Body & Soul
Before I became an "official" sociologist, I was a "casual" sociologist who liked to read sociology of sport books for fun (when you do weird things like this for fun, you know you've found your niche!). The very first book I read was It's All for the Kids: Gender, Family, and Youth Sports by Michael Messner, and while I doubt it would resonate with many people (let alone interest), it was absolutely pivotal for me. It shed light on who I was and opened up a new world of books that would continue to help me understand myself. And heck, look where I am today.
What I was unaware of then was that sociology of sport, as a subfield, may the lowest on the sociology totem pole. While not surprising, it's a little ironic that there's a hierarchy within sociology though, don't you think? Of course, we're (mostly) aware of it.
That being said, Body & Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer by Loic Wacquant might be the one book that has overcome the odds. It is a highly respected sociology book, period. It also happens to be a sociology of sport book. Therefore, I've been wanting to read it for awhile (especially because Wacquant is a professor at Berkeley!), but I hadn't gotten around to it until this summer. Not surprisingly, it had the immediate effect that almost all sports books, movies, and media in general have on me--it made me want to be a boxer. Luckily, however, I've tried this before, and wound up with a broken hand after ten days (I loved those first ten days though!).
The thing that I loved most about this book is that it felt so true to me. It resonated deeply with me as an athlete. I do believe in carnal knowledge, that our body "knows." While "muscle memory" is a misnomer, what the muscles do not know, the brain does. And neural pathways are physical--in essence, the body itself. The West has done a superb job seeing the mind and body as separate, but they are very much connected, and I think academia--and sociology, minimally--would benefit significantly from paying more attention to this. I think this is a truth that athletes may better understand because, while we may not be able to explain how to throw a jab-cross, we know. Furthermore, there may be no other way to truly understand how to throw a jab-cross other than to do it. Therefore, I commend Wacquant for convincing all the sociologists out there of this truth! We should be more aware of carnal sociology and its benefits to research.
This book also resonated with me as an "outsider-athlete." In the last chapter, I was thoroughly convinced of Wacquant's love for his gym--how he realized that he should not have been accepted by the black boxers as a white academic (and Frenchman), but he was. He felt completely accepted by his coach and teammates as one of their own, despite the fact that he was so different. As a girl who played on all-boys' middle school soccer team, I understand how much this means. This is not to say that I never encountered sexism in those years, but I still truly felt accepted by my coach and teammates--and for that, I am forever grateful. There are days that all I want to do is return to that place, to be back on the soccer field, playing as one of the guys.
Of course, a large part of this book is the connection that the boxing gym has to the ghetto in Chicago. His explanation makes sense to me, but it's not something I felt--it's not something I'm familiar with. I wonder, was this the aspect of the book that made it so well-received in sociology? I guess what I'm saying is, we know that sociology of sport is typically less respected in the field, so perhaps the fact that this was very much about race made it easier to accept.
In terms of critique, I find that I am so new to the field that it's hard to see faults--which is why I am incredibly grateful to the person who read this book before me! They questioned some aspects of the book that I overlooked. For example, Wacquant often refers to the women in the book as "girls." Also, Wacquant transcribes conversations in a way that indicates an accent and slang for the black men, but he never indicates that he might have an accent (even though I haven't met him in person, it is likely he does as a Frenchman--and the previous reader indicates as much). Sure, maybe in comparison he does not have an accent and speaks more formal English, but it's still a good observation! (As a side note, this fascination I have with the previous reader of this book reminds me of the research I want to do in sociology around this very topic of the stranger.)
I should also mention that this was just a hands-down well-written story. It was an easy and enjoyable read that should be accessible to non-sociologists. This is something I hope to emulate in my own work--writing that is sociologically significant yet accessible.
This book was a good way to start the summer, and somewhere along the way, I may decide to join a boxing gym and do a similar study through the lens of gender... I'm not sure I'll have the ghetto, per se, but I suppose I'll settle for the patriarchy.