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Sociology of Sport Journal, 2007, 24, 20-36 © 2007 Human Kinetics, Inc.

Back to Basics:

Class, Social Theory, and Sport

Alan Bairner

Loughborough University

It is relatively easy to understand why Marxism has been increasingly discredited in recent years both in the sociology of sport and in the social sciences more generally. Guilty by association with the failed attempts to construct communist societies, it has also come under attack from a variety of sources for its economic reduction- ism and its perceived inability to think beyond class. Even those Marxists such as Gramsci, who are invoked within the sociology of sport by exponents of cultural studies, are lauded not for their Marxism per se but rather for their (mistakenly inferred) willingness to play down the signicance of political economy. This essay argues, however, that much has been lost as a result of the retreat from Marxism, and specically, the abandonment of the belief in the ultimate determinacy of the economic realm and the importance of social class. This is not meant to imply that other sources of identity, together with the various forms of discrimination suffered by a host of different social groups, do not matter or that their materiality cannot be linked effectively to class-based analysis. One might argue, however, that the interests of those groups have been better served in recent years by academic sociologists than have the interests of the poor. With that in mind, the time has come, perhaps, for Marxist sociologists of sport to offer fewer apologies and to replace these with a more robust defense of the subtleties of historical materialism as properly understood. At the very least this means reviving the argument that our identities can best be understood in terms of economics.

Il est relativement facile de comprendre pourquoi le marxisme a été récemment discrédité en sociologie du sport et dans les sciences sociales en général. Coupable par association des tentatives manquées de construction des sociétés communistes, il a aussi été attaqué pour son réductionnisme économique et son incapacité perçue de penser au-delà des classes sociales. Même les marxistes, tels Gramsci, qui sont invoqués en sociologie du sport par les tenants des études culturelles ne sont pas louangés à cause de leur marxisme mais bien à cause de leur volonté (inférée par erreur) de minimiser lʼimportance de lʼéconomie politique. Dans cet essai, il est proposé que beaucoup a été perdu suite au recul devant le marxisme et lʼabandon dʼune croyance en la détermination économique et lʼimportance de la classe sociale. Cela ne signie pas que dʼautres sources dʼidentité et dʼautres formes de

Bairner is with Loughborough University, School of Sport and Exercise Sciences, Loughborough,



Class, Social Theory, and Sport


discrimination dont souffrent une variété de groupes sociaux ne comptent pas ou ne peuvent pas être liées à une analyse fondée sur la classe. On pourrait suggérer, cependant, que les intérêts de ces groupes ont été mieux servis par les sociologues que les intérêts des pauvres. Il est peut-être temps, donc, pour les sociologues marxistes du sport dʼoffrir moins dʼexcuses et de les remplacer par une défense robuste des subtilités du matérialisme historique. À tout le moins, cela équivaut à faire revivre lʼargument selon lequel nos identités peuvent être le plus adéquate- ment comprises en termes dʼéconomie.


Were it not for the inuence of Pierre Bourdieu (and, to a lesser extent, Michel

Foucault), the concept of class would receive remarkably little individual attention in the sociology of sport. I use the word remarkably having grown up in Britain at

a time when class was an ever-present reference point and having studied social

science as an undergraduate when the intellectual climate was still dominated by Marxist ideas. As I hope to demonstrate in this article, I understand fully the rea- sons why Marxism in general has been increasingly discredited in the intervening years. I intend to suggest, however, that much has been lost as a result, and that the concept of social class in and of itself, as opposed to its use in association with other signiers of exploitation and oppression, is as useful today as it was in the 1950s through to the 1970s. For some this will appear to be a case of revisiting old-fashioned and outdated debates, and perhaps it is. I would argue, however, that it is no more dangerous to rehearse old arguments than it is to assume that the latest idea is inevitably superior to what went before simply because it is of more

recent origin.

I wish to argue that many Marxist thinkers have undeservedly become casu-

alties of the general assault on Marxism by having their ideas severely doctored or simply ignored. Most notable in the former category is Antonio Gramsci, and in the latter are Karl Korsch, Walter Benjamin, and many others. What concerns me above all in this essay is that it would appear that all Marxists are expected to be apologetic not only for their overall world view and for the failings of state socialism but specically for any insight that hints of economic determinism or of

a more generally materialist position that retains a central role for economics. What

also concerns me is that Marx himself is less likely to be mentioned in sociological

writings about sport and society than any number of considerably less innovative and inuential thinkers. Meanwhile the drive has been toward analyses that are themselves often deterministic in tone and that attribute primary importance to a variety of sources of personal identity other than that of class.

