Socio-political role of Physical Education and Sport: 

political objectives of Physical Education

Función sociopolítica de la Educación Física y el Deporte: objetivos políticos de la Educación Física


Professor Adjunto na Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio Grande do Sul (PUCRS),

Faculdade de Educação Física e Ciências do Desporto (FEFID)

Pesquisador Coordenador do Grupo de Pesquisa e Estudos Sociológicos

em Educação Física e Esporte (GPES), FEFID/PUCRS

Professor Adjunto na Instituição Educacional São Judas Tadeu, Curso de Educação Física

Prof. Dr. Marcelo Olivera Cavalli







          The objective of the paper is to scrutinize three objectives of PE. The debate is conducted through the analysis of each objective separately, though in reality they do not occur like that. Within this context, these three different, though strictly connected, objectives of PE are discussed. The effect and influence of PE over individuals is debated in the 'Physical objective of PE' – where PE exerts a certain kind of physical discipline/control over the body through its training. The 'Cultural objective of PE' analyzes the establishment of the Sport culture inside society, the extent of its effectiveness, and aspects related to the worshiping of the sportive order. And the third, the 'Social objective of PE' analyzes the role played by PE to maintain and reinforce social inequity and PE's complete disconnection with other major social problems and structures.

          Keywords: Socio-political role. Physical Education and Sport

http://www.efdeportes.com/ Revista Digital - Buenos Aires - Año 14 - Nº 134 - Julio de 2009

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    Many connections between Physical Education (PE) and other social structures – politics, economy, society, culture (as they are to be called in this paper) – have been widely debated by many scholars. These manifestations are also present in civil movements that were originated and activated inside society itself. However, it is necessary to differentiate the various ways through which PE has contributed and is still contributing to the maintenance of the ongoing hegemonic social order.

    In this text, three different, though strictly connected, objectives of PE are to be discussed. The effect and influence of PE over the individuals is to be debated in the 'Physical objective of PE' – where PE exerts a certain kind of physical discipline/control over the body through its training. The 'Cultural objective of PE' analyzes the establishment of the Sport culture inside society, the extent of its effectiveness, and aspects related to the worshiping of the sportive order. And the third, the 'Social objective of PE' analyzes the role played by PE to maintain and reinforce social inequity and PE's complete disconnection with other major social problems and structures.

    The following is to be dedicated to scrutinize these three objectives of PE. The debate is to be done through the analysis of each objective separately, though in reality they do not occur like that.

Physical objective of Physical Education

    By 'physical objective' it should be comprehended all the roles performed through the utilization (appropriation, manipulation) of the body, of the movement, or as having any one of them playing any significant and fundamental part in any context.

    Since the topic of the debate carried on here is about movement, physical training and the body, it seems very important and necessary to emphasize that there are various forms of movement, although PE, through its field of knowledge, acquired the characteristic of giving extreme emphasis to the training of the body. In this text, by movement it is meant also any other physical manifestation such as dance, yoga, games, playing... not only the idea of movement reflected by Sport. Also social and political movements should be considered, since they are inexistent and/or are repressed by PE's conservative features, and are extremely important to produce any effective social change.

    Therefore, the main point to be discussed from now on is the 'Political role performed' and the 'political role non-performed' by PE. The debate goes through an analysis of PE’s main subject of study, the human body – or, as it is frequently done, through the training of this body.

    During the course of history there had been developed many theories and practical methods that were further assimilated and incorporated by PE. A common point of convergence in all of them was (is) the emphasis given to the physical training of the body. Both the gymnastics methods and Sport are basically dependent on physical training, plus all the scientific and technological paraphernalia associated to it. Although they present(ed) different theoretical discourses, a different practical conception, and are (were) aiming to develop a man able to fulfill the (political, economic,..., and social) demand in a specific historical moment, apparently, both methods "searched for the same behavior modeling and both had in mind models of similar men" (Betti, 1991).

