The anthropology of race and ethnicity in sport

Unfolding the map

Authored by: Meghan Ferriter

Routledge Handbook of Sport, Race and Ethnicity

Print publication date:  September  2016
Online publication date:  September  2016

Print ISBN: 9781138816954
eBook ISBN: 9781315745886
Adobe ISBN: 9781317596677




In the first decade of the 2000s, I embarked upon fieldwork with the intent of exploring the ways people in the USA and Scotland talked about, played, and integrated sport into their daily lives. I was particularly interested in the ways hybridization and globalization intersected with professional sport, its labor flows, and the media–sports complex in the public understanding of sport in society. Were these forces eliciting a unified understanding of sport at local, professional, and global levels as individuals increasingly consumed mediated representations of sport? Was the collective being transcended in favor of a global or temporal connection? Or was it all about keeping it local and individual? There was a feeling that it was a big, wide world ripe for comparison and exchange at the close, local level of similarities and pulling back to find the difference in ever-expanding space and time. It seemed it would be very easy to get lost; I sought guides for my quest.

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The anthropology of race and ethnicity in sport

In the first decade of the 2000s, I embarked upon fieldwork with the intent of exploring the ways people in the USA and Scotland talked about, played, and integrated sport into their daily lives. I was particularly interested in the ways hybridization and globalization intersected with professional sport, its labor flows, and the media–sports complex in the public understanding of sport in society. Were these forces eliciting a unified understanding of sport at local, professional, and global levels as individuals increasingly consumed mediated representations of sport? Was the collective being transcended in favor of a global or temporal connection? Or was it all about keeping it local and individual? There was a feeling that it was a big, wide world ripe for comparison and exchange at the close, local level of similarities and pulling back to find the difference in ever-expanding space and time. It seemed it would be very easy to get lost; I sought guides for my quest.

As I started to situate myself, I pursued anthropological guideposts that might help mark the way. The American experience of mediated sport – and secondary and collegiate sport with which I was most familiar – is colored by the intersections of gender, age, and race. The professional sporting spectacles are built through contests and reify inequality; the additional layers of stratification are defined at the points at which these factors of social identity intersect. I was confident anthropological projects that had preceded me would help me surface questions and perhaps refine my decision-making.

Instead, I was surprised to find limited focus with fieldwork on the anthropology of sport; there were starting points with ethnographies of supporter groups, which often finished with calls to action around sport based on its integration in the lives of people around the world. There seemed to be few resources for me to plan an unfolding journey. To help me make my way, I borrowed and became traveling companions with the definitions, markers, and poles of my disciplinary cousins in sociology. Since that point, anthropological inquiry in the sporting space has continued to grow.

Yet, the still loosely articulated anthropology of sport retains the ability – and holds the responsibility – to expand by exploring the experiences and consequences of race in sport. If direct investigations of sport and race and its effects have remained at the periphery of anthropological inquiry, are anthropological lenses appropriate for understanding the sites at which race and ethnicity converge with sport?

In this chapter, I affirm that anthropology is prepared to grapple with the varied terrain of lived experiences, representations, and the changing fields of sport. I add that it is a set of methods and epistemology that is just as capable of handling the consequences of race in this space. Anthropology’s occasionally fuzzy focus on these intersections presents opportunities to sharpen the picture, while using the tools anthropologists wield to map out understanding.

This chapter encounters anthropology’s history with and challenges of defining race and sport. It then tackles useful means of conceptualizing race and ethnicity and their consequences in defining social worlds. Then, after offering some starting points for the ways anthropologists and other social researchers have engaged with sport, I suggest several ways in which anthropology is suited to critically interrogating the consequences of racism and racialization in the context of sport. The intersections of these topics remain under-explored and, therefore, full of opportunity for researchers.

This chapter briefly touches on ethnicity, but focuses on the opportunities and transferable approaches from anthropology where race and sport meet. It also emphasizes research from cultural and social anthropological approaches, as discussed further below. I highlight these studies to serve as signposts as you keep this chapter in your hip pocket when undertaking explorations in the grounded contexts of local, amateur, national, professional, and global sport.

Getting bearings: exploring the field of anthropology

Before charting a course, it may be useful to pinpoint a few definitions. What is anthropology? Anthropology is the study of humans and culture. Consisting of four fields, anthropology includes a range of techniques and positioning for exploring humans and culture. In the USA, the four fields of anthropology are physical anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, and cultural anthropology. In the British tradition, social anthropology also evolved to study social actors and actions. Anthropologists share a desire to understand the world around them, to test and apply scientific theory to social settings, and to determine the structures of human interaction. They also interpret and tell the stories of social, political, and international relationships as they emerge: geographically, as embodied experiences, and with what symbolic properties.

Applying the four fields, you might elect to explore the ways particular groups of people communicate displeasure around officiating (linguistics) or compare the artifacts of leisure practice in Mexico to those in Afghanistan (archaeology). The concepts and procedures of physical anthropology may be easily applied to actively analyze sporting bodies and the limits of their experiences. Since physical anthropologists study growth and the way it is affected by activity, athletic enterprises are an appropriate vehicle for inquiry. The techniques of physical anthropology, including measuring and classifying body types, have direct and indirect use for exploration of sport behavior. 1 The four fields offer a holistic, encompassing approach to understand culture and social organization in current or historical contexts.