The Retreat From Marxism (and Social Class)

It is probably safe to say that the intellectual communityʼs retreat from Marxism

owes much to politics, as well as to philosophical concerns. As Frederic Jameson (1996) commented in 1996,



the end of the Soviet state has been the occasion for celebrations of the “death of Marxism” in quarters not particularly scrupulous about distinguishing Marxism itself as a mode of thought and analysis, socialism as a political and societal aim and vision, and Communism as a historical movement. (p. 14)

It should be added, however, that this is also true of many who might have been expected to be more scrupulous in such matters. Thus, the failings of Soviet-style communism led many on the political left to reassess their faith in Marxist ideas in their entirety and to search for alternative forms of radical struggle. As a con- sequence, they were increasingly attracted to the politics of identity and, in an

attempt to offer theoretical justication for this in the face of criticism from what remained of the Marxist tradition, they invoked the claim that Marxism is based on

a reductionist, specically an economic determinist, view of social development. The end result was the phenomenon described by some as post-Marxism:

a series of hostile and/or revisionary responses to classical Marxism from the poststructuralist/postmodernist/feminist direction, by gures who at one time in their lives would have considered themselves as Marxists, or whose thought processes had been signicantly shaped by the classical Marxist tradition. (Sim, 1998, p. 2)

These figures include, without reservation, Jean Baudrillard and Jean- François Lyotard, but the description might also apply to Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, who have sought to graft more recent theoretical innovations on to Marxism. 1 The irony of this is that as a challenge to reductionism this enterprise has been largely unsuccessful, with most proponents of identitarian analyses and of new social movements being just as likely as any Marxist to adopt reductionist and essentialist positions in relation to identifying the location of oppression and promoting social change. Where they have differed from Marxists is with regard to what they have taken to be the key determinants in this process. What they were really reacting against, therefore, was not determinism per se but Marxismʼs claim that in the nal analysis, as we seek to understand society, the material base is the fundamental determining factor. The end result has been that Marxists have spent many years apologizing for or seeking to qualify what were once their core beliefs. I believe that the time for such apologies is over. To those critics who view Marxism as nothing more than

a crude form of economic reductionism, one is tempted to respond in either of

two potentially contradictory ways. First, one can adopt the approach taken by exponents of other sociological perspectives in the face of criticism and contend that the critics have simply failed to understand. 2 This means arguing that, far from being an expression of economic determinism, Marxism actually possesses a much broader conceptualization of the material and/or that it fully appreciates the wide range of alternative determinants that affect the human condition. Second, one can simply go on the attack, accept that Marxism does reduce everything to econom- ics, and argue that there is nothing at all wrong with such an approach. My own inclination is to take something from each response so long as it is made absolutely clear that the latter should not ignore the importance of factors other than those that are purely economic but, nevertheless, insist that the economic realm remains of primary importance.

Class, Social Theory, and Sport


Some Marxist ideas, most notably those of Antonio Gramsci, have been sal- vaged by those who have condemned classical Marxism. Indeed, one can argue that Gramsci became the favorite author of social scientists who had lost faith in orthodox Marxism and were looking for theoretical insights that would allow them to retain a radical impulse while simultaneously rejecting both (economic) deterministic analysis, which they believed to be intrinsic to orthodox Marxism, and Stalinist politics, which they appeared to regard as the inevitable consequence of orthodox Marxism. Gramsci was particularly useful in the latter respect for the simple reason that, having died in 1937, he had not been forced to address the fail- ings of Soviet style communism, a recognition of which was largely responsible for a widespread rejection by others of Marxist ideas in general. Inspired by a perceived need to replace ofcial Marxism–Leninism, many on the political left sought out versions of Marxism that, on the one hand, embraced the concept of democracy as understood in liberal political debate and that, on the other hand, did not espouse dogmatic economic determinism. For this reason, social scietists seized upon the work of Gramsci and other supposedly unorthodox western Marxists (Anderson, 1976a; McInnes, 1972). Increasingly, however, what is Marxist in the writings of such thinkers has been pushed to one side or else, if this could not be successfully achieved, as in the case of Karl Korsch of whom we will hear more later, their work has been ignored almost completely. In the case of Gramsci, it was on the basis of perceptions of his understanding of the relationship between base and superstructure that his contribution was so enthusiastically seized upon by the less economistic of the neo-Marxist sociologists and cultural studies theorists. 3 It became widely believed that Gramsci saw more scope for human agency than had been permitted by orthodox Marxist theory and that, as the “theoretician of the superstructures” (Texier, 1979), he may have rec- ognized that factors other than those rooted in the economic base of society have at least equal social signicance. In addition, it was argued that Gramsciʼs concept of hegemony, although proposed originally to explain how ruling elites govern in western societies, points to the very real possibility of resistance not only in relation to the politics of class but also within the context of race, gender, nationalism, and so on (Mouffe, 1979). Furthermore, Gramsciʼs ideas made it possible for Marxist and socialist intellectuals to begin to take seriously all forms of popular culture, sport included (Williams, 1977). Some sociologists and historians, including ones who were writing about sport, retained Gramsciʼs own interest in class politics. For example, the work of John Hargreaves (1986) and of Stephen G. Jones (1986, 1988) on the development of sport in Britain clearly recognizes the central importance of class in terms of the exercise of hegemonic power and the concomitant construction of counter- hegemonic strategies. Although Hargreaves, together with Richard Gruneau (1983), are frequently cited as having introduced Gramsci and, in particular, the concept of hegemony to the sociology of sport, in fact neither scholar, as we shall see, makes much direct reference to Gramsci, and both, in their different ways, appear eager to distance themselves from Marxism as it had been commonly understood. This might help to explain why, in most textbooks that deal with the social sciences of sport, sections on Marxism are dominated by references to crude determinism, to sport as a superstructural epiphenomenon, and so on, whereas a separate section, more often than not an entire chapter, is devoted to Gramsci, who can then be presented