    Besides the political aims that were forwarded, the gymnastics methods, as well as Sport, contributed much with a great part of the theoretical and, more specifically, practical contents of present PE. Even though PE theoretical discourses had changed many times during the course of its history, the practice maintained its tendency of targeting on the body as a means to exert control or, as Foucault says, "discipline" over the individuals who, subsequently, establish the norms and patterns of conduct of the society, as well as its own controlling devices, institutions and, in a certain way, the common sense (Cousins and Hussain, 1984).

    Since common sense and practice are strictly connected, depend on each other to survive and present discourses that reinforce one another, PE has been used as a mechanism to reinforce both common sense, through slogans and other theoretical arguments; and practice, through the excessive emphasis on the training of the body, most of the times for sportive objectives.

    Therefore, PE can be said to be one of the main pillars of the foundation for the maintenance of society's common sense and (physical) practices.

    Institutionalized common sense and physical practices are deeply rooted in society's socio-political discourse. Since PE support this situation through its theoretical and practical 'scientific' activities, it is very difficult, indeed, for common people to observe the manipulation, to analyze possible connections and its extent, and to manifest critical significant opposition to a system that has completely seized our possibilities of freedom. Not only for common people, but for researchers too, the task of turning PE into a possible means to acquire and diffuse the necessary skills and knowledge to reach the so-desired emancipated societal model has been a hard job.

    Through the critique to (1) the training of the body, (2) the uses of the body and (3) the Olympic Games, is how the analysis of the physical objective of PE is to be conducted, inasmuch as they may be considered as political allies of the hegemonic ideology.

    The training of the body in PE can be explained through three different concepts that are expressed as follows:

  1. Sportive performance;

  2. Appropriation/manipulation of the body;

  3. Healthism (inferred in both critiques above).

    These three concepts can be easily observed in PE and they express the various ways through which PE performs its political role, as well as they hide the political power that is being responsible for the manipulation of PE and of the social discourses.

    The training of the body has been used in the past decades to exert control in the military system. It was also included in the school system and, as a consequence, it is easily observed and widely widespread within contemporary society. The training of the body is mainly founded within the sportive system – a sportive system that is dictating the rules and establishing the values and patterns of physical movement.

    There are unlimited ways of performing physical movement; however PE has limited its ‘world’ of movement to the sportive movement.

    According to the "pyramidal model" established by Betti (1991), 'High Performance Sport' is at the top of the pyramid and 'Leisure Physical Activities' and 'School Physical Education' are at the basis. That, subsequently, took the last ones to be subordinated to the sportive objectives, practices and values.

    Moreover, much of the physical training of the body has to do with the contemporary model of exercise culture, which is manifested in the most representative and worshiped sport event, the Olympic Games. Therefore, it becomes essential to promote an ongoing critical scrutiny to the Olympic Games and all the ideological manifestations represented in the Olympics. The focus should verse over the social significance and meaning of the training of the body as it is done and professed in contemporary PE.

    Present-day PE and Sport still give much emphasis to physical training, as Colquhoun (1992) well notes: "Physical Education [...], whose brief is, and always has been, 'the physical'".

    The features of PE and Sport are associated with control and discipline of the individual through his body, concepts of healthism and (illusory) independence. When the individual is 'converted' to perform physical exercises/activities that are based on the concepts of the sportive order, those features become more effective. They exert control over the person without his acknowledgment; healthism is emphasized as a quality of physical training, and the improvement of health as the most important achievement; a feeling of being an independent person is created, however it is just illusory, since the individual is subordinated to it and submitted to a completely unconscious control and discipline.

    Thus, with the specific purpose of analyzing this powerful ideology and devices that act over the material component of human beings, a critique to the appropriation and manipulation of the body is to be addressed elsewhere. Moreover, emphasis should also be given to physical discipline, control and punishment, more specifically through the work of Michel Foucault.

Sportive culture

    Here the symbolism of the features of PE are to be approached, inasmuch as they are also involved and contribute to the establishment of the political role performed by PE through its cultural objectives.