A hallmark of anthropology is fieldwork, and specifically for cultural anthropology, ethnography. While not an exclusively anthropological practice, ethnography remains a prominent methodology for undertaking social and cultural enquiry and understanding the situated experiences of social actors. Examples of ethnographic work are included below as one of the vehicles through which race has been explored. Anthropology is a discipline primed to unpack the intersecting manifestations of culture and social values in sport, as well as race and ethnicity: as inscribed upon physical movement, self-presentation, rituals and rites of passage, and political relationships.

Comparative approaches are also one of the strengths of anthropological research. The discipline of anthropology emerged and grew in a period of “contact” between Western cultures and indigenous populations. Combined with other scientific beliefs and social hierarchies, early anthropologists – individuals representing an educated, elite class – sought to understand the world around them by taking to the field. 2 Furthermore, cultural anthropologists concern themselves with expressions including rituals: the patterns of activity that are explored as signifying basic social messages relating to the group’s organization and cohesion. Sport may be explored as both a ritual and a game – and can be read as a cultural construction that carries symbolic communication of meanings and values between participants.

Anthropology was, even in its infancy, a battleground of definitions and theoretical positioning. In particular, the practices of colonialism and scientific inquiry meshed with a desire to chart the physical world. Unilineal evolutionists, for example, believed anthropology should mirror the natural sciences in a pursuit of the general laws that dictate cultural development. Franz Boas is remembered as resisting racial typologies in favor of interpretations grounded in the local, specific contexts of culture. The Boasian tradition led early resistance against racism and its effects. 3

Early anthropological projects included ethnological studies whose financial and political support demanded an understanding of the difference between populations; in the USA this included the classification work of the Bureau of (American) Ethnology, heavily influenced by theories of cultural evolution. 4 In these projects, the physical, economic, political, social, as well as leisure activities of populations were documented, along with language and other cultural practices. Anthropology, then, is tightly tied to the development of the concept of race(s); the discipline has remained a product of the political, economic, social, and cultural moments in which it is occurring.

Ericksen and Murphy have observed that anthropologists “have been able to discuss theory without always having to articulate just what it means to themselves or to others.” 5 In many ways, the elusive nature of concrete definitions spills over into the anthropology of sport, as well as the ways anthropology has been challenged to articulate “race.” Since the end of the twentieth century, anthropologists have been catalyzed internally by provocations from Michael Omi and Howard Winant (1994) and Carol Mukhopadhyay and Yolanda Moses (1997), and evaluated as still excluding race as a foundational concept. 6

Culture defines, evolves, and reinforces concepts and practices of race and racialization; anthropology is designed to understand the cultural practices that condition members to perceive socially constructed categories as natural. Developing an understanding of the historical contexts of the discipline support moves forward into enquiries of our own with reflexivity and an ability to critically question our own origins, status, and privilege to understand the world into which we are entering as researchers.

Mapping race and ethnicity

Race is a system of classification that is socially defined and culturally constructed. Lacking a biological or genetic basis, race is a social category whose effect creates local inequalities and global differences and is applied to then justify those conditions as natural. In this chapter, I engage with the concept of “race” rather than exclusively racism and racialization. I take this position in this context because race remains more than a salient feature of sport and the lives of those who engage in and with sporting practices. Race is real; a categorization that packs a punch even while it floats like a bee. A formidable illusion, race and its effects stratify and impact the lives of athletes, fans, administrators, coaches, venue managers, sports journalists, and more. As Douglas Hartmann observes, “sport is one of the most powerful and important institutions in the production, legitimation and (at least potentially) contestation of contemporary racial formations.” 7 It must be stated explicitly that – at the risk of giving the term authority – race requires anthropological focus to deal with constantly shifting forms of classification. Race and sport are equally enmeshed with lives in evident and invisible ways, and anthropology can help provide real examples to move beyond theoretical discussions of racism and racialization in sport.

While social inequality is written across the historical record, race is a modern concept. Created as a mode of classification, race thus remains divisive. The American Anthropological Association’s 1998 statement on race states:

How people have been accepted and treated within the context of a given society or culture has a direct impact on how they perform in that society. The “racial” worldview was invented to assign some groups to perpetual low status, while others were permitted access to privilege, power, and wealth. 8

Race-based world-views are enacted through racism and racialization. The power of this social category is that the many cultural practices that it supports and informs are perceived as inevitable. As a constructed social category, race dictates access to specific economic and social resources and political power. It is a concept that is deployed in such a way as to enable and constrain practices and social interactions. Race is, therefore, a complex manifestation of intersecting systems of inequality.

Race is also a “floating signifier” that is used to mark boundaries and dictate the rules of inclusion and exclusion based on historically specific circumstances. 9 Race is not fixed and is always in flux as a process of negotiating interaction. Banton and Harwood explain “as a way of categorizing people, race is based upon a delusion because popular ideas about racial classification lack scientific validity and are moulded by political pressures rather than by the evidence from biology.” 10 Yet, in sport, biological distinctions are consistently reinforced through racialized discourse regarding sporting performances.

Anthropology has over the last century and a half shifted constellations of definitions from a focus on perceived biological race, to culture, to ethnicity; indeed, Eric Wolf identified the “special responsibility” of anthropology to carefully interrogate the language wielded and definitions at play in its disciplinary discourse. 11 Ethnicity is about differentiation and pertains to boundary maintenance, a part of a process of exchange and interaction. 12 Ethnic groups share common cultural characteristics based on a shared history. While race is defined through difference and boundaries, ethnicity is articulated through similarities and boundaries. Anthropology is well placed to survey contours and layered contexts of these boundaries with ethnography.

