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Making sense of diversity: How the GTActivity research team is creating categories of physical culture

There has been much debate among philosophers, sociologists and historians of sport over how to define what constitutes a “sport” versus a game or physical activity. Traditional definitions of sport usually dictate that a sport must be physical, competitive, institutionalized (i.e., possessing standardized rules and regulatory bodies), and motivated by the attainment of both internal and external rewards.[i]  While this understanding of sport is influential, it creates a very narrow understanding of what constitutes a sport and risks ignoring many other forms of physical activity—such as dances, martial arts, or unstructured play and games—that do not easily fit this idealized definition.

In contrast to this strict definition of sport, sociologists Jay Coakley and Peter Donnelly offer an alternative way of examining various physical activities and their cultural meanings. They suggest that asking “what activities do people in a particular group or society identify as sports?” and “whose sports count the most in a group or society when it comes to obtaining support and resources?” will allow “researchers to dig into the social and cultural contexts in which people form ideas and beliefs about physical activities.”[ii] This approach allows us to examine various forms of physical activities as they are understood and practiced by people in specific cultural contexts around the world, and to recognize that their forms and meanings are not static, but are constantly being shaped and re-shaped by humans.

GTActivity: From “Sport” to “Physical Culture”

Because we are interested in looking beyond just sport, we use the term physical culture to denote the various types of physical games and movements created and given meaning by people in any given culture. Yoga or tai chi may not be competitive sport activities, but they are unquestionably popular physical activities with deep historical roots and significant cultural meanings in various communities. By using physical culture as an umbrella term, we are able to catalogue and analyze the staggering diversity of physical activities—whether they are practiced for recreational, competitive, health-related, spiritual, or other purposes—in which residents of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) participate.

As the research team sets out to catalogue the many hundreds of physical cultural activities that exist in the GTA, we face the challenge of how to categorize these extremely diverse activities. Clearly there are major differences between, for example, soccer and hiking, karate and polka dancing, or CrossFit and sailing. We needed an initial set of categories in order to begin organizing the activities.

Ultimately, we settled on six categories of activity, recognizing that these are imperfect and will doubtless have some overlap. These six categories, which are used on the GTActivity website to differentiate between different types of activities, are:

While these categories may seem straightforward, they raised a host of further questions for the research team. Some of these questions had to do with the categorization of specific activities. For example, where to place the popular pastime of hiking? Ultimately, we placed it in the “other” category: hiking lacks the competitive element and rule structures of sports or games, it does not follow the patterned movement of dances, and while it may be used as a form of exercise there are so many other recreational and spiritual and exploratory aspects to hiking that it clearly does not fit with any of the other categories. But what to do with cycling or cross-country skiing, activities that see participation by elite competitive athletes and recreational participants alike? In these cases, we identified the activity as both a sport (for example, competitive cycling races) and “other” (for example, commuting on a bicycle or pleasure/recreational cycling). Similar double categorizations have been used for activities such as tai chi (exercise system and martial art), capoeira (martial art and dance), and bocce (sport and physical game).

Another question that emerged is how to differentiate between the obvious diversity within specific activities. For example, ice hockey is played in numerous forms across the GTA, from pick-up games (often referred to as shinny) to recreational leagues for small children to the professional National Hockey League and Canadian Women’s Hockey League. Clearly there is enormous difference in the rules, style of play, and cultural meaning of these diverse forms of ice hockey.

Can these disparate versions of ice hockey really be classified as one activity? Thus far, we have answered “yes” to this question, although we have identified sledge hockey (which has similar rules to hockey, but is adapted for individuals with lower-body disabilities) as a distinct activity. And, since ‘underwater hockey’ is played by some students at our university, together with ball hockey, floor hockey, and roller hockey/in-line hockey, we will also have to decide where they fit in our classification scheme.

In other cases, we have separated activities such as bowling (we recognize ten-pin, five-pin, lawn, duckpin, and candlepin bowling as distinct activities) and snowboarding (we currently treat downhill and halfpipe separately, and will have to consider whether and how to categorize activities such as boardercross, slopestyle, and freestyle).

Ultimately, we are making arbitrary decisions about how to distinguish between diverse forms of certain activities. As the project progresses, we will continually revisit these decisions and work to refine the ways in which we identify activities. Perhaps we will ultimately decide to create classifications within ice hockey; or perhaps we will stand by our initial decision that, despite the vast differences between different levels of the sport, there is enough shared form and meaning to characterize it as a single activity.

This process of reflection and refinement will be greatly aided by fieldwork that gathers stories from members of the GTA’s many ethnocultural communities and by public feedback on the GTActivity website. If you have information about any of the activities listed on the website, or any activities that we may not be aware of or have not yet included, please contact us to share your knowledge and help us to deepen our understanding of physical culture in the GTA.

Do you agree with the categories of physical culture we have created? Or do you think that there are better ways to classify them? We have launched a discussion of this topic on the GTActivity Forum, and welcome you to share your thoughts there.


[i] Coakley, J., & Donnelly, P. (2009). Sport in Society: Issues and Controversies (2nd Canadian edition). Toronto: McGraw Hill Ryerson.

[ii] Ibid., p. 7. Strict definitions are often used in surveys of sport and exercise, and the results tend to hide the actual amount of physical activity that may be occurring. For example, the major survey of sport participation in Canada is the General Social Survey. Under that survey’s strict definition of sport, a person who played in a hockey league once a week would be included, but someone who played pick-up games of hockey several times a week would not.