    As said to the physical objectives, the cultural possibilities of PE and movement were also delimited by the objectives of PE. Sport culture has predominated over all other cultural manifestations and has worked on the establishment of sportive values and patterns, inclusively, inside those other cultural manifestations. The fact that Sport is delimiting society's cultural expression is causing the misrepresentation of (wrong) objectives and values, and omitting the existence of other possible forms of cultural performance. The course through which Sport assumed such important role on determining the 'sportive culture' and, consequently, the mechanisms responsible for the maintenance of its hegemony are very strong in PE's theory and practice, as well as they are strictly connected and allied to the Olympic Games.

    With the help of many institutions and organizations, such as governments, mass communication, economic industry, politics and so on, that were extremely interested in the powerful possibilities of the Olympic movement, the Olympic ideals spread cultural values and patterns of the sportive order. Thus, the critique to the Olympic Games can also be assumed as a critique to PE and its cultural objectives.

    Through the affirmation of the sportive order, there has not been enough space, time, support, resources and availability for the practice of other cultural activities, which are being suffocated and left behind due to the influence and constant pressure exerted by the sportive order over the cultural order.

    Other perspectives should be taken into consideration rather than the high performance sportive culture. It should be a perspective that would bring back the ideas and tendencies of 'true' (social, cultural, political...) education associated to cooperation, fun, leisure, and all the other features that are misrepresented and wrongly emphasized through excessively competitive activities. This 'educational perspective' should work on how games and other soft-competition activities can be used to establish different values and patterns than the ones that are widely spread and valid in modern societies, and can be said of being responsible for determining cultural objectives of PE, in a smaller scale, and of society in general, in a larger scale.

    Many scholars have been debating on the pros and cons of cooperation and competition However, nowadays, what really is important is (1) how these two elements came to appear in the context; (2) whom they are or could be attending to; and (3) for what purposes they were brought into context. Here the distinction between self-controlled games and external-controlled games appears. At this point, 'how, what and whom' should be comprehended as the powerful social relations, hierarchical and social stratification, dominant ideology, objectives of those in power, etc., that determine and cause this distinction to happen and make evident that cooperation and competition do not work for the same purposes, neither those involved in them have the same objectives.

    Thus, it seems important to hold a discussion about the validity of the educational role performed by PE (and school) and the set of cultural objectives already defined by society, which are expressed and represented by activities in which the control and supervision is done by people other than those taking part in it.

    Also, a debate about the benefits derived from activities which are self-controlled, i.e., the game to be played, the vague acknowledgment of the rules and their settlement, the duration of the game, how to play and where, etc., are all to be decided and organized by the participants. Moreover, other psychological and sociological components could be more easily achieved, since winning is not the main objective, but, instead, having fun playing the game.

    So, when giving emphasis to the sportive culture, we must have very clear in our minds that only a few people will win and enjoy participating with the taste of succeeding or, as Betti (1991) puts it: "a few individuals, endowed with exceptional psychomotor qualities, will be able to reach". On the other hand, many will be left behind, even though they present excellence and maturity in other areas, since the hegemonic model of culture is based on competition, which is vividly represented in modern Sport, not to say in most contexts where school and PE instruction is involved.

    Over the past decades, contemporary society has been ruled by this 'Sport culture' ideological mechanism, where organization, discipline, control and performance have established the in force models of social behavior and practices. Since Sport, with its theoretical, practical and methodological concepts, is based on time, effort, discipline, victory, etc., energy consumption is over emphasized, as well as the cultural form of Sport. It seems that there is a gap to be filled when the concept of 'culture' is to be approached. This gap could be understood as the lack of a meaning to enforce all the theoretical arguments that constitute 'Sport culture'. What is at stake when the culture of high performance Sport is worshiped and professed by PE? Victory, success, fame, social ascension and public acknowledgment...? Yes, in a hard sort of way; but what is the meaning behind that all? How many people (players) will reach that standard? Would not it be a lot more meaningful and reasonable if victory, success, fame..., were to be shared by a larger number of people (participants)?

