Revised Research essay
Athletic footwear, less formally known as sneakers, can be found anywhere from the basketball court to the office. They are an object that most people own and wear. There is however more to sneakers than meets the eye. An analysis of sneakers reveals insights about ourselves and the social forces that shape everyday life. Sneakers can signify everything from personal taste to race, ethnicity, masculinity, and class. Sneakers are a magnet for the social and political meaning intended or not (Chrisman-Campbell 2016).
Sneakers date back to the late 18th century when poor people wore rubber-soled shoes named plimsolls. In 1916 the first mass-produced rubber-soled canvas shoes were made by Keds and referred to as sneakers as they were so quiet you could ‘sneak’ around. The first basketball shoe, a type of sneaker, was produced by Converse in the 1920s. They were a one-model-fits-all and commonly referred to as “Chuck Taylor” after the semi-professional basketballer. Converse held a near-monopoly on the basketball shoe market until the late 1960s (The Idle Man 2017). Today basketball shoes are a booming business. Nike is number 1 in the global sneakers market with annual sales in 2019 of $22.3 billion (Richte 19). Basketball shoes are purchased by many different people, for different reasons, and in diverse contexts. They represent a category of footwear, rather than a single type of shoe. As a result, the diversification of basketball shoes has much to contribute to an understanding of broader processes of social differentiation and identification (Hockey, Dilley, Robinson, Sherlock, 2015). Companies such as Nike use this, they know the fan wants to wear what the player wears. In 2016, Nike’s Jordan basketball shoes were the highest-selling basketball shoe with a revenue of $2.8 billion (Badenhausen 2017).
I wear my Air Jordan 11 basketball sneakers proudly. They are one of many pairs of Nike basketball shoes I have owned. I have kept some for sentimental reasons, such as the personalized pair I created when I was 8. I wear them when I play outdoor basketball, coach basketball, work, go to university and socialize. I wore them when I backpacked earlier this year around NZ and Asia. Even when I’m not wearing them they can be found on display in my room. Putting them on is the last thing I do in the morning before I leave the house, subconsciously signaling to myself that I am ready to start the day, thus helping me structure my everyday routine.
I wear my Air Jordan 11s because I like their design and functionality. Modern basketball shoes are a high-tech enhancement of player performance. Players place significant force on their feet, ankles, and knees and the game requires instant acceleration, deceleration, lateral movement, and jumping. The basketball shoe, therefore, is built to support, absorb shock, be flexible, and have stability. It is made up of four primary parts: the upper, the insert, the midsole, and the outsole. Basketball shoes designed for outdoor playing have a heavier more durable rubber. They are the most important equipment associated with the sport as they are critical to competitive success. Basketball shoes are also worn off the court as lifestyle shoes and fashion items.
As an Australian/African male who plays basketball, I chose to wear my Air Jordan 11s because they connect me to my basketball hero Michael Jordan. I am a fan of what Michael Jordan did both on the court for basketball and off the court with the culture of black pride. My Air Jordan 11s are intertwined with black ethnicity and represent the overcoming of obstacles and striving to be the best on and off the basketball court. It empowers me to see those of the same ethnicity as me wearing the same shoes and achieving great things. It gives me hope that if I try hard that achieving great things is possible for me too. By wearing my Air Jordan 11s I am proudly identifying myself with the black culture and I like the image I am portraying when I wear them. This relationship between sneakers and cultural expression emerged in the 1970s. It was acknowledged that the individual, by wearing the sneakers, is conveying their support for the movement associated with the shoe (Chrisman-Campbell 2016). At the 1968 Olympic Games, Tommie Smith an American gold medallist sprinter removed his Puma sneakers when standing on the medal podium, with his head lowered and fist raised, symbolizing African American poverty. This relationship is also intertwined with the way corporations market their products as markers of racial identity (Miner 2009). In the early 1980s, Nike signed basketball rookie Michael Jordan to an endorsement deal where wore his Air Jordans in NBA games in defiance of the league rules. Nike paid the $5,000 per game fine and ran the rebellious advertising campaign “the NBA can’t keep you from wearing them” (Chrisman-Campbell 2016). In 2018 Nike supported the Black Lives Matter movement by featuring Colin Kaepernick (who knelt during the American national anthem in NFL games to raise awareness for police brutality) in their “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything” advertising campaign. Nike also created a shoe for the Lebron James “more than an athlete” campaign to empower athletes to go beyond what they expected. By endorsing these athletes Nike is supporting their movements and appealing to a specific class and culture of buyers (Class and Class Relations – I can’t find this reference). Although this linking of shoes to ethnicity is intended to be positive it has resulted in negatives, for example, the stereotype that people wearing Nike All White Air Force 1 are thuggish, as the shoe has earned the title of a felon shoe (Belk 2019). New Balance supported Donald Trump’s protectionist trade policies, which led a neo-Nazi blog to declare New Balance “the official shoes of white people”. The company immediately issues the statement that it “does not tolerate bigotry or hate in any form” (Chrisman-Campbell 2016).
