elite sport as model phenomenon

I’ve been interested in the interdependence of biological and social processes for a long time now, without nearly as much to show for it as I’d like. The empirical work in this area has a long way to go, but it’s as plain to me that as much of the problem is conceptual: the point where sociology has the potential to be the best social science is always in terms of the big picture, and the big picture for biological and social interdependence is extremely difficult to think or theorize effectively about.

Of course a big hurdle is the ugly history of using biological arguments for social injustices, as whatever steps one tries to take here so morally and politically freighted that it feels like trying to theorize through a minefield. It’s not like you can be a sociologist and just spitball ideas about this stuff in a seminar.

Sometimes I do throw out vague statements, with as wise-sounding intones as I can muster, like “genetic causation always happens in social fields” and “genetic causes and social causes are interdependent in ways that go so far beyond just saying that they ‘interact’.” Ugh. Painfully unsatisfying; makes me feel like an impostor.

Awhile back, though, I devoured the single most intellectually stimulating work about any of this that I’ve ever read: The Sports Gene, by David Epstein, a sportswriter. The book has all kinds of scientish-particulars about muscle fibers and ankle widths and whatever, swaths of which one should expect will be overturned. None of that is the point. What’s inspiring about the point is all the different ways its examples bring the biological and social into contact.

This has me on a broader kick of reading about elite sport, and thinking about its potential as a model phenomenon. The idea is basically to consider elite sport as not as a substantive end in its own right, but as a lever toward trying to obtain a more complete way of talking about processes of biological-social interdependence.

Author: jeremy

I am the Ethel and John Lindgren Professor of Sociology and a Faculty Fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

11 thoughts on “elite sport as model phenomenon”

  1. Sports are a nice case. There is likely a good sociobiological selection story explaining the success of black athletes. At every level of the slave trade, West Africans were presumably selected and bred for physical stock and endurance, not to mention those with the weakest constitutions perishing en masse in the despicable trans-atlantic crossing.

    If this same mechanism is responsible for the black/white IQ gap, the ethical case for affirmative action would be even stronger, because it would imply that a bunch of whites ridding themselves of subconscious and institutional biases isn’t going to bring up the bottom of durable biological differences that whites are responsible for.

    But that kind of political and scientific exploration would require sociologists to stop telling their graduate students, without qualification, “guys, don’t do biology,” just because a bunch of eager eugenicists screwed it up in the 1930s.


    1. This misses the point of my post, which granted was just me floating a preliminary idea and so not fleshed out well.. More could be said, but to say more adequately one would have to say a lot, and I’m not going to take the time here. Epstein talks a fair bit about race in his book, although he also talks even more not about race. As for me, a lot of my subsequent reading is about the overachievement of Australian athletes on the world stage, including in sports that no one actually plays in Australia.


  2. Also, I’m wondering if you can say more about the logic behind why you think a study of elite athletes might be a way to better understand processes of biological-social interdependence. My thoughts would be that elite athletes would make a fascinating subject in relation to this topic, but I’m not convinced that disentangling the biological from the social would be any easier. My main interest is in gendered differences in sports performance. I believe that until women’s sports have had adequate opportunity to develop – both socially and structurally – to the point that we can say that they have reached some sort of parity with men’s sports, it will be very, very hard to disentangle the social from the biological with any confidence.


    1. Whoa. I clicked on your link and it brought up a blog suggesting that you are a former Australian Olympian who is a sociology graduate student at Madison. This is either a crazy coincidence, auspicious omen, or truly inspired practical joke. (When the chair kindly notified me that I was being given early tenure at Madison, the first thing I did was e-mail Bob Hauser and ask, “Is this some kind of joke?”)

      I’m still only noodling with my ideas on this, but I have been doing some serious reading and want to commit to writing at least one paper. So, I’m happy to post more about it next week. I think we are interested in quite different things, but, I’d be very interested in knowing more about what you are doing. If you’d like to write a guest post, let me know. The short answer of what I am doing is that I am interested in the institution of AIS and the process of talent identification, and the idea of explicit state policy to maximize

      So in other words rather than being interested in males vs. females, I’m interested how some females become elite athletes in some sports and others do not. I was particularly inspired into a spate of reading in outlets like the Journal of Sport Science about women’s skeleton. The most well-known one being:

      Nicola Bullock , Jason P. Gulbin , David T. Martin , Angus Ross , Terry Holland & Frank Marino (2009) Talent identification and deliberate programming in skeleton: Ice novice to Winter Olympian in 14 months, Journal of Sports Sciences, 27:4, 397-404

      Are you familiar with this work? Have you been involved with AIS? Can we interview you on this blog?


      1. The question of how and why certain governments structure their sports development programs in particular ways is also of interest to me. In Australia, in my opinion, the work of the Australian Sports Commission (who fund the AIS) is very much a product of us being a “colonial outpost”, driven to prove ourselves and maintain a certain idea of our national identity by batting above our average (to use cricket terminology). This means, amongst other things, that certain sports are appealing to the ASC to invest in over others.

        You will see for instance that in track and field, funding goes primarily towards the more “technical” events that require specialized coaching etc, rather than the free-for-all events such as middle distance running. So Australia’s competitive advantage in track and field is considered to be in events like race walking. They’re events where for various reasons, the prospects of a medal are pretty good. Events like the 800, 1500, 5km etc are NOT on the ASC’s priority list. Money goes where the gold medals flow.
        Partly because of this, I was never an athlete at the AIS. I received my funding through the VIS, the Victorian Institute of Sport. All states have a state sports institution, which is connected to the AIS, but which receive their funding from both the state government and the ASC. At least, that’s my understanding. In track and field, middle distance events are not supported by the AIS, meaning there is no program for middle distance runners at the AIS. So, it’s somewhat complicated but fascinating. There’s a definite logic to the system.

        I’d be glad to be interviewed though I’m not sure if I’m what you’d be after given I wasn’t ever an AIS athlete. I would also be happy to do a guest blog!

        And yes, I am a grad student in Sociology at UW Madison and an Olympian :-) no joke. I haven’t been researching sport to date but I’m considering doing so in the future. So many fascinating debates to engage with!


      2. For the record, I was the chair who emailed Jeremy to tell him we’d voted him tenure and wasn’t believed. Bob forwarded Jeremy’s email to me. Sometimes paranoia is charming, but sometimes it’s a little too over the top. In any event, this story Jeremy tells is for real the truth; he really did it. [and sorry for messing up your feed; I initially put the reply in the wrong place.]


      3. I believed you… that just didn’t stop me from double-checking. Bear in mind I’m the same guy who wouldn’t let anyone plan any sort of post-dissertation defense event for him because he was worried that he might not pass – even though my diss was well over 500 pages and contained chapters already published in ASR and AJS (and I had a job waiting for me at Madison!). As you say, sometimes paranoia is charming, and sometimes it’s over the top.


      4. Madeline: Yes, your comment here alone hints at all manner of super-interesting stuff. I mean, to an American sensibility, even just the vague idea of having a priority ordering in track that places “race walking” over “events that involve running” is by remarkable. It’s like Moneyball, only on a national scale and where the limiting resource isn’t money but people. Anyway, if you did ever want to do a guest post, of course you’d be welcome to.


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