as offering a way of seeing the world that differs from orthodox Marxism and that challenges the belief in the primacy of economics and social class. In countless books on the sociology of sport, Gramsci has simply been detached from Marxism. For example, in Jay Coakley and Eric Dunningʼs Handbook of Sports Studies (2000), Gramsci warrants only a brief mention in Bero Rigauerʼs chapter on Marxist theories (Rigauer, 2000) but gures prominently in the chapter that follows, written by Jennifer Hargreaves and Ian McDonald and concerned with cultural studies and the sociology of sport (Hargreaves and McDonald, 2000). Jarvie and Maguire (1994) devote an entire chapter to Gramsci in addition to one titled “Classical Marxism, Political Economy and Beyond.” Similarly, in his Sport and Modern Social Theorists, Giulianotti (2004a) includes separate chapters on Gramsci (as well as Adorno and C. L. R. James) in addition to one that discusses Marx together with Weber, Durkheim, and Freud. More recently still, in his Sport. A Critical Sociology, Giulianotti (2005) devotes a chapter to Marx and the neo- Marxists and one to cultural studies during the discussion of which Gramsci is bracketed alongside Louis Althusser and the words Marx and Marxism do not merit a mention. At one level this reects the disproportionately large inuence that Gramsci has had on the study of sport and leisure when compared with most other Marxists. Nevertheless, it also opens up the distinct possibility that students will form the impression that Gramsci does not t into the categories of “classical Marxism” or even “beyond classical Marxism,” and that his work can, and perhaps should, be detached from its Marxists roots. As regards the commentaries that are devoted solely to Marxist theories of sport, there is little but conrmation of the so-called facts—that all Marxist analysis, such as that of Hoch (1972) and Brohm (1978), is crudely deterministic and that sport is regarded by all real Marxists (as opposed to those such as Gramsci who, by implication, had strayed from the orthodoxy) as either a mere reection of the economic base of society or an agency of social control or, more commonly, both of these things. That these Marxists also talked in terms of social class is taken as further evidence of their irrelevance in relation to highly developed societies at the start of the 21st century. Indeed, this might explain why their work is almost totally ignored even in a recent work directly concerned with the relationship between sport and social theory (Giulianotti, 2004a). According to Boyne (2002),

Class appears to be less unrecognizably determinant of social action now than was the case just a quarter of a century ago. It has even been overtaken in the ranks of social-structural inuences by ethnicity, economic geography, gender and—quite possibly—genetic inheritance. (p. 121)

Students constantly tell me that class is not a factor in their lives and then proceed to describe material conditions to which they have been accustomed and which are at such variance with the experiences of the majority of their contem- poraries in the UK today. In one sense, however, they have a point. The industrial proletariat described by Marx is undeniably a threatened species, particularly in western societies, in which heavy manual labor is increasingly a thing of the past. To the extent that most adults can be described as workers in terms of their rela- tionship to the means of production, Marxʼs original understanding of the idea of a working class becomes less tenable. Students relate how their parents have worked

Class, Social Theory, and Sport


all their lives. That they also earn large amounts of money and acquire considerable social status from their occupations does not necessarily invalidate the claim that they are, therefore, workers. Much of this might appear to undermine claims that Marxist analysis remains relevant. Indeed, it is telling that both Gramsci (1971) and Korsch (1923/1970) make a strong case from applying a materialist perspective, associating ideas inextricably with the material conditions out of which and in response to which they rst emerged, to Marxism itself and, thereby, argue the case for the histori- cal specicity of certain theories (Morera, 1990). It could be proposed, therefore, that as the nature of capitalism has changed, Marxismʼs analytical relevance, so apparent in the context of 19th century industrial capitalism, has been greatly diminished. That said, it is equally apparent that there exist massive differences in terms of material resources in virtually all western societies and indeed, that these differentials have actually grown in some countries in recent times. Furthermore, when one takes into account the gap between rich countries and poor countries, the extent of economic difference becomes even more apparent. That exploitation and alienation continue to be prominent features of social life, and specically of the sporting life, is unquestionable. To that extent, indeed, the so-called neo-Marxists were strikingly prophetic. Despite this, however, the retreat from class as a viable explanatory concept has continued unabated. The debate about the Foucauldian turn is instructive in this respect (Gruneau, 1993; Cole, Giardina, & Andrews, 2004). Is Foucaultʼs popu- larity among sociologists of sport the consequence of the growth of opposition to Marxism? Or does his signicance lie in the fact that his conception of power has allowed more scope to discuss a range of issues, many of which have been and remain central concerns for Marxists? Similar issues arise with regard to the later work of Jean Baudrillard (Giulianotti, 2004b). Does he reject Marxism or simply address aspects of its perceived inability to make sense of a rapidly changing social universe? What troubles me about all of these debates is that the more we engage with those other thinkers, the less likely it is that we and our students will take the time to consider Marx and the self-proclaimed Marxists. As a result, we are increas- ingly unlikely to understand fully the implications of a historical materialism in general and the central importance of political economy in particular. At present what were once regarded as Marxist concepts are nowadays more likely to be mentioned in relation to specic identity groups rather than social classes. A good example of this is the way in which Gramsciʼs concept of hegemony is widely used in relation to masculinity with little or no appreciation of the termʼs Marxist origins (McKay, Messner, & Sabo, 2000). From time to time, however, scholars have made interesting attempts to bring together the politics of class and other forms of identity politics (Gibson-Graham, Resnick, & Wolff, 2000). Within the sociology of sport, this has been most apparent in work inuenced by Pierre Bourdieu.

