First, I want to preface this post by saying that I am currently in the master’s degree program in kinesiology at San Francisco State University, with a concentration in “physical activity: social-scientific perspectives.”
I also want to point out that, even being a student, I’ve only been a student of this particular topic since I started the program. My undergraduate degree is in Classical Greek and Roman History. I’ve studied “sociology” very generally. Most of my learning is just beginning. So this blog is a question, not a statement. If it sounds like a statement, it’s because I’m bad at making discussions…I’m working on it! As a question, as a discussion, I’m asking you please to contribute your thoughts and ideas to this post.
My questions were originally these – what is “culture,” and how does it affect participation in physical activity…and, can we effect/affect it (either culture or physical activity)?
“Culture” could be loosely defined as the behaviors and beliefs of a certain group of people, as evidenced through shared values. Or, as shared values of a certain group of people, as evidenced through their behaviors and beliefs.
“Culture” is different from “society.” “Society” is the set of relationships between people, within a group of people. Things like social standing, class, etc., are what constitute “society.”
If we accept those definitions, we have also to accept that the study of social science is not the study of culture. They’re different. Most studies of culture fall under the banner of “cultural anthropology.”
In the learning and reading I’ve done so far with regard to physical activity, a great deal of emphasis is placed on the social-science aspect of this equation – the emphasis is on the relationships between people within the group, and how those dynamics foster or prevent physical activity. For instance, why certain socioeconomic classes, or certain ethnic groups, participate more or less in physical activity than others.
The Built Environment
Things like the “built environment” (the man-made environment) also come into play in social-scientific studies. Largely, I think, because the built environment can be very clearly related to social constructs like economic status, or class. A great number of researchers specialize in the concept of the built environment, and its effect on physical activity.
But I think that something lies much deeper than the built (or any) environment.
Now, I don’t have a lot of research to back me up on this. I’ll work on finding that. But it seems to me that people find a way to participate in physical activity (or not) regardless of their environment.
In Dan Everett’s book “Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes,” he mentions the physical activity levels of the Piraha tribes as being relatively low, but says that they’re the strongest people he’s ever met. Dr. Everett describes an incident in which one Piraha man takes his bundle of wood (to be used to build a new hut) in addition to the one he is already carrying…each bundle weighing roughly 50-80 pounds (if memory serves…I don’t have the book handy).
I’ve read many accounts of indigenous peoples’ physical activity levels being relatively low (“working” 4 hours a day, perhaps, – and at that, not every day – and resting the rest). Granted, their “work” is entirely physical, but it seems like something else is happening here.
In those cultures, the natural environment provides a place for physical activity. But activity levels can be similar in Amish societies, that do not rely on “modern” technology. The Amish environment is significantly different, however. Does the “built environment” matter?
I feel like the “built environment” approach to increasing physical activity is really an approach coming from a “social control” viewpoint. It seems to me to posit that free-will does not exist. That people will make choices based on what they see around them, rather than what they feel inside of them.
The playground for little kids, where all of the moms go in the morning when I’m hosting play-camp in the enormous open (baseball) field (and trees) right next to it, is one example of this.
This playground (and maybe, any playground) is a means of controlling some perceived or implied risk. Mothers get very upset when the children unlatch the gate and run outside of the playground, into the open field.
While the playground has provided a place for socialization for the children and mothers, and does make it “easier” to “watch” the kids (not sure how much watching actually goes on), it is precisely this that I have issue with. The idea is not that the children can’t get exercise in the large open field, playing freely (and probably supervised just as much, or a little less…which might be beneficial anyway). The idea of the playground is that there is some risk in being in the open. Perhaps.
The final example I’d like to give of why I think built environment methods of changing physical activity participation are misguided is that of physical activity taking place in areas where the environment is actually hostile to physical activity.
In one instance of this, I can remember playing ball often in parking lots or streets. And have seen countless pictures of children in Manhattan playing stick-ball in narrow streets or alleys.
In my day, the kids who would go on to create or inspire the creation of the X-Games would go skate and ride bikes in shopping malls and parking lots. Places typically not considered conducive to physical activity.
An even more modern example of this is found in Parkour runners, who specifically look for environments hostile to physical activity in which to “trace” – to create an art through their running, jumping, and tumbling.
The Role of Technology
I think another social-scientific perspective, that merges with a cultural perspective, has to do with the role of technology in limiting (or encouraging) physical activity.
I have to admit that I take issue with the modern use of the word “technology.” A technology is simply a method for getting something done. It may involve the use of tools, or not, but it is systematic and repeated, and gives certain, predictable results (for this reason, Louis Liebenberg called tracking “the origin of science”).
Most folks nowadays use the word “technology” to mean “computer/electronic technology.” That’s a very limited use of the word, and I think it is misleading. Starting a fire with two sticks is also a technology. Some call those “primitive technologies.” Tracking animals is another technology, involving a systematic method for observation and understanding of what you are observing. Narrowing down further still, meditation/yoga/somatics/qi gong/self-awareness are also a “technology.” Each has their own method for acquiring deeper awareness of what is occurring within the body…basically an internal “tracking.”
People rant and rave about the issue of the effect of modern technology on physical activity levels. There are two rants I’d like to address – the industrial (technology) rant, and the entertainment (technology) rant.
The industrial rant goes something like this – industrialization (first, now “computerization”) led to the loss of physical activity in normal labor, which led to people not moving as much, which has led to decreased physical activity (generally) and diseases associated with that decline.
A similar argument says that industrialization has ruined our food supply, and blames the industry of agriculture for the decline in health in human beings.
