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Sociological Theories of the Impact of Sport and Physical Exercise on Society

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Published: 8th Feb 2020 in Sports

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Ever since we were young, we have been told sport and exercise is good for society and everyone should take part in sport and exercise in some way or another for the health benefits it brings. However, sociologists have many different views on sport and exercise and these views are presented within multiple theories including Structural Functionalism theory and the Marxism (Conflict) Theory. Both theoretical approaches are related to a structural view of sociology and as scholar, Anthony Giddens (1996) states there are observable patterns within society that shapes the individual. The structural view of society belongs to the macro-perspective which looks at society as a whole (Marshall, 1998, pp. 378-379). Below I examine each theoretical approach in turn, outlining the strengths and weaknesses according to scholars who apply their trade in the sociology of sport.

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The structural functionalism theory is based largely on the views of Herbert Spencer, Emile Durkheim, Talcott Parsons and Robert Merton. Spencer (1898) describes society similar to the human body as he states that society has interrelated parts which must work together to ensure the biological and social needs of that particular society is met. Durkheim (1893) further applied Spencer’s theory and stated that society is held together by shared values, languages and symbols. Furthermore, Durkheim (1893) stated that society is similar to an organism and within said organism each component plays a necessary part. Without one part working none can work. One of these components is sport. Coakley (2001) stated that sport is one of the interrelated parts which contributes to the development of people and society. There are many protagonists of this theoretical approach who celebrate the many functional attributes that sport has to offer for example Molnar, Coakley and Cashmore. An example of this development would be the transfer of values and motivation seen within sport being transferred to everyday life.

The Structural Functionalism theory does not only have negative aspects, but it also has positive and beneficial aspects, especially when applied to sport. Firstly, in support for the structural functionalism theory Blake and Taylor (2017) state that sport in society brings people and communities that usually do not associate together and creates a feeling of allegiance. Resulting in more contributing members of society. This can be seen within mega events such as the London Olympics which resulted in approximately 29.4 million people coming to the London Olympics to show support for their nation (Girginov, 2013). Furthermore, it is shown that sport also improves life skills. For example, ‘underachieving young people who take part in sport see a 29% increase in numeracy skills and a 12-16% increase in other transferable skills.’ (Sport England [Online], 2018).

Secondly, sport and exercise has been proven to result in many health benefits such as a reduced risk of over 20 illness such as cardiovascular disease and some cancers (Sport England [Online], 2018). Furthermore, Ahmadi (2009) states that taking part in sport and exercise can also save between £1,750 and £6,900 in healthcare costs per person. In support of this Hills, King and Byrne (2007) suggest that if we take part in regular physical activity such as an organised sport it is easier to take part and be motivated. Therefore, resulting in the reduction of risk. In addition to physical health benefits, sport also has many mental health benefits. Carless and Douglas (2011) and Paluska and Schwnek (2000) state that regular physical activity has many benefits. Including an improved mood, reduced stress and an increased self-esteem. This is supported by a study conducted by Penedo and Dahn (2005) where the participants were asked to rate their mood after a period of exercise and after inactivity. The results showed that the participants felt more awake, calmer and more content after physical activity.

Thirdly, sport reduces the number of crimes committed by young adults and also makes the community a safer place. In support of this point, there has only been 16,500 first time entrants to the youth justice system (Between April 2016 and March 2017). This is an 85% decrease over the last 10 years (Youth Justice Statistics England and Wales [Online], 2018); (Nichols, 2010).  Furthermore, Brosnan (2017) stated that “A 10% increase in sports participation leads to a fall in person crimes of 1.3 and 1.56% while a 10% increase in sports participation rates leads to a fall in property crimes of between 0.64 and 0.73%.”.

In addition to the decrease in crime rates and increase in community safety, sport also has economic value. In 2010 sport and sport related activity contributed £20.3 billion to the English economy (Active Humber [Online], 2018); (Nauright and Schimmel, 2005). However, besides all the positive aspects of the structural functionalism theory. The structural functionalism theory also has many negatives.

The first negative of the structural functionalism theory is that the theory does not recognise that sport has negative consequences and this leads to exaggerated accounts of positive consequences (Coakley, 2007). An example of this is that it assumes that there are no conflicts of interest between the different social groups (Molnar, 2014). A recent example of sport conflict is when Millwall and Brentford football fans began fighting prior to the match (Metro [Online], 2018).

