Author: Sean Heath is a Social Anthropologist and an independent scholar specializing in the body, the senses, movement, and human-water interactions. He has conducted research with competitive swimmers in the UK and Canada where he examined the sensory aspects of immersion in water, the sociality of club swimming, and how these affect youths’ wellbeing. His recent work uses a multisensory approach to examine the emplaced entanglements between the material, social, and emotional experiences of outdoor swimming in “natural” environments and how immersion in watery environments affects human and more-than-human health and wellbeing. Sean tweets from @SeanmrHeath.
Anthropologists who study sport and sport-like embodied practices tend to approach the subject of their investigation from some form of background in said sport or sport-like activity, whether that be baseball (Carter 2008), marathon running (Crawley 2021), boxing (Hopkinson 2015), track-and-field (Brownell 1995), or basketball (Thangaraj 2015). This implies that the ethnographer has what Sertaç Sehlikoglu has called “inherited relationality” with their subject of study. Having previously engaged in this sporting practice, they occupy an insider position, know some of the language and embodied practices of the sport, and may also be conducting ethnography at “home”. These structural advantages enable the ethnographer to make the field more accessible to themselves.
Of course, anthropologists tend to examine topics which they already have an interest in. This is particularly notable amongst sport anthropologists, many of whom have already invested significant resources (i.e., time, energy) into cultivating a specific sporting practice, in other words, acquiring the skills necessary to play and compete. This is not to say that all anthropologists of sport have prior experience with the sport they study, see for example Greg Downey’s own novice introduction to Capoeira or Francesco Fanoli’s apprenticeship in Senegalese làmb. Rather it is to point out that for ethnographers, apprenticeship within sporting practices extends well beyond the blurry boundaries of the field sites where their interlocutors train, play, and compete. Indeed, they have apprenticed elsewhere to be in a position to study and apprentice with their interlocutors.
My own apprenticeship in swimming began before a time that I can remember. Early “parent and tot” swimming lessons quickly turned into solo lessons, and solo lessons spurred me on a path towards teaching and coaching swimming as well as lifeguarding. What Tim Ingold has termed “enskilment” can be understood as “the embodiment of capacities of awareness and response by environmentally situated agents.” For Jasmijn Rana, this anthropological theory has proven useful for investigating “how skills sediment in the body and how they relate to the environment and people around the body in question.” In short, enskilment can be understood as processes of learning, perceiving, and sensing particular bodily aptitudes culminating in an embodied knowledge that is “neither innate nor completely acquired.”
Having cultivated swimming enskilment as a teacher but not a competitive practitioner was just enough for me to get accepted into the training squad of the Masters (adults 25 and older) group at the club I have conducted long-term ethnographic fieldwork with. Yet it was not nearly enough to get in the water and train with 14–19-year-old competitive youth swimmers. My apprenticeship would take several years before I was confident enough, and skillful enough, to remotely match their speeds even during relaxed morning training sessions. In the process of learning about the embodied knowledge required to swim fast and participating in the shared practice of swimming training in order to race and compete, I also became a “swimmer” alongside the youth I sought to learn from.
For Tim Ingold, apprenticeship is “a commitment to learning by doing.” For Thomas Eriksen, anthropology is a “craft which teaches the novice” a set of professional skills and knowledge, not unlike the processes of apprenticeship as a carpenter or journalist. Anthropologist of labour and work, Jasper Waugh-Quasebarth, considers apprenticeship as a field method where working knowledge is “passed verbally and nonverbally through the practice.” For Greg Downey, Monica Dalidowicz, and Paul H. Mason, apprenticeship is not only an excellent way to learn a skill; it is also an ideal way to “learn about it, and to learn about how one learns.” Trevor Marchand sums up these perspectives on anthropological apprenticeship/ apprenticeship as anthropology thus:
Apprenticing and direct participation enable academics to acquire some level of first-hand experience, and possibly ‘expertise’, in the practices that they theorize and write about. Regular schedules of participation in (sometimes monotonous or gruelling) exercises allow reflection on one’s own learning, mistakes, and progress, as well as the pains and pleasures that accompany physical labour.
What all these perspectives have in common is a view that apprenticeship as a research method offers possibilities for “shared production” in knowledge-making. As the process of developing from a novice through to proficiency under the tutelage of an expert, apprenticeship may become a channel for social inclusion (of both ethnographer and interlocutors) by offering spaces for negotiating interpersonal power, accessing emic knowledges, sharing in pedagogical regimes, and acquisition of cultural proficiency.
For the apprentice then, who does not have the initial skills necessary to participate as a full member of a specific sporting practice, how are they to obtain the embodied knowledge of their interlocutors and understand what that knowledge says about their practice? This is where the concept of “apprenticeship elsewhere” comes into play. The sociologist Jenny McMahon engaged in an apprenticeship elsewhere, training intensively with a Masters squad for six months before she had gained the necessary skills and speed required to be allowed to train with a high performance swim squad of nationally ranked athletes in Australia. This may not be practical for a fair number of anthropologists seeking to do ethnographic research on sport, dance, or sport-like activities. The time commitment to train as a semi-professional is hard to afford unless one has a large research grant that will pay for the longitudinal ethnographic research, and most research institutes issuing grants within the social sciences are not likely to look too favorably on spending six months of the grant timetable (and money) on attaining the necessary skills to participate in sport as more than a curious amateur.
My own practice with the adult squad of Manta SC (pseudonym) provided such a channel for social inclusion with the youth swimmers whom I was interested in learning from/with as we could share the differences and similarities in pedagogical regimes between our coaches, discuss emic knowledge techniques for swimming fast, all helping me acquire some cultural proficiency amongst UK youth swimmers. For certain kinds of ethnographic field work, including sport, dance, martial arts, and other sport-like activities, apprenticeship may be an essential method of inquiry. However, when working with children and youth, opportunities for shared practices may be necessarily curtailed complicating the shared processes of knowledge-making. Comparable, yet dissimilar, forms of embodied learning may need to be undertaken by anthropologists if apprenticeship is to become a site of ethnographic inquiry. Hence why I chose, and was forced, into apprenticing with a Masters squad rather than the performance squad at Manta SC, as I would have been a hindrance (not being up to their speed standards) and taken up already limited lane space. I may now have acquired sufficient enskilled knowledge, and the requisite speed and power, to swim in a lane with the 14-year-old youth at Manta SC, yet I would certainly still struggle through an entire training session.
Apprenticeship as a swimmer offered me a meaningful position within Manta SC swimmers’ social worlds where I learned to become a swimmer, and to conduct ethnographic research, alongside youth. As a “non-swimming swimmer” observing practice from the pool deck, I had the privilege to immerse myself into the daily rhythms of swimming training and was able to maintain my research agenda without becoming co-opted as a coach (a role all the other adults on the pool deck performed). I trained and competed alongside the Manta SC youth who were generous enough to entertain my often comically slow swimming speeds. While apprenticeship-based research must balance immersion and participation with systematic observation, this form of field method offers possibilities for developing embodied knowledge, learning new skills, and for understanding the complex processes in cultural learning as we and our interlocutors achieve competence.