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Sociology at a Baseball Game Part 3: In-Groups and Out-Groups

Baseball may just be entertainment, but it can also teach us about sociology. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains what a baseball game can teach us about group membership.

Take a look at the above photo. What do you notice? I notice that most people are wearing red. A few are wearing white or blue. And a group in the middle is wearing yellow. Of course if you have been following along with the blog, you know that this is the third and final installment of “A Sociologist Goes to a Baseball Game” (read part 1 on race here and part 2 on class here) and that the above photo is from a St. Louis Cardinal’s game.

Fans attending sporting events often choose clothing in the colors that symbolize the team they are cheering for. In this case, red, white, and even blue symbolize the St. Louis Cardinals. The yellow symbolizes the visiting team, the Pittsburgh Pirates. People use symbols to communicate.

Symbols also can communicate group membership. Sociologists distinguish among different types of groups. In this case, we can see an example of in-groups and out-groups.

As St. Louis Cardinals fans watching the game in St. Louis, we were part of the in-group. We have also been part of the out-group. My daughter’s first St. Louis Cardinal’s game was at Wrigley Field and it was also her first Chicago Cubs game. We showed our support for the visiting team by wearing our Cardinal’s gear.

In-groups and out-groups can be completely harmless, harmful, or something in-between. In the world of sports, the harm from one’s group membership as a fan is something in-between. Mostly (at least in the U.S.) it is harmless, but people do get harassed and even physically assaulted based on this group membership, the amount of alcohol that has been consumed, referee calls, and the outcome of the game.

At other times, being part of the out-group can get you killed (e.g., ethnic cleansing) or is at the very least a stigmatized status. In-groups and out-groups boil down to an issue of power: in-groups have power and out-groups do not.

In the first part of this series, I talked about racial stratification and segregation. Another way to think about racial inequality is about membership in the in-group or out-group. In the U.S., Whites are the in-group. All other racial groups have less power as measured by income, wealth, health, educational attainment, political power, and so on.

In the second part of this series, I talked about social class and habitus. Unlike other sections of the stadium, one had to have a ticket just to get to this area of seating. (Everyone had to have a ticket to get in, but once inside, you can pretty much explore any seating section you want depending on how strict the ushers are.) We had private bathrooms. Everyone in this section had paid a certain price to be in this section or worked in this section. We were treated differently than others in the stadium because of the social class we presumably belonged to.

A baseball game and other sporting events might get us thinking about group membership on a superficial level, but what really matters is then going to the next level. That is, how else does group membership matter at a sporting event? How does group membership matter in the rest of our lives?

Photo Credit: Author’s Photo

Dig Deeper:

  1. List ten groups you belong to. Identify which are in-groups and which are out-groups.
  2. Pick one of the groups from your list in question one. Is it an in-group or out-group? What symbols, behaviors, norms, and so on are used to maintain boundaries of this group?
  3. Investigate. Find an example in the news of a case where in-group or out-group membership caused great harm from the past 10 years. Explain what happened.
  4. Think of one in-group/out-group pair that are relatively harmless (don’t use team membership or any other pair mentioned in this article). Now think of an example where in groups and out groups are much more serious matters.