Sports and Cultural Criticism

How has postmodern critical theory been drawn into analysis of this popular and profit-making form of entertainment to reshape common understandings?

Love the Hot Topic titles? Try our other newsletters.

Azzarito, Laura. Social justice in globalized fitness and health: bodies out of sight. Routledge, 2019. 127p bibl index ISBN 9781138059894, $140.00; ISBN 9781315163314 ebook, $27.48.
Reviewed in CHOICE March 2020

In this important contribution to the discourse on the politics of identity and resistance, Azzarito (Columbia Univ.) problematizes the domain of health and fitness, particularly as experienced by minority and disenfranchised youth. Risk is inherent to deviation from the norm of a thin, toned body—a body that is ultimately a commodity in the marketplace of ideas. Against the totalizing discourse of the “monologue of one” fit body, Azzarito postulates that for young ethnic minorities, the body—and identity—inhabits the intersection of race, class, gender, and lived experience, rather than inhabiting one space. Young ethnic minorities may construct resistance and “re/imaging” in a variety of contexts, including physical education classes, performance in public spaces, and art exhibitions. Critical race theory and feminist theory inform Azzarito’s critique of an otherness made to be consumed and dominated, an identity that is always experienced as lacking and never truly assimilated. This work exposes how physicality can form resistance to a dominant discourse. As suggested by its subtitle, it shows how young marginalized minorities, including ethnic minorities as well as indigenous and other disenfranchised youth, struggle to make themselves seen, not only by the dominant society but, more importantly, by themselves. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty and professionals. —K. Liu, Tuolumne Mi-Wuk Indian Health Center

Besnier, Niko. The anthropology of sport: bodies, borders, biopolitics, by Niko Besnier, Susan Brownell, and Thomas F. Carter. California, 2017 (c2018). 321p bibl index ISBN 9780520289000, $85.00; ISBN 9780520289017 pbk, $29.95; ISBN 9780520963818 ebook, $29.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE January 2019

Three accomplished anthropologists provide a thorough overview of the anthropological study of sport. They combined their own specialty areas with prior anthropology publications as well as a survey of the literature of sport history, sociology, and philosophy to produce a thematically organized discussion of sport across the millennia and across the world as a whole. Topics include sport through the lens of colonialism and imperialism, health and the environment, cultural performance and mega-events, nationalism, social class, race, ethnicity, sex, gender, and sexuality. Each of these topics has been studied by other scholars in a variety of disciplines (which the authors acknowledge with detailed notes), but the strength of this work is both the connection of past scholarship with anthropological theory and the inclusion of a truly international perspective that encompasses the non-Western world. The authors’ own fieldwork experiences have included work in China, Brazil, Cuba, Tonga, Fiji, Japan, and Europe, resulting in additional insights. Although the structure necessitates some repetition, this weakness is counterbalanced by the fact that the individual chapters can largely stand alone. This ambitious endeavor is, on the whole, nicely done. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All levels. —S. K. Fields, University of Colorado-Denver

Connor, Steven. A philosophy of sport. Reaktion Books, 2011. 232p ISBN 186189869X pbk, $25.00; ISBN 9781861898692 pbk, $25.00.
Reviewed in CHOICE March 2012

From his position as a scholar of modern literature and theory, Connor (Birkbeck, Univ. of London, UK) takes aim at the significance and nature of sport. His purpose is to understand sport and its collective meaning. Rather than examining these issues in terms of traditional philosophical areas such as metaphysics, ethics, or aesthetics, Connor takes a cultural-phenomenological approach. In order to make his case, he draws from philosophical themes found in the writings of Sartre, Hegel, Freud, and Heidegger, among others. The book begins with an examination of what Connor terms the “historicity of sport”; herein he traces the usage of “sport” through history to the modern notion related to games of physical exertion. Subsequent chapters consider such sporting elements as space, time, movement, equipment, rules, and winning. This work serves as a complementary resource to William Morgan’s Why Sports Morally Matter (2006) and Graham McFee’s Sport, Rules, and Values: Philosophical Investigations into the Nature of Sport (2004). Summing Up: Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty and professionals. —D. R. Hochstetler, Pennsylvania State University, Lehigh Valley

