The tragedy of lipservice trans-disciplinarity: writing about sports without having ever been there

By: Marilia Coutinho (@marilia_coutinho) and Eric Brown (@oracleofihop)


A few weeks ago, the two of us were discussing a topic related to fitness management, with implications to marketing and sales: client retention and untapped reserve.

Let’s take a look at the physical structure of most conventional gyms: there is a strip of “cardio machines”, usually closer to the entrance or a window. There is a large area with standing equipment, such as leg-presses, crossovers and all sorts of guided movement machines. They are usually arranged in a gradient from those that are totally guided to totally free form. After that we have the free weights area.

This structure has infinite variations in practice: from the very large facilities with pools, closed rooms for classes such as yoga, separate areas for a crossfit box, “odd objects” area (with sleds, sledgehammers, tires, etc), etc.

The truth is that no matter how varied the environment is, a huge untapped market is lost because it consists of people with severe degrees of motor issues (ranging from lack of motor repertoir, loss of range of motion in major movements, severe strength deficit to actual pathological problems). Such people feel intimidated by the environment and frustrated in their first attempts to face what is extremely hard for them.

Those that stay distribute themselves according to a well defined social interaction order: the free weights area is for the skilled, stronger young men. The cardio machines are for the ladies. The rest distribute themselves within the gradient of skill and strength requirement.

The social distribution of a population in a symbolically heterogeneous space is the object of study of ethnography. If we do a scholarly web search for “gym ethnography”, though, the result is a collection of papers that take the history of ethnography too literally: they treat the gym as a completely exogenous cultural system and the several social groups that “inhabit” this space as entirely different cultures.

While certainly any urban space renders itself to the constitution of self-referenced groups, it is methodologically questionable to deny a high degree of commensurability. With that assumed, any decent study would have to be performed by real participant observers, people who actually share a daily practice with the research subjects.

That is not what we observe. The published studies suggest that most social scientists who devoted themselves to the study of sports or the gym environment have no personal first hand experience in neither. The result is a caricature that, to anyone familiar with either, sounds fictional.

Most of all, it reinforces the widespread belief that most social science research is useless. When we attempted to respond to an actual demand pertaining gym member retention, where ethnography would have come in handy, no systematic study was to be found. The same applies to performance enhancement drugs.

In both cases there is a methodological issue flashing from the published studies: a complete outsider, with all the cultural marks of an outsider, will simply fail to obtain any relevant qualitative data from “insiders”. Young men benching at the free weights area will not stop and give the outsider a exhaustive explanation about why they tend to feel uncomfortable with the presence of practitioners who are unfamiliar with the equipment or too weak to handle it.

Likewise, performance enhancing drug users among elite athletes will not even be able to explain something so obvious to any competitive sportsman: the logic of competition and its core place in the individual’s identity.

Up to now, the best study on athlete’s motivations for performance enhancement drugs remains ” Over The Edge Aware That Drug Testing Is A Sham, Athletes To Rely More Than Ever On Banned Performance Enhancers”, a survey carried out not by social scientists, but by the journalists at Sports Illustrated ( ). This rich survey was badly misinterpreted by the magazine and never actually used as the resource it is on the minds of athletes.

Transdisciplinarity, once more, is nothing more than a promise. Understanding the social dynamics of a training environment or the belief systems of athletes requires true transdisciplinarity, with double or triple background scholars fluent in the languages of sports science, of the social sciences and of the subjects because, they, too, are proficient speakers.


Primary sources:

Bamberger, M. &  Yaeger, D.  Over The Edge Aware That Drug Testing Is A Sham, Athletes To Rely More Than Ever On Banned Performance Enhancers. Sports Illustrated. Originally Posted: April 14, 1997.


Socioeconomic environment, availability of sports facilities, and jogging, swimming and gym use.


The Local Gym: An ethnographic study of gym attendance and its peculiar insights into bodily habitus and emotions.

Sociology Ethnography Field Notes: The Study Of Gym Activity.

“I need you to look at me” : an ethnographic study of a subculture of serious gym members. 

Towards a geography of fitness: an ethnographic case study of the gym in British bodybuilding culture. 

The Social Aspects of Gym Membership Retention

Members: group exercise aids retention rates –

Attendance, Adherence, Drop out and Retention. 

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