Kathmandu is arguably the most pumped up city in South Asia when it comes to following the FIFA World Cup. It is common to find people donning jerseys of their favorite team with gusto. Though the national team from Nepal might be light years away from participating in the tournament, passion for the game in Nepal is as high as anywhere. It is easy to overlook this practice by saying that Nepal is a football (or for that matter any sports) loving country, but as a student of sociology one is fascinated by this phenomena and is compelled to think about what is called the sociology of sport.
Central Department of Sociology/Anthropology offers some interesting papers like sociology of tourism, urban sociology and sociology of education among others but there are hardly any students interested in these subjects and the department too is reluctant about teaching these papers for the reasons of “logistics”. When most gifted sociologists and students are busy discussing and debating about such grand issues like whether Nepal is quarter/semi or fully capitalist and identity politics, emphasizing significance of sociology of sport in the emerging middle class society of Nepal seems “bourgeoisie” if not an anathema. In this essay, I am outlining some key ingredients of the sociology of sport and what can be studied and researched in this domain in our society.
Theories and Contents
Sociology of sport argues that sport cannot be understood in its totality without relating it to the broader context where it is produced, practiced and consumed. First, let’s talk about some theoretical approaches to the sociology of sport. As we studied in our first year, functionalism, conflict theory (Marxism, neo-Marxism) and symbolic interactionism are three dominant (and traditional) theoretical streams in sociology.
Functionalist approach to sociology of sport emphasizes the functional significance of sports to society. Sport is taken as a factor that helps maintain social solidarity, cohesion and unity. Sport here is more or less akin to religion and by looking at popularity of football and cricket (in the sub continent) who can deny that sport has not been transformed into a secular religion with its own sets of deities like Pele, Maradona, Messi and Tendulkar. Following Durkheim, sport is also seen as a factor that controls deviance and crime. To functionalism sport brings people together as spectators and creates bonds between them. Sporting spectacle here is similar to rituals in “primitive society” as discussed by Durkheim.
Contrary to functionalism, conflict theory sees sport as a fundamental depoliticizing device in modern society. Engagement in sport (mostly as a spectator) is taken as hindrance to the understanding of class relations in society. Again, similar to Marxist understanding of religion, sport is the modern day “opiate of the masses”. Sport in capitalist society is a commodity like everything else, with mass media at the forefront of the project to sell spectacles and merchandise. Furthermore, capitalist society has turned players into commodities to be bought and sold. Marx’s idea of alienation can be a key concept in studying this process of commodification.
Symbolic Interactionism focuses on the role of sport in understanding people whom we communicate with and in understanding ourselves. People in different contexts tend to associate different meanings to sport whether as an active participant and or as spectators. Interactionism for example will study what it means to a certain player to play for his nation and as in case of Nepal what it means to support some European club/country distant from where one lives. The key idea with Symbolic Interactionism is the symbolic meaning people associate with their choice and action.
Last but not the least; feminist theories have their own understanding of sports. Most sports are seen as the propagation of masculine values but sports is also taken by some feminists as an arena to invert the received notions of traditional gender roles. Some see sport as emancipatory force while others see it as just another ploy to control female body. Students of gender also play attention to the women’s segregation and ghettoization in the male dominated sporting world. Comments that came up in the wake of introduction of female referees in English football offer a telling case.
For sociology of sport, sport can be seen as a microcosm of society. C Wright Mills’ idea of the linkage between personal/public, self/world, individual/society and biography history will help us illuminate some core issues in the sociology of sport. Sociological imagination is essential for the proper understanding of sport. Here it will suffice to say that students of the sociology of sport should study the phenomena of sport in terms of its relation to some key social institutions in society namely; family, economy, religion, caste, race and nation-state. One should also be perceptive enough to figure out stratification in sport in terms of race, caste and gender. Furthermore, we as sociologists should pay attention to consequences of social change on sports and the role of sports itself as a vehicle of social change. The key theme here is to shed the common sense understanding of sports and cultivate sociological imagination.
What’s in it for us?
Those of us in the final year of MA in Sociology/ Anthropology will need to write our dissertation for the completion of degree. What I am trying to suggest is why not venture to some unchartered territory and for once stop studying about the “socio-economic conditions” of XYZ community. In this part, I’ll try to sketch out what we can do in the sociology of sport while studying our own society.
Following Mark Liechty it’s not hard to say that consumerism is the cornerstone of modernity in the emerging middle class society of Kathmandu. Spectator sport therefore is just another media product for people to consume. Growing up in Kathmandu, I did not fail to notice the discourse about sports. “Knowledge” about sports is almost essential for any middle class youth to assert his (her in some cases) modernity. As with music and fashion, sport offers middle class youths another resource to affirm their class identity and membership.
Sports of western origin like Football and Cricket was introduced in Nepal during the days of the Ranas r. Aristocratic genesis of such team sports in Nepal is well pointed by sports historians and journalists in Nepal. Historian Eric Hobsbawm in his essay “Mass Producing Traditions: Europe 1870-1914” has argued that amateurism is the criterion of upper class sports and they use it to draw the class lines against the masses. In Nepal like in Europe the “professionalization” of the formerly upper-class sports is tied with the emergence of the middle and working class (Football in Europe is said to have its origin amongst the working class, unlike cricket or lawn tennis). The change is sports from amateurism or mere pastime to a profession can be a significant area of study for sociologists.
It is easy to notice how Nepali nationalism runs high whenever Nepal is participating in an international tournament. Sports do offer a medium of identification with the larger community, underplaying conflict and inequality within the community for the time being. As noted earlier functionalists and conflict theorists approach this issue in different ways. Sport as an avenue for the expression of nationalist sentiments is really an interesting subject of examination.
Eclipsing religion, caste and ethnicity school is rising as a prominent institution when it comes to socialization of children (Liechty). Children socialize with their class peers (pun intended) in school and it is in school that sports figure prominently as a instrument for imparting values about sexuality, ethnicity, disability and class. Most schools today emphasize the importance of physical education and it is here that a sociologist needs to direct his attention to understand the politics of physical education. Students of gender should be particularly aware.
I‘ve tried to argue in this paper about the need to diversify our areas of study and interest as students of sociology. Though it emerged in Europe and the US in the 1960’s as a distinct field of study it is a novel in Nepal. The reason for this might be our socio-economic and political state as a developing nation to some extent but one cannot ignore the lack of interest and even fear a among we students of sociology to venture to something new.
MA in Sociology 2012-14
Central Department of Sociology/Anthropology, Tribhuvan University