The entertainment rant is centered largely around electronics, and culturally accepted modes of entertainment. This argument says that the increase in electronic technologies (such as the computer I’m typing on now) has led to a decrease in physical activity. People want to relax, and things like the television, video games, and the internet (via computers), have taken precedence as modes of recreation and relaxation over physical activity.
Both of these rants have something in common, similar to discussions about the built environment. They both imply that human beings cannot make choices about their activities, or about what they do with their time. That is, the industrialization rant implies that people are slaves to the machine. That there is no alternative but to take part in industry as it has come to be, which means sitting for long hours, commuting to work in cars and buses, etc., and not being physically active. The entertainment rant implies that people cannot choose to participate in physical activity due to the presence of more tempting options.
This argument – lack of self-control – is also similar to that made by many diet studies, programs and books. You cannot control what foods are produced, and since that’s what’s largely available, you’ll tend to eat higher-calorie foods, and, combined with your sedentarism, that will lead to overweight and disease.
One of the keys to realizing that all of these rants are related, and that they all may be addressing their respective issues in ways that are not consistent with what is actually happening, is the presence of paradox.
Before we go into the pardoxes, I want to mention here, that this is the crux of what I’m saying – the ways that we’re addressing participation in physical activity are related to (and built from) the very problems leading to a decreases in physical activity – a lack of individual self-control, a lack of the teaching of that in our culture(s), and a continuing insistence on the necessity for policing/control measures.
A paradox is a situation that is contradictory to itself. I, personally, think that paradoxes usually signal that the approach to understanding the situation is the source of the paradox. That is, that nothing is “truly” paradoxical…we just perceive it that way.
From the examples above, industrialization was “supposed to” create more time, freeing up the average person’s day to enjoy leisure (which would include physical activity). But all of that free-time meant that you had more time to be “productive,” to try to “get ahead.” And corporations realized that they could be more “productive” and “get ahead.” So no one ever (except Kellogg‘s) had their employees work fewer hours for the same pay. That’s a paradox. Industrial technology was supposed to be “time saving.” We should have more free time when “time is saved.” But we don’t…we have less. How is that possible?
Similarly, the internet age was “supposed” to bring un-told advances in human freedom and communication. But instead, it brought things like YouTube, MySpace, and Facebook…”time-wasters.” Again, a “time saver” turned into a “time waster.”
The availability of plentiful food was the promise of agriculture. But now some say that agriculture has lead to disease, through its overproduction (and subsequent, “inevitable,” overconsumption) of grain products (not to mention the ill effects of pesticides, genetic modifications, and tilling the soil (it kills all of the microorganisms in the topsoil…)). What was supposed to feed us ended up poisoning us?!
Questions of “Pure Culture”
On the other side, the studies I’ve read that have to do purely with culture, with regard to physical activity or sport often focus on things like racial or religious cultures. Sometimes, those papers also considers smaller, individual cultures, participating in a particular type of physical activity (a certain sport, perhaps).
Those studies were very informative, about a particular culture in a particular place, at a particular time. But they weren’t very generalizable (able to be turned into “rules”), and were never (of the ones I read) generalized (i.e., turned into “rules” of culture and then applied to another culture).
I haven’t been able to find a single research paper or article that focuses on “United States culture” in relation to physical activity. Surely there is a “culture” that is the culture of the United States…right?
But maybe that paper is unnecessary. We can look at things like the recent research on Framingham Heart Study data that showed that we have very similar physical qualities (particularly, diseases) to our friends. That is, we’re much more likely to be a smoker if our friends smoke. I think it’s also true that we’re much more likely to exercise if our friends exercise.
But what is the cause here? Is it that “birds of a feather flock together,” so, because I like to exercise (or smoke) I naturally gravitate to others who share my interests? Or is it that, once I start to hang out with a certain group of people, “peer pressure” leads me to start doing as they do? Or is there a balance, where my set of values must match their set by a certain percentage? If that percentage is high, I stay in the group, if it is low, I leave.
But what about groups or cultures where we all come up together at the same time? My childhood friends, for instance. None of us smoked or drank when we were 5. Yet some of us did when we were 16, and many (if not most) of us eventually went down completely different paths in life by the time we were in our early 20′s. What causes us to stay in one culture and leave another, when we all shared such similar beginnings?
The Fear of the “Individual”
That brings me to my final point. (Thank god, you say…yes, sorry, this is a long one!). I think that there is something deeper than culture (which I think is deeper than society, if you couldn’t tell).
That “thing” is the individual‘s internal “motivation.” Not strictly their “psychology,” but, rather, the full sum of that individual – their personal history, their thoughts and beliefs, their mindset, their resiliency, their physical constitution.
It’s the reason we see kids who couldn’t get a grade above a C in high school become straight-A students in college, or college dropouts start their own businesses and have a high degree of success, or people who’ve never exercised a day in the past ten years get up and start running ultra-marathons.
I think we like to make broad sweeping generalizations (hahaha). It is the aim of science to do so – to “figure out” the “rules.” But lost in that mix is what is really happening. Lost in the averages of many individuals is the single individual.
Not only that, but the other things that are lost when we deny the validity, the existence, and the sanctity, of the individual. We lose concepts like self-control, or self-motivation, self-responsibility, self-actualization. We also lose concepts related to real teaching, real communication, and real equality.
And instead of using our wonderful massive brains to create a technology, or a “science” of the individual, we use it to explain why any single “individual” who stands out from the “average” is a fluke…an exception…
Rather than the rule.