Anthropology of Sport

Anthropology of Sport
Eduardo P. Archetti, University of Oslo, Department of Social Anthropology
General Trends
Theory production in anthropology has been characterized by the absence of sport as a field of analysis for understanding rituals, complex processes of identity construction, rites de passage, and bodily performances. For instance, Mauss’ (1935) early piece on body techniques does not mention sport arenas and performances as privileged loci for the development of an anthropology of the body. Several reasons can be advanced as an explanation for the in attention to sport as an important anthropological endeavour. The main explanation lies perhaps in the accepted idea that sports and games, because they produce asymmetry between winners and losers, only flourish in and are characteristic of highly competitive industrial societies. In rituals, asymmetry is postulated in advance - initiated and uninitiated or sacred and profane – and the “game” consists in making all the participants pass to the winning side by means of ritual participation (Lévi-Strauss1966:32). Therefore, almost by definition, anthropology, as the science of the non-modern and ‘primitive’, has in the past excluded the study of sports and competitive games because they were correctly perceived as central features of modernity.

The attention to the importance of sport in social theory is to a large extent related to the influence of the late Norbert Elias. In the historical sociological approach of Elias, sport was defined as a key area in the development of the civilizing process of European societies. The civilizing process was characterized by continuous state control of the legitimate use of force, the development of social organizations to reduce open conflict among social groups, and the elaboration of codes for social behaviour oriented towards the exercise of individual self-control. Sport became a typical activity of leisure that, historically, fulfilled some of the required functions for the consolidation of the civilizing process. It is evident that the exercise of individual self-control is central to sport. For Elias, one of the essential problems of many sports is how to reconcile two contradictory functions: the pleasurable de-controlling of human feelings and the full evocation of enjoyable excitement on the one hand, and on the other the 2 maintenance of a set of checks to keep the pleasantly de-controlled emotions under control’ (1986:49). Modern sport is regulated by clear rules that assure equality among the contenders, make possible the maximization of inner pleasures and the relaxation of individual tensions, and contain the exercise of physical violence. Through Elias, the minor theme of sport is transformed into a major theme and becomes a privileged field for the analysis of individual and social tensions in modern societies.

In the critical tradition of social theory, best represented by Bourdieu (1984), the practice of sports has been seen as an efficient state, and bourgeois, mechanism to indoctrinate youth with values of sexism, nationalism, fanaticism, irrational violence, the cult of performance and competition, the cult of idols, and the uncritical acceptance of the central values of capitalism. Bourdieu maintains that one of the main, perverse effects of sport is that it transforms the spectators - the consumers of the performances of the athletes - into a caricature of militancy. This is because their participation is imaginary, and their knowledge has been appropriated by the sports coaches, journalists and bureaucrats (1984:185). It is clear that the anthropological perspective of Lévi-Strauss, the critical tradition of social theory of Bourdieu and the historical sociology of Elias have something in common: sport is perceived as an important field of analysis for achieving a better understanding of the appropriate or contradictory functioning of modern societies. In the arena of sport, individual self-fulfilment is related to games producing winners and losers, to exalted nationalism in an age of international competition, to passivity and ideological domination, and, in some cases, to an abnormal quest for excitement and violence. No one will deny that sport is associated with these practices and values, but recent anthropological research has shown that it is so much more.

In the new type of research the key assumption is that sport is a ritual and a game at the same time, and is, as such, a cultural construction that makes symbolic communication among its participants possible. The content of the communication may vary according to the degree of formality, rigidity, concentration of meaning and redundancy. But the ritual is also a performance in the sense that saying something is also doing something: hence, the ritual action makes possible a connection between the meanings and values mobilized by the participants. In every ritual, various types of participants can be distinguished: the experts in knowledge, the central participants or players and the peripheral participants or audience. This approximation will permit the consideration of a range of discourses, practices and identities produced by the various kind of participants. A historical analysis of the impact of sports situates these narratives and practices within specific periods of time and place, and, consequently, 3 enables us to follow their transformations. The empirical analysis of sport can contribute to general theories on the meaning of sport in identity construction or on the significance of bodily exploits for expanding the scope of theories of ritual and cultural performances. MacAloon’s (1984) analysis of spectacle, ritual, festival, and games in Olympic competitions is an example of a longstanding anthropological concern with ritual. In this direction, the anthropologic analysis of sport is not a reflection of society, but a means of reflecting on society. Sport, understood as a central and not marginal activity, is a fruitful entrance for capturing important cultural, historical and social processes. Sports, thus, represent a complex space for the display of identities as well as an arena for challenging dominant social and moral codes, contrary to what Bourdieu sustained.

