiences and systems of their subjects rather than to find the ‘roots’ of modern sports in such places or to produce ahistoric idealizations. Informed by post-structuralist and critical theories, historians of ancient Greece, for example, have offered new interpretations of class relations (Kyle, 1993; Miller, 1991), events as texts (Kyle, 1995), state support for athletes (Crowther, 1996; Young, 1985), and the social and cultural bases for and significance of violence (Poliakoff, 1987). This latter theme, along with that of the political signification of events in arenas, is also evident in new works on Roman sports (Auguet, 1994; Plass, 1995; Wiedemann, 1992). Theoretically less telling but containing valuable information about the social bases of sporting practices are books about understudied societies in Egypt (Decker, 1992) and China (Sports and Games, 1986; Xihuan, 1991).
For medieval sports, the recent literature is more limited, both in terms of numbers and geographies. As a body, the research focuses on European societies and primarily therein on feudal structures and relations (for example, Carter, 1984). A significant book by Thomas Henricks (1991) employed symbolic analysis and presents sports as identity ceremonies, or display vehicles. The traits various generations displayed were primarily the products of larger political, economic and social movements, he argues. More descriptive and less well contexted are three works on various dimensions of medieval sporting experiences, formalized English tournaments (Young, 1987), the violence of low and high culture sports in England (Carter, 1992), and the impact of the code of chivalry (Ziegler, 1993). Finally, and perhaps most compelling, are Compton Reeves’s (1995) broadly framed examination of English popular culture practices, including sports, and Joachim Ruhl’s (1990) investigation of German tournament regulations in the fifteenth century. The latter in particular is an artful exploration of an historically specific process of sport-making that augments our understanding of how a people constructed a sport from what had become a residual military skill.
Ruhl’s work hints at the potential for exploring processes of social production and reproduction that scholars may find in prior centuries. Certainly this is the case in the early modern period in the West (that is, the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries). For Britain, Europe and North America especially, these centuries witnessed important transformations in demography, economic action and relations, political structures, ideological systems (including religion), popular culture and ordinary life, even as some traditional patterns persisted. Two British historians, Dennis Brailsford (1969, 1991, 1992) and Robert Malcolmson (1973), recognized the significance of this period quite early; their books examined how and why customary sports persisted, the ways in which sports figured in broader social and political contexts, and the social and economic bases for emergent patterns of sports. Recent studies have augmented our understanding of this dynamic period by exploring such topics as emergent professional practices that were tied to changes occurring in theaters (McElroy and Cartwright, 1986), the social locus and meanings of multiple persisting practices (Holt, 1989a; Möller, 1984), the impact of cultural collisions and acculturation (Salter, 1995), and changes in economic production and popular consumption that underlay the standardization and popularizing of particular forms of sport (McKendrick et al., 1982). In the context of Anglo-American colonial experiences, People of Prowess (Struna, 1996a) explored the determining impact of the rhythms and relations of ordinary life on sports, how and why some traditional sports either persisted or were adapted over time, and how the construction of labor and leisure as separable realms of experience affected sporting practices and the social relations forged in sporting contexts.
As has the research on ancient and medieval sport, so too have studies of the early modern period contributed to our understanding of the social history of sport and social processes over the long dureé in several important ways. First, they have provided some detail about the ways in which ordinary people constructed social categories—rank, race and gender—in sporting performances and in physical culture more generally. Secondly, they have heightened the significance of the locale as a major site for social production and as a major source of variations in social life. Particular practices, modes of organization and social relations, in other words, were rooted in the affairs and rhythms of ordinary life, modes and relations of production, traditions, physical environment and mentalité of the people(s) in an area. Even in the modern period when particular sports have emerged as international social practices, local variations—in styles of play, meanings, symbols and attendant celebrations—are still evident. Finally, the early modern studies have suggested that some social and economic processes and conditions—capitalization and emergent capitalism, boundary-making, standardization and codification of behaviors, and specialization, for example—once associated only or primarily with modern sports had begun long before modern sports were fully constructed. Some modern historians, especially in Britain, Europe and Australia, also realize that some of the traditions invented by early modern people persisted over time and remained meaningful as dimensions of the stories that later generations told about themselves.
