Global Sport | Globalization, Sport and the Precarity of Masculinity
GLOBALSPORT - Globalization, Sport and the Precarity of Masculinity
GLOBALSPORT, Globalization, Sport, Precarity of Masculinity
page-template-default,page,page-id-2,ajax_fade,page_not_loaded,boxed,,qode-child-theme-ver-,qode-theme-ver-6.1,wpb-js-composer js-comp-ver-4.3.5,vc_responsive

Globalization, Sport and the Precarity of Masculinity

This project is an investigation of the present state and future of masculinity in the context of ongoing global crisis. It seeks to understand how men’s gendering represents, in many societies, a social, economic and political problem at the same time as it offers a solution to this problem. It investigates the fate of men’s bodies as they circulate in the context of the global sport industry. It explores the fragility of masculinity in one of its most powerful manifestations, and the ways in which the gendered body mediates between the individual and the multiple contexts in which the global condition embeds the individual.

Masculinity, the enactment and embodiment of being a man, has always had a profoundly taken-for-granted quality. There are of course many different ways of being a man within a particular society, some forms being considered more canonical than others, and different societies enact divergent notions of what a man is or should be. Yet these contingencies rarely disrupt the conviction that masculinity is naturally constituted. At the same time, today more than ever, masculinity is everywhere framed as a “social problem,” deeply enmeshed with the socio-economic woes with which the world is grappling: Men, particularly younger ones, no longer seem to be able to provide for families and communities. As a result, masculinity becomes the site of inter-generational tensions: with surprising consistency across the world’s societies, older people blame younger men for economic downturns, denouncing them as passive, uncooperative, disrespectful, and irresponsible. This project explores the constitution of this problem of masculinity, its management by different segments of society, and its articulation with other aspects of life. The timing of the project is decisive, as it promises to provide an in-depth understanding of people’s subjective experience of the current global crisis and, in particular, its effect on gender, intergenerational relations, the future of work and the ability to hope.

More specifically, the proposed research focuses on one “solution” to the problem of masculinity in societies of the Global South: the sports industries in the Global North. For an increasingly large number of young men in impoverished nations, the possibility of “making it” in professional sports in the industrial world generates hopes of extreme proportions, in which families, villages, neighbourhoods, and nation-states also fully partake. Through the lens of multi-sited comparative ethnographic research on these hopes and the actions that derive from them, this project seeks to shed light on a number of fundamental theoretical problems in the contemporary world: How masculinity articulates with the body, consumption, and the global condition; how it operates as a guide for social action in contexts in which poverty and marginality have seriously undermined the ability to hope; and how nationalism, citizenship, and belonging operate in a field in which global dynamics have seriously disrupted their take-for-granted nature, while they simultaneously remain at the forefront of public debates.

The project analyses the global condition through an understanding of gendered bodily practices, thus reversing common approaches that begin with large-scale processes and seek to understand how they provide a context in which agents negotiate their actions. Here we are concerned with the production of the global through the gendered body, a perspective that anthropology’s methods makes possible and that can act as a source of inspiration for other disciplinary traditions. Furthermore, the project provides a critical and hitherto unexplored angle on themes that are of immediate concern to not only societies teetering on the edge of the global, but also to industrial societies that must engage with the Global South: “the predicament of youth,” “the precarity of masculinity,” and “the crisis” tout court.

The Precarity of Masculinity

That masculinity represents a problem is of course not a new idea, as older generations everywhere in the world have held misgivings, probably since times immemorial, about the ability of “the youth of today” to enact masculinity in a proper fashion. In the industrial world for most of the twentieth century, Fordist capitalism provided a ready-made solution for what to do with young men: Put them to work. The decline of Fordism, the flight of industries to developing economies, the rise of neoliberal politics as the only game in town and the growing sense that the world has plunged into long-term crisis have all contributed to leaving a vacuum for youth, robbing young men in particular of their raison d’être. Young women are generally more adept at reinventing themselves, surpassing men in schooling everywhere in the world – where educational opportunities are lacking, they utilize whatever tools are available, from marriageability to their allegedly “natural” skills at domesticity, caregiving or handling detailed and repetitive work. In contrast, men, particularly the young and unskilled, are now the dispensable subjects of the world economy.

