cultural contestation

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class struggle

Karl Marx (1818—1883) revolutionary and thinker


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The process whereby values and meanings of social actions are disputed, rather than merely accepted, often referring to aspects of class struggle. Karl Marx said nothing about sport or its relationship with social class, but neo-Marxists have explored the nature and histories of class dynamics and ideological struggles. E. P. Thompson's (1968) historical interpretation of the making of the English working class describes how sport and leisure were often sites for class struggle, as the social forces that pioneered the development of capitalism emerged, and sought to shape the ideological and cultural production of the new age. The establishment of capitalism and the inexorable rise of an industrial and commercial bourgeoisie demanded a disciplined and reliable labour force. A priority for the new ruling class was the reformation of the working rhythms of those whose experience of labour was based in past rural rhythms and seasonal cycles. Necessarily, the non-work habits of the masses formed part of the equation of reform, for what people did in their spare time had implications for how they related to the process of production. Thompson showed how an emergent bourgeoisie in England used its influence, both in government and within the church, to carry out a legal and moral crusade against the recreational habits of the lower orders. He also explained that new labour habits were established though the imposition of time-discipline; a division of labour; the supervision of labour through the use of fines, money incentives, and bells and clocks; the words of preachers and teachers; and the suppression of fairs and sports (Thompson, 1967). The incipient working class did not willingly surrender long-established customs and leisure practices. Such reforms succeeded only through processes of resistance and struggle between classes and class fractions. For example, Delves's (1981) study of the decline of folk football in the English city of Derby illustrated how new cross-class alliances—the emergence of newly dominant class fractions with common interests in commerce, change, and reform—accounted for the demise of the traditional form of folk football, and the rise of horse racing—a more regulated, enclosed, civilized, and profitable form of sport. See also resistance.


Delves, A. (1981) ‘Popular recreation and social conflict in Derby, 1800–1850’, in E. Yeo and S. Yeo (eds), Popular Culture and Class Conflict, 1590–1914: Explorations in the History of Labour and Leisure, Sussex: The Harvester Press, pp. 89–127;Thompson, E. P. (1967) ‘Time, Work Discipline and Industrial Capitalism’, Past and Present, 38: 56–97;Thompson, E. P. (1968) The Making of the English Working Class, Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin.

Subjects: Sport and Leisure.

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