Indeed, many historians of sports in the modern period, including some historians of modern sport, have attended to both persistence in time and continuity over time. This trend is most noticeable in the research on the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, where historians have examined the persistence of traditional sporting styles, as well as the tensions that emerged when traditional ways and expectations collided with emergent ones. Such studies have at once deepened our understanding of the making of particular modern sports and made clear that earlier interpretations about the social functions of sport in the making of modern society, such as that of social control, are simplistic at best. In industrial, capitalist and urban societies, traditional practices were immensely powerful, and the construction of modern forms did not occur overnight or without contesting and negotiations.
Some of the most telling research on persisting traditional experiences focuses on men who were members of the working classes in many countries. In the United States Elliott Gorn (1986) explored the experiences of mostly unskilled laborers in New York City as it was undergoing profound economic and demographic changes in the mid-nineteenth century. Gorn suggested that traditional forms of bareknuckle prize fighting expressed the values and relations of these men (as opposed to those of the dominant culture) and was one of the few venues in which they could exert their agency. In a similar vein, Alan Metcalfe (1982, 1988, 1990a) examined the persistence of traditional sports, including potshare bowling, among miners in the north of England, and N.L. Tranter (1990a) explored quoits play among miners, industrial laborers and craftsmen in central Scotland. Both sets of work revealed the traditional interests of the workers in displays of physical prowess, which were partly about achieving honor within the community, and the ongoing importance of the pub as a sporting site in which publicans were sports promoters.
Many other studies of male working-class patterns have been completed in recent years, and as a group they confirm and extend the conclusions drawn by Gorn, Metcalfe and Tranter. Especially in the nineteenth century, working men in many countries had distinctive sporting styles that drew from particular interests, traditions and labor-leisure rhythms and relations. Their styles in turn often incorporated traditional sports that remained meaningful and were not residual in the sense of being mere residues of past formations; they were also at odds with those of the dominant middle and upper classes. Importantly, these studies elevate the agency of members of the working class in the context of modern sports, and, in so doing, they reinterpret class relations and challenge older notions of the ‘trickle down’ transmission of modern sports. Resistance and negotiations were complex processes engineered by the working classes as they retained traditional practices and became involved in emergent ones. On this latter point, several studies suggest that members of various working classes were agents in the construction of some modern team sports, especially baseball, rugby and soccer (Goldstein, 1989; Hargreaves, 1986; Holt, 1990; Jones, 1986, 1988; Vamplew and Stoddart, 1994). In so doing they confirmed earlier arguments that working-class men negotiated with middle- and upper-class organizers, promoters and entrepreneurs for membership of teams and about ways of playing. Research also suggests that professional sports, especially, depended on working-class producers and consumers and that workers’ sport movements were far more complex and conflict-ridden than we have assumed in the past (for example, Holt, 1990; Krüger and Riordan, 1996).
Another research focus that has altered our view of sport and society in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries involves women. Much of this work has moved beyond the earlier practice of identifying particular women as sport heroines or as victims of patriarchy; it focuses instead on women’s agency in the production and consumption of sports. Two important books, Women First by Sheila Fletcher (1984) and Able-bodied Womanhood by Martha Verbrugge (1988), are particularly telling about the agency of middle-class, educated women as revealed in their fashioning of professional physical education in the nineteenth century on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Kathleen McCrone added depth to Fletcher’s picture in Playing the Game (1988), in which she examined women’s efforts to liberate themselves as they shaped a distinctive set of sporting experiences in English schools. Not all women, however, realized the social emancipation they sought through physical education and sport, as Fan Hong and James A. Mangan (1995) made clear in their study of women in early twentieth-century China. Catriona Parrat (1994) also made the case for the constraining impact of persisting structural boundaries on the aspirations and experiences of working-class women in England, even as she documented changes resulting from women’s agency.
Other recent works have addressed the shaping of distinctive sporting experiences by and for women in narrower but national contexts. Several chapters in Sport in Australia (Vamplew and Stoddart, 1994) trace the experiences and roles of women in the making of sports ranging from lawn bowls to Australian Rules football, while John Nauright and Jayne Broomhall (1994) examine women’s agency in the construction and popularizing of netball in New Zealand. In Germany Gertrud Pfister (1990) has explored dimensions of the physical culture and sport contexts and experiences among women, as have scholars of women in Scandinavia, Finland, Russia and North America (Hult and Trekell, 1991; Laine, 1993; LeCompte, 1993; Riordan, 1991b). In time, perhaps, these and the studies yet to come may also affect historians’ constructions of sport in the past.
