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For sociologists subscribing to a hierarchical model of culture, sports may be regarded as its antithesis: a bodily practice, of little cultural consequence, gazed on by passive spectators for the enrichment of the leisure and media industries. However, taking sports seriously as culture does not necessitate the abandonment of formative sociological questions of structure, agency, and power, but helps to ”rehabilitate” and extend them into hitherto neglected areas. Sport’s raw popularity as spectacle alone marks it out as a pivotal element of contemporary society and culture. For example, the estimated cumulative audience for the 2002 Korea/ Japan World Cup of association football was 28.8 billion viewers; 9 out of 10 people in the world with access to television watched some part of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games; and the worldwide audience estimate for the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics alone was 1.2 billion viewers. Such ”mega-media” sports events are profoundly instructive about cultural change in (post) modernity.
The major dimensions of the sports-culture relationship concern the impacts of the industrial development of sport, the social ideologies that circulate within the ”media sports cultural complex” (Rowe 2004: 4), and the positioning and influence of sports within the wider sociocultural sphere. Sport is a key instance of the penetration of the logic of capital into everyday culture and of the industrialization of leisure time and practice, inducing since the nineteenth century spectators to pay to enter the controlled space of the sports stadium in order to watch paid athletes perform. Although these specialized aspects of sports culture remain important – major stadia, for example, are invested with the quasi-spiritual qualities that support the proposition that sports is a secular religion – the most important force in the development of sports has been its increasingly intense relationship with the media, without which sports would be hampered by the restrictions of time and space. Because of its intimate involvement with, and omnipresence through, the media, sports is a highly effective bearer of social ideologies disguised as natural, self-evident truths, including those concerning innate competitiveness, corporeal meritocracy, national and racial superiority, and an inevitably unequal gender order.
Sports discourse and language increasingly frame the wider society in its own image – the ”sportification” of society. Sports metaphors, such as those involving ”level playing fields,” regulatory ”hurdles,” and ”races” for company acquisitions and profit goals, routinely insinuate themselves into news bulletins. Similarly, the language of sports suffuses political discourse in liberal democracies, with electoral contests, parliamentary debates and policy disagreements framed in the manner of sports encounters. Advertisers also ”pitch” products and services in sporting terms, with companies and consumers represented as ”teams” and ”oppositions,” and the visual imagery of sports used to depict producers and consumers. Such representations of diverse organizations, relations, and practices as analogous to sports phenomena require skeptical sociological examination given their cultural-symbolic reduction of complex social, economic, and political processes to simple, imagined sports contests and outcomes.
The sociological analysis of sports and culture must deal adequately with the size, complexity, scope, and volatility of its immediate subject, and encompass its deep interaction with the sociocultural world as a whole. The power that can be wielded within sports culture is highly variable and clearly related to other resources of power (including economic, military, and geopolitical). The form that sports culture takes in different national and transnational contexts is both highly diverse and globally connected, and demands a rejuvenated, theoretically rigorous, historically informed, and culturally attuned sociology o fsports and culture.
- Rowe, D. (2004) Sport, Culture and the Media: The Unruly Trinity, 2nd edn. Open University Press, Maidenhead.
- Miller, T., Lawrence, G., McKay, J., & Rowe, D. (2001) Globalization and Sport: Playing the World. Sage, London.
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