Bourdieu and Class

As with Foucault and Baudrillard, it is a moot, albeit much debated, point as to whether Pierre Bourdieuʼs understanding of class is the result of the inuence of Marxism or a rejection of Marxism (Potter, 2000). This discussion has become



entangled with another conict of opinions concerned with the extent to which Bourdieu was or was not a genuine voice of resistance. According to Ohl (2000), although he was inspired by both Weber and Marx in his conceptualization of social classes, “Bourdieuʼs construction of social space constitutes a break with Marxist theory” (p. 147). For Wolfreys (2002), who suggests that

is a setback for the left both in France and

Bourdieu dismissed Marxʼs emphasis on workersʼ abil- ity to consciously take control of their lives through the lived experience of class conict as both voluntaristic, placing too much reliance on subjective consciousness, and deterministic, anticipating the “maturing” of objective conditions. (pp. 1–2)

the death of Pierre Bourdieu

This perspective is in line with a variety of critiques, or perhaps one should call them reworkings, of Marxʼs ideas that emphasized the need to escape from false dichotomies including not only voluntarism and determinism but also structure and agency more generally. What is conveniently forgotten in all of this is that, far from being a slave to unsophisticated dualities, Marx (1852/1972, p. 10) himself wrote that “Men make their own history,” although he added, in words that are not inconsistent with any- thing that Gramsci, for example, appears to have believed, that “they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.” The problem for Marxʼs Second International followers was that, although this understanding of how history is made is theoretically sound, greater simplicity was needed if Marxʼs ideas were to be transformed into a plan for action. 4 This led most communists at the time to adopt a determinist perspective and to assume that the collapse of capitalism and the advent of communism were both histori- cal inevitabilities. Some Marxists (and we might include Lenin in this category) argued the case for voluntaristic intervention regardless of the circumstances in which they found themselves. Only a handful (and one thinks in particular of Rosa Luxemburg), however, maintained Marxʼs own nuanced approach by suggesting that when material conditions have evolved in certain ways, for example such that capitalism has reached its most mature stage, only specic outcomes, including a classless and stateless society, become possible; but which of these is actually given concrete expression will depend on the necessarily restricted expression of human agency. As Luxemburg (1916/1971) expressed it, “Man does not make history of his own volition. But he makes it nonetheless” (p. 333). In Luxemburgʼs own his- torical epoch, the choice, she believed, was between socialism and barbarism with Nazismʼs rise to power shortly after her murder providing ample evidence of what choice had been made at least in the country where she had made her home. According to Rahkonen (1999), although Bourdieu discusses classes in many of his studies, “ he is more interested in elaborating relationships of domination or power than developing any class theory proper” (p. 16). Nevertheless, it is unde- niable that Bourdieu placed considerable emphasis on class or, more specically, on what he described as class habitus. What is also readily apparent is that he saw his understanding of class as superseding that of Marx and the orthodox Marxist tradition. Thus, he suggested that

Class, Social Theory, and Sport


the individuals grouped in a class that is constructed in a particular respect (that is, in a particularly determinant respect) always bring with them, in addition to the pertinent properties by which they are classied, secondary properties which are thus smuggled into the explanatory model. (Bourdieu, 1984, p. 102)

According to Bourdieu (1984)

this means that a class or class fraction is dened not only by its position in the relations of production, as identied through indices such as occupation, income or even educational level, but also by a certain sex-ratio, a certain distribution in geographical space (which is never socially neutral) and by a whole set of subsidiary characteristics which may function, in the form of tacit requirements, as real principles of selection or exclusion without ever being formally stated (this is the case with ethnic origin and sex). (p.102)

It is this more sophisticated approach to class than that provided by Marx and the Marxists that might explain Bourdieuʼs appeal for researchers looking at the relationship between sport and class. Whether or not Bourdieu does in fact take us beyond Marxismʼs understanding of class is best discussed by reference to studies that have sought to employ Bourdieuʼs approach.

