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Sociological issues in sport

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Functionalism is often referred to as the consensus theory because it does not address the issue of conflict in society, and functionalists believe that society operates in a harmonious way that maintains itself in a state of balance, remaining healthy and co-ordinated and any sudden practices that may upset the balance are rejected:

“Sociologists who use functionalist theory assume that society is an organised system of interrelated parts held together by shared values and processes that create consensus among people”

(Coakley, 1998, p.32)

From a functionalist perspective a consensus containing shared norms and values is vital to the functioning of society as order flows from consensus. A sporting example of this is a football team, the players and staff want to win (shared norms and values) and they are willing to help each other out to achieve this, thus the whole team and staff contribute.

A functionalist approach is popular with sociologists aiming to try and preserve the status quo in society, they believe that anything that may upset the balance such as disharmony or exclusion are rejected. From a functionalist view, sport is used to promote common values held essential to the integration and development of a society. McPherson, Curtis and Loy (1989, p.102) believe that “all groups strive to maintain the social order, and that sport can facilitate this process”. Functionalists want to show how sport is a valuable contributor to social stability that benefits society as well as individuals, because from a functionalist perspective sport would be seen to help integration within society as it gives people something in common with strangers, and strengthens their relationship with friends.

The Government aims to improve health and they identify how sport is a means of this (Appendix 1), the approach to achieving this is predominantly a functionalist approach in that they believe sport is an inspiration and a precious contributor to health. The Government believes that if they increase opportunities and improve access to facilities for all people, then their goal of improved health will be attained.

This somewhat one-sided view on sport will be analysed throughout this assignment, identifying whether or not the Governments use of sport acknowledges certain factors regarding inclusion and exclusion or are their policies and objectives insufficiently discriminatory and ambiguous. The strengths and weaknesses of the policies will be examined from a functionalist perspective and an understanding will be gained as to whether or not they are viable in a society of conflict.

Government’s use of sport

The Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has laid out policies and objectives for sport and their main objective is to increase participation in sport and physical activity across the whole population (Appendix 2), which in turn will help to improve health and hopefully providing a greater quality of life for all (Appendix 3). According to National Statistics Online “In 2000, 27 per cent of girls and 20 per cent of boys aged between 2 and 19 were overweight” (Appendix 4) (www.nationalstatistics.gov.uk) so this gives an understanding as to why the Government wants to try and promote sport. The Government states the benefits that sport and informal physical activities can have in contributing to good health. An over-emphasis on the positive effects of sport is seen and to quote Hylton et al (2001, p.21); that from a functionalist approach the policy has “an unambiguous utilitarian argument that sport is good for health” and it doesn’t identify that not everyone can play sport. Further on in Hylton et al’s text (2001, p.130) they state that “for many non-participants, sport is less a source of health gain than an activity ripe with potential for injury”.

The Government has identified that to improve participation they need to provide more opportunities (Appendix 5) to as wide a range of sports facilities possible and at every level, from the “playground to the podium” (www.culture.gov.uk) (Appendix 9).

From a functionalist perspective this would encourage participation from all areas of society regardless of sex, age, race, gender or class as the perspective does not discriminate against individuals. From a functionalist point of view the policy over-exaggerates the benefits of playing sport, and Coakley (2003, p.40) believes it doesn’t address “the emphasis on physical power” which may show prejudice towards certain groups in society, and this is one of the reasons why women’s sport has failed to be as big as men’s, and one of the reasons why the Paralympic Games is not as big as the Olympics.

Related to improving health and opportunities the DCMS realises that “Everyone deserves to have access to the very best sports opportunities” (Appendix 6) (www.culture.gov.uk). From a functionalist perspective if all members of a society had the chance to participate in sport (Appendix 8) it would help promote social connections between people by bringing them closer together, so they would be contributing to developing a moral consensus which the society needs to function, but according to Horne, Tomlinson and Whannel (1993, p.103) the perspective doesn’t realise that people are “differently rewarded” and it “neglects the nature of power and privilege”, and Dewar (1993) recognises that sport is where dominant cultural groups maintain their power and shape sport to reflect their own interests, which leads to social inequality.

From a functionalist outlook, having sporting facilities and an improvement in access available to all would help produce integration within the community, allowing people to communicate with others through sport, giving them something in common with strangers and establishing friendships. Access to facilities would assist in allowing people to let off steam in an undisruptive manner, it would also educate children, and according to Koss (2001), meaning they are able to develop as individuals who contribute to their community in a positive and meaningful way. From a functionalist approach one of the main advantages of providing more access to people is that it would improve health levels on a national basis, which Hylton et al (2001, p.129) agree with stating that “policy shifts throughout the 1990’s reflected the realisation that individual gains through activity were shared by the wider society”.

Providing greater access to facilities would maybe improve participation levels but would still socially exclude some members of society and Collins and Kay (2003) suggest that if members of society are poor then they have a low level or narrow range of participation chances available to them. The cost of entering certain facilities would mean some people would not be able to afford to participate, due to them having less disposable income, and Horne et al (1999, p.104) propose that “participation is not of personal choice”, but upon the “financial resources available”, and Eitzen (1996) summed this up commenting that sports involvement requires money and leisure time and the upper classes have more of both which Bordieu (1984) describes as “cultural capital” which is gained from upbringing and education.

