A new Time of Tribes: Capital and Emotion Dynamics in Sport

 

This article was published on PETRIe,  on May 3rd, 2017. You can read the original here.


The fact that human beings are social animals has led researchers to dig deeper into this behaviour that seems embedded within our nature. Although it has been a while since human herds walked the earth in search of shelter and resources, our need to feel part of something bigger than ourselves hasn’t changed much. Scholars and critics have coined the concept of neo-tribalism to explain our tendency to form “tribes” in our modern life: we tend to go back to the tribe we know, in times of economic or political uncertainty. Unfortunately, this is not exclusively a theoretical stance, as many agents in society become interested in the mechanisms of human association because, if used correctly, this can be quite profitable in a world moved by capital.

The fact that human beings are social animals has led researchers to dig deeper into this behaviour that seems embedded within our nature. Although it has been a while since human herds walked the earth in search of shelter and resources, our need to feel part of something bigger than ourselves hasn’t changed much. Scholars and critics have coined the concept of neo-tribalism to explain our tendency to form “tribes” in our modern life: we tend to go back to the tribe we know, in times of economic or political uncertainty. Unfortunately, this is not exclusively a theoretical stance, as many agents in society become interested in the mechanisms of human association because, if used correctly, this can be quite profitable in a world moved by capital.

French sociologist Michel Maffesoli believes that humans have evolved to become a tribal society. We are naturally programmed to create small social networks. He postulates that our tribes are sustained by the emotional bonds and communal ethics originated within them. It is fair to say, then, that if one aims at encouraging people to behave in a certain way, one should think from the point of view of the tribe. Indeed, capitalism knows well. Sports are a good illustration of this: it is in the world of sports that we most clearly see communities fuelled by emotions being turned into money factories.

The creation of tribes within the field of sports can be easily explained, as Prof. Robert Madrigal notes, by looking at the phenomenon of BIRG (Basking in Reflected Glory). BIRGing is defined as the result of high levels of social esteem produced by our association with successful others. In the world of sports, this can be translated by the use of equipment or apparel that automatically relates us to that successful group. Studies have examined the way our communities, our tribes, shape our consumption choices. In one of his essays, Brendan Richardson concludes that football aficionados are influenced by their fandom to purchase in a certain way. This creates and moves cultural capital. Sports, therefore, are one of the preferred guinea pigs for marketing.

Fitness has been reshaped by the blossom of a new trend: CrossFit. This rather rough version of weightlifting and gymnastics that aims at pushing anyone’s physique to the limits has become quite popular in recent years. One possible explanation for this is the atmosphere of camaraderie and inclusiveness created within it. As a result, CrossFit has become a source of cultural capital out of which many want to make a profit. Indeed, the fashion industry has shown some interest in the members of this tribe, and well-known brands are working their magic to make you feel part of this club. Just when the apparel for runners was getting out of hand, retailers are now putting the spotlight on CrossFitters. In case you wonder: it’s expensive!

Tanks, t-shirts, hoodies, sweatshirts – all specifically designed to make you feel part of the CrossFit tribe. There’s no guarantee that you are going to get better at lifting, though. However, there’s something in becoming part of this group of successful people that we cannot resist. It is the emotional bond forged within CrossFit that gets us high. We are addicted to these dynamics, and brands want you to have your credit card ready in time for your next dose.

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