Friday, April 17, 2009

Sports are McDonaldized Cultivation

Annette Lareau, in Unequal Childhoods, compares the child rearing style of middle class and working class parents. She found that working class parents tend to make sure their kids are fed, clothed, housed, and made to go to school. After that, they can choose what to do. Lareau calls this the "natural growth" method of child rearing. Middle class parents, by contrast, tend to get their kids into all kinds of organized activities to develop each child's talents. Lareau calls this "concerted cultivation."

Centre College students are overwhelmingly the product of concerted cultivation. Indeed, the whole elite college track is driven by kids who try to do very well at a wide range of formal activities, and the parents who pay, drive, comfort, and push them through all those activities.

Of all the types of concerted cultivation, sports were the most common among my students. In part this reflects what the kids are interested in, and what the parents are interested in. Sports are also pursued because they are the easiest to arrange. The standard sports are already understood and organized in most places. The infrastructure is there. Moreover, sports teams are an efficient way to get kids in a structured activity that will develop their talents. Sports produce highly calculable results to tell exactly how well your talent cultivation is going. Sports have predictable seasons, schedules, rules, outcomes, and progressions. And sports allow you to control the risks you face through safety technology, and control the time you spend through a dozen forms of clocking.

These four elements - efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control through technology - are the four marks of what George Ritzer calls "McDonaldization." They are the tools through which a formerly disorganized and organic activity - in this case, physical play - can be rationalized. Rationalization is the master principle of modernity, says Max Weber. It is a core idea of sociology.

Sports are the most McDonaldized form of concerted cultivation.


Jon said...

I agree - makes sense. However, I'd say that the "McDonaldized" adjective carries a negative connotation in society (at least among folks would would use the term). Youth sports, on the other hand, carry a fairly positive one (except on the hypercompetitive AAU circuit and things like that).

People might not like the idea that supporting and encouraging youth sports is akin to supporting and encouraging Mcdonaldization in other areas.

Is this to say that Mcdonaldization should be a value-free term in and of itself?

Gruntled said...

There are pros and cons to McDonalds. There are pros and cons to McDonaldized institutions. I think the connotational nuance is about right.

Kerri said...

I think that you could say the same, to a lesser extent just because it's more variable between institutions, about most school-sponsored extracurriculars. I spent my hours in the band room or on the parking lot marking time. . . and I think that helped my mom class-leap into the "concerted cultivation" wagon.

Gruntled said...

Agreed. Schools help all kids and their parents meet middle-class standards, in a standard way. If you want to learn the harpsichord, drag race, deep-sea dive, etc. you need to find your own, less routinized resources.