Steve Fenton situates ethnicity, like race, as a socially constructed concept and offers the following as a starting point: “that ethnicity refers to the social construction of descent and culture, the social mobilization of descent and culture, and the meanings and implications of classification systems built around them.” 13 Exploring definitions of ethnic groups and ethnicity in context also demonstrates the need to observe which group(s) constructs the category, thus implicating relations of power and discourses in the development of ethnicity. 14

The concept of the “boundary” is essential to understandings of “race” as well as “ethnicity.” Cornell and Hartmann have argued that race continues to be viewed as the most powerful and persistent group boundary. 15 Certainly it is one in which the lines are constantly marked. Definitions of ethnicity and “race” are defined through opposition, with categorizations varying as needed to serve the interests of power. In this way, race remains an illusion rather than a scientific reality; its impact, however, remains more than a nod to power.

Race and ethnicity have varied in their definitions over time based on cultural meanings and ideological stances; what has constituted the definitions of race at one time may become a marker of ethnicity at a later date. For example, Jews have been historically defined as a race but are now considered an ethnic group. 16 Similarly, in the nineteenth century, the Irish were framed within British media as a distinct race. 17 It is necessary that explorations of race, even in a contemporary sense, keep closely in mind the context of its historical framing since “race categories and meanings attached to them are not static.” 18 The aspects that have been used to define these social categories have changed with time in relation to cultural conditions, historical processes, and interaction between groups of people.

To underscore once more: race is a myth and a reality. Anthropology’s experiences in exploring and extrapolating from myth, then, would be an appropriate fit for detailing the serious nature of the concept with specific cases. Race is a process; something that is learned through interaction and reproduced by institutions. 19

While discussing race and physical anthropology in 1997, Alan Goodman forecasted that “Race, or rather a rethinking of the terms and constructs of human variation, may paradoxically be a place where biological and cultural anthropologists might fruitfully come together again.” If one extends this line of thinking to the intersections of sport, one might see where anthropological approaches and methods may rendezvous to articulate the consequences of racialization. 20 If the effect of race has been to categorize and stratify and the impact of ethnicity to define at the boundaries and borders, now there are opportunities for anthropology to use sport as the field of vision to blur, read between, and surface the meaning written across the lines.

With what latitude: sport in anthropology

Explorations of sport, leisure, and play have featured in anthropological accounts from the start of the discipline, from the work of Bronislaw Malinowski to Franz Boas, and Stewart Culin’s and James Mooney’s explorations of the sport of Native Americans. 21 A movement toward anthropology of sport, however, did not clearly emerge until the 1960s. Even then, sport and games were seen as expressing other conditions and meanings. The late Eduardo Archetti suggested that anthropology with a focus on the primitive and the past has largely turned away from the investigation of sport based on sport’s role as a modernizing force. 22

Bronislaw Malinowski’s time with the Trobriand Islanders in the second decade of the twentieth century allowed him to theorize that social activities, including sport, which he observed as having been changed from its original code to an adapted version, functioned to meet the needs of individuals rather than society. In particular, Malinowski focused on the religious and ritualized dimensions of social activities, including cricket, and the ways they served to meet the needs of the people in performing violence, debate, and gambling. 23

Even while some anthropologists detailed engagement with games, anthropology as a discipline regarded these sports as exotic activities and contrasts with modern culture. Sport was not yet a subject of sustained, comparative research. 24 In 1973, Clifford Geertz applied Jeremy Bentham’s concept of deep play to Balinese cockfights and connected expressions of masculinity to competition. Soon after in 1976 Jerry Leach released a documentary film that detailed the lives and leisure of Trobriand Islanders; it highlighted participation and adaptation of a sport introduced as part of the colonizing process. In 1982, G. Whitney Azoy traced the politics and performance in the play of the equestrian sport buzkashi. 25

These studies from Geertz, Leach, and Azoy demonstrated that sport is a valuable site at which one might study the culture and society in which it is performed; here, sport is approached as a vehicle for expressing or communicating cultural values, performing meaningful social activity, and making sense of one’s world. Geertz’s focus on interpreting social discourse and expressions of personality, and his richly detailed ethnographic writing and influence in the anthropology of sport, is also surfaced by his work beyond the Balinese and can be seen in other readings of sport as social activity and ritual in sport. Leach’s 1976 film crafted a view into Trobriander cricket with a window into this culture as it had evolved since Malinowsi’s study. The film was read as dynamically displaying the variations of play and cricket’s functions at the local level – in colorful contrast to traditional (English) cricket. No one element is the creative response to colonizing influences for Leach, yet the complexity of the way sport is played in total by all serves as the contrast. This adaptation of sport, according to Leach, is what becomes a “creative adaptation of tradition to contemporary circumstances” and is, therefore, a window on culture at the intersections of space, time, and values. 26 In other contexts and two decades later, Arjun Appadurai investigated cricket as a means of enacting values removed from the contexts of colonialism tied to the origins of the sport in India. 27