Bourdieu, Class, and the Sociology of Sport and Physical Education

An interesting example of the ways in which Bourdieuʼs work has been used is provided by Stephanie Foote (2003) in her study of the manner in which Tonya Harding has been mediated in relation to identity and class. Foote demonstrates effectively how “ Tonyaʼs perceived loyalties and disloyalties to specic class styles and scripts became identied as a specic kind of improper—and therefore irreducibly—working-class identity” (p. 5). In so doing, however, building upon Bourdieu, Foote seeks to replace class as a matter of economics with class as life- style. Thus, she concludes that class is “ a disposition that references a complex relationship to the world, a relationship that assigns cultural and personal values as it assigns economic values” (p. 15). It is for this reason, she suggests, that Tonya Harding “ teaches us that when we talk about someone elseʼs class, we are invok- ing our own ambitions and desires, revealing our own dispositions and evaluatory mechanisms, our own anxieties about value, choice, agency, and personhood” (pp. 15–16). When I talk about class, however, I am referring to a personʼs fundamental material position, understood ultimately in economic terms, either at present or in the past, and the way in which economic status has affected that individualʼs con- sciousness and life opportunities. Given her background, Harding was an exception. Having achieved success in her chosen sport, how she behaved is certainly a matter of interest. More arresting, however, is the fact that so few Tonya Hardings ever grace the ice rinks, the equestrian arenas, or ballet schools of the world. Phil White and Brian Wilson (1999) employ Bourdieuʼs concept of habitus in their study of the relationship between socioeconomic status and sport spectator- ship in Canada. They note that “ the sociology of sport literature has consistently shown that social status is a positive predictor of sport involvement” (p. 246),



and that, with regard to sports spectatorship, “ existing research points to marked inequalities in attendance by income” (p. 249). With reference to Bourdieu, White and Wilson comment that although their article

emphasizes the ways that structural circumstances are related to leisure con- sumption patterns, we also suggest that these ndings must be considered along with (and as context for) culturalist positions that focus on the meanings that cultural groups give to their activities, and the resistive potential (albeit symbolic and often subtle) of these groups. (p. 250)

My concern here is with the words along with. Of course socioeconomic con- ditions and culturalist positions are linked, but there is no reason to suppose (nor does the article demonstrate otherwise) that these operate side by side and with equal weight. In fact, White and Wilsonʼs ndings do much to endorse the econ- omistic view that socioeconomic position is the key determinant in terms of sport spectatorship with cultural factors coming into play only at a later and secondary stage. For example, they note that with regard to professional sport spectatorship, “ for both sexes, income was a stronger predictor than education, region, age, and language, suggesting that nancial status is a powerful determinant of the ability to attend professional sport events in Canada” (p. 260). Collins and Buller (2003) similarly invoke the name of Bourdieu to counter arguments that social class has lost its saliency in the postmodern world. Their analysis of social exclusion from high performance sport, however, leads them to conclude that “ young people brought up in areas of social need are not being provided with sufcient support to enable them equal opportunities to perform at the highest level; they are not developing sufcient of Bourdieuʼs personal social capital” (p. 438). Yet again it would appear that the other forms of capital that Bourdieu highlighted are in fact secondary to and determined in the nal analysis by economic capital. It occurs to me that rather more has been and is still being made of class, as more traditionally understood, in other areas of sociological inquiry. One example of this is the sociology of education and, of specic relevance to this essay, the sociology of physical education. As John Fitz, Brian Davies, and John Evans (2006), remind us, “class conditions, demands and interests lie at the centre of educational policy” (p. 10). This is not to deny the importance of other categories of social exclusion. Indeed, as Evans (2004) points out, class-based inequalities are “compounded by other social characteristics, such as race, ethnicity, dis/ability, geography and sexu- ality that dene peopleʼs lives” (p. 102). Evansʼs point, however, is that class does not just determine choice and preference in relation to sport, “it also determines a personʼs physical capacity, ʻtheir abilityʼ to realize those choices and preferences, let alone extend them” (p 102). That is the kind of statement that is increasingly rare in the sociology of sport. 5

The Return of Marxism?

The fact is that despite various claims that the application of Bourdieuʼs theories permits more subtle explanations of the interaction between class, sporting prefer- ence, and access, authors who adopt this position, such as those discussed previously, actually offer implicit recognition that in the nal analysis it is precisely oneʼs

Class, Social Theory, and Sport


“position in the relations of production” that is the key determinant. Furthermore, claims that analyses inspired by Bourdieu challenge Marxismʼs crude economic determinism highlight a widespread failure in the sociology of sport and elsewhere to fully appreciate what Marx and many of his followers actually understood by the term historical materialism. Indeed, even when sociologists of sport have turned to Marxists for help, many have tended in so doing to replicate this failure. As mentioned earlier, it is through the use of the ideas of a self-confessed Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, that some sociologists of sport have sought to extri- cate themselves from economic determinism. Two works in particular are widely believed to have pioneered the use of Gramsciʼs ideas in the sociology of sport. As Rowe (2004) reminds us,

one inuential early study is Richard Gruneauʼs (1983) Class, Sports and Social Development, which addresses sport at the abstract level and in the specic Canadian context in a manner heavily inuenced by the Gramscian perspec- tive as interpreted by Raymond Williams (1977), supplemented by Williamsʼs model of co-existent cultural forms that are (currently) dominant, residual (formerly dominant) and emergent (potentially dominant). (p. 105)

