Historians in Kinesiology: The Evolving Vocational World of Academic Sport History

By Ari de Wilde, Guest Contributor                   

Ari de Wilde is an Assistant Professor of Sport and Leisure Management at Eastern Connecticut State University. His main research interests are in the business history of sport and the North American bicycle racing industry. He received his BA from Bates College —2005— (History), MA—2007— and PhD—2010— from The Ohio State University in Sport Humanities. His articles and book reviews have appeared in the Journal of Macromarketing, Journal of Historical Research in MarketingJournal of Sport HistoryQuest, and International Journal of Sport Management. He can be reached at dewildea@easternct.edu and on Twitter @aodewilde.

My blog post today is about history in kinesiology. The post should be of interest to those who wish to pursue a career as a tenure-track faculty member in a department of kinesiology. That is the vocational location of one of the largest contingents of the North American Society of Sport History’s (NASSH) members, in departments of physical culture, education, human performance or kinesiology (as the discipline is most commonly known today). Scholars in the field, and historians working in kinesiology, cover a vast array of material and respond to a plethora of questions.

Recently, historian Amy Bass prestigiously and ambitiously wrote a state-of-the-field manuscript for the Journal of American History. She focused her essay on sport history’s contribution to history and argued for the primacy and importance of the cultural turn in sport history. In addition to her article, others by historians such as Lisa Doris Alexander, Susan Cahn, Adrian Burgos, Jr., Rob Ruck, Randy Roberts, and NASSH-president Daniel Nathan wrote responses to Bass’ piece. Broadly, the authors responded to ideas of sport history’s place in terms of maturity, scope and the cultural turn(s).

Taken as a whole, the scholars’ assessments of the field were generally upbeat. They noted that the field seems to be coming to fruition and Burgos, Jr. of the University of Illinois pointed out that in recent years there have been two endowed chairs created in departments of history with the Allen H. Selig Chair at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Homer Rice Chair in Sports and Society at Georgia Tech . There was little discussion of the changing dynamics and tensions in departments of kinesiology. In this post, I hope to outline a few of them.

Historians studying within kinesiology work along similar lines to scholars studying “applied” histories in departments of art, music, science, education, medicine and business. These scholars, too, often have to be able to both respond to debates in history departments as well as current issues and theories in their respective professional fields. In 2005, the Journal of American History published an article examining “History in the Professional Schools.” Scholars interviewed for the article, such as Nancy Koehn, the James E. Robison Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, discussed how trained historians work in departments of medicine, business and education. While scholars in these fields work at some of the top universities in the world such as Harvard, Yale and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, one issue for historians of and in kinesiology, is that departments devoted exclusively to the history of science or art are in decline. Still, scholars in these fields can provide disciplinary insights to historians that have to serve multiple methodological masters as they must be relevant to the professional schools in which they are employed and, on the other hand, they must be aware of trends and scholarship from history and comparative studies departments.

Historians in kinesiology come in many different stripes. At the moment, there are few trained sport historians in kinesiology who have part of their faculty appointments related to teacher education and relatively few in science. There are a growing number of sport historians in sport management programs, who must be able to teach and research in sport management areas. The majority of historians in kinesiology, though, work in large university systems, such as Penn State and the California State systems, where they are allowed to primarily focus on socio-cultural classes. One continuing challenge remains for historians in kinesiology to justify their positions as relevant to other disciplines in kinesiology.

They can have multiple educational backgrounds. Sport historians in kinesiology departments sometimes come from departments of history or comparative studies, but kinesiology department-trained scholars mainly staff these positions. These scholars have graduated from kinesiology PhD programs, such as the Pennsylvania State University, the University of Texas, the University of Maryland, University of Tennessee and Louisiana State University and take classes in sport humanities from a few faculty focused on socio-cultural studies in kinesiology departments and in history and sociology departments. Additionally, they have usually taken classes in other related kinesiology disciplines.  Historians who are graduates of kinesiology departments have written many award winning books, reviewed by such papers as the New York Times. Kinesiology-trained scholars have also served as Chairs of American Studies’ departments at both the University of Maryland and the University of Iowa.

These scholars can often attest to the somewhat unique experiences of inter-department study experience. As a graduate student in the sport humanities, I  would have class with my program’s core faculty, but I would also take classes in both the history department as well as sport management classes in my own kinesiology program. While I found acceptance and mentors in both places, there were tensions in both as well. In the history department it felt to me that sport was viewed with a tinge of suspicion and, in my experience, needed more justification than other subjects. In sport management, the place and use of historical methodology as something applied to management was questioned, if not assumed to be a totally different discipline. These types of tensions are common to interdisciplinary scholars. As a recent post on the Chronicle of Higher Education, titled “The Curse of the Interdisciplinary Ph.D.” highlights, there are extra-questions for scholars with interdisciplinary degrees. As such, historians in kinesiology are often methodological outsiders in their own departments as well as to other departments on campus.

The discipline of kinesiology evolved largely out of physical education and the business of preparing future teachers of physical education. While some kinesiology departments still have teacher education programs, many do not, and encompass a broad range of areas of study, roughly following the “Big Ten Body of Knowledge” meetings from 1964 to 1966 and Quest publication that called for the creation of specialized areas that included:

  1. Sociology of Sport and Physical Education
  2. Administrative Theory
  3. History, Philosophy and Comparative Physical Education and Sport
  4. Exercise Physiology
  5. Biomechanics
  6. Motor Learning and Sports Psychology

Some of the most famous scholarly journals devoted to the kinesiology discipline remain Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport (1930-) and Quest (1963- ). Practically speaking, a scholar working in kinesiology should publish articles in both history journals as well as kinesiology journals. In addition, kinesiology departments, similar to science-oriented departments, tend to expect scholars to produce articles. This can be a bit of a culture shock for historians who are trained to focus the majority of their efforts on producing book manuscripts. Finally, scholars in kinesiology need to be able to teach both history classes as well as specialties in kinesiology.

