Sports as Embodied Culture

With the centrality of athletes’ bodies in competition, sports provide a unique perspective in understanding what Susan Brownell refers to as body culture, “a broad term that includes daily practices of health, hygiene, fitness, beauty, dress and decoration, as well as gestures, postures, manners, ways of speaking and eating, … the way these practices are trained into the body, the way the body is publicly displayed, and the lifestyle that is expressed in that display” (from Susan Brownell’s 1995 book
Training the Body for China Sports in the Moral Order of the People’s Republic
, pp.10-11). In her ethnographic study of Chinese women track and field athletes, Brownell develops the concept of body culture by combining Pierre Bourdieu’s idea of habitus and Michel Foucault’s concept of disciplinary technologies together, showing how objective structures such as the nation-state and everyday practices inscribe a particular cultural discipline onto the bodies of Chinese women. Western political and social leaders from the late 19th and early 20th century such as Theodore Roosevelt and Sir Robert Baden-Powell (founder of scouting) understood how sports could be used to instill a particular set of values on citizens, presenting sports as essential to building character for citizens of a vibrant civilization in what has been called “muscular Christianity.” Sports were an integral part of the “civilizing mission” of Westerners in their efforts to transform non-Western societies into colonial subjects. Of course such efforts could be turned on its head, as the other made sports their own. I’m sure this is a familiar theme — what would introductory anthropology classes be like without the classic film Trobriand Cricket? At a more theoretical level, Arjun Appadurai makes this precise argument about Indian cricket as well.
I think looking at sports as embodied culture is particularly useful in two areas – gender and childhood/education. Children have become a particular target for cultural politics, as competing groups seek to implement their visions of the future by shaping education and other childhood experiences (for more on this, see the volumes edited by Sharon Stephens or Nancy Sheperer-Hughes; I have written an essay on children myself in a study of Kentucky Fried Chicken in Beijing, and a full-length ethnography on Chinese children has been written by Charles Stafford). Pierre Bourdieu emphasized the role of sports in education as a specific site for the imprinting of political philosophies through embodied culture in France. The importance of college sports in the United States, an athletic system that is quite different from university-level education in other societies, has also been the subject of intense study and debate. Noel Dyck therefore concludes that parents and local communities invest significant time and money in childhood sports because of the rationale that sports are essential in instilling cultural values deemed positive such as high self-esteem, hard work, team play, and playing by the rules.
In terms of gender, the implications of sports in defining masculinity and femininity are clear; but different studies have reached surprising conclusions. In the United States, sports and gender issues are also highly politicized, largely because of debates over Title IX, a federal law requiring equal opportunities for boys and girls in educational institutions, including school sports (and of course, there is the continuing legacy of Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King). There are so many works out there on women and sports; one that I would recommend is Laura Spielvogel’s Working Out in Japan.
From my own work, I am making a case that Sherry Ortner’s classic dictum “female is to male as nature is to culture” should be reversed in our contemporary globalized environment of commodification and consumption. I am sure I do not need to fully summarize Ortner’s classic work, but I would like to point out that her argument is based on three lines of argument: 1) a woman’s body and its function (especially reproduction) place her closer to nature; 2) a woman’s social roles are of a lower order of culture than a man’s; and 3) a woman’s traditional social roles creates a psychological structure that is seen as closer to nature. Without going into the messy ethnographic data (OK, I am still editing all of that), looking at sports in popular culture today reveals that the reverse seems to hold today. First, the emphasis on athleticism as a measure of masculinity (size, speed, agility, dexterity) makes men’s bodies and its functions more important, and closer to nature (think of the media coverage on sports injury reports). Second, this emphasis on sports and athleticism stresses the more natural aspect of masculinity, instead of the more cultural aspects of femininity; the growing gender imbalance in American higher education, as well as the wider culture of anti-intellectualism, is an outgrowth of this. Think of the more widely held meaning of academic, as in “it’s only academic” (a useless, after-the-fact exercise). Third, this makes men rely on psychological perspectives that are seen as more natural, instinctive, aggressive. I would like to take this argument further into a theoretical exploration of the cultural underpinnings of globalization. I believe that a Hayekian free market ideology rewards such gender roles, and helps to explain why men are increasingly judged by their bodies. I obviously have a lot to work to do to make such an argument, but that’s at least where my thinking is headed. As an aside, this same argument can be made through an analysis of Harry Potter, focusing on the three main protagonists: Harry, Ron, and Hermione!

5 thoughts on “Sports as Embodied Culture

  1. Kerim:
    You are absolutely right. I know I’m a mostly mainlander person, and it may not be good form, but I consider work in Taiwan and Hong Kong to be “China” — obviously not the PRC, but as a socio-cultural unit, in a Tu Weiming sense. I guess it is my own “strategic ambiguity.” One of my colleagues here at Davidson is a political scientist named Shelley Rigger (a Taiwanese politics expert, has written on the DPP), and she always makes sure I keep it straight!
    Anyway, Shanghai looks a lot like Taibei, especially after they finish building that thing that was supposed to be taller than Taibei 101 (I think I read somewhere the builders have cut back for some reason). Now I’ll probably get more comments from Hong Kong-ers!

  2. While I don’t care much for the politics of Taiwanese Independence, as an anthropologist I take the nation-state seriously, and I think that as far as education is concerned there is no doubt that the Japanese and KMT era policies in Taiwan left a very different mark than what we see in the PRC. Given that perspective, I find it rather difficult to talk about the two countries as a single “socio-cultural unit” even if there are over a million Taiwanese business men living in Shanghai.

  3. I said something above which I feel deserves further clarification: When I say I don’t care for the politics of Taiwanese Independence I don’t mean that I don’t support recognition of Taiwan as an independent nation. I do. I just mean that I don’t like the way these debates are enacted in the local political context. I won’t elaborate those reservations here however, as I don’t think this is the appropriate context.

  4. I agree that the PRC and Taiwan are different, but they are not completely unrelated. The nation-state is a powerful prism and should not condition all our thought. There are many ways in which the social formation in mainstream society for China and Taiwan are closer than are the respective social formations of mainstream Chinese society and minority ethnic groups in the Chinese hinterland. Economically, the two are tightly tied. Linguistically, the Han Chinese share a lot. I don’t think one can view the PRC and Taiwan as entirely different or as synonymous. As a non-Chinese, I also think it’s important not to take a position with regard to the national destiny of Taiwan. It’s their business. Thus, I neither favor nor oppose Taiwan independence.

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