How Soccer Explains the World Dissertation


Jonathan Zaun

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In their insightful examinations of the indirect effects caused by the phenomenon of globalization, essayists Franklin Foer and Kwame Anthony Appiah adeptly address the alternative consequences of the increasing interconnection which has come to define this modern age. By analyzing the concept of globalization in far greater depth than their peers, forgoing outdated discussions about economic growth and greater global awareness for a more introspective debate on cultural identity, both authors have succeeded in casting a new light on the previously accepted notion of globalization as an engine of worldwide progress. Foer chooses to analyze America’s cultural attitudes towards the sport of soccer, a traditionally European pursuit newly introduced to American society in the infancy of globalization, in an attempt to discern why this game has exacerbated divisions between the nation’s upper and lower classes. In his essay, Appiah illustrates the proclivity expressed by all groups of people, whether through international debate or neighborhood gossip, to engage in what he terms “disagreements about questions value” (379). Although each author utilizes varying rhetorical strategies and intellectual models, the ideas posed by both Foer and Appiah have converged to demonstrate a newfound truth in the way globalization influences cultural and societal attitudes. Rather than dissolve the differences possessed by individual cultures through the direct sharing of traditions, norms and values, globalization instead serves to heighten our collective awareness, and indeed our sensitivity, to these differences.

Franklin Foer begins his analysis of globalization by making the bold claim that soccer, while not reaching the lofty heights of classical music or religious creed, is actually “often more deeply felt than religion, and just as much a part of the community’s fabric, a repository of traditions” (408). It is Foer’s contention that the sport of soccer represents the equivalent of higher culture to a certain segment of the population, namely the lower class, providing a source of unity to disaffected groups who may not feel that the embrace of national identity, shared so readily by the affluent, has been extended to them. While in many countries, such as Spain or England, the shared support of a soccer team may allow for a temporary lowering of long standing cultural barriers, Foer points out that the reverse has occurred thus far in America. By highlighting the underlying motivations of parents who shepherded their children towards soccer, the overwhelming fear of potential injury and an aversion towards true competition, Foer concludes that “soccer’s appeal lay in its opposition to other sports” (409). This revelation is quite telling and helps explain the puzzling phenomenon of American antipathy towards soccer.

Although most Americans wishfully envision themselves as integrated partners within a national framework, the stark reality of class relations in this country is sadly different. Members of the lower class often share deep resentments towards society’s so-called elite, and the adoption of soccer by the rich and comfortable immediately positioned the sport as a source of derision. Foer’s recollection of the cultural issues which motivated parents to choose soccer as a pastime their children rather than the quintessential American sports of baseball, football or basketball underscores the deeply held, and often hidden, social differences which can be brought to the forefront by the increased awareness associated with globalization. When Foer recollects parents who “didn’t want to teach the acceptability of violence” which is inherent in football, or those who wished to spare their kids from “too many stressful, potentially ego-deflating encounters” (409) that may result from baseball’s reliance on individual achievement, he is adroitly illustrating how soccer has come to divide Americans simply by defining their differences. For a wide cross section of American society, the physical rigors of football, and indeed the sport’s culture of “acceptable violence,” serve as a valuable parenting tool with which to mature a child and toughen them for the rigors to come with adulthood. Baseball’s unique ability to isolate one player and pit him or her against a single adversary, the battle between pitcher and batter, embodies the American ideal of individual merit, fairly rewarding the victor while relegating the vanquished to obscurity. In each case, the choice by the upper class to distance themselves from these once collective ideals, through the overt adoption of soccer, represents a significant breach in the supposed unity shared by Americans.

Kwame Anthony Appiah focuses his examination of globalization on the concept of values, and challenges his readers to view their own set of values through the prism of cross cultural exchanges. It is Appiah’s contention that, while values or morals are said to be universal, an individual’s unique cultural identity is the key factor in determining their overall value system. By illustrating the intricate differences in concepts like family, which many perceive to be similar in scope the world over, that have been pulled into sharper focus by globalization’s cultural exchange, Appiah instructs his audience to approach the idea of values with intellectual flexibility. It is his view that each culture’s varying use of linguistics to delineate morality, the “vocabulary of evaluation” (380), isolates it somewhat from the views held by other cultures. Appiah’s discussion of his own cultural identity, intertwined as it is with influences from both his father’s Akan heritage and his mother’s American upbringing, reinforces the role that difference plays in defining identity by showcasing the incredible diversity of terminology used to discuss matters of moral value. When Appiah follows his statement that “people everywhere have ideas about your responsibility to your children” by questioning readers “but who are your children” (381), he is providing a definitive example of the role played by differences in determining moral value.

In each of their essays, both Foer and Appiah essayists strive to impart lessons to their audience which can be used to navigate the cross-cultural conundrum that has been created by the advance of globalization. Appiah reminds readers that there are “universal values” but also that “their expression is highly particular, thickly enmeshed with local customs and expectations and the facts of social arrangements” (382). This admonition is a reminder that, in order to successfully evaluate morality in today’s seemingly borderless world, it is crucial to remember the vestiges of the social borders which once played a significant role in shaping a society’s structure. I believe that this urging on the part of Appiah represents a vital step in the next generation’s ability to comprehend the variance of moral values. If globalization continues to highlight the differences between members of a society, or indeed betweens societies at large, it is integral that individual members of these societies learn to recognize and appreciate difference rather than allow difference to define them entirely.


Appiah, Kwame A. “Moral Disagreement.” 2006. From Inquiry to Academic Writing: a Text and Reader. Ed. Stuart Greene and April Lidinsky. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. 378-90. Print.

Foer, Franklin. “How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization.” 2004. From Inquiry to Academic Writing: a Text and Reader. Ed. Stuart Greene and April Lidinsky. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. 406-16. Print

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