One important effect of the research on women is already clear: gender has become an important analytic concept. Even historians who persist in treating sport as a predominantly male domain no longer wince at the possibility that it was and is a gendered domain, nor do historians of women as commonly interpret gender to mean women’s experiences as they once did. Owing in part to the early work of Helen Lenskjy (1986), historians began to explore the once taboo subjects of sex and sexualization. Richard Cashman and Amanda Weaver (1991) and Marion Stell (1991), for example, examined in Australian contexts the ways in which the media sexualized sport and marginalized women. More recently, Susan Cahn (1994) has explored the making and impacts of sexual orientations, gendered expectations and power relations even more fully in her study of American women in sport (1994). The research of three sociologists, Jennifer A. Hargreaves (1986, 1994), Ann Hall (1993, 1996) and Nancy Theberge (1987, 1994), has also encouraged historical questions about the gendering of sports and the social construction of gender. Perhaps the most influential research in history and on historians, however, has been that of Patricia Vertinsky (for example, 1990, 1994b). In her The Eternally Wounded Woman (1990), Vertinsky explored how the body was socially constructed at given points in time, as well as how important particular constructions were to women’s experiences and to the control over their bodies on which personal freedom hinged. Roberta Park (for example, 1987, 1991) also published a number of historical works that focused on the body, which is central to modern conceptions of sport, and to the gendering of sport and the construction of gendered relations in sport. On this latter theme, her ‘Sport, gender, and the body in a transatlantic Victorian perspective’ (Park, 1985) was particularly important. It also heightened interests in historical examinations of the ways in which conceptions of and concerns for manliness, if not quite the process of masculinization, were expressed and figured in the making of modern sport (Krüger, 1991; Maguire, 1986; Mangan and Walvin, 1987; Riess, 1991).
A third group of studies that have sharpened our understanding of the multiple frames and framing of sport in the past is the recent research on racial groups. Some of these studies rely on ethnographic or ethnohistorio-graphic methods to acquire data about the past experiences of indigenous peoples, some of whom became minorities only recently in their histories. As do many of the studies of the working classes, the research on racial groups provides us with a more deeply textured picture of the rootedness of traditional sports in ordinary life. Studies of patterns among Africans before colonization, for example, suggest that many sports were deeply embedded in the life schemes and customary rituals of ordinary people (for example, Baker and Mangan, 1987). Moreover, although the physical movements and other practices such as gambling resembled those incorporated in modern sports, traditional practices often differed in terms of both form and structure. Recent scholarship on colonial Zaire (Martin, 1995), South Africa (Bose, 1994; Jarvie, 1992), Spain (Mitchell, 1991) and Australia (Daly, 1994; Paraschak, 1992; Taz, 1995) also suggests that such patterns persist even in the face of modern sport and that customary sports are critical tradition-maintaining practices. Among native Canadians Vicky Paraschak (1990, 1995) has documented similar patterns, but she has also explored some of the strategies native peoples have recently employed as they attempt to come to grips with modern sport.
In the Americas as well, people of African descent have received increased attention from historians over the past decade and a half. Building on the now classic essay by C.L.R. James (1963), Michael Manley (1988), Brian Stoddart (1987) and the contributors to Liberation Cricket (Beckles and Stoddart, 1995) explored the history, including the social base and structures, and meanings of sport in the Caribbean and the complex social relationships negotiated in sporting practices such as cricket. Richard Burton (1985) also clarified the impacts of the larger affairs and traditions of carnival in the construction of a style of cricket distinctive to the West Indies.
To the north, in the United States, studies of the experiences of African Americans have also become more common and more telling. Much of this research focuses on specific sports, such as boxing, baseball, or track and field, and it illuminates not only the interests and agency of African-descended people but also the conflicts and struggles they faced as they sought to realize their interests in these sports (for example, Captain, 1991; Gissendanner, 1993; Roberts, 1983; Sammons, 1988; Tygiel, 1983; Wiggins, 1977, 1979, 1983, 1986). A few studies have also investigated the making of sports in African American communities (Coates, 1991; Ruck, 1987), and as does some of the research on women’s and working-class experiences, these argue against over-generalizations, against universal race-based experiences and even against race as a universal construct.
