Together on the Field, United off of it? Defining, Mapping and Understanding Sport for Social Cohesion Programmes in Europe

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Social inequalities, changing demographic profiles, ageing populations, and the structural transformation of economies have posed significant challenges to numerous European communities. Recognising these converging trends and the need for holistic development approaches, policymakers, governments, and community programmes have increasingly shifted their attention towards supporting and developing social cohesion. Sport, in particular, has been increasingly called upon to play a role in achieving social cohesion objectives. Due to its popular appeal, relatively low cost, and interactive nature, sport is understood as a potential vehicle to foster social cohesion and contribute to broader social development. Indeed, within the burgeoning sport for development (SFD) area, social cohesion is recognised as a core thematic focus within research and programmes alike.
Despite the growing recognition and support for social cohesion activities, there remain significant debates and gaps in sport and beyond. Specifically, there are important gaps between our theoretical understandings of social cohesion and actual practice in sport for social cohesion. This gap manifests itself in three ways. First, even with the multitude of definitions for social cohesion, these definitions do not necessarily reflect the needs, expectations or understanding of practitioners and participants in different contexts. Numerous researchers suggest that there is a disconnect between formal definitions of social cohesion and how the concept is understood by community members, programme managers or programme participants. Second, we have limited knowledge about the organisations delivering programmes and the approaches within those programmes. Though the field of sport for development is becoming better understood and mapped, the full range and number of organisations delivering sport and social cohesion activities remain unknown, and there is limited information concerning practices employed in the field. Finally, though increasing resources are being invested in sport and social cohesion programming, there is a lack of evidence regarding the impact of these programmes, and the process through which these programmes generate social cohesion remains poorly understood.
Against this background, the following doctoral dissertation seeks to build on the current knowledge and relevance of social cohesion and sport. Specifically, it aims to contribute to the gaps and debates outlined above by engaging in a multi-method study of literature and qualitative research within programmes across Europe. In particular, document analysis, surveys, fieldwork and interviews are used to generate data and analysis is conducted through a variety of more critical or constructive qualitative techniques.
From this, we find that programmes in Europe adopt a fairly consistent view of social cohesion, with specific focus given to dimensions of social relations, common good, sense of identity and acceptance of diversity. To support these dimensions, programmes engage in a number of common practices, including regular sport activities, mixed group activities, civic participation, life skill development and participatory approaches. However, within these practices, there is a distinct focus on individual-level interventions and specific marginalised sub-groups. This individual-level focus on marginalised groups reinforces notions that these groups are primarily responsible for their condition and “invisibilises” the responsibility of people or institutions in positions of privilege while also helping mask structural inequalities. Thus, to conclude, this dissertation proposes ways forward for programmes, policy and research to support mor
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationKöln
PublisherDeutsche Sporthochschule Köln
Number of pages75
Publication statusPublished - 23.06.2023


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