More comprehensive overviews and situating of sport in the disciplinary history of anthropology will detail the interactions between the founding perspectives of anthropology and the place of sport in cultures with which anthropologists came into contact. 28 Susan Brownell’s edited volume surfacing the multifaceted interpretations and results of the 1904 Anthropology Days at the World’s Fair in St. Louis further pinpoints turns in the disciplinary discourse through the lens of sport. The showcase of “savage” pitted against. “modern” in 1904 led to strong critical responses and a movement from a racial pseudoscience to more relativist approach; the perspectives in Brownell’s volume expanded analyses of the enduring relevance of the event and the ideas it manifested. 29 Indeed, anthropology has continued to encounter sport, athleticism, and competition in many settings. Kendall Blanchard, in collaboration with Alyce Cheska in 1985, created the first general text providing an overview of the anthropology of sport. Emphasizing the role of cultural anthropology, their presentation of the anthropology of sport is organized to parallel an introduction to anthropology by focusing on theory, method, and ethnographic insights. Blanchard’s revised edition matches the function of sports in levels of society (culture): bands, chiefdoms, primitive states, and archaic civilizations. 30 Throughout the text, the many ways in which anthropology may be useful in understanding the role, experiences, rituals, and purposes of sport are emphasized. The message is clear here, as similarly voiced by Noel Dyck and Hans Hognestad, and with Thomas Carter: the anthropology of sport has powerful potential for applied research and more is necessary. 31

For the context of this chapter, however, Blanchard’s text is lacking – it fails to directly discuss studies that have grappled with race, instead focusing on social organization and arrangements, gender, age, and history in the anthropology of sport. Additionally, though sport is an entrenched feature of contemporary societies, there are few considerations of the dimensions of sport participation and increasingly organized sporting infrastructure and professionalization of sport. The same lack of focus on race is seen in the very useful reflections on the utility of and need for more anthropology of sport from Allen Guttmann, Noel Dyck and Eduard Archetti, Roberts Sands, and Thomas Carter. 32 However, it should be noted that these works speak broadly to the need to understand the consequences of social categorization that constrains or stratifies social interaction.

Sport, particularly as practiced at the local level, is frequently perceived as a tool of integrating groups and assimilation. Explorations of community, identity, gender, economic transition, and language acquisition have selected local sporting spaces and groups as their foundation. However, by its nature and enactment in Western contexts, sport is also, as a project, generally both hierarchical and exposes divisive beliefs including racism and other exclusionary practices. Sport in Western contexts may also be viewed as an agent of specific meanings determined as a result of exclusionary practices.

Anthropologists offer value to the study of sport and race as their training encourages them to look deeply at popular sports, as well as those that have less participation but may be locally preferred. With activities and passions that cut across class position, ethnic status, or regional affiliations, sport is particularly suited to carry simultaneous markers of individual and collective identities – think: “the nation.” 33 Anthropology can provide insight on the way the constructed national identity is interpreted and applied at the local level when negotiating daily and mundane activities.

The disciplinary boundaries of anthropology have at times shifted, expanding to include new methodologies and technologies, and integrate analytical lenses including feminism and other critical theories. Race and sport continue to be defined by oscillating terms and contexts, through a range of examples in varying locales. Perspectives about “race” and “ethnicity” can be explored as historically rooted phases of scholarly enquiry. Even racism itself “differs across time and space as a result of intersecting and historical differences that individuals have and develop over their life cycles.” 34 Racism also shifts to support the demands and goals of power. The historical use of racial categories has been “arbitrary and changeable and they have been employed in such a way as to convenience and privilege the dominant (White) population.” 35 Picking apart race as a cultural construct reveals the change it has presented as a social category over time; how that category’s impact has been interrogated is the discussion that follows.

Charting the terrain

What are the signposts for the anthropology of race in sport? Anthropology’s methods, fields, and subjects of inquiry have successfully explored elements of social and cultural interaction in sites around the world. The resulting analyses offer valuable insights, as well as approaches to research. The studies are organized below in relation to several ways in which anthropological methods and lenses have approached anthropology of sport, race, and ethnicity. This is by no means an exhaustive list; for example, I do not detail the ways studies have explored sport as a vehicle for symbolic status or wealth. Also prominent in sport studies, but beyond the scope of this chapter, are engagements with and resistance to the nation.

To start, ethnography and methodological considerations and the organization and cohesion of small groups through and around sport. Then a look at the use of boundaries and drawing difference and the ways sport has been interpreted as a vehicle for meaning making and establishing status. Finally, I close this overview by looking at the ways anthropologists and others have encountered the political, economic, and social flows of the local to the global and colonialism and racism in relation to sport. While not all of these studies are explicitly anthropological, each offers valuable starting points and methods of investigating race and sport that can be adapted for anthropological research.

Ethnography and cultural contexts

The majority of anthropological forays with sport have touched on ethnographic and methodological considerations. Sport has been a physical site, a site of discourse and knowledge exchange; a space of contest over prowess, identity, and boundaries.