The problem of “what to do” with young men is even more acute in the Global South, where the ripple effects of the global economic crisis have compounded economic decline. Traditional forms of productive activity, such as agriculture or blue-collar work in mines and factories, have in many places been eroded by free-market competition, economic downturns and the feminization of the global post-Fordist labour markets. In both rural and urban areas, young men’s lack of opportunities to become productive prevents them from reproducing the sociality and the sense of belonging that guided their fathers through life, generating a malaise that affects equally and interchangeably masculinity, youth, and economic life in general. In many societies, the only other option is migrating to the underclass economies of capitalist nations, but the growing criminalization of border-crossing has rendered it formidably difficult. Even if obstacles to migrating can be surmounted, migrants, particularly young men, encounter in the West increasingly strident xenophobia and racism.

Paradoxically, in marginal regions of the world, the young are simultaneously embedded in global dynamics of consumption, hope and self-expression. Whether they partake in hip-hop culture, Pentecostal or Islamic revival, or political mobilization, youth seek to claim a sense of belonging in global forms of community. Young men in particular tap into images of new and sometimes extreme forms of masculinity (e.g., gangsta rap, hoop dreams, ghetto outfits). These efforts are not devoid of problems, as their legitimacy is often contested and the promise of revolution (or just self-esteem) thwarted by poverty and immobility.

It is in the context of these tensions that this project seeks to understand the role of sports in the lives of young men. Women also partake in the sport industries, but men’s enduring numerical and structural dominance in team sports limits the participation of women, who logically seek their fortune elsewhere. Marketed as men’s culture and as a hypermasculine spectacle for global consumption, the sport industries epitomize masculinity. For young men in impoverished countries, they represent at once hope for survival, a spectacular form of participation in the production of global images of male success and the resolution of the contradiction between local exclusion and global inclusion.

This resolution can be variously enacted: by wearing the right brand of sneakers, adulating the same sport stars as other youth elsewhere, or aspiring to become a world-class athlete. The latter possibility is embedded in a gendered logic in two ways: It foregrounds masculine prowess in its most extreme forms; and it reclaims what remains (ideologically at least) the classic site of masculinity worldwide, namely the ability to provide for others. It is thus no wonder that sports occupy the lives and minds of not only youth, but also their families, communities and nations. Through the lens of the hope that scores of people invest in the possibility of youthful athletic talent being scouted and the young migrating to economies that can support sports careers, this project seek to provide a particularly novel and largely unexplored angle on questions of broad scope: the mutual constitution of gender, bodies, and the imagination; capitalism, the state, and transnational flows; and the formation of subjectivity in a global context.

Athlete Circulation in Late Capitalism

Professional athletes have been circulating from country to country since sports as we know them were invented in nineteenth century Great Britain and North America. Their circulation was in fact instrumental in spreading the idea of sport to all four corners of the globe, piggy-backing on colonial expansion, missionary efforts, and other forms of global hegemony. In the early twentieth century, sports teams often hired non-local players, but based their decisions on “safe” criteria (defined in terms of “cultural similarities” between nations) or on the basis of personal relations among club managers, players and potential recruits. By the end of the century, hand-in-hand with the gradual corporatization, mediatization and commoditization of professional sports, the global circulation of professional athletes had intensified dramatically. The stakes of hiring became higher, players were transformed into professional workers, their cost rose dramatically and recruiters went further afield into more “risky” territory to search for talent. These historical junctures have led to a remarkable increase in the number of foreign-born or ethnically marked athletes employed in athletic workplaces in the industrial world, particularly those emerging from developing countries.

