Migrant Integration and Cultural Capital in the Context of Sport and Physical Activity: a Systematic Review

  • Robyn Smith
  • Ramón SpaaijEmail author
  • Brent McDonald
Open Access


The belief that participation in sport and physical activity assists the integration of culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) migrants is prominent within sport policy and programming. Integration outcomes may be enhanced when the migrant develops facets of cultural capital that are valued by both the migrant and the destination country. This paper systematically examines the cultural capital of CALD migrants in the context of participation in sport and physical activity. Databases were searched for papers published in peer-reviewed journals between 1990 and 2016. A total of 3040 articles were identified and screened, and 45 papers were included in this review. Findings show that migrants’ cultural capital can be both an asset to, and a source of exclusion from, sport participation. Sport and physical activity are sites where migrant-specific cultural capital is (re)produced, where new forms of cultural capital that are valued in the destination society are generated, and where cultural capital is negotiated in relation to the dominant culture. The authors conclude that the analytical lens of cultural capital enables an in-depth understanding of the interplay between migrant agency and structural constraints, and of integration as a two-way process of change and adaptation, in the context of sport and physical activity.


Cultural capital Acculturation Assimilation Migration Sport Leisure Integration 


There is little doubt that, over the past 50 years, the world has experienced a rapid increase in the flow and movement of people across national borders. This has resulted in an increase in cultural diversity in certain countries, particularly in Western Europe and ex-settler colonies such as Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. For example, in 2014, the average foreign-born population within Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) member states was 13% (OECD 2016). This figure is considerably higher in global metropolises (Meissner and Vertovec 2015; Crul et al. 2013). A key feature therein is the transformation of the migrant profile from primarily European to visible (non-white) minorities (Castles et al. 2014). Many of these migrants can be termed ‘culturally and linguistically diverse’ (CALD): they live in a country where the dominant culture and language are different from their country of origin.

The term ‘CALD’ has been commonly utilised in Australia and New Zealand among academics, policy makers, and community practitioners, since the end of the twentieth century, to describe migrant groups from non-English speaking countries. In comparison to other widely utilised categories such as visible minority and Black and Ethnic Minority (BME), the term is more inclusive and accurate. First, ‘CALD’ acknowledges that both markers of race and ethnicity can influence the integration outcomes of migrants. Indeed, certain white migrant groups, such as Roma and Eastern European, may not have the privilege of whiteness extended to them due to their ethnicity and consequently experience devaluation of their cultural and social capital (Fox et al. 2012; Long et al. 2014). Second, the use of the term ‘visible minority’ to describe CALD groups who reside in a super-diverse cities, where the minority and majority population is statistically blurred (Crul 2016), is an inaccurate descriptor.

In many countries in the Global North, CALD migrant increases have sparked political and public concern over how well migrants are integrating into the ‘destination’ country. Integration is a government objective in many Western countries (Ager and Strang 2008; Castles et al. 2014), but it is a vexed and contested concept (Crul et al. 2013; Schinkel 2009). Integration can be viewed as a long-term, intergenerational process (Castles et al. 2014). It encompasses economic, social, cultural, and political dimensions (Ager and Strang 2008; Canadian Council for Refugees 2007). In practice, however, constructions of integration can be closely aligned to those of assimilation (Schinkel 2009). For example, integration may encourage seemingly innocuous facets of cultural diversity such as food, language, and dress, while simultaneously discouraging the expression of religious and cultural values that are considered to be at odds with dominant culture and a threat to existing power relations (Dandy 2009).

The intersections of integration, sport, and physical activity are brought into view by Western policy agendas which position sport and physical activity as a means to enhance social cohesion (Donnelly and Coakley 2002; Spaaij 2013b), and to assist CALD migrants to settle into life in a new country (Doherty and Taylor 2007; Walseth 2008). Sport and physical activity are sites for socialisation into dominant norms, practices, and ideologies (Hargreaves 1986). The value of sport in the resettlement process is not as universal or unproblematic as policy would suggest (Amara et al. 2004). The idea that sport can be used as a tool for the integration of CALD populations has been challenged (Krouwel et al. 2006; Spaaij 2012). Sport policy in this area appears to reflect broader contested discourses. Policies and practices may appear inclusive on the surface, but participants are expected to conform to dominant (white) structures (Taylor and Toohey 1998; Agergaard 2018). Sports governing bodies are often reluctant to promote ‘ethno-specific’ or ‘mono-ethnic’ physical activities due to fears this will counteract the integrative nature of sport and physical activity (Krouwel et al. 2006). Such ‘de-ethnisation’ is problematic because it fails to recognise or try to regulate the ethno-specific nature of the (white) ‘majority ethnic’ or ‘mainstream’ sport (Hallinan et al. 2007).

