Quest for Excitement is a collection of essays, penned mainly by editors Norbert Elias and Eric Dunning, that attempt to fill what they consider a void in modern sociology: the study of sport. In the preface, Dunning outlines the aim of the collection, which is essentially to study sport under the framework of Elias’ famous “civilizing process.” Grossly oversimplified, this theory posits that standards on concepts such as violence transformed in the post-medieval era and had restrictions placed on them that were enforced by social pressures that encouraged self-restraint, pressures that grew as social interdependency chains developed across larger segments society. Elias and Dunning see sport as paradigmatic of this “civilizing process” in society.
The authors, particularly Elias, tend to be repetitive both within and across the essays, making an examination of the major themes, rather than each individual essay, a better method of review. In the introduction Elias outlines two of his major theories, the first of which concerns his explanation for the emergence of modern sport in Britain. His conceptualization posits that non- (or less) violent sport emerges in the country at a time when societal cycles of violence were calming and the upper-class Tories and Whigs became pacified. The weakening of the monarch and the strength of the parliamentary system allowed for open dissension, and thus the parties could oppose one another without the use of physical violence.As time passed, these groups became more secure as they realized that they were unlikely to be ousted from their position through violent means. This permitted the development of a social system where violence was eschewed rather than encouraged, and Elias argues that this process was mirrored in the “civilizing” of sport during this era.
Elias’ second theme concerns the function of sport in modern life. The author argues that in a civilized society, social survival depends on self-restraint in the realms of emotion, which leads to personal tension as one attempts to control their impulses. Sport is a counter-measure designed to create and release particular types of tension that mimic real life ones. In the essays, he expands upon this idea and suggests that in order to engage with the particular types of tensions necessary for catharsis, games must be “balanced” (neither too one-sided nor so evenly matched that they often lead to stalemate) and that the survival (and popularity) of sports is based upon their ability to achieve this status.
Several other significant concerns emerge in this collection. The authors take issue with the tendency of sociologists to dichotomize “work” and “leisure” with the implication that the latter is less valuable to being human. They argue that a more accurate contrast is “occupational work” versus “spare time”, with the latter being divided into five not mutually exclusive categories, including “leisure”, that provide a better framework for understanding the importance of what individuals do outside of the type of work needed to survive in modern society. They later expand upon this framework further by formulating a “spare time spectrum”. The authors also explore the social context of sport in the past by examining its violent nature in both classical Greece and medieval Britain.
Finally, Elias and Dunning address the growing violence surrounding sports, particularly in its manifestation as hooliganism, as a challenge to the “civilizing process” model. They demonstrate that Britain as a whole moved from a system of segmental bonding, where society is divided into competing units that promote violence in a feedback loop, to functional bonding, wherein chains of interdependency work to stymie violent behavior. After examining, and discarding, other explanations, Elias and Dunning describe hooligans as being trapped in a segmental bonding structure within the larger society of functional bonding. Among these individuals, norms of masculinity and toughness differ from those of the society at large, and thus their violent actions “are subjected to restraint from the outside but not […] from within”. This violence occasionally spreads outside of their communities and is particularly attracted to football matches, which, as markers of urban identity, allow the working class to more vigorously assert their own distinctiveness. This phenomenon becomes more prominent after the 1966 World Cup, when a combination of international attention and profit-driven media sensationalism of the issue encourages more hooligans to attend and drives away higher-class individuals. Thus, although hooliganism has risen since the 1960s, society as a whole is not becoming “de-civilized”; less-advantaged segments of it are simply reacting more strongly to the changes.
Both the individual essays, and the collection as a whole, have a tendency to be meandering, repetitive and disorganized, and it seems as if more effort could have gone into revising the essays, some of which repeat earlier analyses almost verbatim. From a methodological perspective, the analysis is heavily Eurocentric, while poststructuralists and feminists alike will certainly take issue with the arguably inchoate concluding chapter concerning “Sport as a Male Preserve”. None of this, however, should discourage one from picking up Quest for Excitement, because it provides an excellent overview of the otherwise scattered studies that make up the preliminary attempts to examine sport in a serious, concerted, sociological context. Overall, the ideas presented in this volume are important to any scholar of modern sport, and should be studied as one of the earliest attempts to earn widespread legitimacy for the study of sport in an academic context.