Important, too, is a smaller body of research on the experiences of modern ethnic groups. Much of the work on previously unexamined groups—Tartars, Ogu Bushmen, Samis, and Zhuang and Miao, for example—appears in two books that resulted from a conference on ‘Sport and Minorities,’ sponsored by the Finnish Society for Research in Sport and Physical Education and the International Society for the History of Physical Education and Sport in 1992 (Laine, 1991, 1993). Not unexpectedly, much of this work is descriptive, but some articles also analyse some traditional practices and the experiences of ethnic groups with majority populations. Other works have explored expressions and impacts of ethnic and religious prejudices in and on sporting rivalries, as the basis for typecasting and denying opportunities, and in the construction of separate programmes (Eisen and Wiggins, 1994; Finn, 1991; O’Farrell, 1987; O’Hara, 1994; Whimpress, 1992). The most compelling examination of the experiences of an ethnic group in modern sport may be Peter Levine’s Ellis Island to Ebbet’s Field (1992), which focused on Jewish immigrants to the United States in the early twentieth century. Among these people, Levine argued, participation in sports popular within the dominant society encouraged assimilation without threatening many Jewish traditions; hence their embrace of modern sports helped to make Jewish Americans.
All of this recent research on the experiences of members of working classes, women, and racial and ethnic groups has contributed to a deeper understanding of the complexities of sport and society-making in the modern period. Few historians today suggest that women, workers and other segments of a population simply adopted some other group’s sports. Rather, as agents in their own right, they engaged in a range of actions, including maintaining traditional patterns, resisting efforts to impose dominant styles, negotiating accommodations with dominant groups, and constructing alternative styles.
But this literature also points to a persisting historiographical issue. Some of the research on non-dominant groups—non-dominant in historians’ but not necessarily historical terms—frames members of ethnic, religious and racial groups as minorities and even as subordinated people. Given the central questions about the making of modern sport—how and why this type came to be, how and why it became the dominant form, and what the social, economic and political consequences were—this framing is neither surprising nor entirely inaccurate. Still, some people became minorities only relatively late in their histories and only in the contexts of modern societies and modern sports. Certainly this is the case in many countries in South America, Africa and Asia where non-Caucasians were and remain numerical majorities; they also likely had rich histories of indigenous sports. Consequently, such a framing may obfuscate much of a people’s history and many of the negotiations that actually occurred prior to the points when modern versions of society and sport emerged. The possibilities for social hybridization, both of sports and of society, are not ones that many historians have considered. Nor have we sufficiently explored people’s movements away from traditional styles of life and sport, which may be a critical process that occurred before or along with the more commonly cited instances of resistance, contestation, appropriation or adaptation.
Indeed, for many countries and groups of people at many points in time, the particulars of social production and reproduction and the processes by which societies did and did not change remain unclear. We have much to learn, for example, about how particular groups or individuals exerted their agency, what boundaries and constraints they faced and did or did not overcome, and why a particular set of relations and not others resulted. Some clues have emerged from analyses of local sports, clubs, movements and communities. Importantly, demographic research, which charts in space and time club formation and membership, has re-emerged, especially in the context of the nineteenth century. Such studies clarify who participants were and the social directions of a sport’s ‘development’ and spread; in so doing, they speak to larger social processes of adoption, adaptation and hegemony, if not yet hybridization (for example, Gehrmann, 1989; Tranter, 1987, 1990b). Other research has focused on some of the mechanisms by which ordinary people gained access to facilities and opportunities (Hardy, 1982; Rosenzweig, 1983), the roles of institutions and agents of commerce in mediating and opposing sporting interests and experiences (invariably to the benefit of one set of experiences) (Abrams, 1991; Cahn, 1994; Cashman, 1995; Lester, 1995), and the negotiations within clubs and among organizations, entrepreneurs and politicians (Holt, 1990; Jones, 1988; Kidd, 1996). A third set of studies has focused more broadly on local communities, both as geographic and shared-interest units, to examine how and why particular sports root in particular places and among particular people (for example, Holt, 1990; Kirsch, 1989; Lowerson, 1993; Vamplew and Stoddart, 1994). Attuned as they are to structural and ideological variables, these kinds of studies can accommodate important local sources of variance—conditions, interests, relations. They can thus account, for example, for why football dominated in industrial towns in nineteenth-century Germany (Gehrmann, 1989) but not in a town like Givors, France in the early twentieth century (Holt, 1989b), where cycling flourished.
