Sports and Identity

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Iraqi people wave their flags during celebrations after the Iraq soccer team won the Asian Cup, in streets of the Shiite holy city of Karbala, 80 kilometers (50 miles) south of Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday, July 29, 2007. (AP Photo via Yahoo)

In a true sports story that seems like a script to a Hollywood movie, the Iraqi Men’s soccer team beat Saudi Arabia in the finals of the Asian Cup on July 29th in Jakarta, with the winning goal in the 71st minute headed in by the Sunni team captain from Kirkuk, off a corner kick by Kurd teammate from Mosul. The Iraqi team was as diverse as anything Disney could think of, with Sunnis, Shi’ites, and Kurds mixed in together under a Brazilian coach. Political leaders throughout the world all had something to say about one of the few instances of good news coming from Iraq; even General David Petreus, commander of American forces in Iraq, took the time to celebrate.

Can sports triumph over politics? Or is it yet another arena to be politicized. The ability of sports to bring together a social group is not just the main message of movies like Remember the Titans or The Mighty Ducks; it is also a main point in many of the anthropological studies of sports. There are a number of good reviews of the anthropological literature on sports. In no particular order, I would recommend Noel Dyck’s introduction to a 2000 edited volume entitled Games, Sports, and Cultures, Kendall Blanchard’s 1995 book The Anthropology of Sport (more like a textbook), or Thomas Carter’s 2002 article in Identities. There are numerous ethnographies that also have a good introduction to the field, including those written by Susan Brownell, Alan Klein, Eduardo Archetti, and Joseph Alter (to name only a few). There are many good ethnographies and edited volumes on all the major global sports such as soccer, baseball, track and field, and basketball, as well as interesting studies on more regional sports.

Much of the contemporary study of sports (especially in European circles) is based upon the seminal work of Norbert Elias, who approached sports as a necessary product of modernity by what he refers to as “the civilizing process.” From Elias’s perspective, a key component of sports is the bureaucratic control of violence through the establishment of rules and organizations that enforce them. Elias further added that sports, as an element of leisure, are an outcome of industrialization, in that work becomes increasingly differentiated from leisure in a dialectical manner. Work in modern societies imposes a rigorous restraint on individuals, increasing a sense of alienation that, according to Elias, is relieved by the “quest for excitement” in leisure (think of Victor Turner’s communitas). Sports are therefore a necessary part of modernity that provides society with a mimetic excitement that gives individuals a liberating, cathartic experience within the iron cage of modern life. Sports, however, must have the same kind of restraints as wider society for society to maintain its cohesion; they are a part of the Weberian process of rationalization. The anthropological literature on sports can be roughly divided into different topical categories, and later this week I will discuss some of them.

Sports and Identity. Sports are presented as a key cultural arena in which a multiplicity of identities (such as ethnicity, nationalism, gender, or class) are created, performed, and essentialized. Sports provide people with bodily means to differentiate themselves from others latitudinally or hierarchically (see Jeremy MacClancy’s edited volume). The connection between sports and identity is most visible in various public spectacles such as the Olympic Games or World Cup Soccer. These studies have showed how sports serve as a double-edged sword – like the example of Jackie Robinson breaking the racial barrier in baseball, sports can both divide and unify, flatten or exacerbate differences. Pierre Bourdieu has an interesting set of articles that lay out a program for the study of sports, especially as a means of understanding social class dynamics.

Nation-states are heavily involved in the use of sports for unifying diverse cultures and communities within its borders (think of the recent victory by the Iraqi men’s soccer team in the Asian Cup), and through its patronage can transform sports into a political arena. In a study of Indian wrestlers, Joseph Alter, for example, demonstrates how wrestling spread an ideology that on the one hand is critical of the Hindu caste system through its interpretation of the body, but on the other hand is critical of the social conditions created by the modern Indian state. In some of these studies, the successes and failures of individual athletes in competition are social projections of regional and national pride and can help integrate diverse societies through an imagined community generated by athletes and teams that physically represent the nation.

Paradoxically, sports also provides a way to transgress national boundaries by re-drawing boundaries based upon the shared practices of a particular sport. Alan Klein’s 1997 ethnographic study of a binational professional baseball team demonstrates not only the possibilities of this transgression, but also its limits. Again, the recent triumph of the Iraqi national team — composed of Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds — brought fans out into the streets to celebrate the victory, a celebration later marred by renewed violence. And the Sunni team captain who scored the winning goal stayed in Syria while the rest of team returned to Iraq because of the threat of violence precisely for his brining a little joy to Iraqis; not quite a good Hollywood ending.

3 thoughts on “Sports and Identity

  1. FYI: Some recent museum anthropology projects related to the ethnology of sport include last year’s football exhibition at the Museum für Völkerkunde in Hamburg (“Fascination Football” (a World Cup tie-in event) and the upcoming exhibition on rugby (“The Scrum of Cultures”) at the Musée du quai Branly in Paris. A Google search on the later exhibition title will turn up the press materials. The English language version of the catalogue for the Hamburg show can be found in Open WorldCat.

  2. The argument about modernity and sports is pretty interesting. I often think how bizarre modern society is at the gym, where in great florescently-lit rooms, people slavishly run on treadmills. We have created societies in which people are so alienated from their own bodies (because of machines) that we build machines to (re)connect them to their bodies.

    Regarding modernity and sport, do we know what Elias says about ancient Greece or the sporting contests of antiquity? They would seem to prefigure modern sports quite explicitly, e.g. the Olympics.

  3. Thanks Jason Baird Jackson for pointing out the exhibitions; I’ll check them out! Kristjan Por, I’m sorry that I’m linguistically challenged; I’ll have some friends look at your post from your blog so that I can respond!
    Re Strong: The issue of working out also started me thinking about doing work in sports issues — in 1993, in a small northern Guangdong city, I was amazed at seeing “health clubs” surrounded by an environment where people were using their bodies to the breaking point on farms and factories – this said something to me about postsocialist China, and how the market/globalization was impacting society there. Laura Spielvogel has a good ethnography on health clubs – Working Out in Japan, Duke University Press 2003.
    Yes, Elias does have something to say about games and contests from antiquity – a la Durkheim, he makes a sharp definition break to distinguish “primitive” (my words, not his) from modern. Not sure about the definitional violence going on here, but it helps analytically to distinguish the stuff we call modern sports from games and contests. Definitions are a problem – the question of “what is a sport” is how I start my classes on the subject. Why is race car driving a sport? Tennis is a sport, but is golf? Croquet? Chess and Go? Poker? Competitive eating and spelling bees? Some of my students subscribe to the definition “if it’s on ESPN then it’s a sport,” but they forget the E for entertainment in ESPN. I think the “bodily agonistic competition” definition places good limits, I think.

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