Ethnographies offer firsthand accounts of behaviors for those that derive community or identity from supporting the sporting competition of others. This may include appropriate sets of behaviors for particular places, contests, or interactions, whether supporting baseball or other sports. 36 Ethnographic work, again, is not the exclusive domain of anthropology. Sociological research and other ethnographic accounts of fan and supporter communities offer excellent starting points for grappling with constructed, and sometimes temporal, identities. 37 Existing ethnographies of sport often close with appeals for more grounded analyses to derive greater insights and observations, and distill latent meaning. 38 Recent work by Marc Fletcher emphasizes the shifting complexity of race and ethnicity in sport settings. 39 Fletcher explores the constant flux in negotiating identity among soccer fans in South Africa through ethnographic work, and offers a counterpoint to fandom and supporter research conducted in Europe. George Gmelch’s work with professional baseball players provides insight into the dimensions, infrastructure, rituals, and constraints of sport enmeshed in complexes of media and entertainment in highly industrialized societies. 40

Anthropology has detailed the expressions and utility of ethnic identity in political and social contexts, as well as surfaced nuanced accounts of the effects of racism. Paul Richards has employed ethnography to understand the ways soccer has been a mechanism for reintegrating adolescents into society following extreme violence and ethnic and political divisions. 41 Eduardo Archetti considers fieldwork in Latin American sport, focusing on meaning making. Here, there are starting points to understand identities, their changes in connection with sporting spaces, shared regional and national interpretations of teams and athletes as they conveyed constellations of values relating to region, class, masculinity, and race.

Ramón Spaaj’s work with Somali refugee communities in Australia offers insights into the ways ethnicity may remain stable while other identities are porous; here, ethnicity is claimed through engagement with a sporting community. 42 And Juliane Müller has probed sporting spaces as sites for the development of community and post-migrant identities in Spain. Her findings question the integrative potential of sport, but highlight the constant negotiation of affiliations for Bolivian and Ecuadorian migrants. 43 Here, sport is revealed as a site generating inclusion, as well as exclusion; some of these processes are apparent in the studies below in which identities are delineated.

Marking the boundaries: creating, changing, and reinforcing identity

One of anthropology’s strengths is applying comparative perspectives; race is a categorization constructed through comparison and creating difference. Therefore, it is reasonable that we would locate the anthropology and investigations of the effects of racism and race-based inequality in sport. In particular, studies have explored where and how identities have been constructed.

Thangaraj employed ethnographic methods to understand the negotiation of race, gender, and class in basketball courts by pulling apart the ways South Asian Americans navigate a space strongly marked by black–white racial dichotomies. The men in his study constantly defined minority identities by consuming dominant racializations in this specific site of sporting performance. 44 Fletcher explored the prominence of race in the experiences of South African football fans; specifically the racial discourses relating to fandom of professional football – Manchester United’s 2008 pre-season tour of South Africa provided a space to surface the hierarchies and experiences of fandom. With an ethnographic approach, Fletcher investigated the intersections of socioeconomic status, leisure time, and resources for the expression of fandom – plus the dangers inherent in passionate support of sports in racialized settings. Additionally Fletcher’s study demonstrates that professional football, as well as fandom, at the local and regional level is more racially and ethnically diverse than media and political discourses acknowledge, based on extensive ethnographic fieldwork. 45 Fletcher’s research in South African football fandom reveals the ways race may be used as a lens for understanding and exploring the effects of racial classification. Furthermore, Fletcher’s fieldwork challenges fixed notions of race to explore the way everyday interactions impact understandings of racial categorization in the demographic arrangement of cities like Johannesburg. 46

Also in South Africa, Connie Anderson, Troy Bielert, and Ryan Jones have shown the ways sports such as soccer, cricket, and rugby have represented and resisted White supremacy. 47 As a result, these sports have both articulated the boundaries of individual identities in relation to sets of dominant values and redefined a collective history of the nation. Thus, sport remains a complex social enterprise, whether played or consumed as a spectator. The next way studies of sport have engaged with aspects of race, ethnicity, and nation is with a sense of nation.

Colonialism, race, resistance, and power

The structures of power inherent in colonialism are readily connected to the sport within those colonial contexts. Sport was enacted as a tool for enculturation of colonial values and a means of disciplining the bodies of local populations – and particularly through cricket and association football in the British imperial context. As a result of sporting codes being adopted at local levels, populations were exposed to both Western ideals and adapted sports to mesh with their values. The results included hybridization of sporting codes and forms of performance that were distinct to these regions. While not exclusively anthropological lenses, studies have specifically explored diffusion, acculturation, and adoption of Western ideals. 48 The ways in which these ideals were integrated brought particular sets of social behavior, standards, relations, and conformity through sport; the organization and ceremony, patterns of participation as well as exclusion, and increasingly hierarchical competition brought forward ways of thinking about the world through sport that aligned with an imperial project. 49

Adaptations of sporting codes reveal intersections with other social relations that are dictated and guided by race-based inequalities. For example, Leite Lopes traces how the history of class identities and racial divisions guided the boundaries of professionalization of football in Brazil from the 1930s onward. As “white” Brazilians began transnational migration and sporting success in Europe, “black” athletes remained condemned to domestic, even local, success – or in the case of the 1950 World Cup defeat, to serve as the targets of blame for lack of sporting victory. Through these exchanges, an evolving hybrid form of play is believed to have emerged, along with a celebrated “multi-racial” team. Further connecting history with ethnographic work could unpack this nationalist discourse to understand the ways local experiences resists this narrative of the collective. 50

Sport is, of course, also integrated at lived and local levels while referencing the national and global. Thus, for each site and study of sport, there are economic and political flows at play that can intersect with racial identities, class, gender, and age. Exploring interpretations of the performance of Cameroon’s national football team in global competition, Vidacs delineates the effects of racism and intersections with national government policy as it is experienced at the local level. 51 Vidacs also captured the ways population flows are perceived as tied to sport and celebrating national identity across class lines with France’s 1998 FIFA World Cup victory with a team composed of “immigrants” in the Cameroonian perspective. 52 Returning to the benefit of an anthropological lens, the ability to draw out the cultural, social, and political impacts of global flows on local sport will become increasingly useful.

