Prospects of Chinese sports sociology

By WANG ZHIHUI / 02-22-2024 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

Some elderly women practice fan dance at Ecological Square, Shenzhen City, Guangdong Province. Photo: Ozzie/PROVIDED TO CSST

The 20th CPC National Congress has proposed: “In philosophy and the social sciences, we will work faster to develop Chinese systems for fields of study, academia, and discourse.” In promoting Chinese-style modernization, the construction of an independent knowledge system in China is not only a summary of historical experience, but also an important task in fulfilling the mission of the times. Sociology is an essential component of philosophy and social sciences, and Chinese sports sociology, as a branch of sociology with Chinese characteristics, plays a positive role in promoting the construction of China’s independent knowledge system, both academically and socially. Promoting the development of Chinese sports sociology is of both theoretical and practical significance.

Why it is necessary

When we mention human physical activity, we may initially think of “sports” or “athletics.” However, upon deeper reflection, we will find that dance, Tibetan Buddhist “prostration,” and activities such as city walks also fall under the category of sport. Sport includes both active and passive bodily activities. In human social life, movement not only promotes the development and connection of individuals and society but also serves as a metaphor for society. Hence, the necessity of studying sports sociology, which revolves around movement, is evident. Sports sociology is a sociological sub-discipline that explores the coupling mechanism between sporting behavior and social order. It adopts a sociological perspective and theoretical methods to investigate the inherent laws of human movement behavior, focusing on the situational representation of the biologically and socially oriented body in the spatial field of movement, as well as the relationship between movement behavior, society, and knowledge production.

Given the differences in types of sports and levels of sports development among different countries, promoting the localized development of sports sociology is of practical significance. The cultural perspective of traditional societies emphasizing culture over martial arts, combined with the contemporary national strategy of becoming a sporting powerhouse, forms the unique sports context in China. Martial arts, etiquette, square dancing, “village BA,” city walks, and various competitive sports collectively constitute a diverse range of athletic activities for the people, showcasing the immense imagination and development potential of Chinese sports sociology. For example, by analyzing China’s social development, the needs of society members, and the social governance and cognitive shifts associated with the rise of different types of sports during various stages, researchers can gain insights into the significant role played by Chinese sports sociology in better understanding and advancing its development.

Why it is possible 

In response to the awareness of the above issues, sports sociology also has its own theoretical and practical foundation, possessing the potential to develop into an independent discipline, construct research paradigms, and achieve sustained development.

Firstly, sports sociology inherits and develops the disciplinary lineage of sociology. A relatively new field, it is not without historical roots. Scholars such as Weber, Elias, Bourdieu, Giddens, and others have given attention to sports in the field of sociology, and many existing discussions continue to have supporting and inspiring significance for the study of sports sociology. As sports, particularly as a representation of athleticism in society, have developed and their social and modern attributes have been further emphasized, scholars have deepened their research on sports. During this period, scholars have either combined process theory, practice theory, and other sociological theoretical perspectives, or based their research on the embodiment and heterogeneity of sports to conduct studies and generate knowledge. Since sports involve the body as a carrier, theories and studies related to the body, especially in the interpretation and improvement of the theoretical capabilities of physical activity, are frequently mentioned. Chinese sports sociology has not only gained theoretical support through the “influence of the West,” but also made progress through the localized thinking of certain scholars. Overall, Chinese sports sociology is not a rootless entity; it inherits the principles of sociology and reconsiders relevant content through localization.

Secondly, sports sociology is a discipline that addresses issues inherent in China’s development practices. Just as the biological and social aspects of the body have been widely discussed in academia, scholars’ exploration of the biological and social aspects of physical activity is equally fascinating. Since physical activity is not only associated with society but also reflects and expresses it, research in sports sociology has a strong capacity to integrate paradigms, forming mechanisms of fusion interpretation between the “associated society” and “expressed society.” For example, the “village BA,” which gained popularity in 2022, through its embodiment of subjective memory, emotions, and identity, as well as its promotion of social integration and rural development, demonstrates the social and connective aspects of physical activity. Researchers delve into micro-narratives, simultaneously involving micro-body experiences and the social order behind them. Thus, research in Chinese sports sociology is not only supported by a standardized research paradigm but also possesses the potential for paradigm innovation, displaying distinctive features in discussing issues related to China’s development practices.