However some of the major problems in sports participation have been identified by the Government and one of those is they want to improve community sport, and they want everybody to have participation opportunities. The Government hopes that by improving equity at all levels in sport (Appendix 7), it will give the chance to under-represented groups in society to be come socially included through participation. From a functionalist viewpoint Hylton et al (2001, p.54) argue that an “organisational view of fairness” is more important than a “universal view”, and society equity is achievable as the social system is dedicated to inclusion. Sports equity is a typically functionalist term as it means ensuring that sport becomes equally accessible to all members of society. Sports equity acknowledges the contribution that various parts of a society have in maintaining stability and the status quo.


When looking at the study of sport in society, the functionalist approach has founded the basis for numerous decisions regarding sport at all levels of participation and is used to justify the funding of sport by Governments. The functionalist approach is responsible for the promotion of sport on both personal and social levels, because it highlights the positive effects, stating that sport is a valuable social institution and a source of inspiration. Functionalist theory focuses attention on how sport helps keep the society operating smoothly and influences individuals to contribute to the social system.

From the Governments perspective it is easy to see that access and participation are intertwined; by providing more opportunities for people at all levels in sport, the amount of participants will rise. From a functionalist approach the Governments perspective is not sufficiently discriminatory, it overlooks certain problems such as age and gender issues that do not support the equilibrium in society.

A functionalist approach leads to exaggerated statements about positive effects of sport, believing that anything that lasts is good (is functional) and it fails to consider that sport could distort values. Functionalist theory is based on the assumption that the needs of the individuals in society reflect the needs of the social system, it assumes homogeneity of interests and the desire to maintain harmony which is not the case, not everyone in a society may want to play a certain sport, and functionalism cannot distinguish whether people actually want to play sport at all.

The way the Government wants to promote sport is typically from a functionalist perspective and is the best sociological theory to use when promoting sport. Different sociological theories help identify issues and problems and Coakley (2003) believe the best theories are the ones that make sense, so from the Governments point of view a functionalist approach is ideal because it believes sport is an inspiration.


Bordieu, P, (1984) Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Tast, Trans, Cambridge (MA), Harvard University Press

Coakley, J, (1998)

Coakley, J, (2003) Sports in Society: Issues and Controversies, (Eight Edition), New York, McGraw Hill

Collins, M, and Kay, T, (2003) Sport and Social Exclusion, London and New York, Routledge

Dewar, A, (1993) Would all the Generic Women in Sport Please Stand Up? Challenges Facing Feminist Sport Sociology, Quest, 45, p. 211-229

Eitzen, S, (1996) Classism in Sport: The Powerless Bear the Burden, Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 20, p.95-105

Horne, J, Tomlinson, A, and Whannel, G, (1999) Understanding Sport: An Introduction to the Sociological and Cultural Analysis of Sport, London and New York, Routledge

Hylton, K, Bramham, P, Jackson, D, and Nesti, M, (2001) Sports Development: Policy, Process and Practice, London and New York, Routledge

Koss, J, (2001), The Rules of the Games. In: ’01 First International Governance in Sport Conference, Brussels, 27th February, 2001. Belgium: The Business of Sport and Solidarity

McPherson, B, Curtis, J, and Loy, J, (1989) The Social Significance of Sport: An Introduction to the Sociology of Sport, Illinois, Human Kinetics


Department for Culture, Media and Sport, (2004), Sport and Health, (online), DCMS, last accessed on 17 October 2004 at URL: http://www.culture.gov.uk/sport/community_sport/sport_health

Department for Culture, Media and Sport, (2004), Government Plan For Sport, (online), DCMS, last accessed on 6 October 2004 at URL: http://www.culture.gov.uk/sport/government_plan_for_sport

Department for Culture, Media and Sport, (2004), Department for Culture,
Media and Sport, (online), DCMS, last accessed on 17 October 2004 at URL:


Department for Culture, Media and Sport, (2004), Community Sport, (online), DCMS, last accessed on 17 October 2004 at URL: http://www.culture.gov.uk/sport/community_sport

Department for Culture, Media and Sport, (2004), Sporting Facilities, (online), DCMS, last accessed on 17 October 2004 at URL: http://www.culture.gov.uk/sport/sporting_facilities

Department for Culture, Media and Sport, (2004), Equity in Sport, (online), DCMS, last accessed on 17 October 2004 at URL: http://www.culture.gov.uk/sport/community_sport/equity_in_sport

Department for Culture, Media and Sport, (2004), Activity Co-ordination Team, (online), DCMS, last accessed on 17 October 2004 at URL: http://www.culture.gov.uk/sport/community_sport/ACT

Department for Culture, Media and Sport, (2004), Sport, (online), DCMS, last accessed on 17 October 2004 at URL: http://www.culture.gov.uk/sport

National Statistics Online, (2004), Health: Diet and Nutrition, (online), National Statistics, last accessed on 9 November 2004 at URL: http://www.nationalstatistics.gov.uk/cci/nugget

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