Other clues about the processes of social production and reproduction lie in the environment, both physical and social, as some recent research on space suggests. Not too long ago, historians of ancient sports and societies were the primary investigators of the natural and the built environments. This is no longer the case, in part because historians of other eras have come to recognize the ways in which societies’ physical realities shaped and mediated both the limits and possibilities of social forms, structures and relations. Across time, the actual forms of games, races and matches depended in part on the physical environment, on whether there were hills or lakes, unenclosed or fenced fields, tracks or courses. Historians of urban sport as well have argued that the physical environment of a city both shaped and was shaped by sporting facilities. Then, too, in both modern urban, industrial and older rural, agricultural societies, access to facilities such as parks and fields was a central political issue between various groups, and the control of these facilities affected local power relations and commercial opportunities (Cobley, 1994; Hardy, 1982; Metcalfe, 1990b; Riess, 1989). An important recent article by Henning Eichberg (1990) made a case for an even more dynamic view of space. In his study of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Berlin, Eichberg argued that not only did space and facilities express the interests of and help to account for a number of historically specific movements but they also belied a distinctive sport (or gymnastics or body) discipline that was central to the experiences of each movement’s members. In all, Eichberg suggested, facilities served as both a base for and a window on a maze—a labyrinth, in his words—of social processes.
Indirectly at least, Eichberg’s analysis implicates another dimension of social experience that has long been central to Western social history. This is the study of mentalité, or world-view and attendant values, beliefs and ideas. Today historians often use the word ideology rather than mentalité, but similar assumptions operate. As are physical spaces, ideologies are at once conditioners of and windows on social experience and the transformations, or lack of them, over time; they also suggest purposeful human action amidst structural boundaries.
Sport historians have long sought to understand the ideologies, or at least the values and ideas, expressed in and shaped by individuals, clubs, larger organizations and movements. Consequently, we are aware that particular world-views in part account for the differing styles of sport popular among the ancient Greeks versus the Romans (Auguet, 1994; Kyle, 1993), for the construction of the amateur code in English public schools (Mangan, 1981) and its adoption in American universities (Smith, 1988), for the ways in which the regular medical establishment constrained women’s exercise options in the late nineteenth century (Vertinsky, 1990), and, as noted earlier, for the persistence of traditional sports among working-class men even when modern sports were available to them. Historical studies focusing on ideologies have also sharpened our understanding of the ways in which civil governments shape and control sporting movements to their advantage. On these matters, German historians have done some brilliant work, especially in the context of Nazism (Krüger, 1991), as have scholars of British imperial interests (Mangan, 1985). Much of the research on twentieth-century sporting movements, organizations and the emergence of mass sport and society has also addressed ideology-making and conflicts among competing ideologies and ideologues (for example, Dyreson, 1989; Mrozek, 1983).
Recently, sport historians have subsumed explorations of ideologies in more broadly framed studies. Implicitly if not explicitly, such research recognizes that ideologies operate and need to be understood within larger historical processes and experiences such as national identities (Van der Merwe, 1991), power-making (Metcalfe, 1991; Riordan, 1991a), the making of traditions (Korr, 1990; Holt et al., 1996; Roper, 1985), the significance of heroes and myths (Jarvie, 1991; Mangan, 1995), changes in sport policies (Baker, 1995), and diffusion (Brown, 1987). An important work in this vein is Grant Jarvie and Graham Walker’s Scottish Sport in the Making of the Nation (1994), which argued that sport was an integral ideological and experiential dimension of local and national identity. It also revealed the fact that sport, and particular sports, figured in various local, and sometimes conflicting, identities. In other words, sport was a part of what it meant to be Scottish, but local sporting preferences also translated into contests among Scots.