While scholarly interest in the global circulation of professional athletes has increased in proportion to the growth of the phenomenon, works to date, with very few exceptions, have been based on macro-sociological and demographic methods, rarely exploring contexts below the level of the state. These limitations have led researchers to view athletes circulating not as agents but as part of trends, or alternatively as free agents making rational choices about careers when the research has explored personal experiences. In reality, most sport mobility involves not only individual athletes but also a host of other agents (families who move with them, relatives who stay in place, communities that depend on them), brokers of many kinds (scouts, recruiting agencies, managers) and a host of different dynamics (economic concerns, politics, images, emotions, state policies), all motivated by divergent agendas and distinct priorities.

Unlike the circulation of underclass workers, sports migrations evoke millenarian images of sudden success and unimagined prosperity, affording young men the fantasy of redistributing untold wealth, often in preference to keeping it for themselves, and thus reclaiming male productive citizenship. The resulting enchantment is illustrative of a “casino capitalism,” the magical emergence of wealth from nothing, that many see as a signature feature of the turn of the millennium. While in reality only the lucky few from the Global South gain widespread recognition, the possibility of success in professional sports in the Global North informs the actions and haunts the dreams of countless others. These dreams are given concrete substance, for example, in the “football farms” that European clubs have established in West Africa, training camps attended by boys (often at the expense of regular schooling), in which clubs seek to recruit the most talented at the cheapest moment of their sporting careers. These dynamics often expose young hopefuls to exploitation, for example in the form of human trafficking of various kinds (e.g., clandestine border crossing, procurement of faked documents, deceitful promises of employment).

In certain parts of the world, entire nations are investing in the production of sporting bodies for export (Argentina for soccer-football, Tonga for rugby, Kenya for athletics), in some cases with the explicit backing of the institutions of the state, eager to devolve, in neoliberal fashion, the responsibility for the welfare of the citizenry onto the citizens themselves. These efforts are reminiscent of other forms of society-wide socio-economic dependence on highly specialized, gendered, and impermanent skills that are vulnerable to the caprices of global agents and trends, such as the export of domestic workers, caregivers to the elderly, and sex workers. The current worldwide economic crisis is making the precarious nature of these national policies all too apparent, given the extreme dependence of contemporary professional sports on corporate interests. The migration of athletes operates in the context of complex networks of people, institutions and emotions, and the circulation of a relatively small number of people has a profound effect on large numbers of individuals in several locations at once, with which the project fully engages.

Like the circulation of underclass workers, sports migrations are precarious, unpredictable and often disappointing. At the very least, the mobility of athletes operates within a dialectic of flow and closure, hampered by serious constraints (e.g., increased constraints on work visas) as easily as they are enabled by emergent possibilities (e.g., the loosening of citizenship restrictions by sport regulating authorities). The brevity of youthful masculine vigour, the spectre of injury, the capricious nature of corporate interests, the precariousness of adoptive forms of belonging and the unforgiving responses of publics all bestow on athletic careers a profoundly fragile quality. Many come to an abrupt end because of poor health, substance abuse, scandal or simply rapidly declining performance. They operate within an industry in which mainstream middle-class men control the labour of under-educated non-white workers. While these features characterize all careers in this industry, for athletes from the Global South the fall is often particularly dramatic, given the investment of so many others and their heightened vulnerability to exploitation by teams, agents, and other stakeholders.

As a long intellectual tradition has made clear, approaching migration as one-way flows of people across boundaries, “pushed” by unfavourable economic conditions, “pulled” by the promise of economic opportunity and eventually developing a sense of belonging as they “integrate” into the local context, does little justice to the realities of migrants’ lives. This project is based instead on a transnational model of movement, which makes two important points. One is the recognition that people move not in the context of a simple economic differential between origin and destination, but in the context of complex articulations between local and global dynamics. The second point is that migration models must reckon with the multiple allegiances that migrants maintain and their negotiations over the meaning of belonging. The researchers pay attention to the barriers that constrain people’s movements and aspirations, such as state authorities, national and international authorities regulating the rules of sport, and the agendas of recruiters, agents, managers, coaches, and corporations. An anthropological approach is particularly well suited to this endeavour, since anthropology takes for granted neither the subjectivity of agents nor the workings of large-scale structures, but rather subjects them, and everything in between, to the same empirical scrutiny.

