24 November 2022

Can youth sports be a tool for creating inclusion and combating segregation? Activities organised in a non-traditional way in communities where the target group is located may be precisely that, according to research that focuses on sport for girls.

Picture of a girl on a soccer field.
Activities organised for girls with a foreign background can help to create inclusion in society. This is the finding of a new book about girls’ football, upbringing and norm criticism written by researchers in social work at LiU. Pixabay
In recent decades, social and economic segregation has increased in Sweden. Children and young people have unequal access to recreational activities depending on population group, geographical location and sex. Girls born abroad, or who have parents born abroad, are particularly under-represented in organised leisure and sports activities.

In a new book, Bollen i rörelse: Tjejfotboll, fostran och normkritik i den urbana periferin (The ball in motion: girls’ football, upbringing and norm criticism in the urban periphery), researchers from Linköping University have studied how an activity can be organised to create inclusion in society through sport. The focus of the book is on activities for girls with a foreign background living in areas with a high immigrant population and with high levels of segregation.

Well thought-out strategies for inclusion

Ulrika Wernesjö, associate professor in social work at LiU, is one of the book’s authors. For some time, she has been following the activities of a sports association at close quarters through observations and interviews. The association organises football and futsal for girls in areas where there are many children and young people with foreign backgrounds.

The activities differ in many ways from how associations traditionally organise sporting activities. There are well thought-out strategies to enable inclusion. The activities are free, they are offered in a place where the target group is located, and they are spontaneously organised at fixed times. No pre-registration is needed, participants just show up. However, the activities are organised with leaders at fixed times. The participants have the opportunity to influence the design of the training sessions themselves.

"This form of ´organised spontaneous´ sport, where participants can participate on their own terms and where the relationships between leaders and participants, and among the participants themselves, are central, is proving to facilitate participation and inclusion in sports activities," says Ulrika Wernesjö.

Norm criticism of understanding of sport and integration

David Ekholm, associate professor of social work at the Centre for Local Government Studies (CKS) and Magnus Dahlstedt, professor of social work, have also been involved in the writing of the book. In previous studies, Ekholm and Dahlstedt have looked at how municipalities, sports’ governing bodies and associations organise activities to meet the societal challenges of inclusion. These activities are not specifically aimed at boys or girls, but the studies showed that the majority of participants and leaders are male and, therefore, they become the norm for this type of activity.

"We see these forms of organisation as both a spoken and unspoken criticism of the norms that the sports movement, municipalities and society in general have of what sport is and how sport is to be conducted. We therefore wanted to investigate what happens when activities are organised in more unconventional forms," says Magnus Dahlstedt.

The aim of the book has above all been to examine how society can work on inclusion in a broader sense, and how sport is an important part of society. The authors believe that it can be seen as a critical mirror to be held up to the traditional sports movement by making visible various mechanisms that exclude certain children and young people, while the results achieved show alternative ways forward. In this way, the book is not specifically about sport, but about conditions for children and young people in society today.

“We can’t understand sport as something special or separate from society. Inequality, segregation, inclusion and exclusion are part of both sport and society. Participation in sports activities is also a way of participating in society," says David Ekholm.


Literature in English on similar topics by the authors:

Sport as Social Policy - Midnight Football and the Governing of Society Ekholm, D. & Dahlstedt, M. (2023)
A book that analyses the increasing use of sport in European and Western welfare states as a tool of social policy and its promotion as a solution to social problems.

Problematizing the absent girl: sport as a means of emancipation and social inclusion. Ekholm, D., Dahlstedt, M. & Rönnbäck, J. (2019).



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