The running and class paradox

For a sociologist, there is a paradox at the heart of running…

Running is the simplest of sports. For the able-bodied it would seem to require nothing more than a pair of sturdy shoes and some motivation. You don’t need any special training, expensive equipment or club memberships – you don’t even need a partner or team to take part.

And yet, running is dominated by the wealthy and well-educated, with working-class people making up only a small minority of participants. A sport that requires nothing to take part somehow excludes less privileged people to the same extent as expensive, elite sports like mountaineering or tennis.

This isn’t just a British idiosyncrasy. Studies have found the same thing across a range of national contexts*. The causes of this pattern are complicated, and linked to issues such as taste, priorities, life experiences, work style, geography and control of leisure time. We’ll explore this in detail in a future post, but here we’ll just concentrate on describing this pattern in detail.

We’ll use two datasets, Sport England’s Active People Survey (APS) data, which incorporates data from over 160,000 respondents across a wide range of sports, and my Big Running Survey data, which includes a more modest 2,700 respondents, but covers additional variables not included in the APS.

Exploring the data

The APS data allows us to identify the proportion of people from different occupational groups participating in a wide range of sports. Occupational groups are classified according to their NS-SEC category, as follows:

NS-SEC 1: Higher managerial and professional occupations
NS-SEC 2: Lower managerial and professional occupations
NS-SEC 3: Intermediate occupations (clerical, sales, service)
NS-SEC 4: Small employers and own account workers
NS-SEC 5: Lower supervisory and technical occupations
NS-SEC 6: Semi-routine occupations
NS-SEC 7: Routine occupations
NS-SEC 8: Never worked and long-term unemployed

For what follows, we’ll be focusing on two sets of these occupational classifications, NS-SEC 1-2 represents the affluent middle-class, or high socioeconomic status group (blue above), and NS-SEC 5-8 representing the working-class and long term unemployed, or low socioeconomic status group (orange above).

In the sample as a whole, the proportion of people in the higher status group is about 40%, whilst the lower status group account for about 31%.

In figure 1 we can see a list of sports ordered by their proportions of NS-SEC 1-2 participants. Running sits fourth in the table, with just under 60% of participants falling into this group, narrowly behind sailing and various health club based aerobic activities. Running shows a higher proportion of high status group than traditional middle-class sports such as golf, tennis and mountaineering. Notably, the only sport showing more low status than high status participants is basketball.

Figure 1: My own analysis of data from Sport England Active People survey.

Figure 2 shows the same data, ordered by the proportion of low socioeconomic status participants for each sport. Running attracts about 15% of its participants from this group – less than half the rate we might expect given the proportion of working-class people surveyed.

Figure 2: My own analysis of data from Sport England Active People survey.

We can combine these two sets of data by calculating the ratio of high to low status participants for each sport. The results of this are depicted in figure 3. Here the bars indicate the multiple of high to low status participants. So, for instance, almost twice as many high status people play cricket as low status people. The red line indicates the mean for the sample. This is where all the bars would be if each sport’s participation base exactly reflected the wider population.

Figure 3: My own analysis of data from Sport England Active People survey.

Note the small number of sports in which the low status group is over represented compared to the high status group (i.e. those where the bar ends to the left of the red line). This is indicative of the fact that overall sports participation by the working-class is much lower than it is for the middle-class.

It’s worth contrasting running’s position in figure 3 to those of the other big endurance sports, cycling and swimming. Without looking at the data we might have assumed that these sports would share a similar socioeconomic profile to running, but in fact they lie close to each other, well down the list.

Finally, let’s look at the Big Running Survey data, which can provide a little more detail. We can use it to look at the education and income level of runners. The figures at the top end of each range are instructive. According to the survey, 74% of runners have at least a degree (which is in keeping with result from other studies), compared to about 34% of the adult population. 21% have a personal income of at least £50,000, again comparing favourably to the working adult population as a whole, in which 11% can claim this level of pay. In other words, runners are twice as likely to have a degree or earn over £50k than non-runners.

Running then, is a distinctly ‘classed’ activity, and this begs a lot of interesting questions about how, why and when this happened. I’ll suggest some answers in later posts.

* See Scheerder, J.,  Breedveld, K., and Borgers, J., eds. 2015. Running Across Europe. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Read more about running statistics here.

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