Uncharted territory: what lies on the horizon?

If we’ve sketched the routes of the distances anthropologists and other social researchers have traveled so far with regard to race, racism, ethnicity, and more, what uncharted territory remains? Some issues to which anthropological lenses might be applied include:

  • Exploring the intersections of race and ethnicity, and even nationalism with gender, class, and sexuality. 53 In particular, ethnographic work with the fans of women’s sport and the impact of racism and racialization on their interpretations of sport. 54 Physical anthropology may serve as an embodied site for these social categories as well. 55
  • Undertaking an ethnographic inquiry into racialization and identity that surpasses the restrictions of space and time or are modeled on previous spaces, places, and times. Anthropological focus might turn toward the performance of sport and athlete identities as resistance to racism and racialization; or the adoption of ethnic identities through learning and exposure to specific sporting cultures, which may support or exclude participation by certain groups. These explorations would push at the permeability of boundaries in comparative contexts and draw out discussion of global flows.
  • Unpacking the codification and professionalization of traditional sports, once perceived to be rituals, enculturation; also their role as vehicles for the diffusion of specific cultural, religious, or political values.
  • Defining the contours of racism and racialization in projects of development instigated or promoted through sport, as well as their levels of success and failure in local contexts. 56 Anthropological approaches would also be useful for investigating the shifting social relationships as power is reorganized in the implementation and maintenance of community-based programs, such as those focusing on health.
  • Extending comparative forays into understanding contemporary expressions of community and the constellation of the self in the midst of global flows and ascriptions of hybridization. This approach could be extended to unpack the layers of the local, grounded experiences as they are built through exchange with the complex and even contradictory of the global: whether imagined, spectacle, or mediated.
  • Launching ethnographic studies of the racialization and divisions of physical spaces and structures of sport, such as shared-use recreational facilities, and the ways meaning is made in relation to the infrastructure that supports rotating large-scale entertainment events and the experiences of racism and inequalities of the labor supporting and the people consuming these events.

Additionally, opportunity abounds to interrogate the impact of the political economy of sport. This could be investigated at the regional, national, and international levels in activities of industrialization, team, and working conditions, and class- and race-based identities and demarcations. 57 This should particularly call to research in postcolonial contexts that are simultaneously experiencing sport as an agent of development and their people’s sporting labor undervalued in a wider system of professional sport. 58 Existing ethnographies would serve as points of comparison for additional research that analyzes the structures of inequality that unfold from race and are evidenced in experiences of immigration.

The value of anthropological inquiry lies in its infinite arrangement of questions and close contextual investigation of experiences in sport: physical, social, symbolic, and cultural, and particularly in relation to the consequences of race. Taking leads from the analyses above provides coordinates with which one might start an exploration of race and its consequences.


This chapter was crafted to map the value of anthropological lenses for reading the prism of race and the fracturing effects of racism in sport. That includes a focus on the ways the varied components of the human experience in sport are explored with anthropological approaches, rather than merely discussing what has been studied. As suggested with the topics above, anthropology can do much to derive insights around the consequences of race in sport. Now is the time to better match this discipline to the questions, observations, and spaces demanding further analysis, while continuing to problematize the categorizations that naturalize difference and bolster inequality. Therefore, this trip around the topics of anthropology of sport and race inevitably echoes the calls from anthropologists for more study of sporting spaces, rituals, and embodied practices.

Anthropology continues to meld ethnography with comparative approaches – global and locally situated – and a desire to understand the effects of socially and culturally constructed identities. This allows anthropologists to find the intersections at which categorizations are established, and where they are negotiated. Sundry are the possible paths for anthropological enquiry into race and its effects in sport. The end of this journey now marks the start of a new adventure in qualitative inquiry.


Kendall Blanchard, The Anthropology of Sport: An Introduction, revised edition (Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey, 1995).

See the following for summaries of the anthropological history and theory: R. Jon McGee and Richard L. Warms, Anthropological Theory: An Introductory History (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2003); Paul A. Erickson and Liam D. Murphy, A History of Anthropological Theory, 4th edition (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013); Thomas Hylland Eriksen and Finn Sivert Nielsen, A History of Anthropology, 2nd edition (London: Pluto Press, 2013).

James Peoples and Garrick Bailey, Humanity: An Introduction to Cultural Anthropology (Belmont, CA: Wadworth Cengage Learning, 2011), 103.

Richard B. Woodbury and Nathalie F.S. Woodbury, “The Rise and Fall of the Bureau of American Ethnology,” Journal of the Southwest 41, 3 (1999), 283–96, 284.

Erickson and Murphy, A History of Anthropological Theory, 18.

Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s, 2nd edition (New York, NY: Routledge, 1994); Carol Mukhopadhyay and Yolanda Moses, “Re-establishing Race in Anthropological Discourse,” American Anthropologist 99, 3 (1997), 517–33. See also Audrey Smedley and Brian D. Smedley, “Race as Biology is Fiction, Racism as a Social Problem is Real: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives on the Social Construction of Race,” American Psychologist 60, 1 (2005), 16–26. For anthropology failing to discuss race, see Eugenia Shanklin, “Representations of Race and Racism in American Anthropology,” Current Anthropology 41, 1 (2000), 99–103.

