Boxing Culture and Serious Leisure among North-American Youth: An Embodied Ethnography

By Ribeiro, Nuno F. | The Qualitative Report, June 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

Boxing Culture and Serious Leisure among North-American Youth: An Embodied Ethnography


Ribeiro, Nuno F., The Qualitative Report


In this paper, I discuss how I followed in the footsteps of Loic Wacquant (2004) and took a closer and personal look at boxing as a leisure activity, from the point of view of those who participate in it, using embodied ethnography as the means of research. I was curious as to how and/or if leisure theory relates and applies to boxing, given the latter's peculiar characteristics, which seem to equate it more with "work" than with "leisure." I sought to answer a basic question, "Why do you box?" within these theoretical and methodological frameworks, and discovered that, while Robert Stebbins' casual/serious leisure dichotomy applied to boxing, the reality was far more complex than I had anticipated. The ethos of boxing did not fit neatly into any theoretical classifications, and the participant nature of the research allowed for a more nuanced analysis of boxing culture, with surprising results. Implications for leisure theory and directions for future research are discussed. Keywords: Boxing, Embodied Ethnography, Culture, Behavior, Casual Leisure, Serious Leisure

In 1983, the editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association argued that "boxing should be banned from civilized countries" (Lundberg, 1983, p. 250), with another author in the same issue (Van Allen, 1983) calling boxing a "deadly degrading sport" (p. 250). Three years later, in Las Vegas, Nevada, Michael Gerard "Mike" Tyson, the "baddest man on the planet," defeated Trevor Berbick by TKO in the second round, conquering the WBC Heavyweight Championship, and becoming the youngest (aged 20 years and 4 months) heavyweight champion in history. By doing so, Mike Tyson also reignited the American public's interest in boxing, lost since the great days of Joe Louis, "Sugar" Ray Robinson, and Muhammad Ali (Oates, 1987). Since then, appeals to ban boxing have continued (Lundberg, 1984, 1986, 2005) and these, combined with the meteoric popularity of other combat sports (Gentry, 2005), such as jiu-jitsu and mixed martial arts (MMA) as well as a host of other factors, have contributed to the decreased popularity of boxing both as a sport and as a leisure activity (Anasi, 2002).

Existing academic research on boxing has concentrated almost exclusively on the (negative) clinical effects of boxing as a physical activity (e.g., Jordan et al., 1997; McCrory, 2007; Mendez, 1995). Although there is a wealth of popular literature on boxing (e.g., Liebling, 1956; Oates, 1987; Toole, 2000) and "how-to" manuals (e.g., Frazier & Dettloff, 2005; Halbert, 2003), sociological and anthropological studies focusing on boxing are less common (e.g., Anasi, 2002; Coates, 1999; Sekules, 2000; Sheard, 1997; Wacquant, 2004; Weinberg & Arond, 1952). The latter invariably fall into one of two categories: those done from an etic (1), or outsider's perspective (e.g., Hargreaves, 1997; Sheard, 1997; Weinberg & Arond, 1952), or those studies which acknowledge that an emic, or insider's perspective is best suited to study boxing (e.g., Anasi, 2002; Wacquant, 2004). The emic approach has been championed in particular by Loic Wacquant (e.g., 2004), whose boxing (auto)ethnography in the black suburbs of Chicago, Body & Soul, has received much praise (2) (e.g., Krueger & SaintOnge, 2005; Stoller, 2005).

Regardless of their epistemological stance, boxing scholars have mostly focused on three distinct areas of research: a) the social and economic conditions that are thought to be both the demiurge and the milieu of boxing, and the subsequent impact of boxing on the individuals who engage in it and on society as a whole (e.g., Sheard, 1997; Sugden, 1987; Wacquant, 1995, 2004); b) issues of gender, masculinities, and feminism and their relation to boxing (e.g., Hargreaves, 1997; McNaughton, 2012; Nash, 2015; Wacquant, 1992; Woodward, 2004); and c) phenomenological accounts of boxing as an extremely demanding physical and mental activity and, as such, worthy of research (e. …

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