Sociology Sports
John Horne
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 March 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0130


Although sport has been a subject for study at the undergraduate degree level its own right since at least the 1980s, some people still express surprise that the subject is considered appropriate for academic analysis. It is seen by some as too trivial, marginal, or epiphenomenal to warrant serious attention. Others view sport as a hermetically sealed world of its own, apart from the rest of society. Indeed, for both participants and spectators this perceived separateness may be part of its appeal. Yet by any standards, sport is a set of cultural practices with significant sociological resonances. A historical sociological understanding of sport and its place in processes of social change and cultural reproduction makes it clear that “sport” has no fixed meaning—it has had different meanings in different societies, and it refers to different activities at different historical moments. Most people today would not view cruelty to animals as a sport, but until the early 19th century, cruelty to animals was a central aspect of sport. Hunting and shooting are now seen as rather marginal sporting activities, yet in the 18th century they would have been at the heart of the meaning of the term; indeed, the very notion of the “sporting man” referred to the hunting man. The meaning of the term sport, therefore, involves a form of social construction, which can be analyzed from a sociological perspective. Today, sport and fitness loom large in the mass media. Sports television programs, dedicated sport channels, sports pages and sport supplements in newspapers, specialist sport magazines, and sport-related websites have become increasingly prominent. Although only a small minority of the population are active participants, a great many more have some degree of interest in following sport. The images derived from sport play a significant role in constituting our notions of the body and how it should, ideally, look. In both representational forms and in lived practices, sport is one of the cultural spheres that most distinctively mark out gender identities and differences. The activities of top sport stars are highly publicized, and debate rages about the extent to which they are role models who have a responsibility to set a good example. Many politicians are fond of sporting metaphors. Alongside these realities, sport has consistently provided a forum for the expression of national identity.

General Overviews and Online Resources

The growth in the sociological study of sport, and the volume of research into specialist aspects of sport and society, has produced a burgeoning literature of books, edited collections, and specialist journals, as described in Malcolm 2012. This article is mainly a guide to texts—textbooks and collections of articles and monographs—rather than journal articles. Those looking for specific journal article references could use the reading lists in the textbooks, the journals mentioned in the relevant section or the following online resources. Both the Los Angeles Olympic Games in 1984 and the London Olympic and Paralympics Games in 2012 saw attempts to develop online resources for scholars of sport and the Olympics in particular. The LA84 Foundation funds youth sport in Southern California, trains coaches, and examines the role of sport in society. The foundation is the legacy of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games. In addition, the LA84 Foundation maintains a traditional paper-based library as well as a growing digital library. Together, these collections cover all aspects of sport, with a particular emphasis on Olympic information. Library visits are by appointment only. The traditional library holds 40,000 printed volumes, 6,000 microform volumes, 7,000 videos, 400 periodical titles, and 90,000 photo images. The Sports Library & Digital Collection provides several hundred thousand PDFs of articles, books, and other documents available at no cost to website visitors. The digital collection includes journals such as Football Studies, Journal of Olympic History, Journal of Sport History, Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, Olympika, and Sport in History and all the Official Olympic Reports (from1896 onward). The British Library “Sport and Society” website was established in 2010 and took the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games as a platform upon which to introduce the wide range of sports-related social science material held at the library. This online resource can now be found at the UK Web Archive. While this article provides a guide to a small fraction of the literature that has been produced on sociology and sport in the English language (and most notably in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand), it is worth noting that other societies have equally long traditions of sociological study into sport that are available in other languages (in French, for example: see Pociello 1981).

  • LA84 Foundation.

    The LA84 Foundation funds youth sports in Southern California, trains coaches, and examines the role of sport in society. The foundation is a legacy of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games.

  • Malcolm, D. 2012. Sport and sociology. London: Routledge.

    This book assesses the growth of the sociology of sport, traces its developmental phases, and takes stock of the current state of knowledge. Focusing on central issues and concepts within sociological discourse such as race, gender, celebrity, the body, and social theory, the book assesses the successes and failures of the sociology of sport in influencing the parent discipline, related subdisciplines, and the wider public. Of use most especially to senior undergraduate and graduate students.

  • Pociello, C. 1981. Sports et société: Approche socio-culturelle des pratiques. Paris: Vigot.

    An edited collection of chapters written by scholars influenced by the work of Pierre Bourdieu, among other French social theorists.

  • Sports Library & Digital Collection.

    The LA84 Foundation maintains a traditional paper-based library as well as a growing digital library. Together, these collections cover all aspects of sport, with a particular emphasis on Olympic information. Library visits are by appointment only. Library hours: Monday–Friday 10:00 am to 5:00 pm (excluding holidays).

  • UK Web Archive.

    The UK Web Archive contains thousands of UK websites that have been collected since 2004. Here you can see how sites have changed over time, locate information no longer available on the live Web and observe the history of a range of UK activities represented online. “Sport & Society–The Summer Olympics and Paralympics through the Lens of social science” is a site archived for preservation by the British Library via the UK Web Archive. It contains examples of social scientific writing on sport and the Olympic and Paralympic Games especially.

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