Social role of Physical Education

    Here, the social objective, which can be considered as the most important role played by PE, is to be analyzed. It seems to be of utmost importance the analysis of its social role too, since PE has been performing a very significant political function in contributing to the determination of social values and patterns of contemporary society.

    The effect of PE on the individual was already debated, thus in this section the action of PE over the group of individuals shall be discussed.

    About the political functions of PE over the group of individuals, that is, society itself, two different ways of what could be considered as having the same objective orientation must be distinguished. They are as follows:

  1. The socio-political role performed by PE;

  2. The socio-political role non-performed by PE – that is, its disconnection with major social problems.

    In other words, PE is playing not only one role, but two. It is ‘obeying’ the rules of the institutionalized social patterns, reinforcing social unfairness and inequity, maintaining the status quo, and providing theoretical and practical situations where the sportive order can be, once again, reinforced.

    The other socio-political role is PE's complete disconnection with major social problems such as garbage and recycling, nature disruption, racial and social prejudice, technology and science, etc., where no practical interest or involvement is promoted inside the field, with rare exceptions.

    As previously mentioned, Sport occupies the top position on Betti's 'pyramidal model', and PE also suffers prejudice caused by strong ideological arguments professed by the sportive order. As PE is acknowledged as the area responsible and in charge of physical activities (games, sport, leisure, recreation...), the sportive model is, consequently, considerably present in all of the physical activities too. In consequence, sportive values, patterns and behavior are transferred to the society in general, which seems to be accepting and adopting them as the desired and willed motifs for a better living. Since PE has prominent presence in many different spheres of our societies, it is not very difficult for its socio-political roles to keep on their divergent spread. At schools, parks, games, playgrounds, gathering of friends, ..., demonstrations of involvement with some kind of competition is also present, but what shall be emphasized is that competition itself is not bad at all. However, the consequences that can be derived from competition may indeed cause serious social damages or even, as it is being done, establish misrepresented objectives and make effective the actual social stratification.

    On the other hand, PE must make effort to have present in its theory and, more specifically, in its practice that it is necessary to convert its functional essence to more socio-educational proposals. Our societies are suffering from 'diseases' that are present world-wide, and present PE and those involved in the field, are quite aware of them. However, no one seems to be able to establish possible connections between them and PE, or to perceive that those connections may exist. Thus the theoretical and practical discourses of PE are locked inside the field, or more concretely, inside the greedy, competition-oriented, money-oriented, technology-dependent, socially-stratified and egocentric sportive model.

    Considering that the egocentric feature does not give space to other cultural forms to coexist and share all the 'merits', and that it indeed embodies powerful ideology, it seems almost impossible for PE to break with the socio-political discourse professed by it. Moreover, due to PE's inability to cope with that that other features described above are disrupting nature, giving room to racial and social prejudice to take place, becoming dependable on technology and science, and not involving itself, apparently, with other social spheres such as politics, economy, society, etc. However, on the contrary, it is exactly what it is doing.

    Thus, the critique to present PE lays on the premises that PE is performing, negatively, serious and complex socio-political roles and it is not involved, positively, in the solution of major political, social, ecological or whatever it could be, problems that affect every society.

Concluding statements

    Therefore, the main concern stated and expressed in this text so far is that political roles are being performed by PE. That occurs through its theoretical and practical 'non-political', 'educational', 'socializing' and 'technological' arguments. Such arguments were extensively distinguished in the three sets of objectives described above as a means through which PE has been affirming itself and has integrated itself to the hegemonic ideological system as its ally.

    The political roles that are not being performed by PE, which are expressed by PE almost complete disconnection to other social structures and problems originated inside themselves or derived from their – positive or negative – interaction with society.

    Further discussion should be conducted in future studies in order to elucidate PE’s political involvement and compromise. For example: (1) Why is PE performing such socio-political roles?; (2) How can PE contribute to the improvement of present living standards?; and (3) What can be done for PE to establish a discourse and a practice capable of instigating social transformation in accordance with popular demand and conscious of the importance to integrate itself with other social structures? Here is more food for thought!


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