1. Gender and nationhood: sports and politics
It has been argued consistently that a nation is an ‘imagined political community’ in the sense that its members share a sovereign boundary and have a strong feeling of communion. Hence, the ideology of nationalism should be integrated in social practices that can, over time, create an image of ‘the people’ having ‘something’ in common. DaMatta (1982) has argued that Brazil is a society articulated by the sharp division between the ‘home’ and the ‘street’, and between the family - a system of hierarchical social relations and persons - and the market and free individuals. The role of soccer is privileged because the personalized social world of the home and the impersonal universe of the street are combined in a public ritual. Impersonal rules regulating the game make possible the expression of individual qualities: ‘soccer, in the Brazilian society, is a source of individualization...much more than an instrument of collectivization at the personal level’(1982:27). The male players escape from fate - the fate of class or race - and construct their own successful biographies in an open arena. Soccer makes it possible to experience equality and freedom, important values of nationhood, in hierarchical contexts. In order to triumph, a soccer player (like a samba dancer) must have jogo de cintura, the capacity to use the body to provoke confusion and fascination in the public and in their adversaries. The European identification of a Brazilian style of playing relating football and samba, manifested in the expression ‘samba-football’, is therefore not an arbitrary creation: it is rooted in Brazilian self-imagery and identity (Leite Lopes 1997). This identification establishes important cultural differences, because the existence and development of European styles of playing are not linked to music and dance.

The case of Brazil is not unique. In Cuba the ritual of playing baseball, the national sport, has been associated with dancing: ‘each baseball match 4 culminated in a magnificent dinner and dancing, for which orchestras were hired for playing danzones’ (González Echeverría1994:74). As in the case of soccer, baseball was perceived as a democratic and modern game that made it possible for young male players of modest origins to experience social mobility. In Argentina, the arrival in the 1900s of millions of European immigrants to Buenos Aires and its hinterlands made possible the rapid expansion of football and tango. Leisure was transformed; the practice of different sports was accompanied by the crystallization of the choreography of tango and the formation of new orchestras. Tango was first exported to Europe in the 1910s, then to the rest of Latin America and North America, becoming a ‘universal’ dance to express eroticism and modernity. Argentinian soccer players were exported to Europe as early as in the 1920s. Argentinian performing bodies - dancers and musicians and soccer players- became highly visible in the world arena of leisure (Archetti1999).

It is quite interesting that both baseball and soccer, two sports which originated outside the Latin American countries, were integrated into the construction of the ‘national’ masculinity as cricket in the West Indies, Pakistan or India. Rules, aesthetics and style in cricket have been transformed into something that is no longer typical English because the hegemonic systems of values its practice evoke is questioned (Appadurai 1995). The rich ethnography of Alter (1992) has shown that wrestling as an genuine Indian sport provides a context within which concerns with fitness, health and strength articulate with various forms of nationalism. In the vision of many wrestlers, the various forms of self discipline associated with the sport provide the basic moral coordinates around which a new India is imagined and embodied. Thus, cricket and wrestling enter into a complex relation between modernity, masculinity, decolonization and nationalism.

The practice of sports is ‘gendered’ and should be understood as expressing and articulating gender differences. MacClancy’s(1996) analysis of female bullfighting in Spain is a case in point. He demonstrates how anthropologists have unproblematically accepted bullfighting as exclusively male in spite of the fact that over the last two centuries women have been bullfighters, taking the same risk and bearing the same scars as the male matadores. Brownell (1995, 1996)has demonstrated that the international success of Chinese sportswomen has made possible for them to represent the nation in a way that is unlike Western women’s representations of their nations. The ability to endure pain and sacrifice as feminine values a repart of the national discourse transforming Chinese women into national models. Sánchez León (1993) has analysed the gendered meaning of the two most popular sports in Peru. Football, a male practice, is related to freedom and improvisation, whereas volleyball, a female 5 practice, is seen to display the sense of responsibility and discipline of Peruvian women.

