Academic journal article Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport

Keeping the Body in Play: Pain, Injury, and Socialization in Male Rugby

Academic journal article Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport

Keeping the Body in Play: Pain, Injury, and Socialization in Male Rugby

Article excerpt

This paper discusses participant observation studies of two rugby seasons--one rural high school and one university club--in which one author served as a first aid Wider and student athletic trainer, respectively. Through analysis using triangulation, we explored how the rules, athlete's status, and return-to-play boundary influenced decisions when the athlete was in pain and/or injured. The results varied between the groups, suggesting a need for further research on behavioral patterns of high school and university athletes. This study effectively illustrates how social pressure and an athlete's socialization affect individual responses to pain and/or injury and how both pressure an athlete to learn to physically tolerate increasing amounts of pain.

Key words: embodiment, ethnography, return-to-play, sport


The International Association for the Study of Pain defines pain as an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage" (Loeser & Melzack, 1999, p. 1607); injury is often defined "as a breakdown in the structure of the body, which may affect function" (Howe, 2001, p. 290). Although playing with pain or injury can lead to further harm (cf. Buckwaher, 2003; Malcom, 2006), sport participants often do so. Several researchers (Howe, 2001, 2004b; Hughes & Coakley, 1991; Malcom, 2006, Nixon 1993b) noted that the cultures within many sporting contexts encourage athletes to stay on the field when they suffer minor aches and pains; athletes are often told to "take one for the team" or to "suck it up."

Many questions about playing sports with pain and/or injury have yet to be addressed. For example, an overwhelming majority of studies have focused almost exclusively on elite (collegiate/university or international) levels or professional sport, yet we know sports participants at lower levels (high school, community clubs, recreational leagues) may also be inclined to play while in pain or injured (Malcom, 2006). This study focused on examining nonelite athletes to help fill such gaps in the sociological literature. Initially, our main purpose was to better understand social influences on pain and injury behavior in sport. As the study progressed, in keeping with Shilling's (2003) powerful call for sociologists to seriously consider the "material, biological, and physical dimensions of the body" (p. 172), we also theorized about and observed how social influences might interact with the physical body.

A Social Model of Pain

Skevington and Mason (2004) proposed four levels of analyzing social aspects of pain: Level 1: individual behaviors; Level 2: interpersonal behaviors; Level 3: group and intergroup behavior; and Level 4: higher order factors affecting psychological processing. The latter three levels are consistent with existing sociological literature on pain and injury in sport. Level 2 calls for analyses of interpersonal encounters that encompass social relationships in various social contexts, such as families, friends, teammates, and so on. Level 3 calls for analyzing how culture and group processes influence pain, shared ideas about pain, and coping with pain. Level 4 expands on Level 3, calling for analyses of "high order factors," such as health, culture, history, ideology, and politics.

As far as we know, no single study of pain and injury has attempted to address all four levels to account for the material and biological nature of the body. Sport research has neglected or been unable to provide in-depth accounts of the interactions at the heart of socialization (Malcom, 2006; Roderick, 1998). Furthermore, none of the research so far directly addresses how the physical body may influence the socialization process and associated pain behaviors. Consistent with the challenge posed by Shilling (2003) in his appeal for an embodied sociology, we aimed to promote an embodied understanding of pain and injury, in which pain behavior is not overdetermined by the mind or ideology and "acting people are acting bodies" (p. …

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