In this paper, we systematically review contemporary academic research in order to provide new insights into the relationship between migrant integration and participation in sport and physical activity. The purpose of this review is to identify and synthesise the research that has focused on CALD migrants’ participation in sport and physical activity in connection with the concept of cultural capital. In other words: how have sport and physical activity provided a space for the recognition/negation, valuing/devaluing, and production/deconstruction of CALD migrants’ various forms of cultural capital?

The concept of cultural capital holds considerable promise as an analytical tool to critically examine the relationship between migrant integration and participation in sport and physical activity. Bourdieu and Passeron (1977) first developed the concept and it has subsequently been applied and refined within various fields, most notably education (DiMaggio 1982; Lamont and Lareau 1988). Bourdieu and Passeron’s (1979) notion of embodied cultural capital, comprising dispositions of mind and body, has proven particularly relevant to sport and physical activity where it has been variably operationalised in terms of access to high-status cultural resources, educational attainment, cultural competence, and cultural norms and attitudes (Stempel 2005; Warde 2006). The concept has been used to explain, for example, stratification patterns in sport (Bourdieu 1978; Engström 2008) and opportunities for social development through sport (Mackin and Walther 2012; Eitle and Eitle 2002; Spaaij 2011). In the analysis presented in this paper, we draw on this notion of embodied cultural capital.

Cultural capital is implicated in processes of socio-cultural exclusion (Lamont and Lareau 1988). Different facets of cultural capital are not equally transferable across national borders. For example, when migrants arrive in a new country, they may face barriers to leveraging their existing cultural capital (Erel 2010). In order to ‘fit in’, migrants are often expected to develop new forms of cultural capital such as language, customs, and norms that are valued in the destination country. At the same time, contemporary approaches to cultural capital foreground people’s agency to accumulate and activate cultural capital (Bennett et al. 2009). Erel (2010) argues that migration results in new modes of cultural capital production, and that migrants have the ability to validate their cultural capital through negotiation with the ethnic majority. Sport and physical activity may provide a space to facilitate new forms of cultural capital, while also maintaining migrant-specific cultural capital that strengthens identity and helps mitigate against social exclusion (McDonald and Rodriguez 2014).

The remainder of this paper is structured as follows. The next section discusses the systematic literature review framework and the specific procedures followed in the review. We will then present the results of the systematic review. The final section draws together the main findings and discusses their implications for future research as well as for policy and practice.


Systematic Literature Review Framework

Systematic review is a widely accepted and replicable methodology for collecting and analysing scientific literature. The process seeks to decrease the potential for bias during article selection and enhances the transparency of the reviewer’s decisions and findings (Tranfield et al. 2003). Systematic review frameworks offer detailed protocols that reviewers must follow throughout all stages of the process. This review utilised the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) framework. Below we outline the literature search processes, inclusion and exclusion criteria, and the stages of eligibility.

Literature Search

To ensure the full breadth of international and multi-disciplinary literature was covered in the review, four databases were searched: SPORTdiscus, EBSCO, Web of Science, and SCOPUS. The keywords ‘sport’, ‘physical activity’, and ‘exercise’ were combined with migrant and cultural capital descriptors to allow for a comprehensive search with a greater scope of articles. Migrant descriptor keywords included the following: minorit*, diaspora, ethnic, refugee, migrant, immigrant, newly arrived, and CALD. To capture (embodied) cultural capital, the following keywords were included: cultural capital, education, knowledge, skill, language, resilience, confidence, cultural awareness, acculturation, cultural norm, cultural competence, and cultural taste. The keywords were developed from the research literature and existing conceptualisations of cultural capital (e.g. Spaaij 2011), and were restricted to facets of cultural capital. As such, broader concepts such as ‘integration’ were excluded from the search criteria. We acknowledge that various facets of cultural capital intersect with the numerous integration outcomes; however, we decided to focus primarily on specific facets of cultural capital as, discursively, integration has been described as a concept primarily concerned with economic and social capital (Ager and Strang 2008), thus neglecting diverse facets of cultural capital. A total of 4663 papers were collected through the comprehensive database search. Google Scholar was used as a cross-reference, which led to the identification of an additional 32 papers. A total of 1655 duplicates were removed, leaving 3040 papers.