Denaturalizing Masculinity

This project is grounded in a small but growing corpus of works that, since the 1990s, has questioned the tacit assumption that the study of gender is primarily the study of women. The task of “denaturalizing” masculinity begins by interrogating why men and their actions are taken to be the default category, turning women and their actions into problems that require explanation. Our understanding of the gendering of men, however, still lacks the richness of decades of social scientific work on women’s lives.

The researchers seek to understand how migrant athletes gender themselves or are gendered by others as they engage in social relations with other men, with women, and with corporate, state, media, public, and other structures that are deeply implicated in keeping masculinity at the forefront of team sport industries. At all times, the researchers bear in mind that masculinity is neither universal nor “natural.” Like all other aspects of identification, it is constantly subject to negotiation and in need of concerted effort. Because they are one of the clearest sites for the production, reproduction and negotiation of masculinity in contrast to other gendered forms, professional sports provide a particularly rich field in which to analyse these processes.

What is missing in our contemporary social scientific understanding of masculinity is how it articulates with large-scale processes. A pivotal contribution that this project makes is to frame masculinity in the context of shifting scale and historical change. We know that masculinity is culturally and historically contingent. What happens, however, when different styles of masculinity come together on the sports field to be scrutinized, evaluated and disciplined by recruiters, coaches, managers, spectators, sponsors, and the media? How is the hyper-virility of Pacific Island rugby players, for example, valued for its potential success when placed in particular positions in a rugby team, but also deemed by those in power to be yoked with a lack of discipline and a propensity to “show off”? What dynamics are at play when the media in France transformed its national team, between the 1998 and the 2010 Football World Cups, from a symbol of integrationist republicanism’s success into a pack of arrogant and unpatriotic racialized hoodlums? Racial, ethnic, and national stereotypes bleed onto styles of masculinity, demanding a close analysis of the broader historical and political context in which these images operate.

The Transnational Masculine Body as Subject and Object

One of the peculiarities of athletic migrations as a focus of hope in the Global South is the extent to which it is coterminous with the body. That culture and society are inscribed onto the body and that it is through the body that agents experience and generate structures is well known from the works of key social theorists. This realization implies that the body and its movements, its possibilities and constraints, its valuations and commodification potentials are all contextually contingent. In particular, the inscription of masculinity in the body is a socio-cultural process, full of contradictions and potentials for vulnerability. Even physical masculinity is a contextual, rather than biological, fact, constantly constituted in actions and relations, and implicated in historical change.

Classic and more detailed works that have focused on these dynamics, however, have not grappled with the fact that most people live in multiplex worlds, to which the body is made to adapt, with different levels of success. Yet sport professionals and those who surround them are deeply conscious of these dynamics, attributing to athletes of this or that nation a particular way of running, handling balls, or interacting with other players, often reducing this body hexis to a matter of “flair” associated with purported forms of the national character, in which the nation is often conflated with the ideologically laden features of its male citizenry (e.g., self-reliance, toughness, grace).

This project seeks to expand the meaning of “context”: Migrating male subjects operate across complex and multi-sited fields of valuation, which offer different possibilities, constraints and contradictions. How does the masculine body inscribe the different cultural or sub-cultural systems in which it needs to operate, how does it inscribe difference itself, sometimes under conditions that are not always favourably disposed to it? We seek to understand body practices in ways that go beyond simplistic invocations of “flair” and understand them against the backdrop of the stereotypes (both positive and negative) frequently associated with it. How do sports scientists, who bring to the sports arena culturally charged understandings of how bodies “should” move, evaluate non-native (and often racialized) bodies and their movements?

