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Towards a feminist playology: social sport studies and the limits of critique

The making of sacrifices seems part and parcel of any elite sportsperson’s life. Remarkably, the insights that we find in the current literature in social sport studies are not able to make sense of the references to sacrifice in the data that emerged in the context of this study on the social significance of elite women’s football.

Nathanja van den Heuvel
09 December 2021

The thesis that I put forward is that the existing Marxist, cultural studies and Foucauldian poststructuralist frameworks that we find in the field of social sport studies must be supplemented by the theory of play inherited from Johan Huizinga, Eugen Fink and Hans-Georg Gadamer for both conceptual and ethical reasons. I argue that the theory of play allows us first of all to make sense of the player’s experience of sacrifice. More precisely, understood as an independent, irreducible structure of experience, play allow us to make sense of the women’s football players’ experiences of sacrifice in a way that is compatible and complimentary to those insights of Marxism, cultural studies and Foucauldian poststructuralism, which remain indispensable. Secondly, the theory of play makes visible that the existing frameworks miss important insights in theorizing the subject, and, by extension, brings forth a notion of freedom and resistance that is currently lacking in the field of social sport studies. ‘Lacking’, as we cannot find these notions in the field of social sport studies, but also ‘lacking’ because the field of study is in need of alternative ways to think about freedom and resistance. This thesis thus contains a systematic point, namely our discovery that “players play”, that their experience cannot be understood without an account of play as such, alongside an analysis of what that means; and a methodological point, namely that in order to take into consideration that players play, we need a new method, which I describe as a feminist playology. The prefix feminist refers to the commitment of this method to understand sport as a gendered activity.

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