What might be involved in doing sociological research on an extended and multilayered social phenomenon like soccer?
It might seem as though the answer to this question follows pretty directly from the earlier post on the ontology of soccer: soccer is not a single integrated social “thing”, but rather a layered agglomeration of a number of different sociological structures, activities, and processes that intersect in the sport and its role in contemporary society. This implies that there are many different social science research questions that could be posed in this domain, but there is no single “sociology of soccer”. But in fact the world of soer seems to be a rich field for sociological research. Here are some of the questions that might interest a sociologist about soccer and its role in society:
- Why is this sport so important for the people of a number of countries in the world?
- How does the sport compare in its many social roles to other popular mass sports in other countries — American football, cricket, or rugby?
- Are there distinctive fan dynamics at soccer games that lead to more frequent riots, racist acts, and other incidents of uncivil behavior?
- What is the class composition of soccer fans in Great Britain, Spain, and Turkey?
- How do the imperatives of advertising and mass media affect the sport?
- Does soccer perform an important social function in various societies?
- Is there a distinctive soccer mentality among fans in Madrid, London, or Milan? What are the markers of this mentality?
These topics fall into several distinct angles of approach that sociologists might take to studying global soccer. What are some of the structural and ideological factors that causally influence the sport and its field? What are the experience and subjective dynamics of the populations who consume soccer, the fans? What are the internal structures and dynamics of the sport? And what social effects does the global soccer ensemble produce?
Once we have parsed the topic in this way, the question of doing a sociology of soccer looks a lot like the bodies of research that exist for many other sets of complex multilayered social phenomena — for example, urbanization, ethnic violence, healthcare systems, higher education, or the labor union movement.
This leaves ample room for a variety of research questions and methods. Qualitative, comparative, and quantitative methods all have a place in this domain; and research questions can naturally range from phenomenological to causal to institutional.
It is apparent that the sociology of sport is a very small field within the broader discipline of sociology; in 2001 there were only 350 members of the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport. And, with all due respect to those sociologists who pursue topics in this area, it is not a high-prestige area of the discipline. If we were thinking of the discipline of sociology along the lines of Bourdieu’s theory of the field (link), young researchers would need to have very good reasons to consider choosing a topic in this area for their dissertation work. But the point of the discussion here is to underline a key point: sociological insight can be discovered in the most mundane parts of the social world. And it would seem that the world of global soccer gives play to some of the most important themes in sociology today: race, gender, class; social mobilization; taste and culture; social networks; and many others.
It is interesting to me to learn that Pierre Bourdieu devoted some attention to the sociology of sport. Here are some citations from a course on the sociology of sport in the department of kinesiology at the University of Maryland (link):
Bourdieu, P. (1978). Sport and social class. Social Science Information, 17(6), 819-840.
Bourdieu, P. (1988). Program for a sociology of sport. Sociology of Sport Journal, 5(2), 153-161.
Bourdieu, P. (1990). Programme for a sociology of sport. In In other words: Essays toward a reflexive sociology (pp. 156-167). Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Bourdieu, P. (1993). How can one be a sports fan? In S. During (Ed.), The cultural studies reader (pp. 339-356). London: Routledge.
Here is a short description of the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport (NASSS) (link) on the ASA website.