2. The production and adoration of the heroes
The world of sport heroes is a world of creative enchantments because, in some moments, like flashes of intense light, athletes become mythical icons representing mastery over mortality. The heroic sports figures must be seen in their cultural context in order to understand their social meaning and their communal impact (Holt, Mangan and Lanfranchi 1996). Oriard (1993) has shown that the athlete-hero in America embodies the ‘land of opportunity’ and is, therefore the most widely popular and most attractive self-made man. The hero sustains the American Dream, personifies the democratic ideal of open accessibility to prestige and allows all citizens to share his glory. In relation to American football, Oriard has demonstrated that in the historical production of a restricted heroic masculinity certain competing qualities were at stake. On the one side, simple, unambiguous physical force was emphasized - what he calls an antimodern value. On the other side, the required ‘manly’ qualities were temperance, patience, self-denial and self-control - which lie behind the modern and technocratic aspects of modernity (1993:192). Oriard asserts that football’s cultural power derived in large part from this collision of the modern and the antimodern, one aspect of which was this dialectical embrace of competing notions of manliness.

In many cases sporting heroes are a source of collective identity and pride in both national and supra-national settings. The case of Maradona, an Argentinian soccer player, is a clear illustration of ‘transnational’ heroism. He was like a Godlike hero inNaples while he was playing for the Naples Football Club and in Argentina while playing on the national team. His heroism was related to mythological figures in the respective local traditions: in Naples he was identified with the mythical figure of the scugnizzo and in Argentina with the pibe. These prototypes have something in common: they are human beings endowed with grace, elegance, creativity, and freedom (Archetti 1997). The cult of sport heroes provides a social model to perceive paradoxes and dramas in society, and to recognize and question key values. When Garrincha, the extraordinary right wing of the Brazilian team which won the World Cup of soccer in 1958 and 1962, died alcoholic and in extreme poverty in 1983 the entire nation was shocked. His funeral became a part of national history. The crowds following his casket in silence in the streets of Rio de Janeiro were participants in a social drama, showing the most profound respect to a son of the working-class 6 who had suffered from injustice, maladjustement, and prejudice. The nation wondered how it had been possible to abandon so heartlessly the player defined as‘ the joy of the people’ (Leite Lopes and Maresca 1992).

3. Engaged audiences and supporters
The image of passive supporters and alienated audiences given by Bourdieu has been contradicted by ethnographic findings. Neves Flores (1982) has demonstrated that in the arena of soccer the supporters ‘narrate’ social stories and even produce what he calls ‘ideologies of transformation’. The popular clubs, like Flamengo in Rio de Janeiro and Corinthias in Sao Paulo, are seen as courageous, with lots of stamina and will to win. The ‘elite’ clubs, like Fluminense in Rio de Janeiro, are machista and show discipline and fair play. The clubs where sons of immigrants are most represented are usually perceived as less national than the others. Neves Flores argues that the organised activity of the supporters displays the class and ethnic divisions in society and, in this sense, act against the dominant values in Brazilian society of national equality, populist integration, and political paternalism. Bromberger (1995) has shown that the narrative of the supporters of AC Torino, a soccer club from northern Italy, emphasises local suffering and extreme loyalty. On the contrary the narrative of the supporters of Juventus, the ‘other’ club in the city, is based on continuous victory, international accomplishments, discipline and efficiency. The history of Juventus is at the same time the history of Fiat, the Italian company owning it. The fans assert, in a creative way, the ‘right’ to identity and difference in modern societies. Armstrong (1998) challenges with his rich ethnography the assumption that violence is wholly central to the match-day experience of soccer supporters in England. Rather, the creation of identity is at the roots of hooliganism, with all the cultural values and rituals, codes of honour and shame, and communal patterns of behaviour and consumption that accompany it. Klein (1991) has argued that baseball is a privileged field for the analysis of cultural hegemony and resistance in the Dominican Republic. Dominican supporters use the very form and symbol of American domination - baseball - to promote resistance. Adopting the sport of baseball has also influenced cultural movements.‘ Dominicans infused the game with their own raucous, melodramatic style, marked by a highly individualistic way of playing, and easygoing attitude toward the game both on the field and on the stands, music and dancing, and crowds by turn temperamental and tranquil’ (Klein 1991:152).Klein has shown something unusual in an era of global influences: working-class supporters in the Dominican Republic prefer wearing the shirts of national clubs rather than American ones.

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