The masculine athletic body is evaluated not only on the sport field but also in daily life. What happens, we ask more specifically, when the body’s configuration and practices are held in high regard in a transnational field of valuation such as the rules of team sports, but must also be transposed across different contexts, where social and cultural value assignment, and thus the consumption and commodification of bodies, can differ greatly? How does the strength and vitality of bodies become the key to migrating under comparatively privileged circumstances, while strength and vitality are also deeply vulnerable and ephemeral qualities? How do athletes use the body as a medium through which they engage with large-scale structures and processes, offering it for commodification in a field potentially replete with contradictory standards? Professional sport is a particularly well-suited, as well as under-studied, field through which to engage with the fact that bodies no longer mediate between the subject and a unique set of structural conditions, but multiple structures, and what counts as strength in one structural context may be deemed to be a sign of fragility in another.

Three Sports

The project focuses on the role of masculinity in athletes’ mobility in three global team sports: soccer-football, rugby union, and cricket. All three sports originated in Great Britain in the nineteenth century and were exported to the rest of the world alongside colonial and related projects. Together, they cover a substantial area of the globe and mobilise the interest of a large proportion of the world’s population, although wide differences separate their geographical distribution and socio-cultural associations, and how they are practiced in various locations. These variations, as well as the different geographical and social routes that migrants follow, provide the research team a range of cases on which useful comparisons can be based. Each sport is the focus of a sub-project that contributes, in close collaboration with other sub-projects, to a comparative analysis of masculinity in the circulation of migrants form the Global South to the Global North in all its complexities.

The research is informed by the now classic rethinking of ethnography in late capitalism, calling for a turn to “multi-sited” research endeavours, i.e. ethnography that is no longer centred on specific or localized communities, but that interrogates, rather than assumes, the constitution of the local, in light of the fact that most people around the world are today mobile in one fashion or another. At the same time, the researchers involved in this project recognize the enduring importance of locality in people’s lives and avoid being seduced by the illusion that the local no longer matters because people move: problems of belonging, alienation and “in-betweenness” are all too real for migrant, be they athletes or not, both in their places of origin and adoptive home(s). The themes are certainly at the core of anti-immigrant politics in host societies and the researchers are attentive to the intersection of these politics with matters of masculinity.

Each PhD candidate and postdoctoral fellow focuses on one “sending” country that has produced significant numbers of migrant athletes, namely:

  • For soccer-football, a country in West Africa or South America
  • For rugby union, a country in the Pacific Islands or Southern Africa
  • For cricket, a country in the Caribbean or South Asia

After detailed field research in the location of origin, which focuses on migrant hopefuls, the researchers conduct fieldwork in the locations to which athletes have migrated or aspire to migrate. These are likely to be in various locations in Europe, but because athletes’ migrations often follow circuitous routes, the researchers are also prepared to conduct research elsewhere (e.g., transition points, future destinations, temporary secondment locations).

The researchers gather data through hands-on, bottom-up, and empirically driven ethnographic fieldwork. The project mines the methodological strength of socio-cultural anthropology in analysing the micro-practice of day-to-day existence to generate an understanding of macro-phenomena. While practitioners of other disciplines might very well study migratory patterns of male professional athletes, anthropology’s focus on detailed qualitative information, supplemented by more quantitative and less personalized materials, highlights the way in which agents embed large-scale dynamics in the conduct of the quotidian. Notable characteristics of classical anthropological ethnography are its eclecticism, opportunity-driven nature, and qualitative-interpretive approach, all of which are central to the project.

The researchers conduct in-depth fieldwork in each set of locations, for a total of 20 months per sub-project. Anthropologists’ engagement with people and contexts is long-term and open-ended, and anthropologists aim for both an in-depth understanding of the experience of a few informants and a more casual engagement with larger numbers of people, the latter providing a context for the former. Each researcher is equally interested in successful and not-so-successful athletic careers, and in the different perspectives that they provide.

