Sociology of Sport: Meaning, Theories and Overview

Sociology of sport, otherwise known as sports sociology, is a discipline of sociology that studies sports as a social phenomenon. Sports sociologists critically examine the functions, impacts and roles that sports have on different societies. The sociology of sport encompasses research in various other fields such as political science, history and anthropology (Maguire 2013). This article describes the origin of the sociology of sports as a sub-field of sociology. It then moves ahead to detail the four major sociological theories that are employed in the study of sports. These are the functionalist theory, conflict theory, interactionist theory and feminist theory. Afterwards, the topics of gender and race and ethnicity are touched upon. The article concludes with a description of what the future holds for the domain of sports sociology.


Sports sociology began to emerge as a formal discipline in the second half of the 20th century. By the 1960s, television had started to dedicate copious amounts of time to sports. Professional leagues for various sports such as baseball and football began to emerge in the United States. This was accompanied by the Olympics being a playground for the Cold War. During this period, many social scientists like David Reisman, Charles Page and Erving Goffman published works related to sports. In 1978, the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport was founded with the objective of exploring this field. A few years later, their research outlet called the Sociology of Sport Journal was formed in 1984 (“Sociology of Sport” 2018).

sociology of sport

It is important to note that Harry Edwards is considered by many to be the founder of sports sociology. His career has spanned five decades and encompassed professions such as professor, consultant and athlete-activist. Edwards asserted that sports is a recapitulation of the power relationships in a society and hence it is impossible to have a non-racist sports structure within a racist society. He has advocated diversity within the major leagues of NFL, NBA and the MBL in the United States (O’Neal 2018).


Four major sociological paradigms can be applied to the field of sports. These are the functionalist theory, conflict theory, interactionist theory and feminist theory.

Functionalist Theory

The functionalist theory views each sport in terms of its contributions to the whole world of sports. Sociological research using this theory focusses upon positive outcomes of sports for both individuals and the society at large. Those who follow this theory emphasize the growth and development of organized sports. But this theory has many weaknesses since it overstates the positive impact that sports have on society by assuming that all social groups benefit equally from them. Moreover, it also fails to recognize that sports are social constructions that might be more accessible to few as compared to others (Coakley 2001).

Conflict Theory

The conflict theory asserts that society is shaped by economic forces and that sports must be studied in terms of capitalist expansion and economic exploitation. Sociologists often use this theory to throw light upon how sports perpetuate the privilege and power of the existing elite group within society. However, this theory is seldom used in mundane sports discourse since it portrays sports as an opiate that deadens awareness of social issues. This theory also has one shortcoming since it only emphasizes the economic determination of social life and fails to acknowledge that participation in sports may also be a socially and personally empowering experience (Coakley 2001).

Jean- Marie Brohm is a French Sociologist that popularized a Marxist critique of organized sports in her book titled, “Sport: A Prison of Measured Time”. While talking about sports, she referred to the institutionalization of mass sports rather than natural physical activities like exercise. Brohm viewed sports as an instrument used by the bourgeoisie for subordination and indoctrination of the masses. Her contributions to the field of sociology of sports are important since she brings to light the fact that sports acts as a distraction from the issues of the real world by whitewashing many genuine problems (Brohm 1978).

Interactionist Theory

The interactionist theory focusses on how people’s identities are created and maintained due to participation and interaction with sports and cultures. Sociologists studying sports through this perspective aim to make sports associations less autocratic, more democratic and condemn the hierarchical organization of sports. However, this theory ignores issues of power relations in society by choosing to look at society from a micro-scale (Coakley 2001).

Feminist Theory

Feminist research studies how sports reproduce gendered ideas and practices related to sexuality, physicality and the body. Sociologists use this theory to study how different sports help produce ideas of masculinity and femininity and how women are represented in media sports coverage. Feminist theorists also take social action by challenging those aspects of sports that systematically privilege men over women. They also expose oppressive forms of homophobia and sexism in sports (Coakley 2001).

