CFP: Centering play – sport, social change and stability

Recent social-science scholarship has shown how the hyper-commercialization of sport has instilled an ethic of individual responsibility among athletes, encouraging them to instrumentalise interpersonal relationships and engage in maximising their “bodily capital”. Thus, sporting subjects are often understood to be engaged in self-improvement and strategic networking to enhance their athletic and career potentials. Meanwhile, sporting corporations and international bodies engage in strategic investment of financial, material and social resources to maximise their profits and competitive success respectively. Contemporary literature on high-level sport thus tends to focus on the rigor, discipline and regimentation of athletes’ training and daily life  (Wacquant 2000; Besnier, Brownell 2012; Besnier, Brownell, Carter 2017; Guinness 2018). However, seeing athletes only as self-disciplining entrepreneurs-of-the-self risks missing the moments of creative experimentation that sports afford. We contend that play and fun have become obscured by this recent attention to performance outcomes, entrepreneurialism and the commercialization of bodies. 

We seek ethnographically grounded contributions that explore moments when enjoyment is put before or alongside athletic development or competitive gain; when rules and conventions are bent and broken without a strategic profit in mind; and when pleasure or fun supplants “winning” and competitive ranking as the main aim of sporting practice. Following Malaby (2009) we identify the adaptation of conventions and rules in these moments as a “playful disposition” toward sport. We ask how sport affords such playful dispositions and moments, and what their effects might be within and beyond sporting contexts.

Such playful dispositions and improvised games may be fleeting or ephemeral, as sports participants re-engage logics of profit maximization. Nevertheless, they challenge us to ask: 

  • To what extent do playful dispositions and practices generate space for critique and/or new forms of sporting sociality and subjectivity?
  • How are experiences of fun and play implicated in reproducing extant inequalities, hierarchies and harms embedded in sport (e.g. abuse in training programmes and exploitative labour relations)?
  • To what extent do playful dispositions in sport contribute to imagining and producing context-specific ideas of a “good life” (Robbins 2013)?
  • How does parody in sport shape social change and reproduction?

Conversely, we might reverse our analytic emphasis on play and ask:

  • To what extent do sporting contexts understood to be characterised by “play” – e.g. amateur sports, children’s games, or spaces that deliberately avoid ranking and arbitration  – become suffused with ideas and practices of maximisation? 
  • What are the social and political effects of values, attitudes and emotions of “maximisation” in spaces understood to be normatively play-ful?

Papers will form part of a proposal for a special issue, for submission to a leading international anthropological journal. 

Interested authors should please submit a title and abstract of max 300 words to by 29/6/23, accompanied by a brief note on the author (100 word max).


Besnier N., Brownell S., 2012, “Sport, Modernity and the Body”, Annual Review of Anthropology, 41: 443-59.

Besnier, N., Brownell, S., Carter T. F., 2017, The Anthropology of Sport: Bodies, Borders, Biopolitics, University of California Press, Oakland, CA.

Guinness D., 2018, “Corporal destinies: Faith, ethno-nationalism, and raw talent in Fijian professional rugby aspirations”, HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 8 (1-2): 314-328.  

Malaby T., 2009, “Anthropology and Play: The Contours of Playful Experience”, New literary History, 40 (1): 205-18. 

Robbins J., 2014, “Beyond the Suffering Subject: Toward an Anthropology of the Good”, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, (N. S.) 19: 447-462. 

Wacquant L., 2000, Corps et âme: carnets ethnographiques d’un apprenti boxeur, Editions Agone, Marseille. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.