Performing Dialogues between Sport and Exercise Sciences and Medical Humanities

In Part 5 of the Moving Bodies takeover, Emily Tupper applies the concept of “performance” to the intersection of sport and exercise sciences and medical humanities. 

When playing sport, co-operation is required to create a performance. Sometimes we do not have to fully understand what another person is talking about to be in dialogue with them. In dialogue, we improvise and build on the things that are both shared and anticipated, including the things that we might not fully understand or even agree on.  

This is a familiar idea to folk who play or watch sport. Rather than think about this dialogue between sport sciences and medical humanities as between two “disciplines,” I invite you to think about it as a sporting “pitch” or “arena.” It is a space where individuals can perform their own work as well as explore points of connection. The rules of a game are not prescriptive. Instead, they offer a range of dispositions and orientations that encourage performance, and perhaps some improvisation.  

So what frames, tools, or methodologies can be shared across sport sciences and medical humanities? And how do we move between different ways of talking, writing, and researching the body in motion? 

Transitioning on to the pitch as players (scholars), we carry with us the histories of our learning and our experiences within institutions and other spaces. We also bring our bodies, which might be disciplined, trained, recovering, suffering, healing, warm, porous. We bring our tools, including our books, equipment, funding, collaborators and partners, analytical softwares, our pens and paper. But interdisciplinary conversations seem to be a bit of a leveller. They can reveal that we might be talking about the same thing, yet calling it something different. Although this could be exciting, it might also feel exposing, and even vulnerable.  

Interdisciplinarity as an Early Career Researcher 

My own experience, of being trained in anthropology, but being bought and sold (ah, the joy of the short-term contract; professional footballers and I have much in common!) between anthropology, geography, sport and exercise sciences and medical humanities is that a lot of this is performative. We are all trying to carve out careers and indeed livelihoods by developing our niches and research interests. Of course, we might also be trying to change the world. To acknowledge the performative element to research and collaboration does not have to be a negative thing (at least – it is not intended to be here!) It allows us to be honest about what our interests are, and to develop meaningful collaborations. I also believe that we can have “impact” in the process of how we do research, as well as in the process of how we implement research.  

The Medical Humanities and Sport & Exercise Sciences: An Invitation to Dialogue workshop showed us that the concept and practice of “performance” can also be productive in bringing to the fore seemingly disparate categories. For example, Clare Warden’s work with performance wrestlers explores how “violence” and “care” can occur within the same practice. While sport can set a stage for seemingly unrelated practices to come together, when analysing these practices in the arena of medical humanities, we might find that our categories for explanation have entwined histories themselves, and this can open up new ways of talking about and engaging with our research.  

Something that strikes me in all of this is the importance of articulation, description, and care. The way in which we engage across disciplines also has an affective register. I particularly enjoyed the “low stakes” discussion facilitated by the organisers of the workshop. Sometimes chatting and informality is what we need.  

The Workshop: Moving Bodies 

An important way in which the workshop contributors were in dialogue with each other was through the moving body and the notion that bodies and movement are something that we research with. Work is ongoing to find a way in which to communicate about the moving body in research, one which brings it in to the whole process. This does not necessarily mean making our methods mobile – although mobile methods are important. Instead, it means thinking more broadly about where movement is happening. As Megan Girdwood asks: Can concepts be “in motion”?  

So what can be shared or “cross fertilised” as the metaphor has it? How might this dialogue produce new avenues to understand health and wellbeing?   

Claire Hickman’s work unpacking sensory and environmental histories was fascinating and surely has much to contribute to the way in which we understand moving bodies in the present day. Indeed, the idea that normative bodily movement is itself invented reminds us that our sporting and movement practices are constantly informed by governance and power (Cryle and Stephens, 2019). And what better way to illustrate this than Clare Warden talking about the difficulties in organising professional wrestling. For instance, how do we set guidelines and regulations to keep wrestlers safe when professional wrestling is both sport and art

Another important question that emerged from the dialogue was about how (or indeed should) we represent the moving body, and how moving bodies appear in and through text. Bringing medical humanities and sport and exercise science together gives us the opportunity to zoom in and out, contextualise, frame, and reflect on the moving body in new – or at least “refashioned” ways.   

But this “refashioning” does not happen at the surface level. Bringing visual, auditory, literary and historical materials together in researching the moving body can enable methodological innovation that speaks back to public health narratives which have become sedimented. For example, Cassandra Phoenix and Marjolein DeBoer’s discussion on making sense of bodies through transitions and hormones invites us to think about the body not just as one, ontological whole, but as multiple, fluid systems, constantly in interactions with environments and spaces. How, then, might we bring together techniques and learning that can capture not only the immediacy of these experiences but their depth too – including the histories which inform how symptoms and spaces are experienced for different people?  

This was a thought-provoking event which made me think about the possibilities of dialogue, and the possibilities of performance; of bringing together varied points of departure in studying moving bodies, as well as different ways of talking about – and researching with – the moving body.  

Moving forwards, myself and colleagues in the Moving Bodies Lab are excited about creating further dialogues which take us out of our comfort zones and encourage us to improvise with one another in productive and interesting ways!  

This article is published as part of the ‘Medical Humanities and Sport and exercise Sciences: An Invitation to Dialogue’ takeover series, which is guest edited by Cassandra Phoenix and Rebecca Olive. 

About the author 

Emily Tupper is an Assistant Professor of Medical Humanities at Durham University, in the Moving Bodies Lab. She has a background as an anthropologist and is interested in the intersections between movement and care. Her research on movement volunteering programmes and how they form mobile, dynamic “healthy publics” was recently published in Humanities & Social Sciences Communications. You can find her on Twitter/X: @tipataptoptup 


Cryle, Peter, and Elizabeth Stephens. 2019. Normality: A critical genealogy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 

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