fredag 15 februari 2013

On the sportification of professional practices

I collected material (interviews) about programming competitions in general and the ACM International Collegiate Programming Competition (ICPC) in particular a year or more ago. At that time, I wrote two blog posts about competitive programming and programming competitions and both blog posts are among my top-ten most-read blog posts (out of the 150+ I have written in the 30-month long history of this blog).

This blog post is the very first about actual results of that study. I have been working with a Ph.D. student at the KTH Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment, Daniel Svensson. He started his Ph.D. studies relatively recently and the topic of his research is the sportification of cross-country skiing with a focus on "rational" (scientific) training methods and practices. His question is: how did skiing go from being part of everyday blue-collar forestry practices to something that you compete in? And how did the skiing itself become a practice colonized by scientists and taken into the laboratories?

Earlier this week we submitted an abstract to the 18th annual Congress of the European College of Sport Science (ECSS). The conference will be held at the end of June in Barcelona and I hope that my co-author will be able to go there and present our paper - should it be accepted. Here is our abstract:

"Being a good sport? On the sportification of professional practices." 

Theories of sportification have shown that modern sports tend to develop along similar patterns, albeit from very different starting points (Guttmann 2004, Yttergren 1996, Yttergren 2012). It is also clear that scientifically based, rational training methods have been an important factor in sportification processes of many sports (Heggie 2011, Hoberman 1992). We argue that modern sports can be traced back to a variety of practices, including professional practices (skiing), cultural-historical practices (fencing), public health practices/concerns (athletics) etc. In this paper we are primarily interested in traditional sports that can trace their origins back to professional (working-class, blue-collar) practices, such as skiing, skating and cycling. 

Today, an increasing number of competitions are organized in areas that are strongly connected to professional practices, but far outside of what the majority of people would consider to be sports. These professional practices are not  linked to the physical, working-class blue-collar professions of yesteryear, but rather to modern intellectual (upper) middle-class white-collar professions, as embodied and expressed through programming competitions (ACM International Collegiate Programming Competition, ICPC), engineering competitions (European BEST Engineering Competition, EBEC), legal competitions (Business Law Challenge) and innovation/business plan competitions (Venture Cup). We here refer to these as “white-collar competitions”.

In this paper, we explore both similarities and differences between traditional (blue-collar) and modern (white-collar) competitions. Our material primarily consists of examples from the sportification processes of 1) cross-country skiing and 2) competitive (team) programming. A significant difference between these two kinds of practices is that skiing is based on working-class forestry practices and even older practices of wintertime personal transportation, while the entrants to white-collar competitions typically are university students, bent on high-flying careers in their respective fields. We conclude the paper by using theories of sportification to critically examine white-collar competitions, as well as to ask what these competitions in their turn tell us about sportification processes.

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