As Jeff Hill (1996) has recently suggested, these complex matters of identity and meaning—meaning in the sense of both meaningfulness and historical significance—may provide historians with a variety of questions and research directions. The questions he suggests, especially about multiple and occasionally conflicting meanings of a performance as text, about the power relations in which meanings are embedded, and about the mediation of messages, meanings and relations, may be particularly fruitful for historians and especially in the context of the construction of mass sport and society and its post-industrial aftermath. Some explorations of the ways in which sporting meanings and experiences are shaped and mediated in the social environment, especially via the sporting goods industry, the media and the state in the twentieth century, have already appeared. Stephen Hardy (1990), for example, produced a fine analysis of the ways in which the emergent sporting goods industry in the United States encouraged standard sporting behaviors and expectations and, in the process, augmented the social power of modern sport and of the urban middle classes. Two intriguing works on the media, both newspapers and television, have suggested that these organs created and controlled, respectively, the messages consumers gleaned from and about sports (Oriard, 1993; Whannel, 1992). Finally, as John E. Hargreaves (1986) and Bruce Kidd (1996) argued, the central governments of both Britain and Canada not only legitimated particular sport forms, messages, and organizations but also embraced them for political ends. A similar conclusion might be drawn about the United States, as well as other nations and national governments whose hegemony is bound up with dominant Western sports (Guttmann, 1994).
Some Future Directions
Virtually every recent assessment of historians’ scholarship has ended with recommendations for future research, and I commend these reviews and their proposals to readers. I shall not repeat them here; rather, I shall suggest four additional lines of enquiry that have the potential for enriching our social-historical understanding of sport and society.
One critical need lies in the un- and understudied regions and peoples of the world. We certainly know very little about the content and course of ordinary life and society—and the forms and relations of sport therein—among people in Latin America, Africa, central and southern Europe (Germany excepted), and Asia. Even in Western, industrialized societies, the inhabitants of rural areas and small towns and villages have received little scholarly attention. This need extends as well to the multiple periods in people’s history, rather than just their recent experiences. Only with such investigations can we really come to grips with the ways in which people created social forms and relations and with the dynamic processes of social production and reproduction. Indeed, these unknown experiences are the necessary testing grounds both for contemporary constructions of sport and for social theories.
Comparative, cross-cultural studies constitute a second potentially fruitful line of enquiry for similar reasons. These might focus on segments of a population in several countries—laborers in China, Britain and Mexico, for example—in a given period. Sport clubs and particular sports themselves could also be investigated in this fashion. In either case, historians might be able to refine our understandings of class and class relations, how local relations and traditions bear on experiences in a sport, and what the full range of structural constraints that bore on human agency were. Such studies might even enable us to see that given sports acquired different forms and meanings in different countries; hence a sport is really not the same sport worldwide. In turn, this finding would generate new questions about the impact of locales, traditions and popular meanings.
Another kind of comparative studies might also provoke new understandings and questions. These are ones that locate sport within an ensemble of social activity and are in the vein of studies of popular culture and work and leisure. As noted earlier, some research has already suggested the ways in which popular culture bore on sporting patterns, but we still know very little about the fit of many sports within a people’s broader system of behaviors and meanings. Nor do we understand in much depth why people constructed sports; more simply, we have not adequately answered the question ‘Why sports?’ Why not other forms of social practice? Similarly, research that explores broader work and leisure patterns, rhythms and relations might provide additional, and ultimately more significant, clues about how people constructed the sports they did, as well as why sporting patterns varied at different points in time and among different groups of people. Such studies might also encourage us to revise our constructions of sport, of the experiences (or lack thereof) of particular groups, especially women, and even of the making of professional and amateur patterns and practices.
Finally, more research over the long dureé is warranted. British and German scholars especially have raised important questions about the role of traditions, the persistence of customary practices, and other behavioral, ideological and structural continuities in the making of sport and society over time. These need to be explored in other countries, if we are to understand fully the making of sports in and across time, as well as precisely what it is that a given generation or group generates anew or borrows and adapts from the past. Strategies for change may well be influenced by a people’s collective memory, as, too, may be gender, class, and ethnic or race relations. Persisting expectations, relations and behaviors may also help to account for visible contemporary differences in sport forms, structures and meanings across nations and social blocs. We need, in other words, to begin to attend to continuities, as well as discontinuities, over time rather than focusing on what appears to be new in time. In so doing perhaps, we might understand better what, if anything, is ever new in the world of sport.