a journal - cycling, sociology, social media

Sunday 11 December 2016

My research and the violence I witnessed.

I did my research in the north east of England and it's my attempt to explain (theoretically) how the social world of ‘racing’ cyclists in that area is governed in terms of rules, rituals and conventions. My research is based on over 400 hours of observations of ‘racing’ cyclists in training, captured in field notes. I also collected over 2000 photographs, all taken with my phone which revealed details that even my most comprehensive field notes couldn't capture. I also conducted 149 email interviews with ‘racing’ cyclists of all levels of participation.

                  My training ride from yesterday - I am still observing, still taking pictures and still at the back trying to hang on!

Soon after I started my research I realised that this was a social world that was rapidly changing due to the influence of new technologies (GPS devices) and social media (more on this in future posts). So... much to the delight of Mrs Rees not only could I then spend hours everyday riding my bike, followed by significant time sitting in cafes drinking coffee talking to cyclists about cycling. I could also justify whiling away endless hours looking at cyclist interactions on social media - all in the name of research of course.

Some blog readers may recognise and relate to what I describe from their own experiences, others almost certainly will not, or may disagree with my findings. This is to be expected, as my research provides just one explanation for the behaviours that I have observed in one particular location (I will write a post on the validity and reliability of my research findings in a later blog). I fully accept that other theories and explanations could be equally valuable. 

Symbolic domination and symbolic violence

The pressure to conform in any social situation is what symbolic domination and symbolic violence relates to. The concepts explain why people behave the way that they do when they want to 'fit in' to any social group.

The concept of symbolic domination is central to the work of Pierre Bourdieu (PB-Wiki) and the result of symbolic domination he refers to as symbolic violence. In Bourdieu’s view, struggles for symbolic domination are features of almost every social setting. I am talking here about a form of violence, which is not physical, but is violence nonetheless, which is exercised on others with their complicity Those who suffer symbolic violence are willing, invested and interested participants in a process that harms them - because they want to 'fit in'.

It is used by dominant group members to set ‘the rules of the game’ and maintain social order often via unspoken means. The origins of symbolic violence is the misrecognition that the arbitrary taste preferences of some individuals are superior to those of others. Individuals with ‘insider knowledge’ of the prevailing taste distinctions, are able to accumulate power in the form of cultural and symbolic capital – see my earlier post here (capital/power)

Before I link these concepts to my research findings let me give an example (not from my research) that many blog readers will be familiar with and will be able to relate to.

Many of you will have come across the Velominati (The Keepers of the Cog) a self-appointed group of cycling ‘experts’ who have compiled a list of ‘rules’ of what (to them) is acceptable and unacceptable in terms of the minute details of conduct and fashion in the social world of racing cyclists. For example:

RULE #8 Saddles, bars and tyres shall be carefully matched.
RULE #27 Shorts and socks should be like goldilocks – not too long – not too short.
RULE #37 The arms of eyewear shall always be placed over the helmet straps. No exceptions. This is for various reasons that may or may not matter, it’s just the way it is.
RULE #40 Tyres are to be mounted with the label centred over the valve stem.
RULE #41 Quick release levers are to be carefully positioned.

Now let’s be clear, we all know that the ‘Rules’ are intended to be ‘tongue in cheek’... don’t we? - nobody takes them seriously - surely? They are a parody of the pedantic attitude taken by some racing cyclists – emphasis on SOME.

What the Velominati do is however, a form of symbolic domination presented in fun and not intended to be taken too seriously and that is exactly how symbolic violence works. Powerful individuals impose their arbitrary taste preferences and view of acceptable conduct on others, who by complying to the ‘Rules’ are victims of symbolic violence. They misrecognise the dictats of the Velominati as being superior and authentic and follow (and quote) the rules imposed on them by others regardless of their repressive nature.
Symbolic violence is a much more insidious and powerful force than mere influence. The effect of domination arises as a result of a form of hidden persuasion  which the most powerful can exert simply because it is misrecognised as the way of the social world ‘just the way things are’ – SEE Rule#37

Rule #40 centre the label over the valve stem - that's the most important thing. Glue your tubulars on carefully is quite a good rule too  (Picture by my good friend Steve Craig)

Examples from my research (all names have been changed)
I am influenced by what other riders are wearing as there is an undercurrent of what is appropriate and what isn’t (Joe a self-described fitness cyclist who races email interview response)

The undercurrent Joe describes is symbolic domination caused by the misrecognition that the taste preferences of the most powerful are superior and the most appropriate. To be influenced by these taste preferences makes him a victim of symbolic violence.

There is a lot of pure snobbery and low level school boy bullying stuff as only certain brands and styles of clothing are accepted so it appears as though there is a ‘uniform’ whereby a rider must have the correct clothing to be accepted. (Simon, a self-described fitness cyclist who races email interview response)
The ‘pure snobbery’ and ‘school boy bullying’ experienced by Simon is symbolic domination and by conforming to 'fit in' and be accepted he is also the victim of symbolic violence.

Chatting with Ron in the Café discussing what it was like to be a newcomer in the social world of racing cyclists. Ron commented that he felt inferior when he first came out and how he felt intimidated and was anxious to impress and not do anything wrong. ‘Nobody tells you what to wear, but they tell you what not to!’ (Field note extract from café conversation September 2015)

Ron has been dominated and made to feel inferior because of his taste preferences. By being anxious to impress Ron is another victim of symbolic violence and is complicit in the system that harms him. He feels that it is in his best interests to act in ways that give credence to the process of domination which disadvantages him.

What I have described is not unique to cycling you can witness it in other sport settings, anywhere that there is a social hierarchy. If ever you get fed up of cycling (as if anybody would?) take up golf and join a club. Before long you will be on the fairways with your new Callaway clubs and strolling around the club house in your Ping sweater, fitting right in by following the un-written 'rules of the game' - and you will be another victim of symbolic violence. 


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