In each of the locations in which they are conducting fieldwork, the junior and senior researchers observe and participate in the day-to-day lives and social activities of athletes, families and other relations, and elicit life histories. In professional contexts, they attend training sessions, games and professional meetings, during which they pay attention to such matters as athletes’ interactions with teammates, coaches, specialists, agents and managers. They are attentive to the implications of the fact that some of the other agents with whom the migrant athletes interact may themselves be children of immigrants, a situation of potentially complex implications. They observe and elicit reactions to differences in playing styles and different ways of controlling and disciplining the body and its functions (e.g., eating, resting, exercising, stretching, etc.). They analyse the way in which physiologies and movements of bodies are evaluated and potentially stereotyped, in the placement of players in particular positions on the playing field, for example.

The three sports differ in terms of the importance they give to body-type and skill differentiations, with rugby allowing the greatest amount of variation, specificities whose implications the research are attentive to. In everyday situations, the researchers observe athletes’ interactions with family members, acquaintances and members of the public, paying particular attention to gendered bodily practices and the moment-by-moment politics of interactions. They accompany athletes and their families to migrant communities’ celebrations and religious gatherings. In the case of athletes with families, they shadow parents attending to their children’s schooling and families interacting with state, corporate, and other institutions, such as immigration authorities. Researchers develop an analysis of the general conditions of life in each of the fieldwork sites, patterns of reciprocities and other forms of obligation (to social organizations, structures of patronage, religious institutions, neighbourhoods, villages), as well as state and local politics. They quantify and evaluate the monetary remittances that migrant athletes provide, but also pay close attention to the (non-material) social and cultural capital that flows among the athletes, their families and their communities of origin. They seek out the opportunity to travel back to the athletes’ country of origin with the athletes themselves, as these visits bring out in particularly dramatic fashion the human aspects of migration dynamics and the “social remittances” that migrants bring back with them.

In communities of origin, researchers focus on families, friends, former colleagues, brokers and other people involved in structures of reciprocity and indebtedness with the migrant athletes. Researchers pay particular attention to young people who aspire to migrate, in sports schools where they exist, and to those who have tried but not succeeded, having been sent back by immigration authorities, failed the expectations of recruiters or been conned by traffickers. Of particular importance is an examination of the role that migrations play in the general life repertoires of people and the range of migratory possibilities. Athletes’ movements must be considered as one instance of broader migratory patterns extant in particular societies in competition, for example, with the recruitment efforts by European and American military forces of foreign personnel into their lower ranks, which target the same pool as athletic recruitment and foreground masculinity in similar ways. Hopes to migrate to lucrative sports employment co-exist with other forms of hope of varying concrete or utopian qualities, such as the prosperity theology of some forms of Pentecostal Christianity or the millennial status that the United States’ “Green Card lottery” has acquired in West Africa. In short, the fieldwork aims for the holism that makes good ethnography so rich.

Participant observation is supplemented by open-ended semi-structured and unstructured interviews, conducted in the languages of interviewees insofar as possible, with athletes and those who surround them, control them and depend on them. Interviews are recorded and transcribed, and subjected to detailed discourse analysis. Researchers are attentive to representations of migrant athletes in the media, both verbal and pictorial, which they subject to fine-grained analysis. Additional public responses are elicited through the collection of anonymous questionnaires and through focus groups in the host countries. The research is supplemented by the collection of as wide a variety of relevant documents as possible, both public and private, including media representations, programmes, letters and e-mail messages, contracts and other legal documents (if obtainable), and all sorts of ephemeral documentation. Researchers complement their ethnographic work with research in the archives of national, international and (if possible) corporate bodies.