The second negative is that the structural functionalism theory does not recognise the inequalities within society and sport (Loy et al, 2004). A popular example of this is that females do not receive the same pay as male athletes. The United States Women’s National Team are paid 40 times less than their male counterparts in 2014 (a cumulative $15 million for the women’s teams, and $576 million for the men’s) (Coakley, 2007). Furthermore, 40% of all sports participants are females. However, according to the Tucker Centre for Research on Girls and Women in Sport they only receive 4% of all sports media coverage.

Thirdly, the structural functionalism theory does not recognise the negative affects sport has on athlete’s metal and physical health (Molnar, 2014). For example, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America states that body dysmorphic disorders affect 1 in 50 people. While 8% of people suffer from mild anxiety and depression (Faculty of Sport and Exercise Medicine UK [Online], 2018). These metal health conditions can result in the athlete resorting to taking anabolic steroids to try and meet their goals and also meet expectations placed on them. An example of this is when Jon Jones was caught taking turinabol before his fight to try and have an advantage against his opponent.

In contrast to a structural functionalism view of sport, Marxists outline different meanings to sport. The Marxism Theory is often known as the interpretation of the thoughts and views of Karl Marx (1813 – 1883). Karl Marx emphasized the leading role of the economy in society as a whole as well as in societal parts, known as superstructures. These superstructures are non-economic aspects of society, i.e. culture, religion, social life, education, religion, politics and social institutions (Sperber et al., 2013). Marx stated that within society there was two classes: Bourgeoisie (Upper Class) and Proletariat (Working Class). He further stated that the Bourgeoisie are powerful and wealthy while the Proletariats are poor and have no power thus resulting in conflict due to the inequalities (Mandel, 2002). These social classes and inequalities can be seen throughout sport.

Which leads to the first point that sport can lead to overtraining and poor recovery. Richardson et al (2008) stated that one of the main causes of overtraining is over-invested parents and coaches. Richardson et al (2008) further stated that to ensure the athlete is safe and having efficient recovery parents of athletes should have very little input to the athletes training. While the coach ensures they are coaching for the athlete’s interest and not for theirs. An example of a coach not coaching for the athlete’s interest is when Raquel Pennington requested that the fight was stopped at the end of the fourth round. However, was denied and told to carry on which resulted in her being further injured (New York Post [Online], 2018).

Secondly, sport can lead to people building a poor attitude and ultimately leading to a mental illness such as body dysmorphia or anorexia. For example, McMullen (2014) states that “hard training and healthy eating can cross the line to exhaustion and eating disorders”. In support of this the Anxiety and Depression Association of America states that body dysmorphic disorder affects 1 in 50 people (1.7% to 2.4% of the general population). Furthermore, Gulliver et al (2015) administrated a self-report survey to 224 female elite athletes to measure mental health symptoms. Overall, 46.4% of athletes were experiencing symptoms of at least one of the mental health problems assessed. This data clearly supports the statement of sport can lead to metal illnesses.

Finally, sport can lead to young athletes confusing commitment with exclusivity which can be detrimental due to the limiting effects they have on the young athletes. Live Strong (2018) stated that although learning the importance of focus can benefit young athletes it can also be negative as some young athletes can become unwilling to participate in other activity’s resulting in them not being able to broaden their horizons and becoming well rounded athletes. Although the Marxists perspective is aware of the inequalities in sport, it also has negatives.

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The first negative of the conflict theory is that it is based primarily on economic conditions and therefore when the theory is applied the importance of political, cultural and other factors are often reduced (Craig et al, 2010). In other words when the conflict theory is applied to things such as sport. The economic factors often overlook other factors such as gender, ethnicity, age, disability and religion.

The second negative of the conflict theory is that it ignores the possibility that sport participation can be a personally and socially empowering experience (Coakley, 2001). For example, when the conflict theory is applied to sport the negatives of sport is the main focus and the positives such as: improved health, improved mental health, increase in self-esteem and confidence.

Thirdly, the conflict theory ignores the possibility that sport in capitalist societies can and may involve experiences that give individuals and groups power. Conflict theorists talk about how sport is organised to maximise the control that wealthy people have over the other members within the society. Furthermore, the conflict theory approach does not acknowledge that sport can serve many interests within society and denies that any participation in sport can be a personal creative and liberating experience. Resulting in members of the society to be inspired and seek economic changes that will promote equality within the existing capitalist societies.

To conclude the argument that ‘Sport and exercise are good for society’ the structural functionalism theory provides evidence that sport has a beneficial role in society. Whereas the conflict theory provides evidence that sport has a negative role within society. Although both theories have negative’s the points made by the structural functionalism theory outweighs any negatives brought about.

 

 

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