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Sports “Sociologese”

ISSUE:  Summer 1987
The Quest for Excitement: Sport and Leisure in the Civilizing Process. By Norbert Elias and Eric Dunning. Blackwell. $24.95.

At a time when entire nations seem to be hard put to contain the inherent violence of groups and individuals within their own borders, it seems appropriate for British sociologists, Norbert Elias and Eric Dunning, to collaborate in exploring what they term “the civilizing process” in sport and leisure. Their variations on this theme are contained in their book, The Quest For Excitement, a collection often formal, nonpolemical essays, four by Dunning, two by Elias, and four in collaboration.

The preoccupation of Elias and Dunning with the “tension” we all experience in sport and other leisure activities brings to mind such seminal works as Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents and Konrad Lorenz’ On Aggression. With some modifications, their point of view combines Freud’s assumption about the interplay between instincts and social control and Lorenz’s ideas regarding the biological and genetic foundations of human aggression. But they depart from Freud in their belief that the tension resulting from the pressures all around us to be “civilized” are a good thing.

The one idea which crops up repeatedly in The Quest For Excitement can be summarized as follows: We all have a need to escape boredom—in our work, in bourgeois family rituals, etc.—that is, to be “turned on”; and we usually achieve this happy state through such socially acceptable channels as sex, drinking, and the mimetic rituals of sport. However, in our determination to satisfy this impulse we are often frustrated by social restraints, and sometimes we step over that line which separates civilized from uncivilized behavior. An example of this would be brawls among soccer fans. When this happens, oppressive measures must be taken to restore the balance. While, in a stable society, the civilizing process is necessary, allowance should be made for human beings to give vent to the pleasure principle.

One does not need to travel too far to observe how this concept operates in everyday life. For example, in the Washington, D.C. area, where I reside, automobile traffic during rush hour is often gridlocked. As a result, tempers flare and many individuals, no doubt, have an overwhelming impulse to get out of their car and punch some obnoxious driver in the nose. Why don’t we do it? Forget all the in-depth explanations of the classical psychologists. According to Elias and Dunning, we restrain ourselves simply because we have been conditioned to believe that punching someone in the nose is not “civilized.” Aggression, they maintain, is always within us, clamoring to be unleashed, but our desire for order and harmony keeps the lid on.

Like a number of their fellow sociologists in the United States, Elias and Dunning employ sports and other leisure activities as a metaphor to clarify and exemplify their theories about the nature of violence and aggression. Expressions which weave in and out of these essays are: “civilizing process”, “mimetic battles”, “level of permitted violence,” and “tension-balance”. A great deal of analysis in The Quest for Excitement is devoted to dissecting the violence level of such British sports as rugby and soccer and commenting on the anarchic uncontrolled games of the Middle Ages, in which lethal means were legitimately used to gain victory. In contrast to this, they dwell on the self-imposed restraints— rules, referees, penalties, specified time requirements, etc.— of modern games, all of which make these sports relatively tame but at the same time allow the spectators to fantasize about aggressive acts without playing them out.

The Quest for Excitement, so far as I know, is the first in-depth treatment of the delicate relationship that exists between the spectators at sporting events and the “mimetic battle” that they are witnessing on the playing field. Elias, in his Introduction, notes:

I have found that humans, as I can observe them quite apart from the enjoyable excitement of sex, also need other forms of enjoyable excitement, that battle excitement is one of them and that, in our society, when a fairly high level of pacification has been established, that problem has to some extent been solved by the provision of mimetic battles.

But the authors point out a disturbing trend of contemporary sport culture: where fans formerly could achieve the pleasure of catharsis through the exercise of their imagination, they increasingly demand “real” violence in their sporting fare, and the fights outside the rituals of the game become more meaningful than the controlled violence of the game itself. One can see evidence of this phenomenon in American sports where, for example—

  • 1.

    Fist fights in hockey have become obligatory and appear to have been incorporated into the more controlled rituals of the game.

  • 2.

    “Bench-clearing” brawls in baseball are becoming more frequent and, with the help of the television medium, are increasingly being instigated by imagined offenses against individual players. One wonders in these situations if the brawlers are unconsciously giving the fans what they want.

  • 3.

    Basketball has become a body-contact sport and increasingly more violent.

  • 4.