Finally, the researchers conduct research in the archives of the relevant regional, national and international sports boards. This work aims to historicize the ethnographic materials by focusing on the boards’ history of regulations, relationships with national bodies and other relevant entities, organization of international events, rulings on conflicts, and interactions with the public. If possible, the researchers consult materials archived by corporate bodies such as teams, coaches, and owning corporations, although it is also clear that access to these documents may be jealously guarded. Researchers examine ephemeral public materials in all fieldwork locations such as newspaper reports, television programmes, radio commentaries, Internet blogs, as well as any other published or unpublished material relevant to migrant athletes, and evaluate the reception of these media messages. These are supplemented, insofar as possible, with an examination and discussion with the athletes of personal documents, such as immigration documents, employment contracts, and if possible accompany the athletes as they deal with authorities and employers.

Theoretical Significance

The project seeks to open up new perspectives on how masculinity operates in both the Global South and the Global North as a source of problems and possibilities, a way out of poverty and a fragile resource, and a vehicle of engagement among large-scale structures, individual agents, and the large numbers of people who invest their hopes in the latter. The project is particularly concerned with issues of scale: How do the minutiae of day-to-day existence (e.g., bodies, emotions, relationships, decisions) articulate with large-scale structures (e.g., the corporate world, the state, the global condition)?

Masculinity, migrant subjectivity, and hope

Sports migrations are unusual in that they potentially challenge the stereotypes of the underclass migrating from the developing world to eke out a living in the industrial world on the edge of legality. When successful, migrant athletes earn comparatively high incomes that contrast with their often-humble origins. Success, however, is disproportionately less common than the hope of success. The project explores the way in which hope articulates with masculinity in the ways in which athletes and aspiring athletes deal with the successes and struggles that are constitutive of their lives.

The politics of hope associated with male athletes’ circulation has a number of theoretically significant characteristics: it is profoundly gendered and age-marked, being located in young men’s performance within a social field suffused with gender; it is grounded in the very physicality of the body, which in professional sports becomes coterminous with labour, identity and life itself; and it is fuelled by the possibility of recognition on an “even field” in former colonial metropoles. Of course, hope rubs shoulders with failure and disappointment. Even when they achieve success, athletes remain blue-collar workers with limited control of their movements, comportments and statements. Sports careers are short and migrant athletes are often faced with serious dilemmas of location and occupation at the end of contracts and careers, as they find themselves stranded in contexts where local hospitality is highly conditional. The migration of athletes can easily jeopardize family structures and other forms of social relations. These pressures are all too vividly reflected in the preponderance of “burn out” among sports professionals in general and migrant athletes in particular, who have a high incidence of substance abuse and suicide, are often victims of fraud, and for whom retirement translates into a quick fall into oblivion. To come to grips with these dynamics, the project seeks to shift our social scientific focus from traditional questions of identity to questions of subjectivity, i.e., consciousness, feelings, desires, anxieties, and intentions, which both reflect a larger social and historical order and inform the day-to-day lives of agents and those around them. In social scientific approaches to migration, this represents a decisive theoretical shift.

Migrant team-sport athletes distinguish themselves from better-documented migrant categories by being almost exclusively men, and men whose employment depends on their ability to foreground particular forms of masculinity. The research advances our understanding of the relationship among gender, hope, and globalization in two ways: by exploring ways in which both gender and hope are the products of global processes such as capitalism, migration, and commodification; and by exploring ways in which global processes are gendered and generative of a politics of hope. While the relationship between gender and the global has been the focus of valuable critical scrutiny among feminist scholars, the focus has commonly been on the way in which women, rather than men, are constructed by and engage with large-scale processes. This project does not simply propose to offer a corrective, but also to investigate the theoretical implications for our understanding of the workings of gender of powerful male bodies being commodified through labour practices and sometimes objectified, in ways that evoke the contradictions of Orientalism, for both their erotic potentials and savage otherness. The exploration of the interconnection among global movement, relatively high-prestige employability, hope for this employability, and gender informs questions of import across many social scientific concerns.