There is also a relationship between shoes and masculinity. For centuries shoes have been a primary item associated with masculinity and an important consideration for a male follower of fashion (Breward 2001). Sports and particularly basketball, function as a way black men are commonly allowed to have full access to American masculinity (Miner 2009). Organizations endorse individuals and promote their shoes to appeal to a certain class and culture. Black men are commonly presented as naturally successful and while white athletes must work hard to be successful (Liberman 2001). Nike in its 1989 advertising campaign “it’s gotta be da shoes” featured Michael Jordan and Spike Lee and aimed to have the white male buyer believe that their racial inabilities could be overcome by wearing Air Jordan basketball shoes. It is also interesting to note that though Nike markets to women, its basketball market principally targets men (Miner 2009).
My Air Jordan 11s are also an expression of my taste which dictates my presentation of self towards others. They are an external representation of my internal thoughts and views and express my taste and passion for basketball and black culture. This presentation of self is a strong social force that influences my daily interactions with others. It is argued however that taste is not individual, but instead deeply social as a product of socialization. That the ideas represented by the sneaker relate to those of the culture’s taste in this competitive world of culture capital (Bourdie 2010). This results in people subconsciously purchasing sneakers that represent their style and attitude that is in cohesion with the sub-culture that they associate themselves with. Conformity to rules and social norms results from a desire to gain social status and acceptance (Bellezza, Gino, & Keninan 2014). Sneakers also affect our perception of ourselves and of others (Belk 2019). This extends to the theory of presentation of self, when an individual presents themselves before others they project a definition of the situation which determines the interaction order, enabling others to have a strong idea of what to expect of them and what they might expect back (Goffman 1959). By wearing a specific sneaker in one’s community, one is able to position themselves in a certain light, such as “respectable” or a “rebel”. By wearing my Air Jordan 11s I am projecting an image about myself; my ethnicity (cultural ties to the black community) and my class. Class is a social construct that divides individuals by similarities and differences in their socioeconomic and economic situations. It is the mechanism in contemporary societies that distributes power, privilege, and inequality, institutionalizing social restraints. Specialized basketball shoes, for example, can denote a particular social position within the community. It is also a way for the upper class to distance themselves from the working class by displaying their elite taste (Class and Class Relations – I can’t find this reference). Conspicuous consumption also comes into play (Harwell 2015). There is a prestige factor that I can afford to buy a pair of Air Jordan 11s for $300. This image I portray when I wear them can lead to assumptions being made about me and become an aspect of my social relations. Some people may shy away from me because they don’t like the image my shoes portray about me. But conversely, they make it easier for like-minded people with similar interests to identify with me, leading to conversations and the development of relationships.
As this paper documents, throughout recent times, sneakers go beyond their form and function and reveal insights about the people who wear them and the social forces that shape their everyday life. They are an external representation of one’s internal thoughts and views and influence interactions with others. They are a magnet for the social and political meaning intended or not (Chrisman-Campbell 2016), and as the Nike advertisement stated, “it’s gotta be da shoes.
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