Saturday, May 7, 2011

Norbert Elias- "The Genesis of Sport as a Sociological Problem" – article summary

In "The Genesis of Sport as a Sociological Problem" sociologist Norbert Elias offers a socio-historical approach for analyzing the formation of modern sports by focusing on the change in degree of tolerated violence through the process of civilization.

This civilization process according the Elias is one in which man repressed his bodily and emotional urges and learned to be more minded of other people with prohibitions becoming a part of the modern self, and restrictions becoming something natural.

This process is a spontaneous product of changing social formations.  Modern societies are characterized by state monopoly over the use of violence. Elias wonders how it came to be that what is now considered as "sports" originated in 19th century England. He claims that the widespread circulation of English forms of sports is due to their compatibility with certain needs regarding leisure activities which have evolved in modern times.

 Elias shows this by refuting the assumption that modern sport is a direct successor of ancient classical sport played in ancient Greece. Ancient sporting activities, according to Elias, had very different characteristics and they evolved in very different settings. One of the central characteristics is the level and nature of permitted violence. In ancient times activities such as wrestling and boxing allowed for a much higher degree of violence than modern versions do. Traditional rules of the game were unwritten and flexible in their application, unlike today when rules are highly regulative, specified and debatable. For instance, unlike today, fights were not limited in time and lasted until one of the participants surrendered or was unable to keep fighting. The level of violence in ancient Greek sports was symptomatic of certain characteristics of that society, which for starters placed the rule of controlling violence in private rather than national hands.

The ethos of ancient sports was also different. Fighting in ancient Greece related to the fighting ethos of the warrior aristocracy rather than the professional athlete ethos of present times. The most important thing for a fighter back then was to keep on fighting, with victory or defeat in the hands of the gods and surrender being considered shameful. This ethos was also manifested in the importance of physical appearance which ties sport, war and the aesthetics of classical times. In addition, the moment of victory was the climax of ancient sport activities, while in modern time it's the participation and excitement (enhanced by gambling) which are important, and this explains why fairness and equal chances are so important.