This is a fair overview not least because it indicates the inuence of Williams rather than Gramsci in Gruneauʼs study. Indeed, Gruneauʼs (1999) only direct ref- erence to Gramsci is in a footnote in which the latterʼs role in the development of the concept of hegemony is acknowledged. Even here, though, it is made explicit that Gruneauʼs particular use of the concept owes more to Williams and to Stuart Hall (p. 140). Interestingly, neither Gramsciʼs Prison Notebooks (Gramsci, 1971) nor any of his other writings appear in the bookʼs bibliography. To be fair, in his postscript to the revised edition of his work published in 1999, Gruneau comments that the claim that his is a Marxist book “is debatable, to say the least, because of the pervasive inuence in the analysis of non-Marxist writers, such as Veblen, C. Wright Mills, and Giddens” (p. 117). That said, Gruneau (1999) expresses a debt to Western Marxism (without mentioning Gramsci by name) and acknowledges that “ in the years since the book was originally published, Western capitalism has tightened its grip on social and cultural life around the world” (p. 117), a statement that would appear to imply the continuing relevance of theoreti- cal approaches that acknowledge the central importance of economics to social development. The other work that is regarded as pioneering as regards the application of Gramsciʼs ideas to sport is John Hargreavesʼs Sport, Power and Culture (1986), “ one of the most cited sociological works deploying Gramsci,” according to Rowe (2004, p. 106). Whereas it is true that Hargreaves is frequently cited in this context, his work also contains little direct reference to Gramsci. Hargreaves discusses the relationship between civil society and the state in a way that is consistent with at least one reading of Gramsciʼs account of that relationship (Anderson, 1976b). Moreover, his denition of hegemony is certainly much closer to Gramsciʼs understanding of the concept than is the case in much subsequent hegemony theory analysis. Thus, he describes hegemony as

a power relation in which the balance between the use of force and coercion on the one hand, and voluntary compliance with the exercise of power on the



other, is shifted so that power relations function largely in terms of the latter mode. (Hargreaves, 1986, p. 7)

The important point to note is that the balance is shifted; there is no suggestion that coercion becomes redundant. What is not discussed here, though, is whether or not the power relations that are referred to are rooted in the economy. In large part as a direct consequence of Hargreavesʼs pioneering work, the concept of hegemony is applied widely in the sociology of sport by, for example, George Sage (1998) in relation to American sport. When students use the term, however, they do so quite often in ignorance of its Marxist origins and of the fact that Gramsci was interested in the concept not merely as an analytical tool but also as a basis for revolutionary action. It is vitally important, in my view, to remind our students and ourselves that Gramsci was a Marxist, a revolutionary communist. Far from telling us what was wrong with Marxʼs own social analysis, his work is a shining example of all that is, or at least should be, best in Marxism. Our students might well benet from learning more about the complex character of Marxist materialism, something that cannot be achieved if simplistic readings of Marxismʼs contribution to the sociology of sport remain unchallenged. Gramsci was not a crude economic determinist; but neither was Marx. Nor indeed were other western Marx- ists whose work, unlike that of Gramsci, has largely been ignored by sociologists of sport (as opposed to being selectively stripped of assets). I am thinking here of thinkers such as Karl Korsch, Antonio Labriola, and Walter Benjamin. 6 Referring to Marxʼs Eighteenth Brumaire, Korsch (1923/1970) reminds us that “ the class as a whole creates and forms ʻan entire superstructure of distinct and peculiarly formed sentiments, illusions, modes of thought and views of lifeʼ out of its ʻmaterial foundationsʼ” (p. 36). To me this sounds uncannily like Bourdieu were it not for that fact that Korsch, and before him Marx, draws attention to mate- rial determinacy. Similarly, Labriola (1907/1980), though claiming that Marxʼs conception of historical materialism represents “ the last blow to all forms of idealism,” notes that “it also marks the end of naturalistic materialism” (p. 95). Neither from Korsch nor from Labriola, anymore than from Gramsci, do we get the kind of crude materialism that so many critics have deemed synonymous with Marxist theory in its entirety. In the case of Gramsci, Kate Crehan (2002) goes so far as to state that he “ was never an economic determinist” (p. 88). Far from challenging Gramsciʼs right to be called a Marxist, however, this merely serves to underline the extent to which Marxʼs conceptualization (and also those of many of his followers) of material conditions and of the relationship between those and the realm of culture is con- siderably more complex than his critics have allowed. Thus, in light of the most widely accepted reading of Gramsci among sociologists of sport today, it is well worth reminding ourselves how much of his Prison Notebooks was taken up with discussions of Fordism, the principles of “ scientic management,” and the impact of new productive techniques (Gramsci, 1971). Furthermore, as Gruneau himself (1993) asserts, “the overriding concern with class continues to dominate Gramsciʼs legacy” (p. 100). What is conceivably intended as a criticism on Gruneauʼs part can also be read as a ringing endorsement. Benjamin (1999) celebrates Korschʼs awareness of both the historical specicity of Marxʼs materialist conception of history and what distinguishes his

Class, Social Theory, and Sport


work from that of dogmatic economic determinism as dened by Marxismʼs crit- ics. It has been argued that Benjaminʼs insights come about despite, rather than because of, his Marxism. For example, Gilloch (1996) accepts that he attempts

