Reprinted From The Body Development Centre
Social class is a combination of concepts used to describe the social stratification observed in class based societies. People are placed into defined hierarchy groups, with the most common classifications being working class, middle class and upper class. This assessment will be achieved with the use of a sociological theory. Theories are models used to describe and analyse aspects of social life logically. They allow us to explain the links between social constructs and sports. They are based on research and logical deductions and are presented to be tested and evaluated by the wider sociological community.
This essay will use conflict theory to deduce the effect that social class has on the organisation of sport within society. Conflict theory is based on the work of Karl Marx and focuses on how those with economic power shape sport as a social construct. The theory states that those with influence use it to maintain their social power, constructing sport in a way that continues the unequal sharing of wealth by exploiting those in the lower classes. The theory also focuses on how sport is used to manipulate those of lower social standing to accept social inequality as inevitable. Therefore sport is organised and sponsored by the ruling class to perpetuate their values and an acceptance of meritocracy, i.e. ‘you get what you earn’. This essay will discuss both of these sides of sports organisation with our society (Coakley and Pike, 2014).
As with all sociological theories, conflict theory does have limitations and criticisms. A common criticism is that the negative outlook of the theory does not represent how many participants and spectators view sport. Many argue that sport can be a liberating and expressive aspect of society (Coakley and Pike, 2014). Another limitation of the theory is that it describes all constructs within society as being organised to facilitate the profit motives of the upper classes. In reality though this is not true, with some aspects of sport being designed to encourage recreation and mass participation (Coakley and Pike, 2014). Finally conflict theory downplays the role that race, age, gender, sexuality and disability play in how people choose what sports to participate in and watch (Coakley and Pike, 2014).
Conflict theory has been used in this essay as although it cannot answer all of the questions relating to the link between social class and sport it is inarguable that nearly all organised sport requires capital investment. Therefore the majority of sports rely on the upper class to inject finances to make participation and speciation possible. It is also clear that in the majority of cases capital is required to develop sporting skill and to access spectating opportunities (Coakley and Pike, 2014; Stiglitz, 2012).
The use of sport to perpetuate ruling class ideals can be seen as those with economic power invest in sports and organise them in a way that promotes their societal view (Bairner, 2007). Sports that promote open participation and mutual support are rarely financially supported as they encourage equality (Coakley and Pike, 2014). A criticism of this view however is that sport is not organised solely for the upper classes financial benefit. It also has to provide an entertaining experience for those in the lower classes (Coakley and Pike, 2014). However inequality is commonplace. A good example is the National Lottery. Most of its income comes from the working classes, but the funding it provides goes disproportionately to middle and upper class sporting tastes (Jarvie, 2013).
Dominant classes do give more cultural and social weight to sport. It is used as a way to separate themselves from other classes as it promotes a ‘will to win’ within a civilized environment. This socialization begins at a young age as those with greater financial freedom are more likely to be able to provide their children with sporting opportunities (Dukes and Coakley, 2002). Sports participation, speciation and media consumption is positively correlated with socio economic status, due to the requirement of financial investment to develop sporting skill and access spectator options (Coakley and Pike, 2014; Bairner, 2007; Kahma, 2010). Those from a lower class are more likely to have poor neighbourhood, household and individual factors, which have been shown to be linked to a decreased likelihood of sporting participation (Kamphuis et al, 2008). This reduced likelihood of participation at a young age affects the imprinting of the importance of an active lifestyle when they grow up (White and McTeer, 2012). This discrepancy can be seen when the educational background of British Olympic medal winners is analysed, with over 30% of medal winners and 50% of gold medal winners coming from private education (Smith et al, 2013), even though only 7% of the population are educated in independent schools (The Independent; The Sutton Trust).
A limiting factor for lower class athletic development is the reduced availability of sporting opportunities and facilities, coupled with more transportation restriction to get to said opportunities and facilities (Office For National Statistics). This limitation is present not only within their home life but also at school. Around the world there is a trend of a reduction in time, finances and the perceived value of sports within an educational setting (Marshall and Hardman, 2000). Those from low income families will feel this impact to the greatest degree, with it being noted that ‘the decline in PE curriculum time…will affect children from less well-off backgrounds the most…who will be less likely to be able to take up the opportunities offered by extracurricular and club sport’ (Speed, 2001). Those from high income households on the other hand are more likely to attend private schools where greater sporting facilities and opportunities exist. This is likely to be a large contributing factor to the disproportionate number of Olympic medal winners coming from a privately educated background. A good example is Sir Chris Hoy, who was educated at George Watkins College in Edinburgh, where a childs education costs upwards of £100,000. The large availability of financial resources allows the college to provide extensive sporting facilities which certainly played a part in Sir Chris Hoys ability to obtain 6 gold Olympic medals (Smith et al, 2013).