Douglas Hartmann, “Beyond the Sporting Boundary: The Racial Significance of Sport Through Midnight Basketball,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 35, 6 (2012), 1007–22.

Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association on 17 May 1998,, accessed 27 January 2016.

Sut Jhally and Stuart Hall, Race: The Floating Signifier (Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation, 1996).

In John Downing and Charles Husband, Representing Race: Racisms, Ethnicity and the Media (London: Sage, 2005), 2.

Eric R. Wolf, Joel S. Kahn, William Roseberry, and Immanuel Wallerstein, “Perilous Ideas: Race, Culture, People,” Sidney W. Mintz Lecture for 1992, Current Anthropology 35, 1 (1994), 1–12.

Richard Jenkins, Rethinking Ethnicity: Arguments and Explorations, 2nd edition (London: Sage, 2008).

Steve Fenton, Ethnicity (Oxford: Polity Press, 2003).

Fenton, Ethnicity; see also Lyton Ncube’s ethnographic exploration of fan communities in Zimbabwe and the relationships of power manifested during the negotiation of identities. Lyton Ncube, “The Interface Between Football and Ethnic Identity Discourses in Zimbabwe,” Critical African Studies 6, 2–3 (2014), 192–210.

In Kevin Hylton, “Race” and Sport: Critical Race Theory (New York: Routledge, 2009), 5.

Miri Song, Choosing Ethnic Identity (Oxford: Polity Press, 2003).

Meghan M. Ferriter, “Bringing Irish Nationalist Identity into Focus, 1880–1923” (unpublished Master’s thesis, Old Dominion University, 2005).

Downing and Husband, Representing Race, 3.

See discussion of AAA and ASA statements on race in John Hartigan, “Conclusion: Anthropology of Race,” Anthropology of Race: Genes, Biology, and Culture (Sante Fe, NM: School for Advanced Research Press, 2013), 187–98.

Alan H. Goodman, “Race and Anthropology: A Fatal Attraction?,” Reviews in Anthropology 26, 4, (1997), 203–20.

See Stewart Culin, “Games of the North American Indians,” in Games of Skill, vol. 2. (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1907, reprinted 1992); James Mooney, “The Cherokee Ball Game,” American Anthropologist 3 (1890), 105–32.

Eduardo Archetti, “The Meaning of Sport in Anthropology: A View from Latin America,” European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies/Revista Europea de Estudios Latinoamericanos y del Caribe 65 (1998), 91–103, 93.

Blanchard, The Anthropology of Sport, 68.

Noel Dyck, “Getting into the Game: Anthropological Perspectives on Sport: Introduction,” Anthropologica 46, 1 (2004), 3–8.

Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1973); Jerry Leach, dir., Trobriand Cricket: An Ingenious Response to Colonialism, 54 min., Media Resources Center, University of California, Berkeley, CA (1976); G. Whitney Azoy, Buzkashi: Game & Power in Afghanistan, 3rd edition (Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, Inc., 2012).

Jerry Leach, “Structure and Message in Trobriand Cricket,” in Jack R. Rollwagen, ed., Anthropological Filmmaking: Anthropological Perspectives on the Production of Film and Video for General Public Audiences, reprint (New York, NY: Routledge, 2014), 237–52.

Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 89–113.

E.g. Kendall Blanchard, “The Anthropology of Sport,” in J. Coakley and Eric Dunning (eds), Handbook of Sports Studies (London: Sage, 2002), 144–57.

Susan Brownell (ed.), The 1904 Anthropology Days and Olympic Games: Sport, Race, and American Imperialism (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2008).


Thomas Carter, “On the Need for an Anthropological Approach to Sport,” Identities, 9, 3 (2002), 405–22.

See Blanchard, “The Anthropology of Sport”; Hans Hognestad, “Long-distance Football Support and Liminal Activities Among Norwegian Fans,” in Noel Dyck and Eduardo P. Archetti, eds., Sport, Dance and Embodied Identities (New York: Berg, 2003), 97–113.

Archetti, “The Meaning of Sport in Anthropology.”

Jeanette Armstrong and Roxana Ng, “Deconstructing Race, Deconstructing Racism,” in Jo-Anne Lee and John Lutz, eds., Situating “Race” and Racisms in Time, Space and Theory: Critical Essays for Activists and Scholars (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005), 30–45, 37.

Miri Song, Choosing Ethnic Identity (Oxford: Polity Press, 2003), 13.

See Alan M. Klein, Baseball on the Border: A Tale of Two Laredos (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999); Holly Swyers, Wrigley Regulars: Finding Community in the Bleachers (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2010).

Richard Giulianotti, “Football and the Politics of Carnival: An Ethnographic Study of Scottish Fans in Sweden,” International Review for the Sociology of Sport 30, 2 (1995), 191–219; Hans Hognestad, “The Jambo Experience: An Anthropological Study of Hearts Fans,” in Gary Armstrong and Richard Giulianotti, eds., Entering the Field: New Perspectives in World Football (Oxford: Berg, 1997), 193–210.

Bea Vidacs, “Through the Prism of Sports: Why Should Africanists Study Sports?” Africa Spectrum, 41, 3 (2006), 331–49.

Marc Fletcher, “More than Vuvuzelas? Towards an Understanding of Soccer Fandom in Johannesburg,” Critical African Studies, 6, 2–3 (2014), 176–91.

George Gmelch, Inside Pitch: Life in Professional Baseball, 2nd edition (Lincoln, NE: Bison Books, 2006).

