carnegieXchange: School of Sport

Some Reflections on a Digital Sociological Turn to Sport Sociology

Different academics propose that the ubiquity of digital devices, and most specifically social media platforms in our daily lives, has had a profound impact on the way we understand and experience culture and society.
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For instance, as I showed in a previous post we might understand Twitter as embodying the characteristics of a new pub where sport fans come to congregate, meet and exchange ideas. Also, social media allows for a distinct scalable sociality (Miller et al., 2016), where those platforms provide the necessary conditions for humans to attain previously unimagined ambitions.

But this ubiquity has had also unintended consequences for the craft of sociologists. For instance, Marres (2017) refers to at least three interrelated digital aspects of sociology: the context of research (i.e., online communities); the methods of research (i.e., netnography or social network analysis); and the platforms for engaging with the public and wider audience (i.e., blogs).

At the same time, what would those three interrelated aspects mean for a digital sociological approach to the sociology of sport?

First, the omnipresence of the digital, and more specifically social, media has the power to alter the spaces where sports are not only consumed but also practiced. As I argued previously (see Petersen-Wagner, 2017) we can understand those digital spaces as places in Marc Augé’s (1995) terms as: a locality (‘real’ or ‘virtual’) where individuals can create, re-create, and enact their identities, and also meet others who share similar passions. Thus, the digital becomes one of the constitutive places where sport cultures materialise themselves. Alongside this, we can embrace other more heterodox forms of sport such as eSports (see Muriel and Crawford, 2018). In a forthcoming edited collection by Stefan Lawrence and Garry Crawford (due in 2018) the intersects between sport, fandom, and the digital are discussed extensively.

Second, the digital ‘turn’ in the social sciences requires distinct methods and tools for approaching those novel contexts. For instance, Kozinets (2015) has developed the netnographic method where the more orthodox ethnographic approach is adapted to the unprecedented social digitalized contexts we are facing. During my PhD (see Petersen-Wagner, 2015) I used Kozinets’ (2015) method over  an 18-month period to follow Liverpool FC supporters in two different Facebook communities. One of the available tools for researching these distinct contexts derives from Bernhard Rieder’s Netvizz (Rieder, 2013), extracting (scrap and crawl) information from Facebook open groups and pages. An example of the use of the tool can be seen in the image below, where I have crawled the Page Like Network (with a depth of 2) for the official Le Tour de France page. This means that, departing from this source, the tool would crawl (extract) all pages the source likes, plus all the pages that those ones like. With the use of open-source software, Gephi, it is possible to create the visualisation below showing different ‘communities’ forming as with the Pink Cycling Community and the Orange French Media Community.


Third, the digital sociological ‘turn’ to sport sociology requires public engagement with the wider audience. This can happen through other communication means - apart from conferences and journal articles - as with Twitter profiles, YouTube channels, and blogs. Besides that, I believe that this public engagement - to be relevant - needs to be interesting to all parties involved in the conversation. For me, that relevance relates to being current. Look at the Google Trends figure (below); it shows how conversations shift constantly by focusing on the ongoing competitions and tournaments. In a sense, for sport sociologists to clearly engage with the wider audience they need to behave more akin to journalists by following the hot topics to become commentators of the quotidian.


In summary, today’s digital ‘turn’ while providing novel contexts, methods and tools for research, proposes new challenges to the sociology of sport. To maintain the relevance of our findings requires not only investigating novel contexts, and/or embracing more heterodox forms of sport. We also need to consider updating methods and tools to collect and analyse data. Above all though we need to engage in a true conversation with the wider audience, which poses the question of how to keep up with the hot topics? How do we avoid becoming too generalist without a profound knowledge of one or two sporting cultures? How do we resist releasing half-baked analysis? How are high academic standards upheld while pursuing those hot topics?

Dr Renan Petersen-Wagner

Senior Lecturer / Carnegie School Of Sport

Renan is a Senior Lecturer in Sport Business and Marketing, Course Leader for MSc Strategic Sport Marketing, and Researcher in The Research Centre for Social Justice in Sport and Society.

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