Tennis championships as complex responsive processes of stability and change

The Wimbledon grand slam tennis event is a very good example for helping us to think about how we would account for the complex stable instability of social life.[1] It is an event where the dynamic regularities of British social life are reproduced and potentially transformed year after year and where we have an opportunity to reflect upon the interconnectedness of individual and group behaviour. We recognise and might look forward to the event year on year, and partly because there are always differences and novelty. We are reassured by the annual improvisation on traditional themes. The recognisable patterns of tradition and the familiar arise because of a multitude of fluctuating, responsive social relationships dependent on the co-operation between very long chains of interdependent people. Meanwhile the event is predicated on competition and the disciplined channelling of intense emotional and physical drives.

The playing and watching of tennis depends upon what Norbert Elias would understand as highly civilised, or regulated behaviour. Just to reiterate, Elias is not attaching a particular value judgement to the idea of being civilised or otherwise, but is simply noticing that social regulation and self-regulation coincide to produce the high degree of co-ordination that is required for very large numbers of highly interdependent people to co-operate together. The very fact of holding such a complex event depends upon vast networks of mutually supporting transport, catering and other interconnected systems to get everyone on the right place at the right time, and to herd large numbers of people through the gates of the championship, which takes place at a specific time and place every year.

 The event is what the pragmatist philosopher GH Mead would call a social object, a generalised tendency of large numbers of people to act in a particular way, who are then capable of inducting other, newer people in what is expected, although the precise nature of the social object will differ every time. The event comprises newcomers and old timers who find ways of mutually adjusting their behaviour to each other with the potential for transformation and change.

 The game of tennis too is a highly regulated affair for both the players and the audience which demands of both of them great control of affect and of the body. The players respond to each other as habituated, disciplined tennis bodies improvising on the possibilities inherent in the game as it unfolds. The game itself gives testament to Bourdieu’s idea of our being completely absorbed in what we are doing, of being invested in the game (of social life). There is no suggestion that Andy Murray is making rational calculations about how to respond to Djokovic’s 130mph serve – his body is already reacting even as the ball is struck. Broadly both players have a strategy, i.e. to win the game, but each is adapting and responding to the other, point by point, as they test each other’s nerves and reactions. Their ‘strategy’ evolves in relation to each other, as they anticipate each other’s anticipations, and their responses are reasonable in the context of what they have to do, rather than rational. The game has clear rules which enable and constrain the players in developing their creative responses to each other, but they are not slavishly following any rules themselves in response to the responses of their opponent.

 At the same time, and for most of the game, everyone must exercise enormous self-discipline and have discipline imposed on them. The people watching would not often be predisposed in most situations to shouting, clapping and automatically rising in their seats after climactic points, as they themselves get caught up in the game, they find themselves doing all of these things. However, before players begin a point the court has to be virtually silent. Members of the crowd exercise disciplinary power over each other by hushing up those people in the audience who cannot contain themselves and who continue to shout out. The players themselves must regulate their own emotions so as not to become dispirited, and in the men’s game recovering from two sets down is considered a great achievement of character. It shows mettle. The game is overseen by an umpire sitting aloft who judges the game point by point and calls upon line judges standing to attention in uniform who adjudicate whether a ball is a fault or not. Most of the time players demonstrate highly civilised behaviour, acknowledging an assist of the net with a wave of the hand, shaking hands with their opponent whether they have won or lost, shaking hands with the umpire, waving to the crowd and perhaps bowing to royalty.

 In Bourdieu’s terms the whole event is a playing out symbolic capital. It is an elite game, developed by elites and played before elites. The game of social and economic capital is unfolding before our eyes as the great and the good socialise in the royal box. The outgoing governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, bumps into the England manager Roy Hodgson on the stairs. The BBC camera pans across a row of entertainers and sports and personalities to demonstrate the social capital of the event: this, the subtext would read, is how important this event is. In this way social relations are both produced and reproduced.

 Wimbledon itself is a club which differentiates: it has members, mostly on the basis of the ability to pay, and has members’ enclosures where men are obliged to wear jackets and ties and women are required to dress smartly. The ordinary tennis fan, perhaps without a ticket for one of the show courts, group together on a hill overlooking one of the large hills. In the main, the ordinary tennis fan is not of lower class themselves but is what Bourdieu would refer to as a dominated dominant: they  are usually members of the middle classes who may have fewer power chances than the elite but could by no means be considered to be powerless. There are very clear processes of social distinction and inclusion and exclusion at the championship as well as between the event and other sporting events, like football, which is more likely to be followed in the main by less elite groups.  The distinctions and differentiations between one sporting event and another replicate British society more broadly.

From Elias’ perspective an event such as Wimbledon is only possible as a relatively recent development in human socialisation, in the civilising process. It is a highly complex manifestation of social life because it brings together self-control and social control, and the tight co-ordination of very long chains of interdependent people. To understand how such a social feat is only possible if we reconcile the artificial split between the individual and the social, self and society. In Bourdieu’s terms it also demonstrates how regularities of social life are on show, which are based on dominance and inequalities, and by being on show become replicated. Drawing the analogy between the game of tennis and the game of life demonstrates how there is no such thing as a rational, calculating individuals deciding in advance how to participate in advance of participating. We, like the tennis players, are invested in the game, actively pursuing our interests, improvising in more or less expert ways on the rules, the regularities of social life. We are part of some groups and excluded from others. The warp and weft of processes of belonging and not belonging, competition and co-ordination, are what keep social life evolving.

[1] This post draws extensively on a very interesting article by Paule, van Heerikhuizen and Emirbayer comparing the work of Norbert Elias and Pierre Bourdieu.


One thought on “Tennis championships as complex responsive processes of stability and change

  1. Luke

    A very engaging analysis of what people do, quite often without paying attention to our own behaviours, attitudes and actions and how these weave into patterns that define the reality of life. I was also fascinated by how the whole issue of identity came into play during after after the event. Andy Murray was seen through the media and social networks as a point of reference for what it means to be British and while others saw him as yet another illuminating Scot standing shoulder to shoulder with other greats like Sir Alex. He became a symbol of success for whoever we thought he represented. The men’s final became a rallying point for standing by one of our own – not so much about who was playing a better game. Individual and national emotions were built on the history of the competition, appealing to the innermost senses of identity. The PM and the Scottish First Minister stood side by side cheering, lost in the passion of the moment.


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