Paul Richards, “Soccer and Violence in War-Torn Africa: Soccer and Social Rehabilitation in Sierra Leone,” in Gary Armstrong and Richard Giulianotti, eds., Entering the Field: New Perspectives in World Football (Oxford: Berg, 1997), 141–57.

Ramón Spaaj, “Beyond the Playing Field: Experiences of Sport, Social Capital, and Integration among Somalis in Australia,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 35, 9 (2012), 1519–38.

Juliane Müller, “Local Relations and Transnational Imaginaries: Football Practices of Migrant Men and Women from Andean Countries in Spain,” Soccer & Society 15, 4 (2014), 596–617.

Stanley Thangaraj, “Playing Through Differences: Black–White Racial Logic and Interrogating South Asian American Identity,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 35, 6 (2012), 988–1006.

Marc Fletcher, “‘You Must Support Chiefs; Pirates Already Have Two White Fans!’: Race and Racial Discourse in South African Football Fandom,” Soccer & Society 11, 1–2 (2010), 79–94.

Marc Fletcher, “‘These Whites Never Come to our Game: What Do They Know About Our Soccer?’ Soccer Fandom, Race, and the Rainbow Nation in South Africa” (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Edinburgh, 2012).

Connie M. Anderson, Troy A. Bielert, and Ryan P. Jones, “One Country, One Sport, Endless Knowledge: The Anthropological Study of Sports in South Africa,” Anthropologica 46, 1 (2004), 47–55.

John Bale and Joe Sang, Kenyan Running: Movement Culture, Geography, and Global Change (London: Frank Cass, 1996); Allen Guttmann, Games and Empires: Modern Sports and Cultural Imperialism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994); Brian Stoddart, “Sport, Cultural Imperialism, and Colonial Response in the British Empire,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 30, 4 (1988), 649–73.

Stoddart, “Sport, Cultural Imperialism.”

José Sergio Leite Lopes, “Successes and Contradictions in ‘Multiracial’ Brazilian Football,” in Gary Armstrong and Richard Giulianotti, eds., Entering the Field: New Perspectives in World Football (Oxford: Berg, 1997), 53–86. See also José Sergio Leite Lopes, “Class, Ethnicity, and Color in the Making of Brazilian Football,” Daedalus 129, 2 (2000), 239–70.

Vidacs, “Through the Prism of Sports.”

Bea Vidacs, “France in the Cameroonian Football Imagination,” in Gary Armstrong and Richard Guilianotti, eds., Football in Africa: Conflict, Conciliation and Community (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 169–82.

Fletcher and Bisschoff acknowledge the bulk of ethnographic work exploring fandom has focused on masculine supporter cultures and call for wider exploration as well. Marc Fletcher and Lizelle Bisschoff, “African Sport in the Global Arena: Contemporary Approaches and Analyses,” Critical African Studies 6, 2–3 (2014), 123–33, 124.

My ongoing ethnographic work with online US women’s soccer fans offers particularly revealing silences around race and ongoing negotiation of identities as fans intersecting with ethnicity and nationalism.

Physical anthropology has not been the focus of this chapter, but useful studies of embodied sporting experiences and the technologies of the body include two edited volumes: Robert R. Sands and Linda R. Sands, eds., The Anthropology of Sport and Human Movement: A Biocultural Perspective (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2010); Noel Dyck and Eduardo P. Archetti, eds., Sport, Dance and Embodied Identities (New York: Berg, 2003). See also Marcel Mauss, “Techniques of the Body,” Economy and Society, 2, 1 (1973), 70–88; Bale and Sang, Kenyan Running; P. David Howe, “Impairment: Sporting Bodies – Sensuous, Lived, and Impaired,” in Frances E. Mascia-Lees, ed., A Companion to the Anthropology of the Body and Embodiment (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 276–91; and Greg Downey, “Educating the Eyes: Biocultural Anthropology and Physical Education,” Anthropology in Action 12, 2 (2005), 56–71.

One starting point, applying sociological perspectives: Simon C. Darnell, “Playing with Race: Right to Play and the Production of Whiteness in ‘Development through Sport’,” Sport in Society 10, 4 (2007), 560–79. Here, Darnell suggests that difference is drawn out through the development of sport into a series of contrasting values written across “white” bodies and bodies of color.

See, for example, Sikes and Jarvie’s work with Kenyan women runners. Grant Jarvie and Michelle Sikes, “Running as a Resource of Hope? Voices from Eldoret,” Review of African Political Economy 39, 134 (2012), 629–44; Michelle Sikes and Grant Jarvie, “Women’s Running as Freedom: Development and Choice,” Sport in Society 17, 4 (2014), 507–22. See the discussion in Mario Bick, “Review: The Anthropology of Sport – An Introduction,” American Ethnologist 15, 2 (1988), 400–1.

For example, John Nauright applies a physical cultural studies approach and explores the ways pursuit of participation in a global economic system of inequalities intersects with sport in the specific contexts of South Africa; here, race and inequalities continue to be written onto black bodies symbolically, see John Nauright, “On Neoliberal Global Sport and African Bodies,” Critical African Studies 6, 2–3 (2014), 134–43; also see Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 89–113; and Wycliffe W. Simiyu Njororai, “Distance Running in Kenya: Athletics Labour Migration and its Consequences,” Leisure/Loisir 36, 2 (2012), 187–209.

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