Sport as a Means of Responding to Social Problems : Rationales of Government, Welfare and Social Change

Abstract: Sport has been increasingly recognized in social policy as a means of steering social change and as a method for responding to diverse social problems. The present study examines how rationales of social change are formed through ‘sport as a means of responding to social problems’. Four research questions are posed: (1) How is it that sport can be thought of and articulated as a means of responding to social problems? (2) How are sport practices assumed to operate as a means of responding to social problems? (3) How are social problems represented when sport is promoted as a means of response? (4) What conduct, subjectivity and citizen competences are shaped within this regime of practice? The study focuses on the government of subjects’ conduct, the formation of community and delineation of domains subjected to social change. The gradual shifts in the governmental rationality of the Swedish welfare state provide a framework for the study. Two kinds of empirical material are investigated. Initially, scientific knowledge is analysed; after this, a sport-based intervention, conducted in cooperation between a social entrepreneur, municipality and local sport clubs, is examined. In relation to scientific discourse, research on sport for social objectives would benefit from more theoretically driven constructionist perspectives related to welfare state transformations. In scientific discourse, rationales of social change in sport are conceived of as individual attainment of skills, competences and powers that are presumably transferable to other social spheres. Such discourse represents problems as individual problems. With respect to the sport-based intervention, individual change is promoted by representatives of the social entrepreneur in terms of providing subjects with motivational powers, which are shaped by role models and applied in “choosing the right track”. By representing problems as risks, avoidance is formed as an individual opportunity. This positions subjects as being responsible for their own welfare and inclusion. Municipal policy makers view the intervention as a way to form community and social cohesion in response to tensions in society. They present sport (and the social entrepreneur) as a way to mobilize and activate civil society – which is associated with the potency of voluntarism, authentic leadership and personal relations based on common identity. Consequently, responsibility for responding to social problems is spread and elements of de-professionalized social work are imposed. To conclude, sport is conceptualized as a means of responding to social problems because sport practices are associated with individual agency and with an active civil society and moral community. The technologies and rationality of social change point out ‘the self’, ‘the community’ and ‘the place’ as locations where social change is possible, rather than the whole of society. For instance, the technologies of social change are based on activation and responsibilization of ‘the self’ and of ‘the community’. These rationales of social change are based on a critique of welfarist governmentality and of the idea of governing from ‘the social’ point of view. Arguably, such discourse obscures more profound social reform. The study provides some empirical explorations illustrating how a range of tendencies and mutations in the governmental rationality of the welfare state and of social work are  manifested in ‘sport as a means of responding to social problems’.

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