Pierre Bourdieu on Sport

Authored by: Michael Grenfell

Routledge Handbook of the Sociology of Sport

Print publication date:  August  2015
Online publication date:  July  2015

Print ISBN: 9780415829731
eBook ISBN: 9780203404065
Adobe ISBN: 9781134116621


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The intellectual reputation of the French social theorist cum sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has gone from strength to strength since his death from cancer in 2002. It is now not uncommon to find his ideas quoted in a very wide range of disciplines within the human sciences – journalism, art, law, economics, philosophy, architecture, geography, religion. Yet, during his own lifetime, he was best known as a sociologist of education and culture; this stemming from his work on schools, universities, museums and taste from the 1960s onwards. Despite sporadic discussion and application of his work from those involved in the sports sciences, he has never been known particularly as a sociologist of sport. This is a curious oversight for a number of reasons. First, Bourdieu did write quite a lot explicitly about sport: for example, ‘How Can One Be a Sportsman?’ from his 1984 publication Questions de Sociologie (1993/1984); 1 ‘Programme for a Sociology of Sport’ from Choses Dites (1994/87); and ‘The State, Economics and Sport’ (2007/1998); not to mention frequent references to sport in his study of cultural habits in France (e.g. Distinction, 1984/1979). Second, Bourdieu himself was a keen sportsman, and had a special affinity for rugby, a particularly popular game in South-west France from whence he originated. Combat sports also fascinated him: indeed, one of his closest collaborators published a study of boxing (Wacquant 2000), and the title of his of his 2001 biographical documentary following a year in the life of the sociologist is La sociologie est un sport de combat. The allusion is a telling one and conjures up the picture of sociological engagement being a kind of hand-to-hand encounter and sociology as a martial art with which one can protect oneself. Third, and somewhat consequently therefore, Bourdieu often saw social processes as ‘a game,’ and refers to them as such played out according to strict ‘rules’, 2 and in terms of positioning, a sense of play and outcome in ‘winning’ and ‘losing’. As noted above, Bourdieu has indeed been used by those interested in the academic study of sport; for example, Williams (1995), Stempel (2005), Seippel (2006), Thorpe (2009), Brown (2010), Hunter (2010), Noble and Watkins (2010), Warde (2011). However, what follows is a more systematic consideration of just how sport can be understood from a Bourdieusian perspective; this, not in order to argue for orthodoxy in the use of such a viewpoint to sport but to encourage a wider application and appreciation of this theory to a larger scope of sporting activities and their associated practices when set against the other contributions in this volume. There is a second motive in offering an account of Bourdieu and sport; namely, that it can be considered as a perfect exemplar of Bourdieusian epistemology and practice in that it includes all the salient aspects of what Bourdieu called a metanoia, or ‘new gaze’ on the world, and I shall take this as my point de depart.

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