Inclusion and Exclusion Criteria

In line with the PRISMA framework, detailed inclusion and exclusion criteria were applied. The criteria were developed building on O’Driscoll et al. (2014) review of sport and physical activity participation among CALD population groups. Peer-reviewed scholarly papers, published between 1990 and 2016 (inclusive) and written in English, were assessed for their suitability in the review. The time restriction reflects the fact that, prior to 1990, minimal published research had been conducted in this area. Earlier research typically focused on the experiences of European cohorts, who previously made up the greatest proportion of migrant flows. The focus of our study was on CALD populations who experienced or who are experiencing migration. Therefore, Indigenous populations were excluded along with African American populations. Time spent in the destination country appears to be positively correlated with increased participation in sport and greater acculturation (Wolin et al. 2006), factors that could indicate higher cultural capital. However, several of the papers failed to specify whether they were investigating first or second-generation immigrants. These papers were still included in the review as this is a relatively recent area of research and the findings from these papers can still provide insight into the lived experiences of CALD migrants, their cultural capital, and their sport and physical activity patterns. In theory, the cultural capital of second-generation immigrants might be greater than that of the first generation (Fernández-Kelly 2008). Additional exclusion criteria focused on the type of publication; book chapters, abstracts, conference proposals, dissertations, and commentaries that did not present original data were removed from the sample.


The three different stages of eligibility included the following: (1) deleting papers based on the title; (2) deleting papers based on the abstract; and (3) deleting publications after reading the full text. After deleting duplicates, a total of 3040 papers were collected from the initial search. Prior to the onset of paper screening, the research team read extensively around the topic of cultural capital to allow for a greater conceptual understanding. During stage one of the review process, papers were deleted via title based on the selected inclusion and exclusion criteria outlined above. At this stage, titles that did not mention sport/physical activity/exercise and at least one of the other keywords from either the migrant and cultural capital descriptor lists were excluded. To ensure inter-rater reliability during the eligibility phase, the papers were reviewed by both researchers. After excluding via title, 245 papers from the search were considered for further review in stage two, which involved deleting papers based on their abstracts. Abstracts were independently reviewed by the researchers and consensus was reached for all exclusion decisions. Abstracts that did not have a direct or indirect connection to cultural capital were excluded; as such journal articles that were focused on immigrant health and physical activity patterns without examining the broader socio-cultural context were excluded. The majority of these papers were published in sports medicine, sports psychology, or health journals. At this stage, 92 articles were considered for further review and read in full by the first author. The full research team met, and the first author presented any papers with questionable eligibility to the other members of the research team to discuss inclusion criteria and relevance to migrant cultural capital. We excluded papers that did not directly discuss facets of embodied cultural capital as included in our search criteria, such as education, knowledge, cultural taste, etc. Indeed, as a relatively new topic area, papers did not have to utilise the term cultural capital, but merely discuss any of the identified facets of cultural capital. At this point, commentaries and review papers were also excluded. A total of 45 papers were investigated as part of the systematic literature review presented here. Figure 1 presents a flow diagram which summarises the identification, screening, and eligibility processes.
Fig. 1

Systematic review flow diagram, based on PRISMA

The final sample of papers was analysed systematically by inputting data from the literature into a spreadsheet matrix. The matrix included the following sections and variables: author, title, year of publication, destination country, cultural group, mode of identification, group descriptor, (ascribed/self-reported) ethnicity, type of research, methodology, sample, theory used, cultural capital indicator, findings, conclusions, recommendations for research, and recommendations for policy. The framework helped to increase efficiency and consistency in data collection and analysis, allowing for systematic comparison across the studies and ensuring that the data collected from the publications would be meaningful to the purpose of the review.


There are limitations associated with systematic literature reviews (Mallett et al. 2012), and this review is no exception. A specific limitation of this study is its focus on publications in peer-reviewed academic journals, to the exclusion of scholarly books, book chapters, and dissertations. While this methodology is consistent with the PRISMA framework and the dominant approach to systematic literature reviews, we acknowledge that our study did not cover the full range of high-quality research available, even though this research constitutes equally legitimate knowledge (Long and Hylton 2014). A similar limitation lies in the exclusion of non-English language publications for the purpose of our review. Although this is, again, an accepted approach in systematic literature reviews, it is problematic in the sense that it ignores insightful research published in other languages (e.g. Tiesler 2012). We recognise that despite being an effective way to synthesise a large portion of the existing knowledge base, systematic literature reviews thus risk reproducing both ethnocentric and disciplinary biases in scientific research. We encourage future syntheses to incorporate studies in other languages, societies, and publication outlets that can inform our understanding of the intersections of migrant integration, cultural capital, and sport and physical activity across the world.

In the next section, we report the results of the systematic literature review.