A criticism of conflict theory, as mentioned earlier, is that it downplays other contributing factors. Lower sporting participation is not solely due to the upper classes organising sport in a way that shuts out those below them. Those with a lower social status need to spend more time and a greater proportion of their finances on surviving. This gives less opportunity for sporting activities (Kamphuis et al, 2008). This trend is especially evident in working class women due to the additional responsibilities they take on in the home. Single mothers from the lower classes are at the highest risk of low levels of sporting participation, which in then in turn imprinted on their children (Collins and Kay, 2014). Sir Chris Hoy would be less likely to have developed his level of athletic ability if he had grown up in a lower social class and attended a public school where his available time and funds would have been limited, even if he had the same access to facilities and opportunities.
Those in higher sociological positions would argue against this perspective of society though, stating that if you work hard you will get your just rewards. This is known as a meritocratic outlook of society and is a beneficial viewpoint to promote through sport as it supports the argument across other social constructs that rewards are distributed to people that deserve them due to their abilities and qualifications (Coakley and Pike, 2014). This outlook helps to justify the inequalities that are seen in day to day life. It promotes the ideal that success and power are earnt and that failure and a lack of resources are caused by laziness and a lack of ambition (Coakley and Pike, 2014). In this sense sport is the perfect analogy for life for the upper classes as it describes winners as those who have overcome obstacles in competitive environments to achieve success. The proposed application is that they have done the same thing in their personal and working lives to reach the top level of the class structure. However the belief of those with the meritocratic view that you achieve success by working hard to develop abilities can be challenged, as being able to develop abilities often relies on having the time and resources available (Coakley and Pike, 2014).
Another example of how the upper classes attempt to convince the ruled classes that society is organised in a fair way whilst supporting their own profit driven motives can be seen with the ownership of professional sports teams and their stadiums. Those with the economic power to buy teams and build and maintain stadiums argue that they benefit all levels of society. This debate is constructed with 5 key arguments (Coakley and Pike, 2014; Lavoie, 2000). However independent studies have not always supported, and often oppose, the claims made (Coakley and Pike, 2014; Coalter, 2013). Firstly the owners of professional sports teams claim that the stadium creates jobs which bring finances and tax into the city. However counteracting studies identify that most of these jobs are low paying and seasonal (Lavoie, 2000; Coalter, 2013). A second argument is that the construction of professional sporting facilities injects money into the local economy. This is debated though as the companies, workers and resources used to develop and construct the facility are rarely local (Lavoie, 2000; Coalter, 2013). Another claim is that a professional sports team attracts other businesses to the area. However studies show that these businesses are usually franchises who are headquartered outside of the city. In addition they often drive out local business (Lavoie, 2000; Coalter, 2013). It is argued that professional teams attract nationwide media attention and encourage tourism. This is debated and has mixed results in the research. However research does indicate that the regional economy suffers as when fans spend money in and around the stadium there is less money to spend in outlying businesses (Lavoie, 2000; Coalter, 2013). Finally it is claimed that a sports team provides psychological and sociological benefits. This proves hard to research and quantify though. It is proposed however that such benefits are linked to a teams success. Additionally some people are unimpressed by the male dominated heroics provided in many professional sports (Lavoie, 2000; Coalter, 2013).
In conclusion economic power appears to have the strongest impact on what sports are supported and promoted and how sport is organised as a social construct. Conflict theory describes how sport within society is structured in a way that maintains current social hierarchies, instead of rewarding and encouraging those with the greatest sporting ability or potential and providing support to those from the lower rungs of society. This is achieved by controlling resources, dictating the structure of sport within society, using sport to promote a meritocratic ideal and limiting access to sporting facilities and opportunities for those of a lower social status (Jarvie, 2013; Maguire et al, 2002). However conflict theory does have limitations in its ability to describe how social class, and to a wider degree social divisions, impact upon sport. The most notable of these is its inability to include other social divisions that effect sport participation, viewing and structure (Coakley and Pike, 2014). Future research needs to focus on combining conflict theory with other theories that consider the alternative factors in the socialization of sport and its development as a social construct.
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