Colloquially, most contemporary scholars will say that the title of  “Kinesiology” denotes the scientific study of sport and the body. And departments of kinesiology are frequently focused on various areas of exercise science including bio-mechanics, physiology and motor behavior. There are still a good amount of positions available in sport history, but the field is clearly evolving. As Fred Mason described in his manuscript “Losing Ground in the ‘Run Toward Science’: The Liberal Arts and Social Sciences in Kinesiology,” the specialization era has resulted in increasingly disparate areas of knowledge. Generally, the “harder” exercise sciences have dominated and scholars in those areas have often seen those working in “softer” humanities disciplines as outsiders to the core work of the scientific study of the body. Contextually, the move towards kinesiology as a science has been fueled in the United States by an increasingly neo-liberal government environment in which it is easier to justify funding for science and technology education and the hiring of scholars that can obtain grant funding. In many cases, departments will hire faculty members in other more “traditional” disciplines and ask them to teach sport history sections as part of their course load.

Another area of study that has grown significantly in kinesiology is sport management. As one could probably connect by looking at the Body of Knowledge areas listed above, sport management partially evolved out of the Administration of Physical Education or “Administrative Theory.” However, it has taken a very distinct “business” turn in orientation. There are now over 300 undergraduate and graduate programs in the United States and similar to the move of some science programs, an increasing number of programs are located within business schools. But many elite sport management programs still reside in kinesiology. One example is at the University of Michigan, where the renowned sport management program is staffed by some of the most accomplished sports economists in the field.

There are few quantitative figures available on jobs for historians of sport. On the NASSSblog, the blog of the North American Society for Sport Sociology and general clearinghouse for socio-cultural oriented jobs, I was able to find 35 jobs for which sport historians could be considered from 2005 to 2012. Almost uniformly, those jobs were in departments in kinesiology. Comparatively, I found a total of 228 jobs listed on the blog during that period, which varied from sport psychology jobs to sport business positions.  There are more numbers on the overall job market in history departments. Robert B. Townsend, assistant director of research and publications for the American Historical Association has tracked the market for American historians. In one of his publications, he created a chart showing number of history PhDs versus the number of job openings available. The chart shows that except for two periods from 1986 to 1992 and 2005 to 2009, doctoral recipients outnumber job posts, sometimes by more than 100 from the mid-1960s to 2011. As Townsend points out, there are limitations to this kind of analysis as going after a tenure-track job is only one of many things that one could do with a doctorate in history, but it does illustrate the market.  With fewer potential qualified PhDs for kinesiology jobs, there is a sizable market for historians in kinesiology.

In sum, there are many challenges and opportunities for historians in kinesiology. For the foreseeable future, historians of sport in kinesiology departments will have a notable presence They, however, will have to continue to justify their positions in an academic world of increasingly quantifiable research, learning outcomes and assessments. Despite the challenges, the prospect of tenure-track jobs for sport historians is less bleak than assessments of jobs in history departments. So, historians working in kinesiology will continue to provide a critical mass to the field of sport history.

References Not Linked:

Bass, Amy.  “State of the Field: Sports History and the ‘Cultural Turn.’” Journal of American History 101 (2014): 148-172. More generally for the article and responses, see “State of the Field: Sports in American History.” Journal of American History 101 (2014): 148-197.

“Interchange: History in the Professional Schools.” Journal of American History 92 (2005): 553-576.

Zeigler, Earle and King McCristal. “A History of the Big Ten Body-of-Knowledge Project in Physical Education.” Quest 9 (1967): 79-84.

On selected related articles not referenced, see: 

Twietmeyer, Gregg. “What is Kinesiology: Historical and Philosophical Insights.” Quest  64 (2012):4-23.

Sage, George.  “Resurrecting Thirty Years of Historical Insight About Kinesiology: A Supplement to “What is Kinesiology? Historical and Philosophical Insights.” Quest 65 (2013): 133-139

Dyreson, Mark.  “Sport History and the History of Sport in North America.” Journal of Sport History 34 (2007): 405-414

Adelman, Melvin L.  “Differing With Dyreson, but finding many points of agreement: Another look at the road of sport history and sport historians.” Paper presented at the North American Society for Sport History, Asheville, North Carolina, 2009.

3 thoughts on “Historians in Kinesiology: The Evolving Vocational World of Academic Sport History

  1. Reblogged this on DailyHistory.org and commented:
    Ari de Wilde has a guest post at Sport in American History delineating the field of the history of kinesiology. Kinesiology is the study of human performance. Recently the Journal of American History published several essays about the growing fields of Sports History. Wilde’s article expands on those essays by examining the growth of this field outside of comparative studies or history departments. Kinesiology departments around the country have been slowly and steadily adding historians of kinesiology. Wilde’s post provides a straightforward rundown of this relative recent historical field.


  2. Pingback: Sport in American History: An Experiment in Digital Public Sport History | Sport in American History

  3. Pingback: Looking Back and Looking Forward: Four Years of Sport in American History | Sport in American History

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