Sports and social media as sites of embodied identity construction

By Caroline Tagg, Open University 

In June 2016, we discussed data collected in the sports phase of our project at a workshop organised by Zhu Hua at Birkbeck University, London and Janice Thompson from the University of Birmingham. Each city research team presented their data and discussed initial findings and ideas. I am responsible for co-ordinating the collection of social media, and so initially I was disappointed that our participants – a volleyball coach in Birmingham, footballer trainer in Cardiff, basketball player and capoeira practitioner in Leeds, and karate instructor in London – did not seem to be exploiting digital technology to record training sessions and therefore weren’t sharing them on sites like YouTube. However, the more I listened to the presentations, the more I realised there was a different connection to be made between sports and social media: sports communication is not unlike that which takes place online.

Sports, like the internet, create arenas where different cultures can be brought together, both as a sport itself moves and adapts to new places through cultural contact and diasporic movement; and through the culturally diverse groups of people who participate in it, like the volleyball team filmed and interviewed in Birmingham; or the karate class explored in London. As the Birmingham volleyball coach shows in our short film Teamwork in the City, sport involves creating a local team culture from various cultural differences. Similarly, the internet has been hailed as facilitating intercultural communication and understanding in translocal groups that come together around a shared interest.

Sports, like virtual encounters, take place in a co-constructed space in which the rules of normal life are in some ways suspended. This is not, of course, to say that play is unregulated: sports have their own rules and rituals, and the success of a team depends on its players’ cooperation. These rules can be exploited and subverted, as the Leeds team noted of basketball players who would feign passing the ball in a different direction; or capoeira practitioners who would plant a sly kick. Ritual mockery or mock abuse is also sanctioned as a way of enhancing team solidarity, permitted within the boundaries of the sport as a safe place. However, if repetition and ritual in sports serve to reinforce a team’s natural rhythm, then an instance in which a player refuses to co-operate can be seen as arrhythmia, the breakdown of natural rhythms. Time is measured differently in sport and it has its own rhythms, making relevant a particular set of timescales: seasons, training sessions, session activities (stretching, practice drills, games), and micro-moves (serve and return, spike and block), often nested in wider patterns of work and leisure. The rhythm of social media interactions is similarly a research interest, with commentators noting the way in which the internet affords both immediacy and delay, allowing participants to shape the pace of interaction.

Sports, like social media, can provide a sense of identity and belonging to those who otherwise feel out of place, as well as a source of emotional support (as the London KP explained of karate and the Leeds KP of capoeira). Sports also enable people to take on new roles and identities; for example, for the Polish-heritage migrant to London, karate was not a natural choice and went against the grain of his everyday life. People can be themselves within the safe space of the sport, or they can take on new roles, in much the same way as has been noted of online forums or games. This is not to say that existing social roles and conventions are irrelevant, and much of our discussion touched on the issue of gender and the inclusion of girls in sports; as well as exploring the extent to which sports serve to socialise children in particular into something more than sport. The Leeds team found implications for ESOL teaching in the mix of co-operation and competition, ritual and unpredictability that characterise sporting encounters. Researchers similarly now appreciate the growing extent to which social media is embedded into our everyday lives, how online activities are often extensions of offline ones, and how social categories and roles related to age, ethnicity, gender can remain very relevant online.

Finally sports involve richly multi-semiotic communication, with language working in coordination with, and often subservient to, the body, gesture, touch, action, and movement. The ritual and repetition of sport imbues social meaning on actions ranging from low fives to clapping and chanting. In their analysis of children’s football training sessions, the Cardiff team find that, unlike other teaching contexts, action scripts the talk. We have already discussed how the embodied nature of sports communication has pushed our team towards developing new strategies of data collection already discussed in our blog, from video annotation to line drawings and diagrams. Although increasing attention has also been paid to multimodal expression in social media – where the use of image, video, remix, emoji and so on strikes us as new and innovative – in fact both social media and sports serve as striking illustrations of the importance of multimodality to all communication.

Screen Shot 2016-09-03 at 19.31.09Screen Shot 2016-09-03 at 19.31.24

Sketches from the Leeds case study field notes (JC)

Social media has received a lot of attention within language-related research, due on the one hand to its novelty, innovative multimodal practices and its increased centrality in social life; and, on the other, to the ease of accessing and analysing public, written records of interaction. I think it is safe to argue that sports have received much less attention, no doubt in part to the difficulties in accessing data. Our research, however, shows that sports are equally – and similarly – important in understanding human communication and social relations.

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