chapter  2
12 Pages

Theorising the analysis of sport policy

ByBarrie Houlihan

At its worst, theory obscures and confuses, often due to multiple definitions, cryptic application and an approach to theorising that values complexity over parsimony: at its best, theory guides research, constructively challenges research findings and helps to make sense of social phenomena. Whether one’s engagement with theory has been positive or negative, it is not possible to investigate and make sense of the sport policy process without theorising. Theory may be broadly defined as general statements that describe and explain the relationship between variables: such statements are often concerned to identify causes and effects arising from the relationship. Examples of such relationships would include that between age or gender and levels of sport participation, or the relationship between particular sports and the generation of personal social capital. The criteria for determining ‘good’ theory vary according to one’s ontological and epistemological assumptions. For those researching from within a positivist paradigm a good theory is generally one that: allows for categorisation; enables explanation of relationships between variables; facilitates prediction; and generates testable, ideally falsifiable, hypotheses. One example would be the application of rational (or public) choice theory (Niskanen, 1971) to government sport agencies (such as the Australian Institute of Sport, UK Anti-Doping and the Irish Sports Council), which would suggest that the members of these organisations would be more concerned with the pursuit of their rational self-interest (e.g. larger organisational budgets and staffing which give greater opportunity for personal benefit) than with the pursuit of public policy objectives. A second example would be the testing of Robert Michels’ ‘iron law of oligarchy’ (Michels, 1911; Tolbert and Hiatt, 2009) in relation to the development of national governing bodies (NGBs) or international federations. The ‘law’ suggests that as organisations grow in membership the greater organisational complexity results in a concentration of power in the hands of a small leadership group. Those working within an interpretivist paradigm are more likely to see theory as emerging from the analysis of data, that is, an inductive process often referred to as ‘grounded theory’. Here the concern is less with predicting the course of future events than in explaining social complexity. Analyses of the way in which social discourse shapes perceptions of gender and of the body and, by implication, public policy are illustrative of this type of theorising (Markula

and Pringle, 2006). A good theory for the interpretivist is one that explains a case satisfactorily and a good theorist is one who is sensitive in his/her ‘reading’ of data such that s/he is able to identify important variables in the explanation of the case. Critical realists operate in territory between the two previous paradigms. On the one hand they accept the possibility of causal explanations (e.g. the causal relationship between social class and patterns of sport participation) while also accepting that we cannot see the world as it really is and thus need to employ theory ‘as a sensitising device to reveal the structured reality beneath the surface’ (Hay, 2002, p. 122). For Danermark et al. (2002), ‘good’ critical realist methodology moves through a number of stages that begin and end in the more concrete. The stages of analysis move through: description of the focal event or situation; identifying key aspects of the event/situation; abduction/drawing inferences; development of potential explanatory theories; resolution between theories and data.1