Farred, Grant. In motion, at rest: the event of the athletic body. Minnesota, 2014. 178p ISBN 9780816650231, $67.50; ISBN 9780816650248 pbk, $22.50.
Reviewed in CHOICE September 2014

Drawing on conceptions from notable French philosophers such as Alain Badiou, Gilles Deleuze, and Jacques Derrida, Farred (Africana studies, Cornell Univ.) examines three infamous sporting events from the last decade in light of broader sociocultural issues. The author highlights NBA player Ron Artest (now known as Metta World Peace), who was part of a legendary “malice at the palace” brawl between players and fans; footballer Eric Cantona, who after receiving a red card kicked a fan on his way off the field; and French football captain, Zinedine Zidane, who head butted opposing player Marco Materazzi in a 2006 World Cup game. Juxtaposing sport and philosophy, Farred explores not only “the event” in question but also issues related to such diverse topics as racial notions of the body, segregation and racial inequality, power differences between players and management, violence, immigration, and xenophobia. This is a book for those interested in philosophical issues in sport. Summing Up: Recommended. Graduate students, researchers, faculty. —D. R. Hochstetler, Pennsylvania State University, Lehigh Valley

McNees, Matthew James. Sport philosophy now: the culture of sports after the Lance Armstrong scandal. Rowman & Littlefield, 2015. 261p bibl index afp ISBN 9781442260658, $80.00; ISBN 9781442260665 ebook, $79.99.
Reviewed in CHOICE August 2016

In what he terms the “diapsalmata” (a term borrowed from Kierkegaard), McNees (visiting professor, Univ. of North Carolina, Greensboro, and a cycling entrepreneur) asserts that “the world is at stake” in getting the Lance Armstrong scandal right. Basing his argument on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century (CH, Aug’14, 51-6864), McNees contends that seeking to punish Armstrong for doping is “bad faith.” Armstrong was “not so much the world’s most talented cyclist but the world’s most talented means for capital flow in the sport of cycling” (quoting from chapter 7). What is required is “a new societal paradigm that faces the harsh inequities of the capitalist rhetoric program of manipulating the masses.” Armstrong, McNees writes, played a role in producing a socially determined item of consumption as an elite athlete “not unlike a horse or a dog,” a role that concealed the all-pervasive system of production whose instrument he was. Passionate about his subject, McNees ranges over Hegel, Schopenhauer, Marx, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, Derrida, Lyotard, Lacan, et al. The Armstrong scandal is a synecdoche for the regime of late capitalism and its stranglehold on the world economic order and on the capacity of humans to understand their manipulation in, for example, the financing of mega-stadiums and elite performances. Summing Up: Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty and professionals. —J. Churchill, Retired from Phi Beta Kappa

Morgan, William J. Leftist theories of sport: a critique and reconstruction. Illinois, 1994. 267p ISBN 0252020685, $49.50; ISBN 0252063619 pbk, $17.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE September 1995

In this book Morgan presents suggestions for using a critical social theory of sport as an attempt to rid sports of its current negative aspects. As he indicates, the “New Left” or “Neo-Marxist” critique of sport began in the late 1960s and early 1970s; many of the writings of these “New Left” scholars are reviewed for analysis and discussion. The book is divided into two main sections: “The Critique” and “The Reconstructed Theory.” Chapters in the first section include “The New Left and Theory of Sport,” “Hegemony Theory of Sport,” and “The Corruption of Sport and Its Theological Distortion”; the second includes “The Path to a Critical Theory of Sport: Transcendent or Immanent” and “Reconstructed Critical Theory of Sport: Social Criticism with a Liberal Twist.” A postscript, “Sport in the Larger Scheme of Things,” gives additional facts. Each chapter is followed by a detailed annotated bibliography. Summing Up: Graduate; faculty. —J. Davenport, Auburn University