The masculine body as micro–macro fulcrum

In the social sciences, the body has long figured as a fulcrum between the personal and the structural. It is through movements, facial expressions, postures, decorations, inscriptions, hygienic practices and clothing that we orient ourselves vis-à-vis the world. Since everyday existence is lived through the body, it serves to reinforce this orientation, acting as a mnemonic device that constantly reminds agents how structures are organized, or resist it. This project seeks to take this insight into a new dimension. By exploring ways in which the body, masculinity, national identity, and corporate identity intersect in the practice of global sports, the researchers investigate how agents engage, through their body, with not only a local social order but also global processes. The project focuses on how we can conduct an ethnography of the global through an anthropological understanding of bodily practices, thus reversing common approaches to the global that begin with large-scale processes and seek to understand how they provide a context in which agents negotiate their actions. Here we are concerned with the production of the global through the body, a perspective that anthropology’s ethnographic methods make possible and for which the discipline can act as a source of inspiration for other disciplinary traditions.

Anthropologists and other social scientists have long insisted on the mutually interactive effect of global and local processes. This insistence, however, has generally not been followed by a search for generalizations about how global and global processes interact. Our foregrounding of the gendered body as a site where this interaction takes place, in the particular instantiation of globalization that we explore, provides a blueprint for further work on the question. It provides much needed grounding to theories of globalization fruitfully pioneered in the works of anthropologists, sociologists and cultural critics, which are invariably thought-provoking in their programmatic appeals for greater attention to global processes, but are generally based on breezy allusions to large-scale processes (at play in “Tehran, Berlin, and Tokyo”) rather than a solid understanding of the on-the-ground specificities of how the global works in and through the lives of people.

Nationalism, belonging and citizenship

Gender plays a very important, if often unacknowledged, role in nationalism: Nations have a gender relative to other nations and notions of gender-in-the-nation permeate all levels of social interaction, from international relations to the minutiae of everyday life. Nowhere is the intertwining of masculinity with nationalism, as well as sub-national localism, rendered more visible than in sports: from the convergence of extreme forms of masculinity, nationalism and xenophobia in football hooliganism; to the embodiment of militant nationalism in hyper-masculinized practices; to martial sporting events in the service of the nation; and to efforts to promote amateur sports as an integrative mechanism to defuse “problematic” minorities’ politicization, primarily associated with youthful masculinity.

The configuration of professional sports in late capitalism poses two thorny questions for our understanding of the linkage among masculinity, nationalism, localism and sports. One is posed by the recent transformation of local teams into products owned by corporations and people who often have no particular attachment to local contexts, to be consumed transnationally, their ties to their country or city of origin having become only a minor aspect of this consumption. The second question is the contradiction embedded in the fact that, across the sports spectrum and the world, teams are now staffed by large numbers of migrants (or the offspring of migrants), yet the fact that they symbolize a deeply local masculinized identity continues to be central to their marketing. This is inscribed most straightforwardly in fans’ identification with local teams, but also in claims that the “style” of playing particular sports and the way of presenting oneself to the mediatized world embody a national identity.

Both questions have important implications for our understanding of the relationships among nationalism and localism, masculinity and belonging in the contemporary world, which are rarely tackled in sustained fashion. We seek to pose them from the perspectives of migrant team-sport athletes, liminal figures expected to embody the pride of localities, communities, and states, entities which at the same time are not necessarily benign to them. Addressing these questions enable the researchers to tackle ongoing questions about the relationship between masculinity, agency, unanchored capital, the global condition, the nation and the state.


This project makes the most of anthropology’s signature ability to find analytic connections among seemingly disparate themes (e.g., gender, hope, the body, sport, migration, citizenship) and to demonstrate that easily dismissed and trivialized socio-cultural forms like sport in fact constitute, to borrow Émile Durkheim’s celebrated phrase, “the serious life.” The project invokes themes at the junctures of sociology, economics, political science, social psychology, history, migration studies, gender studies, and philosophy, providing the opportunity to contribute to these other disciplines the unique perspective that one derives from working on an unusual subject from a broad theoretical base.