From Play to Games to Sport: Sportization as a Trajectory

The Civilising Process is a book written by sociologist Norbert Elias, in which he contends that the present structure and form of society can only be understood in relation to long term processes which have their roots deep in history.

If we use the civilising process as a lens, we are encouraged to view the present state of affairs (whether that be political, economic, social or sporting) not as a fixed and final destination, but as a mere point along a flow of history from past to future. This meta-narrative enables us to appreciate the necessary lack of equilibrium in the social world, and is a helpful way of conceptualising the cause(s) of social conflict. Furthermore, conceptualising society as a manifestation of a multitude of processes rather than as a static, fixed entity encourages us to seek out and identify social trajectories.

Eyes on the Ball

When returning a serve, a tennis player keeps his eyes fixed on the ball throughout the path of its movement. From that movement his brain extrapolates the likely future path - the trajectory - so that he can return the ball effectively, meeting it at the right moment.

This is an apt metaphor for the role of the sociologist. Identifying the processes at work in society, and mapping the trajectory of these processes, enables us to ready ourselves for future challenges - whatever they may be.

This kind of sociology is called 'process sociology' as it relies heavily upon the identification, observation and extrapolation of processes which influence the structure and shape of societies. It is also known as 'figurational' sociology. This is because, having acknowledged the flow of history into the present, it also accounts for the confluence of very numerous different and competing trajectories. Some of these trajectories may lead to cohesion, but many more to conflict.

Figurational sociology has been accused of being overly functionalist insofar as it frames society as a confluence of the long term processes which act upon it. However, as already noted, the theoretical framework does acknowledge the presence of substantial conflict within society. In the same way that two rivers might merge in their path to the sea producing turbulence and influencing each other's direction, so two or more strands of the civilising process might come together to produce a turbulence.

So, process sociology toes a line between functionalism and conflict theory, without holding fast to either.

The civilising process is made up of a whole raft of parallel processes which produce the overall effect described by Elias. Other concurrent, or associated process might include rationalisation, bureaucratization, globalisation (in the past three decades), and 'sportization'.

Sportization is the process by which play and games - as part of a wider civilising process - grow more and more like Sport. That is, they become ever more orderly, rationalised, competitive, and functional. This notion shares many of its underlying assumptions with a neo-Marxist understanding of how Sport refines and redefines itself in capitalist society to become ever more productive.

Modern sport is elitist, male-dominated, excessively commoditized and full of symbolic violence. These are the outcomes of sportization as a process. (I have written here about the future of Boxing in relation to the civilising process.)

Sport has not reached an end point but it will continue on its present trajectory unless other flows come in to disrupt. A sociologist should endeavour to identify the dangers inherent in any such trajectory, so that he might enable or effect the most productive and beneficial kinds of disruption.

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