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The GTActivity project: a view from across the Atlantic

As an international researcher on the GTActivity project, my location in the United Kingdom allows a distinct perspective on the physical cultural activities of minority ethnic communities in Toronto and its environs. Alongside my interest in the cultures, practices and spaces of sport and leisure in the city per se, my geographical and analytical distance from the research site makes thinking about comparisons with places with which I am more familiar irresistible. What might we expect to find if a similar project was undertaken, say, in London? Or in smaller urban hubs of migration and multiculture, like the cities of Birmingham or Leicester in the English Midlands, where I lived some years ago? Moreover, what happens in “new/er” spaces of multiculture, such as the countryside or the coast? I am sure that much would be the same and much would be different. Thinking through these sorts of comparative questions is fundamental to a relational sociology that is attentive to context, time and scale. In short, my curiosity is driven by a concern to map and explore the “larger picture” of physical activity in the Greater Toronto Area yet to retain a focus on the distinctiveness of place, thus ‘guard[ing] against the provincialism of the particular, while paying local circumstances careful attention’ (Back and Keith 2014: 20).

A particularly interesting question relating to the GTActivity project is: what are – or might be – the connections between the activities undertaken in Toronto – and the people doing them – with those in various other global cities? This has been something I have contemplated a lot over recent years, ever since my first visit to Toronto in 2013. Travelling through Heathrow airport on that journey, I noticed how many of the people working in the terminal were from the large South Asian communities living in the surrounding parts of west London – areas and families represented famously in the sports film Bend it Like Beckham. Having spent over 15 years undertaking research in/with South Asian communities, my sociological imagination is always attuned to observing and analysing their experiences. Arriving in Toronto, as I moved through immigration and baggage reclaim at Pearson International, I was, again, interested to find significant numbers of South Asians represented in elements of the airport’s workforce. I thought immediately about transatlantic comparisons, but also about connections: how are London and Toronto networked through these communities – and, indeed, triangulated with locations in the Indian subcontinent (and elsewhere) – as fluid places embedded in processes and structures of diaspora and transnationalism.

So, what of physical culture? Of course, in the recreational, informal and/or non-competitive contexts in which many of the activities covered in the GTActivity project take place, participation in a traditional sense is undertaken within specific local structures, spaces and imaginaries. But physical culture may also be consumed, discussed and watched on a regional, national and/or global basis, via forms of social media and satellite television. As I have noted with colleagues Stan Thangaraj and Rajinder Dudrah, we need to think about how context and localised experiences of physical culture give shape to broader forms of diasporic meaning (Burdsey et al 2013). This encourages us to consider what physical culture in Toronto’s minority ethnic communities shares with similar groups elsewhere; how it differs; and how its organisation, practice and meaning can transcend the boundaries of city, province or state.

In a similar vein, another important issue to consider is the extent to which the forms of physical culture uncovered in this project reinforce or blur ethnic demarcations. While a wealth of literature has documented how sport and leisure often act as significant symbols of identity, community, tradition and cultural resistance for distinct ethno-cultural groups, research now shows increasingly the interactions and solidarities that can occur across boundaries as well. Migration scholars have noted intercultural ‘communities of practice’ (Phillips et al 2014: 44) or ‘domains of commonality’ (Glick Schiller and Çağlar 2016: 18) that emerge across ethno-cultural collectivities, with people from varied backgrounds joining together in social groupings and ‘successfully coalesc[ing] and collaborat[ing] around local neighbourhood issues of mutual concern’ (Phillips et al 2014: 46). The potential of physical culture here is manifest. Sport’s backstory of being used for top-down, imposed integration policies has at times been problematic, and underpinned by power relations that reflect dominant hierarchies and reproduce the racial status quo. But that should not blind us to the possibilities that physical activity might offer, in terms of engendering convivial relations, intercultural interaction and social justice across a range of communities in multicultural cities such as Toronto.

References

Back, L. & Keith, M. (2014) ‘Reflections: writing cities’ in Jones, H. & Jackson, E. (eds.) Stories of Cosmopolitan Belonging: Emotion and Location Abingdon: Routledge.

Burdsey, D., Thangaraj, S. & Dudrah, R. (2013) ‘Playing through time and space: sport and South Asian diasporas’, South Asian Popular Culture, 11, 3: 211-18.

Glick Schiller, N. & Çağlar, A. (2016) ‘Displacement, emplacement and migrant newcomers: rethinking urban sociabilities within multiscalar power’, Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power, 23, 1: 17-34.

Phillips, D., Athwal, B., Robinson, D. & Harrison, M. (2014) ‘Towards intercultural engagement: building shared visions of neighbourhood and community in an era of new migration’, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 40, 1: 42-59.

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