Finally, sports sociology embodies the continuous driving force of knowledge production. For sports sociology, which adheres to the disciplinary lineage of sociology, knowledge production is achieved through theoretical dialogues and advancements based on embodied practices of physical activity, society, and knowledge. In concrete research, researchers can engage in theoretical dialogues and reflections by using existing theories such as symbolic interactionism and by drawing inspiration from topics such as power and gender. They can also advance the construction of theoretical features in the discipline by exploring the absence and presence of the body in the intelligent era and studying the enhanced complexity of movement. As a product of human social practice, sports not only promote biological health but also have rich social implications. Whether researchers take sports participants as the subjects of study or sports participants study themselves, their diverse behaviors, experiences, and narratives provide a continuous driving force for research. During this process, the heterogeneity of physical activity can be further explored, and the knowledge production with local characteristics can be promoted.

What can be done

In the development of Chinese sports sociology, in addition to focusing on the embodied participation of physical activity in the great practice of Chinese modernization and constructing the discourse and narrative system of Chinese sports sociology, there is also a need to expand the disciplinary imagination when interpreting the practices and issues of sports participation in China. In this regard, the author discusses the expansion of the imagination of Chinese sports sociology from three aspects: history and reality, macro and micro, and universal and particular, aiming to further promote the construction of its independent knowledge system.

Firstly, we should integrate history and reality. With the widespread development of sports, the rise of intelligent fitness under the influence of data technology, and the increasingly diverse motivations for participating in sports, physical activity is not only becoming increasingly varied in form and participation, but also more prominent in its societal aspects. Consequently, research on sports sociology related to physical activity has further developed. Simultaneously, various bodily activities such as sports, athletics, and dance each have their own historical development context and era-specific characteristics. In the process of development, each undergo dynamic integration of history, culture, and society. As a result, sports sociology has the characteristic of integrating history and reality. The discussion of history and reality in Chinese sports sociology is based on the temporality and continuity of traditional physical activity, analyzing the social changes in China through the exploration of related developments and transformations (such as martial arts routines). On the other hand, it is also based on the dissemination and reformation of modern physical activity (such as square dancing), exploring the development of Chinese-style modernization. In addition, the transformation of the “presence” of the body under the development of digital technology, as well as the emergence of virtual activities (such as e-sports) also provide support for our consideration of social transformation in China.

Secondly, we must reconcile macro and micro perspectives. Human social development is irreversible, and the universality of physical movement, despite aiding us in exploring the relationship between human movement and order from a macroscopic perspective, should not overshadow the importance of micro-level narratives centered around bodily activity With the continuous emphasis on individuals in modern society, the need to bring “people” back to social research and analyze the necessity of “self” has become increasingly apparent. Physical activity is a micro-narrative presented through embodied experiences, and therefore, sports sociology has disciplinary advantages and features when exploring modernity and self, body and self, and the “commonality of communication” and “individuality.” The integration of macro and micro in sports sociology, on the one hand, can avoid the tendency of externalization, blindness, and one-sidedness in macro research, and the resulting disconnection between research theory and social facts. On the other hand, in the exploration of the heterogeneity of micro physical activity, it insists on bringing “people” back to society. In the specific context of Chinese sports sociology, the introduction and development of individual sports behavior intentions, sports oral history, etc., provide practical support and promote the exploration of the essence of the problem. For example, in sports oral history, the life narratives experienced by sports subjects not only demonstrate “people-centered research” but also, in “bottom-up” research, promote the connection between “small stories and big society,” further highlighting the value of sports research.

Thirdly, we have to grasp the universal and the particular. When conducting specific research on physical activity, we should not only follow disciplinary practices but also distinguish between invention and discovery, engaging in knowledge production while considering both the universal and the particular. Universally, this manifests not only in theoretical interpretations of universal laws of human physical activity but also in understanding and discussing the “localized” laws of physical activity in the same social and cultural context. For example, running is widely practiced worldwide, and researchers can analyze the rules and groups of running in different regions through “localized” rule analysis, in addition to understanding the consensus that running promotes physical and mental health. Regarding the particular, attention is paid to the heterogeneity of physical activity among different countries, ethnic groups, genders, etc., as well as the differences in physical activity among individuals. For example, although many social members practice boxing, there may be differences in the motivations for practicing boxing among males, females, and different individuals within the female group, reflecting the influence of social and cultural factors. It is important to note that emphasizing the particular does not mean abandoning the universal. Combining universal knowledge distilled from local experiences also has the potential to elevate the local to the whole, trigger latent potential, and thereby achieve the possibility of disciplinary feedback.

In summary, the development of Chinese sports sociology, in addition to grasping the disciplinary lineage, following the discipline’s context, and engaging in theoretical dialogues, also needs to explore and leverage the unique features of sports in the Chinese context, continuously promoting the construction of an independent knowledge system.

Wang Zhihui is a professor from the School of Sociology and Population Studies at Renmin University of China.

Edited by WENG RONG