Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

Anyone for Tennis? Sport, Class and Status in New Zealand

Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

Anyone for Tennis? Sport, Class and Status in New Zealand

Article excerpt


This article explores how sport, frequently seen as the foremost meritocracy in New Zealand, is a site that can produce and reproduce social class-based distinctions. Specifically, we explore how participation in youth sport is connected with the consolidation of social class boundaries, expectations and 'tastes' by means of an ethnographic case study of Oakwood Tennis Club. Data was collected through participant-observation, and interviews with coaches, children and parents. Drawing upon Bourdieu (1978, 1984), we show that tennis at Oakwood fits with expressions of an aspirational middle class habitus centred upon social presentation, advancement and status. Parents and coaches at the club who valued the 'concerted cultivation' of youngsters into middle class lifestyles police these habitus codes. Thus, social class considerations are significant in influencing whether and how children play tennis and their experiences while participating.

It's hard to think of anything quite as un-Kiwi as our British-based titular honours arrangements. For a country that has discovered its identity on the back of an egalitarian vision, deliberately and unashamedly distancing itself from class and rank, the awards seem . . . [inappropriate] . . . Nowhere has this seemed more apparent than in sport. (Richard Boock, Sunday Star Times (Auckland), 7th September, 2009, p.1)

In the above attack on the knighthood 'honours' system as 'un-kiwi', journalist Richard Boock, reinforces the idea of sport as a paragon of egalitarianism and reasserts longstanding myths of Aotearoa as a land of social equality. In this paper we question the frequently aired idea of sport as the most meritocratic of institutions. We argue that sports cultures are far from level-playing-fields and in fact operate in significant ways to create and sustain class-based inequity. In the piecemeal literature on sport in New Zealand, social class has largely been overlooked with analysis instead focussing largely on gender and 'race'. We first historically contextualise the dynamics of social class in Aotearoa New Zealand. We follow with a short discussion of research surrounding social class and sport, and youth sport in particular. We also discuss the work of Pierre Bourdieu in this section. Bourdieu's work underpins the subsequent analysis, which draws upon an ethnographic study of a youth tennis club - Oakwood - to explore the intersections of social class and youth sport.

New Zealand Sport, Class and Social-Status

The prevailing belief that New Zealand society is classless and egalitarian is deeply rooted in colonial circumstance and constructions of white settler - Pakeha - defined national consciousness. As Simon During (1998) notes, settler (national) identity has long sought to reconcile competing claims between British ethno-cultural roots, and the desire for national distinctiveness and legitimacy. That was, the idea of a 'better Britain' gave rise to representations of an absence of class difference, affluence and equality in contrast to a divisive British class hierarchy. These deep-rooted aspects of the national imagination have endured a host of transitions since the neo-liberal turn in the 1980s and the reformulation of the economy, and structures and patterns of employment and trade (see Kelsey 1997). Such transitions complicated the long-standing nature of the dividing lines of class stratification. Furthermore, New Zealand's economy, based on the primary sector of goods production and export (e.g. dairy industry), Bowden (2008) suggests, generates modes and concentrations of employment that are unique to the country. For example, farmers and other forms of self employed tradespeople represent major occupational groups. Thrupp (2001) highlights how these factions vary widely in terms of their resources and class background. Therefore, they do not easily reinforce any particular class stratification (Thrupp, 2001). The second difficulty arises when defining the class make up of the service industry, which has increased significantly due to the limited labour market of the production sector (Bowden, 2008). …

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