Dr. Michael Atkinson joined the School of Sport and Exercise Sciences in 2007, leading the instruction of research methods and skills at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels therein. Michael received a PhD in Sociology from the University of Calgary in 2001 (BA, University of Waterloo, 1995; MA, McMaster University, 1997). Since then, he has researched and taught courses on the sociology of sport, bodies, deviance and research methods at Memorial University of Newfoundland (Canada), McMaster University (Canada), and University of Western Ontario (Canada). For his contributions to the Canadian social sciences, Michael was recipient of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada’s prestigious Aurora Award in 2004.
Research & Teaching Interests
My current and future research efforts are physical cultural studies (PCS) investigations of several bio-ethical and bio-pedagogical issues in sport, exercise, and health using a blend of cultural studies, post-structural and existential theories. First, I explore individual and social logics of eating, dieting and nutritional supplementation (ergogenics) in competitive and recreational sport and exercise cultures. Across these studies, I seek to formulate a grounded, qualitative understanding of why and how especially ‘risky’ eating practices become normalized within sport and exercise subcultures; and, whether or not particular sports subcultures actually promote dangerous forms of dieting as laudable. Much is known about the individual or psychological predictors of disordered eating, but little is known about the social aspects, experiences, and ideologies shared by athletes/exercisers which help justify risk-filled eating or dieting. I have specifically tapped into predominantly ignored or under-studied athlete or exercise cultures as a means of broadening our understanding of the relevant socio-cultural forces which may promote risky or otherwise disordered eating in sport and exercise. My ongoing studies include interpretive phenomenological analyses of anorexia and emaciation among male athletes, and the use of legal muscle-building building ergogenics by middle-aged men.
Second, and directly tied to the above, the bulk of my current research is underpinned by an interest in understanding how and why men’s internalization of particular cultural codes of masculinity continue to be a salient (if not the dominant) interpretive resource used to justify both recreational and elite athlete’s involvement in extreme forms of physical violence in sport cultures. I have conducted research on contra-normative and quasi-illegal forms of violence in sports like ice hockey, football, baseball and others for nearly ten years. Cutting across these studies are questions concerning why sport continues to be internally and externally ‘policed’ in rather haphazard and confusing ways; if the lack of known and rigorously enforced bioethics in contact sport cultures directly fuel a spate of problems therein such as referee abuse, parental fighting, child abuse, sexual assault, attrition in sports like hockey and football, growing rates of player dissatisfaction, and gender inequality.
Third, I conduct active research on how athletes in a range of endurance sports cultures learn to confront, manage, accept and embrace physical and cognitive pain, suffering and stress. Here, my research questions pertain to the role of group training, socialization and self-identification with other athletes as critical components in the process of encountering and learning to relish exercise-related discomfort and suffering as a worthwhile part of doing physical activity. In other words, these projects are designed to shed key empirical light on how people socially learn to get over the fear of pain, and how people come to emotionally and physically enjoy sport-related suffering.
Fourth, I am presently engaged in three inter-related research projects on the promises and possibilities of post-sport cultures and practices. Whereas traditional sports practice often contain, discipline and enframe physical bodies as resources to be deployed toward the attainment of external goals (i.e., competitive and performative sport outcomes) and fulfilment of cultural-institutional discourses, post-sport practices eschew the standard pedagogical body-as-resource schematic. Post-sports are at once moral, reflexive, community-oriented, green, spiritual, anarchic and potentially Eros-filled physical cultural practices. They often adorn the guise of mainstream sports forms and techniques of play (e.g., swimming, running, cycling) — what Wheaton (2004) describes as the “residual” elements of modernist sport — but their individual or collective engagement and experience bears little similarity. Post-sports are decisively anti-commercial, co-operative over competitive, rejectionist of advanced material technology, socially inclusionary rather than hierarchical, process-oriented, holistic, and internally differentiated in their orientation and engagement. A post-sport physical culture values human spiritual, physical and emotional development (or rather, realization) through athleticism, beyond medical-technical or power and performance terms. The three post-sport physical cultures I presently study include le Parkour, fell running and Ashtanga yoga.
Finally, my active research agenda includes the study of surgical shaping(s) of bodies. My research in this field pertains to how and why members of the North American middle-classes are increasingly using surgical intervention as a method of ‘achieving’ physical fitness; or at least, certain attainting particular aesthetics of physical fitness. Of critical concern in these qualitative endeavours are the background/cultural reasons why people choose surgical intervention over, or in conjunction with, other physical practices such as diet and exercise; and class, gender and ethnic-based constructions of surgical intervention.
I currently teach in the Faculty of Physical Education and Health at the University of Toronto, as an Associate Professor. Before coming to U of T, I lead the instruction of research methods at the School of Sport and Exercise Sciences at Loughborough University (UK). I have also taught in the School of Kinesiology at the University of Western Ontario, as an assistant professor in Sociology departments at Memorial University of Newfoundland and McMaster University. I received my PhD in Sociology from the University of Calgary in 2001, My central areas of investigation pertain to physical cultural studies; notably, body modification. technology and bioethics in sport, exercise and aesthetic contexts, pain and illness narration in sport, human rights through sport, sport and existentialism, animal ethics and sport, drug use and diet cultures in sport and exercise contexts, and the dimensions of criminal violence in sport. I have taught substantive courses in the sociology of bodies, sport, health and wellness, deviance and crime, popular culture, subcultures, youth, and core courses in social theory and methodology (including undergraduate and graduate level quantitative, qualitative and historical methods courses).
I am principally dedicated to the production of contextually based understandings of body practices (in sport, health and exercise settings), discourses about bodies and bioethics (both human and animal bodies), and subjectivities through which active bodies become organized, represented and experienced in relation to the operations of social power in sport/health/leisure worlds. As a self-identified physical cultural studies researcher, my ethnographic efforts have become increasingly organized around intervention, policy development and translating academic research into practical outcomes for audiences beyond the university. In essence, I have learned to embrace the role of what Burawoy (2004) describes as “public sociology”.
Since 2004 I have served on the editorial boards of the American journals, Sociology of Sport Journal and Deviant Behavior, and as associate book editor at the British journal Sport in Society. I am author of Tattooed: The Sociogenesis of a Body Art (2003, University of Toronto Press), co-author of a book with Dr. Kevin Young titled, Sport, Deviance and Social Control with Human Kinetics (2008), author/editor of Battleground: Sports with Greenwood Press (2008), and co-editor of a book with Dr. Kevin Young titled, Tribal Play: Sports Subcultures with JAI/Elsevier Press (2008). I am currently authoring manuscripts for Oxford University Press titled, Beyond the Masculinity Crisis, one for Sage titled, Key Concepts in Sport, Health and Physical Activity Methods, and one for Praeger titled, When Skin is Deep: Bioethics and Popular Culture. In October of 2004, I received the Aurora Prize from SSHRC, as the outstanding young scholar/researcher in the Canadian social sciences ($25,000 research grant). I also am very proud to have received three teaching awards to date, and seven combined nominations for teaching awards.