“ to contribute to the historical materialist tradition” (p. 17). He argues, however, that “ Benjamin rejects any one-dimensional, determinist account of the relations between economic forces and cultural life, between the material base and the ideological superstructure of a society” (pp. 134–5). This is true, but it also holds for Gramsci and many other western Marxists and, I would argue perhaps more contentiously, for Marx himself. For that reason, I would reject Gillochʼs claim

in his tortuous Marxism that Benjaminʼs most precious

insights are situated.” Rather I would suggest that the theorists I have mentioned here do justice to the complexity of Marxʼs theories in a way in which cruder and more easily criticized Marxists admittedly do not. They understand, for example, that class is not determined solely by what one earns. Nor do they think that oneʼs class location necessarily determines oneʼs social consciousness and behavior. On the other hand, they continue to insist that, in the last instance, economic factors take precedence over other aspects of our identity. Like all of the Marxists discussed here, Benjamin made no direct contribution to the development of a sociology of sport. His work on cultural spaces and his fascination with cities and with consumerism as a major component of modern urban life, however, can certainly inform current work on civic boosterism through sport and on topophilia in relation to stadia. On the very rare occasions when he did turn his attention to sport, his thoughts could easily be misrepresented as being typical of the negativity associated with vulgar Marxism. Examined more closely, however, he once again demonstrates the analytical value of a historical materialist approach that is in keeping with Marxʼs own perspective. As Buck-Morss (1991) notes, Ben- jamin compared the modern Olympics “ to the industrial science of Taylorism that employed the stopwatch to analyze minutely the bodily actions of workers for the purpose of setting norms for worker productivity in mechanized production” (p. 326). For this reason he saw the Olympics as “absolutely modern” and “reaction- ary.” 7 Thus, what starts out as an economic reductionist argument opens out into a broader commentary on the human consequences of modern elite sport. At no stage did Marxists such as Gramsci, Korsch, Labriola, and Benjamin understand material conditions as either xed or narrow. Nor did they regard human beings, their consciousness, and their cultures as blindly reective of economic conditions. Theirs was a far more rounded vision of what constitutes material existence and how that impacts on social life. At the same time, however, they understood that regardless of the importance of a host of other inuences, in the last analysis the economic realities of material existence are the prime determinants. In this they were true to Marxʼs own understanding of historical materialism. Let me try to justify these claims by looking at one particular issue that has increasingly occupied the attention of sociologists of sport—sports labor migration. The exponents of various identity-based sociological perspectives stand accused, alongside cruder versions of Marxism, of putting forward monocausal explanations of developments within sport. For its part, gurational sociology, which has made a major contribution to the analysis of sports labor migration among other things, has consistently sought to offer multicausal explanations—the civilizing process, state formation, economic change, gender, and human agency in its most

that “ it is not so much



general sense—for social developments. Moreover, even critics of the gurational approach, though favoring such left-leaning perspectives as world systems theory and cultural imperialism, have identied multiple factors behind the motivations of sport labor migrants. Writing about migrant labor from a gurational perspec- tive, Maguire (1999) concludes that “ there is evidence of contradictory cultural practices and patterns that cannot be explained with reference to some over-arching economic theory” (p. 127). Magee and Sugden (2002), on the other hand, place much greater emphasis on economic factors, arguing in relation to soccer migrants that “ money, for some, is the chief motivation for migration, and wages are certainly high on the agenda of some (foreign) migrant players, particularly those nearing the end of their careers” (p. 431). As this statement implies, however, they go on to identify other factors such as exile and refugee status and, indeed, to add these to factors previously suggested by Maguire. None of this, however, should be taken as a refutation of a materialist explana- tion of labor migration provided that Marxist materialism is adopted and properly understood. Even the politically expelled, a category identied by Magee and Sugden, though having little choice but to migrate, do so in the hope of achiev- ing greater material well being, which may or may not be measured in terms of economic betterment. Only embryonic saints move in the knowledge that they will be materially worse off, and the world of professional sport holds few of those. It is precisely in elds of inquiry such as this that a Marxist sociology of sport needs to re-assert itself.


Commenting on the issue of racial and ethnic integration in contemporary British society, Gary Younge (2005) argues, “A decent job with a decent income is still the best path out of the crudest forms of racism and fundamentalism. Polls and studies show a link between wealth and the propensity to integrate” (p. 23). Much of the debate in the United States and beyond in the wake of Hurricane Katrina concentrated on the extent to which African Americans were most seriously affected. The fact is, however, that poor people in general were the victims. That the overwhelming majority of those affected in New Orleans were black demands additional analysis. But this will not detract from the fact that poor whites were equally damaged and that class was the single most important factor as to whether one was able to escape from the hurricane or not. This does not mean that identitar- ian analysis is incompatible with a materialist perspective. What it does suggest, however, is that an identitarian analysis that eschews materialism and specically ignores or underestimates the fundamental importance of economics is inevitably incomplete. 8 With so many graphic illustrations of the fundamental signicance of economic or material conditions being presented by the media on an almost daily basis, it is perhaps not so surprising that in July, 2005, listeners to BBC Radio 4 chose Karl Marx as their favorite thinker. Of course it ran counter to what Francis Wheen (2005) describes as a general assumption that Marx “ had kicked the bucket, shuf ed off his mortal coil and been buried forever under the rubble of the Berlin Wall” (p. 27). Yet, according to Wheen, “ his errors or unfullled prophecies about

