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Haenfler to teach “Sport and Identity”

Professor Ross Haenfler, sociology, in his office at Grinnell.

Professor Ross Haenfler, sociology, will teach “Sport and Identity” in fall 2019 in Grinnell-in-London program. The S&B’s Shuhan Yi ’22 [yishuhan] discussed the course and what makes London an ideal site for the topic.

This conversation has been edited for length.

How does sociology intersect with sports?

The nice thing about sociology is that you can put “sociology of” in front of anything. Sociologists often study issues of social hierarchy, inequality, and the relationship between individuals and their social contexts. So, sport as one of the major institutions in societies becomes fertile ground for investigating questions [like] why are people participating in sport or watching sport? A good bit of socialization and social meaning happen around sports.

What inspired you to start the class?

Sport is so meaningful to so many people; it involves our bodies and involves some of our deepest beliefs … For example, I am interested in political sociology, how different groups exercise power and how people in power try to maintain that power. If I use sport to think about politics and power, I can think about how, in the U.S. context, we often have the national anthem played at a sporting event. I can think about the Olympic context, internationally, how patriotism and nationalism are encouraged and how nationalism is tied to sport. I can also think about how politicians use sports metaphors to make points as they are running for office, or they might appear at sporting events in order to gain support. There are just a lot of different ways that sport can be useful, because it’s so popular, so meaningful. 

Why did you choose London as the location for the class?

London [is] such a global city that brings together such a diversity of people, and all are interested in sports, so you can find almost every sport being played in London … London gives us a lot of opportunities to attend different sporting events to see how sports are interwoven into the politics, culture and history of the UK … For example, I am hoping that we’ll be able to talk with some soccer (football) hooligans, the really intense fans, and that’s something you cannot do at Grinnell.

What do you want the students to take away from the class?

All my classes raise critical questions about social inequality, about power and resistance to power. My intention is to show how, in this powerful institution, social equality is created, reproduced and challenged. I want students to have a good understanding of how the systems of power are reproduced and challenged in the sporting world. That’s really the fundamental piece of it … I want the students to take sports seriously as an important social space that can teach us all aspects of life.

How do you see sports interacting with identity here at Grinnell?

I think Grinnell is a bit different from other colleges and universities. For our student athletes, we still emphasize academics. I encounter students for whom sports are a big part of their identity but, because here at [the College] we have a very critical perspective, I think that most of the students that I encounter are able to bring a critical perspective to sports in their identities. 

I think, in some cases, I hear from some student athletes that they still feel a little bit marginalized and looked down upon by other professors and by other students because they are worried about being perceived as not as smart … I love having student athletes in my classes. I think we have a nice balance here and we allow people to cultivate their interests in sports and their identities in sports without having to marginalize their academics. 

Professor Ross Haenfler, sociology, in his office at Grinnell.

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