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The Olympic Games

Asked by agreen | Sep 10, 2008 | KS1 Level > Sociology > Homework
agreen asks:

I can't figure out where to start w/ my essay. Analyze the Olympics w/ these 3 perspectives: structural-functional, socila conflict, and symbolic-interaction?

etutor answers:

This is a very strange question. It is not really clear to what aspect(s) of the Olympic Games these sociological schools of thought are to be applied!

A sociological perspective is a way of focusing upon particular issues or types of question. The key distinction is made normally between the positivist (macro) and the interpretivist (micro) approaches. The former looks at systems, structures and institutions, viewing behaviour as largely the product of forces outside our control. It values precision in measurement, and specialises in questionnaires, statistical analysis, standardised tests and structured interviews. The latter focuses upon the interpretation of the world by individuals, and argues that sociologists must be able to identify with this view in order to understand an individual’s actions. Hence the stress is upon the influence of interaction with others (and thus with different subjective realities), and on how people manage social institutions, There is recognition of subjectivity in analysis, which often specialises in participant observation and open-ended interviews and discussions.

Within the macro framework there are ‘consensus’ (functionalist and some Marxist) approaches, and social conflict (some Marxist, Weberian and feminist theories) approaches. The interactionist approach is an example of the micro framework.

The functionalist approach starts from the view that society is a living organism, and so institutions must be studied not in isolation but in terms to their contribution to the wider society and to functions within that society. Sociologists such as Durkheim, Parsons and Merton argue that consensus and order are central to a stable society, and tend therefore to focus on economic, political and kinship sub-systems, as well as on the integrating community and cultural organisations which reinforce values and traditions, and which act as agents of socialisation. The benefit of this approach is that it enables societies to be compared and contrasted. The drawback is that in practice it is not really value-free and objective, since functionalists tend to have a conservative bias, and assume that individuals have little free will. Functionalists would probably place emphasis on the community aspect of the games, with their long tradition (in the modern world) dating back to 1896, and of course their antecedent in the original Games at Olympia. They would endorse the modern founder's notion of the Games as the coming together of a family of nations, all of which endorse key principles such as fair play and sporting excellence. Hence the integrating nature of the Games, bringing together a diversity of nations and competitors, with the heavy symbolism of the five rings on the Olympic flag.

Marxist theory is, in the main, based upon the idea that institutions (especially the family, school and the workplace) socialise individuals to conform to society’s norms; it has this is common with functionalism. The key difference comes in the critique made of these agents of socialisation, which are seen as reinforcing elite rule, and thus unequal power and subordination. Often the emphasis is upon the conflict between the ruling class and ordinary people, and on the means through which such conflicts are resolved, or are perceived not to exist, or are even justified. This provides a useful contrast to the functionalist approach, in that it demonstrates that the same social phenomena can be interpreted in radically different ways, with Marxists placing great stress on inequalities in society as the principal way in which order is in practice maintained. Such conflict theorists would tend to emphasise the unhealthy nature of much of the competition at the Olympics - and the fact that the larger nations have access to a much greater range of preparatory facilities and thus finance. Conflict theorists would tend to stress the inherent nationalistic element of the Games, with the playing of national anthems of the winners and the medal league tables. At its extreme, the conflict position might be the Games are a charade, and simply the object of political focus - hence all the allegations about cheating and drug taking that surface all the time. The bidding process for the holding of the games is also seen as highly political, setting city against city, and nation against nation, and with accusations of bribery and corruption being endemic in the selection process.

Feminism (of which there are several varieties) looks at the particular disadvantages (seen as oppression and exploitation) faced by women as a result of the patriarchal nature of society, and can therefore be seen as a strand of conflict theory. The benefit of feminism is that it has heightened awareness of gender roles in society, and especially within the family, and in education and in the workplace. The different versions of feminism all have in common a bias towards the need for social change. It is difficult to see an obvious feminist perspective on the Games, since to the best of my knowledge there are separate events in most sports for men and women provided. Moreover, there is no prize money awarded as such, and so it cannot be argued that women receive less than men for winning. They are however, often regarded as an easy vehicle for sex among athletes in the Olympic village.

Interactionism (or phenomenonogy) reflects a liberal philosophy, and focuses upon individual actors, seeing them as conscious beings, capable of shaping their environment. So we act out various roles, selecting words, gestures, behaviour and strategies that are appropriate for each social situation with which we are confronted. The social world is this a pattern of identity networks, which explains the differing ways in which an individual behaves in different social situations. It is wrong to label people as ‘deviants’, since this presupposes a value consensus – and ‘deviant’ behaviour may be quite normal within certain groups; it could thus be misinterpreted by an observer who is unaware of the group’s own norms. Becker argues that the sociologists must identify with one of the parties in any interaction being studied. The benefit of this approach is that it questions the assumption about the existence of objectivity in sociology, and reveals the danger of falling back too heavily on the received wisdom of the ‘giants’ such as Durkheim, Weber and Marx to explain all aspects of modern behaviour. It has contributed a great deal of value to debates about the deprived, powerless, and poor in society, as well as about criminal behaviour and the status of ethnic minorities. The interactionist view of the Games would probably focus on the fact that each competitor derives his or her own interpretation of their significance. All are competing on behalf of their countries, yet many also have distinctively personal agendas, such as recovery from injury, the need to defeat a particular fellow competitor, the sponsorship available to victors, and so on. Some competitors have given the Games a distinctive political flavour - such as American 'Black Power' athletes in the past. And of course the huge show put on by Beijing this year could be seen in several contexts - principally a determination to outstrip the efforts of all previous Games venues, or else an advertisement that China has come of age, or even an exercise in deviance ('we do it our way', regardless of precedents and traditions).

I hope this is helpful.

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