GENDER WITHIN SPORTS                          

A sociological insight into the gendered realm of sports is required to understand the minute and major differences between men’s and women’s sports. In most societies, gender roles related to sports are enforced from a very young age. The idea that sports are too masculine for women and that they must stick to non-competitive games is planted through socialization in schools and within families. The separation of male and female roles within the sports world is exposed through their representation in media. For example, men’s sports are more prominent within media and have a larger viewership as compared to women’s sports. Moreover, there is a contrast in the types of sports that each gender is expected to play. Men’s sports are usually confrontational, coordinated and combative such as wrestling and rugby while women’s sports are more individualized and less aggressive such as gymnastics and figure skating. Participation in traditionally “masculine” sports leads to gender identity conflict for women and the same applies to men that take part in traditionally “feminine” sports.

Read: Sociology of Gender

Those studying sports, and especially sociologists interested in the field, must recognize the theoretical importance of feminism in their research. More importantly, the discourse on gender and sports must move away from a restricted focus on women, to the nature and impact of gendered social norms on the behavior of both sexes (Scraton & Flintoff 2002).


In the past, sports were viewed as an apolitical space where athletes were insulated from the real world and their focus solely on their performance. But despite these views, the realm of sports does not operate in isolation from the wider society. Race and ethnicity have always played an important role in social activism within the field of sports. Recent actions, especially those taken by African- American athletes have raised the topic of activism within sports (Cooper et al. 2019). The Black Lives Matter movement has triggered a range of protests among the most popular competitive sports.

  • Basketball: In August 2020, the Milwaukee Bucks staged a boycott over the police shooting of African-American Jacob Blake. This forced the NBA to halt its playoffs and also prompted a wave of walkouts by other teams. Basketball superstar LeBron James also voiced his solidarity with the Buck’s boycott and stated that the Los Angeles Lakers had voted to abandon the season.
  • Tennis: Naomi Osaka, a two time Grand Slam champion also recently announced her withdrawal from the Western & Southern Open semi-finals this year. She explained her actions by stating that she was a black woman before she was an athlete. And as a black woman, she felt that were more important matters that needed attention at the moment than people watching her play tennis (Staff 2020).
  • Formula 1 Racing: The Formula 1 champion Lewis Hamilton also spoke up about the movement in July of this year. As the only black driver in history, he has regularly used the Black Lives Matter slogan. But this year, he also urged others in the industry to do the same. He and other drivers kneeled when the national anthem was played as a sign of protest whose history can be traced to Colin Kaepernick kneeling at the NFL four years back.


The sociology of sports has recently begun researching new areas within the field of sports. The analysis of the following topics is being done through various theories and methodologies:

  • Sports and globalization have gained popularity among sociologists and new areas of research are dealing with the relationship between social development and sports within developing nations.
  • A few sociologists have also employed qualitative and quantitative data to shed light on the relationship between sports and social class.
  • Finally, democratization studies has gained vast popularity within the last few years within the field of sports. In the future, issues of participation in sports will also be studied through the lenses of social exclusion and inclusion (“Sociology of Sport” 2018).


Brohm, J. (1978). Sport, a Prison of Measured Time: Essays. Ink Links Limited.

Coakley, J. J. (2001). Sport in Society: Issues & Controversies (7th ed., Health professions series). McGraw Hill.

Cooper, J. N., Macaulay, C., & Rodriguez, S. H. (2019). Race and resistance: A typology of African American sports activism. International Review for the Sociology of Sport54(2), 151–181.

Maguire J. (2013) Sport, Sociology of. In: Runehov A.L.C., Oviedo L. (eds) Encyclopedia of Sciences and Religions. Springer, Dordrecht.

O’Neal, L. (2018). Harry Edwards, a giant of sports activism, still has people shook. Retrieved August 28, 2020, from

Scraton, S., & Flintoff, A. (2002). Gender and Sport: A Reader. Psychology Press.

Sociology of Sport (2018). Retrieved August 28, 2020, from

Staff, S. (2020). Black Lives Matter: NBA walkout sparks historic sport boycott in US; Osaka withdraws, tennis halted. Retrieved August 28, 2020, from

About Author: Arushi Chopra is currently an undergraduate student pursuing sociology and environmental studies. She is passionate about writing and researching about these two fields. She has a keen interest in social work and has collaborated with many volunteering programs in the past. Her hobbies include horse riding, trekking and painting.

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