    In football, rules to protect the quarterback are blithely ignored by officials, and attempts to injure or render the quarterback unconscious with a good “hit” (euphemismatically called a “sack”) are a concession to the demands of the fans for “real” violence.

  • The most socially useful discussion in The Quest for Excitement centers on the phenomenon of “hooliganism” at British soccer matches. Americans have always been mystified by the spectacle of British soccer fans fighting each other, sometimes to the point of killing their adversaries in the stands, as in the horrifying match in Brussels in May 1985 when British fans attacked their Italian counterparts in a spree of uncontrolled mayhem which left 39 Italians dead. (In contrast to this, American sports spectators tend to take their aggressions out on the players, the officials, and sometimes the field by ripping up turf. It is difficult to tell here which is the more perverse form of antisocial behavior).

    Dunning is the authority on hooliganism; and, in concert with Patrick Murphy and John Williams, he establishes, through extensive research and analysis, a plausible causal relationship between social, economic, and educational deprivation among British working-class youth and their acts of violence at soccer matches. He notes:

    They may be out of work, if they ever had work. Ordinarily, life is rather drab. Nothing much happens. Perhaps a girl, perhaps a film. No prospects; no aim. Thus, the matches of the local football team become the great, exciting events in an otherwise rather uneventful life.

    Following this point, the authors analyze the destructive mob psychology through which these young people “get one’s own on the establishment.” Their findings make one wonder if Band-Aid measures to control crowd behavior at sporting events is of much help in a society where internalized rage is the order of the day among members of the underclass, some of whom, it has been hypothesized, will never be employed in their lifetime. It is a powder keg situation where the “civilizing process” simply will not work.

    Although the scholarly thoroughness and the careful delineation of one facet of the human predicament in The Quest for Excitement are commendable, one, after finishing the book, is left with the impression that he has not been through a completely fulfilling reading experience. There are two reasons for this: first, the authors, perhaps inadvertently, tend to belabor the obvious. For example, the militaristic aspects of body-contact sports have been well worked over by sports philosophers and hardly need further discussion. And one wonders if research is needed to establish the fact that the constant rule changes in team sports have as their express purpose the implementation of a reasonable balance between offense and defense. This is public knowledge and the source of endless arguments in neighborhood bars. On the subject of leisure, there does not seem to be much point in belaboring the obvious truth that the pursuit of “excitement” is directly related to boredom in the work place and the home.

    My second reservation about The Quest for Excitement concerns its prose style. It is straight “sociologese,” an American virus that seems to have spread to the British Isles. Specifically, Elias and Dunning have couched some relatively simple ideas in a turgid, humorless style more appropriate for a discussion of astrophysics or geopolitics. At its worst this can lead to unintentional parody, as in this passage on social drinking:

    People drink alcohol in company because by depressing the inhibitory centers of the brain, it facilitates the friendly reciprocal stimulation on a relatively high level of emotionality which is the essence of leisure sociability.

    I solicited some “translations” of this sentence from some experts on prose style. The best response was: “Drunks have more fun.”

    One wonders why practitioners of sociological jargon do not make more effort to narrow the gulf between style and substance. Perhaps their failure to do this is due to the fear, pervasive among academicians, of being labeled a “popularizer.” (One recalls the abuse heaped upon Professor David Reisman by his colleagues when his classic, The Lonely Crowd, became a best seller). But, surely, there is a middle ground between addressing the scholars in one’s discipline and attempting to make one’s ideas accessible to a wider audience without losing the respect of one’s academic peers.

    Readability aside, The Quest for Excitement does probe quite thoroughly the tensions and anxieties that have been created in one Western industrialized country by secularization. With transcendent religious experience becoming less meaningful, we seek escape from the Kafkaesque nightmare of our daily existence in states of being that are related more to our nervous systems and our brain rather than our “spirit.” The late Bertrand Russell was acutely aware of the universal impulse to kill or injure our fellow human beings, whether in warfare or quasi-militaristic civilian activities such as sport. His solution to the problem was this: every community should create a wild, dangerous rapids that people compulsively seeking excitement could “shoot” regularly in a boat or a raft. While this, according to Russell, would not necessarily improve our manners nor create a Utopia of human happiness, it would, if practiced by millions of people, reduce the threat of war and minimize the crime rate. It is a civilizing process worth thinking about.


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