Characteristics of the Studies

In total, 45 papers were included in this literature review. With regard to methodology, 31 studies were qualitative, seven quantitative, and seven employed a mixed methods design. Among the qualitative papers, interviews and focus groups were the most commonly used methods of data collection. Twenty papers triangulated multiple qualitative data collection methods, seven used ethnography, and four used the case study method. Seven of the quantitative papers used standardised surveys and the other quantitative and mixed methods papers either used questionnaires (n = 4) or investigated census data (n = 2). Nearly 41% of the studies were based in Europe, with 27% from the UK and the remaining European studies conducted in Greece, Switzerland, Denmark, and Norway. Other studies emerged from Australia (27%), Canada (18%), and the USA (13%).

Twenty percent of papers (n = 9) aimed to investigate the factors and barriers surrounding CALD participation in sport and of the remaining papers 80% (n = 36) focused primarily on individual experiences within a sport or physical activity context, for example, their feelings, attitudes, and relationships. Thirty-six percent (n = 16) of the articles focused primarily on young immigrants under the age of 25. Twenty-nine percent (n = 13) of the papers specifically investigated female migrant participation in sport and physical activity. The most commonly used mode of identification for CALD populations was immigrant (n = 11) and migrant (n = 6). Other popular modes of identification included stating participants’ country of origin (n = 8) or using participants’ hyphenated identity of their source and destination country (n = 5). Thirteen percent of the papers did not specify which ethnic group they were investigating. In contrast, 33% of the papers included a variety of different ethnicities within their samples. The remaining 53% of papers focused on a single cultural ‘group’. When the ethnic identity was given, 56% of the articles specified the cultural population(s) that they were investigating (e.g. Somali, Irish). The remaining papers (44%) categorised participants into larger cultural groups, such as ‘Asian’, ‘African’, or ‘Black’, or into more specific cultural groups such as ‘South Asian’. In only four articles was ethnicity self-ascribed by the participants themselves. Three of the papers specifically utilised the term ‘CALD’ (Caperchione et al. 2011; Cortis 2009; Hancock et al. 2009). Possible explanations may include studies being conducted in countries where the term CALD is uncommon, and studies investigating and naming specific groups of CALD migrants. The operationalization of the broader term CALD was useful as it allowed for the inclusion of white ethnic minorities and for comparisons to be drawn between the cultural groups based on capital re(production) and transformation.

A range of theories underpin the studies included in this review. The dominant theoretical frameworks in this field of research have been acculturation theory (n = 8) and social capital theory (n = 4). Acculturation theory seeks to explain the process of change experienced by a person or a cultural group as a result of sustained contact with a different cultural group (Berry 1997). Acculturation is a continuum that involves a two-way process of change. Acculturation theory differentiates between four distinct modes: (1) assimilation, the desire to be absorbed fully into the dominant culture while abandoning one’s cultural heritage; (2) integration, the desire to be part of the dominant culture while simultaneously maintaining one’s cultural heritage; (3) separation, the desire to maintain one’s cultural heritage and not to be part of the dominant culture; and (4) marginalisation, the desire to not be involved with the dominant culture and to not maintain one’s culture heritage (Berry 1997). There is potential for cultural capital to be developed and denied through all four modes of acculturation. The different modes of acculturation can also produce distinct types of cultural capital that will be valued differently in diverse contexts.

When applying Berry’s (1997) acculturation framework to the intersections of sport and physical activity, integration can be seen to provide the participant with the opportunity to maintain their cultural heritage while learning elements of the new destination culture. Applications of this theory posit that when CALD migrants are integrated or assimilated into the mainstream community they can attain higher levels of education, socioeconomic status, and health (Barker-Ruchti et al. 2013). While acculturation theory has been highly influential in this field of research, other studies examined in our review applied or developed alternative theories that challenged the shortcomings of acculturation theory, especially with regard to its static and dichotomous use of ‘culture’ (e.g. Joseph 2012a, 2012b; Fletcher 2012). In contrast to acculturation theory, these studies built on the premise that culture is dynamic, hybrid, and plural (Hannerz 1996; Nederveen Pieterse 1994).

Producing New Forms of Cultural Capital

A major theme that emerges from the studies included in this review is that participation in sport and physical activity can contribute to the production of new forms of cultural capital that are valued in the dominant culture. The findings suggest that developing new forms of cultural capital helped CALD migrants to either assimilate or integrate into the destination country.

