Thursday, November 13, 2014

Sport represents a social ‘field’

Following the publication of a report that claims children from immigrant communities in London are "better" than white English children in London, this might be an opportune moment to revisit another spurious claim for BME supremacy - the 2012 London Olympics.

If you recall, BME athletes holding British citizenship out-performed white English athletes.

We were encouraged to think this was a "natural" outcome of diversity, which is claimed to be in all circumstances good for the United Kingdom.

However this "accident" of performance stretches credulity, and it is probable in my opinion that this scenario (lots of BME medal winners) was engineered by the Blair government for ideological and political reasons.

Many commentators will say it doesn't matter how the champions were produced - a gold medal is a gold medal.

This overlooks the fact that for every high-performing athlete who gets significant development funding there are many equally capable athletes who do not (and who statistically will be white English).  This is an injustice.  A society built on injustice is corrupt and cannot hold together in the long run.

Unpicking what happened under the Blair years is both tedious and appalling.

Among the influential documents circulating at the start of the second Blair government is British Asians, Sport and Diasporic National Identities by Daniel Burdsey (Sociology February 2006   vol. 40  no. 1  11-28  http://soc.sagepub.com/content/40/1/11.full.pdf+html ) - Daniel Burdsey is a senior lecturer in Sociology of Sport and Leisure, University of Brighton.

Did the arguments of this document find their way into covert government policy and ultimately (via the influence of "gatekeepers, i.e. those actors with control over key sources and avenues of opportunity") decided who got to represent Great Britain in the 2012 London Olympics?

And does this have implications for a culture war over sport in the years to come (indeed, has that war already started?).

Some quotes from the article (but it is worth reading in its entirety):

The context for the analysis is sport, which acts as a prominent arena in which these variables are contested and, indeed, embodies the complexities of national affiliations and identities.

... in the spring and summer of 2001, a number of towns and cities in northern England witnessed extensive outbreaks of urban unrest, as local tensions between British Asian and white communities – exacerbated by the insidious presence of far right activists – erupted into violent street confrontations.

...sport is a particularly useful sociological site for examining the changing context and content of contemporary British racisms, as it articulates the complex interplay of “race”, nation, culture and identity in very public and direct ways’. Of considerable sociological significance in this regard are those teams that are selected to represent ‘the nation’ – or, as is it popularly conceived, ‘the people’...

...the symbolism that these teams possess is so powerful that they often become the main outlets for popular articulations of nationalist sentiment.

...the processes of selection, affiliation and fandom that operate in relation to such teams can sustain, as well as challenge, structures and patterns of inclusion/exclusion, discrimination and prejudice in the wider society

emphasize the permanency of South Asian settlement in Britain.

The fact that the majority of the black population living in England had either a large degree of ambivalence towards England or openly supported ‘anyone but England’ underscores the points being made that the form of national identity produced failed to be inclusive and actually alienated large sections of the nation...

...despite their diverse histories, migration trajectories and experiences, this relationship between sport and national identity may be of significant analytical value in examining other second- and third-generation migrant identities.

British ‘Asianness’... is used to denote a social condition rather than as a descriptive term...

...supporting the national team acts as an arena where the permanency of settlement, and the associated implications for the construction of identity, can be emphasized.

it is pertinent to reflect on another sport, boxing, and in particular the imagery surrounding the silver medal won by Amir Khan at the 2004 Olympic Games: a Bolton-born British Asian boxer, proudly sporting a British boxing vest and a gum-shield bearing the green and white of the Pakistan national flag, juxtaposed against the cultural bricolage of England football shirts, Pakistan cricket jerseys and Union flags exhibited by his family and friends (Burdsley, 2005).

It is extremely ironic, yet hugely significant, that the symbol being used by many young British Asians to celebrate their British citizenship, the England national football team, is one that has not only been used for similar purposes by young whites, but has also been one of the main outlets for overt racism and xenophobia by this latter group. In many ways sport represents a social ‘field’
(Bourdieu, 1990), a structured space of positions that impose specific determinations on those who enter it. It also operates as an arena of contestation where individuals and institutions can maintain – or, indeed, challenge – the existing distribution of power and capital. However, involvement and attainment in a ‘field’ are based on a combination of one’s habitus and cultural capital and those groups that possess the most capital can dictate the legitimate means of access to the ‘field’.


See also Burdsey, D. (2005) ‘“Role with the Punches”: “Race”, Representation and the Construction of Amir Khan as a Role Model for Multiethnic Britain’, Paper presented at Lost in Transl-Asian? British Asians, Sport, Leisure and Popular Culturestudy workshop, University of Brighton.

London schools news item: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-30002991

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