Sociologist Goes to the Gym… Social Capital Study Ensues

Nick Crossley, (Net)Working Out: Social Capital in a Private Health Club, The British Journal of Sociology, 2008, Vol. 59, Issue 3, pp. 475 – 500.

This article on the development of social networks and social capital at a private gym does not really break new ground in research on the topic but it provides a nice illustration to the idea that “sociology is everywhere” and that pretty much any social setting is fertile ground for the exercise of the sociological imagination. In this article, Crossley focuses in three specific issues:

“(1) The processes by which informal netowrks form in this context and the mechanisms involved; (2) the manner in which such networks serve as a resource for their members; and (3) the ‘dark side’ of this particular form of social capital.” (475)

Crossley’s study combines some participant observation at a private gym (hence the witty title on my part) along with social network analysis (with cool graphic generated using Pajek – don’t click if you’re arachnophobic) with specific attention to the mechanisms of development of social capital.

The starting point of the study Putnam’s now famous deploration of the loss of social capital in contemporary society. Here, using the etablished literature on the subject, Crossley defines social capital as such:

“Social capital refers to the manner in which networks and their emergent properties (e.g. trust and norms) can constitute a resource for their members.”(477)

However, Crossley uses the concept in its mundane meaning (network of mutual support) as conceptualized by Coleman, rather than the elitist version as developed by Bourdieu (as “friends in high places”, resource for reproduction of social inequalities). Crossley specifies that he does so because private health clubs are middle brow, something, which, I think, is questionable, at least in the US.

Further, Crossley uses Coleman’s concept of facilitative functions of social networks (of which social capital is derived). That is, social capital is a property of social relations facilitated by social networks. What kinds of facilitative functions? Especially in the case of a small network of peoplesharing a circuit training class at a private health club.

Crossley’s ethnographic work shows that an essential part of the creation of the social network was the emergence of a collective identity shaped by not just attendance at the circuit training class, but at post-workout activities (sauna, or meals). These post-workout rituals (in the Durkheimian sense) worked to build solidarity among members who began to see themselves as a group. Crossley also identified a path-dependency process: this sense of collective identity increased attendance at the workout sessions (and other activities), therefore reducing the time spent with other friends, and therefore strengthened the gym ties and weakened others.

Back to the facilitative functions of social networking (or as Crossley calls it, social capital in action):

  • Reframing the workout and maximizing physical advantages: social networking increased attendance and motivation by re-defining the workout as fun and time spent with friends.

  • Identity and recognition: members were freer to “self-present” (in the Goffmanian sense) as identity as part of the network was relatively independent from other identities such as work and family. Individuals could then control what other members knew about them and develop a positive identity that received validation at the gym.

  • Counsel(ing): members felt free to discuss problems in a supportive environment.

  • Information: members would bring information external to the gym from diverse sources turning the group into what Crossley calls a “junction box” that facilitating the flow of information between these different sources.

  • Collective action: there was strength in numbers when members brought grievances to the gym management. Members also organized charitable events.

  • Exchange of services based on members’ skills.

At the same time, and the most interesting part of the paper in my view, was a nexamination of the dark side of social networking and the resulting social capital. Networking may involve drawing boundaries that exclude certain people or categories. In this paper, Crossley focuses on the negative side of bonding capital (beneficial for the group, has negative impact on outsiders) as well as bridging capital based on specific network figurations (or network structures). Specifically here, Crossley focuses on two different figurations:

  • Established-outsider figuration
  • Brokerage-closure figuration

Crossley defines the first one as such:

“In an established-outsider figuration, as I define it, a given population of individuals, whose actions are interwoven in at least one context and are thus liable to mutual interference, divide roughly into a group who are relatively well-bonded and who mutually benefit from their interconnectedness (the established), and a remaining mass of isolates, dyads, and triads who do not coalesce as a group (outsiders). Outsiders neither enjoy the social capital of the established nor generate their own, since they do not form a group. Moreover, they find themselves subject to negative externalities deriving from interference by the established.”(490-1)

In Crossley’s study, the consequences of this figuration were visible through the established having more licence to behave in ways that subverted the rules of the class in a playful manner, laughing or other manifestations of disregard for the rules of civil inattention. As Crossley notes, the result was a certain sociocentrism where the established just ignored or were indifferent to the outsiders whose class they modified by virtue of their established status. For the outsiders, these playful rule disruptions were perceived negatively as this was a way of unintentionally making them feel, well, on the outside, as not belonging, as not part of the in-group.

Crossley defines the other figuration – brokerage-closure – as such:

“Closed groups are colosed off fom external influences and resources. Brokerage is important because it creates a bridge to such influences and resources. Brokers open a path to wider pools of information, ideas, and resources. And brokers themselves tend to benefit from this both because their control over the resource flow is a source of power and because they are in a position to take credit for ideas and information which they relay from one group to another.”(491)

In Crossley’s group, this generated some moderate conflict as brokers was the issue of divided loyalties to the different groups they bridged. This occured in three different ways:

  1. The participation of brokers to the activities of one group could be seen as a snub on the activities of the other group(s).

  2. Brokers who tried to resolve this divided loyalty issue by inviting members of one group to the activities of the other(s) could be seen as overstepping their status by bringing in strangers without the agreement of the group.

  3. The presence of bridging brokers reinforced in-group identities by making groups defensively and competitively aware of each other.

As I mentioned above, there is really nothing new in this article but there are some interesting aspects, such as the dark side of social capital. Indeed, if outsiders experience negatively the fact of being outsiders in such a non-consequential social context of the gym, what of more significant social settings, such as family or work?

This is an article that is fairly easy to read and without too much jargon, so, it is something that can be used to teach undergraduates about sociological analysis of everyday life and situations.

5 thoughts on “Sociologist Goes to the Gym… Social Capital Study Ensues

  1. Many years ago, a friend suggest that I turn my ethnographic efforts to a study of gyms. I didn’t even belong to a gym at the time, so I didn’t heed her advice. I should have. I’d have more publications. And better abs. How about “Sweat Equity” for a title? (I’ve already used it as the subject line in a blog post, but it’s not as apt as it would be for Crossley’s sort of study.)

    • Next time I’m going grocery shopping at Whole Foods, I’m totally writing an article about it! :-)

      Now I’m starting to wonder about these people who write article about sex clubs (like in the latest issue of The Sociological Quarterly) boasting of the largest sample ever! Hmmm… really? How did that happen? :-P

      As for exercise, I’ve learned to love cardio kickboxing despite my initial misgivings… And pilates gave me abs of steel! ;-)

    • I remember reading an article in Le Nouvel Observateur a few months back about this woman and her account of life as checkout lady at one of France’s major supermarket chain.

      Bottom line: low-paid service work sucks not just because of low salaries but because customers and employers are jerks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>