Class, Social Theory, and Sport


capitalism are eclipsed and transcended by the piercing accuracy with which he revealed the nature of the beast.” Thus, “ Marxʼs portrayal of the forces that govern our lives—and of the instability, alienation and exploitation they produce—still resonates, and can still bring the world into focus.” It is for these reasons, according to Wheen, that “Karl Marx could yet become the most inuential thinker of the 21st century.” Indeed, even if one is swayed by arguments that late capitalist or, even more problematically, postmodern society differs markedly from the sociopolitical universe described critically by Marx, an important place remains for Marxist ideas. As Jameson (1996) argued, “ whatever its vicissitudes, a postmodern capitalism necessarily calls a postmodern Marxism into existence over against itself” (p. 54) and this, for the simple reason that

Marxism is the very science of capitalism; its epistemological vocation lies in its unmatched capacity to describe capitalismʼs historical originality, whose fundamental structural contradictions endow it with its political and its pro- phetic vocation, which can scarcely be distinguished from the analytic ones. (Jameson, p. 54)

I would add that there are many of Marxʼs followers whose work deserves to be rehabilitated. This is not simply a matter for sociologists of sport to consider nor even simply for sociologists in general. It is a matter of some urgency for anyone with a genuine desire to develop a critical understanding of the fundamental iniq- uities that characterize the world in which we live and to nd ways of eradicating those iniquities. It is undeniable, of course, that many of those inequities are bound up with the politics of identity more generally and that those, in turn, are inseparable from the material existence of oppressed peoples. Oppression itself takes many forms, including sexism, homophobia, racism, and so on. The fact is that though other oppressed people, even while suffering oppression, nd it possible to proclaim their material reality, the economically marginalized have nothing to celebrate. “ Poor Pride” is rightly an alien concept. Marx (1888/1974) complained that “ the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it” (p. 123). Thus, it worries me when I see Marxism referred to as one among many “theoretical toolkits” (King, 2005, p. 399). For me, Marxism removed from practice and from political struggle is unthinkable. Notwithstanding the efforts of feminist sociologists and numerous other radical social scientists in this respect, there is a real need for the rehabilita- tion of Marxism at the level of theory, as well as for Marxist sociologists to stand up and pronounce publicly on the economic injustices of our age. As for Marxist sociologists of sport, the time has surely come for fewer apologies and for a more robust defense of the subtleties of historical materialism as properly understood. If that means retrieving the argument that our identities can best be understood in terms of economics, then so be it.


The author is indebted to Samantha King, Mary McDonald, and two anonymous reviewers for their incisive and constructive criticisms of an earlier draft of this essay. He is



also grateful to his colleague John Evans who read an earlier draft of the article and offered sound advice and encouragement.


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1. For evidence of the impact of post-Marxism on feminism, see L. Sargent (Ed.). (1981).

The unhappy marriage of marxism and feminism: A debate on class and patriarchy. London:

Pluto Press.

2. For example, see Eric Dunningʼs response to criticisms leveled at gurational sociology

and his use of words such as “misapprehension,” “misconstrual,” and “misunderstanding” in Dun- ning, E. (1999). Sport matters. Sociological studies of sport, violence and civilization. London:

Routledge, pp. 245-246.

3. For an expanded version of the discussion on Gramsci that appears here, see Bairner, A.

(In press). Re-appropriating Gramsci: Marxism, Hegemony and Sport. In B. Carrington and I.

McDonald (Eds.), Marxism, Cultural studies and sport. London: Routledge.

4. The Second International (or International Socialist Congress) was formed in 1889. It

consisted of socialist parties primarily from Europe and was the successor to Marx and Engelsʼs International Workingmenʼs Association. It presided over a marked drift toward reformist politics and a belief in the inevitability of socialism. It was damaged irrevocably by the outbreak of the Great War and the decision by many membersʼ parties to give support to their bourgeois govern- ments. It met for the last time in 1917.

5. See also McDonald, I. (2003). Class, inequality and the body in Physical Education (pp.

169-183). In S. Hayes & G. Stidder (Eds.), Equity and inclusion in physical education and sport. London: Routledge.

6. Space constraints preclude a proper discussion of these Marxist theorists. I would argue,

however, that in addition to engaging with poststructuralists who have gone beyond Marxism, sociologists of sport and their students could benet from revisiting, or indeed examining for the rst time, the works of an entire generation of Marxists who are in danger of being forgotten but whose radicalism and perspicacity are never in doubt.

7. Buck-Morss is referring here to notes for Benjaminʼs Artwork essay (1935–36) in

R. Tiedemann, H. Schweppenhäuser (Eds.). (1972). Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, Volume I. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag.


I am grateful to Mary Louise Adams for challenging me to clarify my thinking on this