Poulter, Gillian. Becoming a native in a foreign land: sport, visual culture, and identity in Montreal, 1840-85. UBC Press, 2009. 374p ISBN 9780774814416, $85.00.
Reviewed in CHOICE May 2010

Poulter (Acadia Univ.) addresses the construction of a particular dimension of Canadian national identity in a specific British white-settler colony: Montreal, Quebec. The central thesis of this theoretically nuanced study is that the process effected a hegemonic “appropriation of indigenous cultural activities” by the British, the indigenes being the First Nations as well as the French canadiens. Integral to the theoretical approach is the analysis of copious visual images, in lithographic and photographic form. In particular, Poulter focuses on the performative and ritualized symbolic activities that represented, and thus constructed, a self-image of being “native Canadian” that was as masculine and energetic as it was respectable, healthy, and moral. Chapters address the evolution of snowshoe clubs, the practice of staged hunting trips, the appropriation of lacrosse from the First Nations, the role of choreographed spectacles of these activities, and, finally, the ultimate demonstration of a racialized and social superiority of an emerging polity in the 1885 defeat of the Riel Rebellion. The concluding chapter affects a reprise of how all of these elements contribute to Poulter’s thesis of the “contribution of sport, visual culture, and public spectacle in the task of becoming native in a foreign land.” Richly illustrated and well referenced. Summing Up: Recommended. Most levels/libraries. —B. Osborne, Queen’s University at Kingston

The Psychology of sub-culture in sport and physical activity: critical perspectives, ed. by Robert J. Schinke and Kerry R. McGannon. Routledge, 2014. 214p bibl index afp ISBN 9781848721579, $155.00; ISBN 9781848721586 pbk, $51.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE April 2015

In this collection, Schinke and McGannon (both, Laurentian Univ., Canada) explore a broad scope of research in the still-developing subdiscipline of sport psychology, cultural sport psychology (CSP). CSP challenges mainstream sport psychology by examining how certain groups are privileged as others are marginalized and by looking at taken-for-granted assumptions that pervade sport psychology research. Essays range widely. Offered are a transfeminist approach to sex, gender, and fair play in sport; a critical ecological approach to emotional abuse in youth sports; critical analysis of concussion research; and discussion of assessment and management. The final section of the book explores “self-reflection and reflexivity” in relation to practitioners of sport psychology. An interesting resource for a graduate seminar in sport psychology or sport studies, this book accomplishes the task of pushing research in the domain of sport psychology into areas that are typically not examined. The book will also help scholars interested in research that challenges the traditional positivistic approach and utilizes critical analysis in the area of sport psychology. Summing Up: Recommended. Graduate students, researchers, faculty, professionals. —L. J. Burton, University of Connecticut

Sport and modern social theorists, ed. by Richard Giulianotti. Palgrave, 2004. 252p ISBN 0333800788, $72.00; ISBN 0333800796 pbk, $25.00.
Reviewed in CHOICE July 2005

These 14 essays apply the ideas of 14 prominent social theorists to the phenomenon called sport. The theorists are modern only in the broadest sense of the term, for they cover the gamut of sociological thought from Marx to Derrida. A brief biography introduces each theorist, and then the invited author of the essay applies the chosen theorist’s ideas to some aspect of sport. This approach might work particularly well with student athletes and sport fans. The authors appear to be authorities in their fields and the writing is accessible and well done. One drawback, however, is that the ideas of some of the chosen theorists apply more readily to sports analysis than do the ideas of others. For example, Erving Goffman, with his interest in ritual, was a natural pick, as was Norbert Elias, who actually wrote about sport. A couple of the other theorists, however, require a good deal of manipulation to fit the sociology of sport perspective. All and all, this is an interesting, profitable read that could prove useful as a tool for teaching sociological theory. Summing Up: Recommended. All levels/libraries. —W. P. Nye, Hollins University