When a CALD migrant’s sport participation takes place within mainstream sport settings, this can assist the settlement process through developing facets of cultural capital that are recognised by the dominant culture (Bergin 2002; Doherty and Taylor 2007; Morela et al. 2013). Bergin (2002) found that in the context of Maori migrants in Australia, the majority of sport participation took place in local club-based teams alongside (Anglo) Australians and this helped in the development of Australian identity. In Doherty and Taylor’s (2007) study, the sport participation of migrant children in Canada was investigated within a mixed ethnicity context. The participants reported that their participation in sport and physical activity helped them to develop facets of cultural capital that were valued in the dominant culture, such as enhanced English language proficiency, increased knowledge of the Canadian culture, and greater awareness of cultural sporting practices (e.g. changing room rituals, appropriate clothing).

Stodolska (1998) investigated Polish and Korean migrants in the USA, and found that social class had one of the largest influences on sport participation. Middle-class participants were more likely to use sport as a means to acculturate to the white American middle class. They believed that sport was associated with higher social status in the USA, and part of living ‘normal lives’ (Stodolska 1998, p. 397). In addition, participants believed that being involved in sport provided a platform for developing their knowledge about ways of life in the destination country as well as for interacting with people from the dominant group.

Barker-Ruchti et al.’s (2013) study adds another dimension to this theme. The young women from an immigrant background learned to embody a form of cultural capital that is highly valued in Western society, namely the dominant ideology that physical activity is important for health and appearance. The participants associated this ‘healthism’ discourse with academic, career, and overall integration success, and believed that only ‘foreigners’ did not participate in sport and saw this as a sign of their otherness. The participants desired to be fully integrated into the destination country and often distanced themselves from their parents’ cultural heritage. Additionally, Taylor found that female participants were more likely to take part in netball because they believed it to be an expected part of Australian culture and wanted to ‘adhere to the Australian norms’ (Taylor 2004, p. 463). CALD students who participated in Allen et al.’s (2010) study prioritised adaption to the dominant culture over maintaining their own cultural heritage. In addition, Taylor and Toohey (1998) found that many sports organisers in Australia had assimilationist views and believed that mainstream sports organisations were an effective way for migrant women to learn dominant cultural norms. In the next section, we shift our attention to migrant-specific cultural capital.

(Re)producing Migrant-Specific Cultural Capital

Participation in sport and physical activity may be used by CALD migrants to validate and maintain their migrant-specific cultural capital, such as the language, cultural norms, and customs of their homeland and diaspora. This allows CALD migrants to maintain aspects of their cultural heritage. An ethno-specific sports context has been shown to increase the social connectedness with members of one’s ethno-cultural background or diaspora, or so-called bonding social capital (Guerin et al. 2003; Spaaij 2012; Taylor 2004; Tirone and Pedlar 2000; Walseth 2008). Jeanes et al. (2014) found that newly arrived refugees preferred to participate with other people with refugee backgrounds outside of mainstream sports clubs in order to feel more comfortable and supported by their peers. Long et al. (2014) explain this further, noting that ‘bridging’ social capital and constantly trying to ‘fit in’ is exhausting for migrants; instead, CALD migrants can use their leisure time to seek belonging within ethno-specific spaces.

When sport participation takes place within the participants’ own ethno-cultural community, it can help migrants to mobilise resistance, safeguard against discrimination, and promote cultural maintenance (Bradbury 2011; Burdsey 2006; Fletcher 2012; Fletcher and Walle 2014; Stodolska and Alexandris 2004). Bradbury (2011) found that BME football (soccer) clubs have historically operated as symbolic and practical sites of community mobilisation and cultural identity production for specific BME communities. Various studies discussed how sport and physical activity can be used as a tool to help participants maintain cultural ties to their homeland (Bergin 2002; Caperchione et al. 2011; Stodolska 2007; Taylor 2002). In Tirone and Pedlar’s (2000) research, South Asian participants reported that physical activity within their own ethno-cultural community allowed for the maintenance of cultural traditions such as speaking the mother tongue and wearing traditional dress. In a similar vein, Joseph’s (2012a) study of Caribbean cricket diaspora in Toronto found that cricket helped to maintain diasporic community and generate diasporic consciousness (identity and belonging) with other Afro-Caribbean people around the globe. In addition, Stodolska’s (2007) research on the sport participation of Mexican, Polish, and Korean migrants in the USA found that most participants felt more comfortable spending their leisure time with their own ethno-cultural group as they perceived their humour, history, interests, values, and outlook on life to be different from the mainstream society. Stodolska (2007) also found that the probability of participating in sport within ones ethnic group is influenced by factors such as a migrant’s age on arrival, socioeconomic status, and area of residence.

Cultural Capital as a Source of Exclusion from Sport

Whereas the previous section highlights CALD migrants’ cultural capital as an asset or resource in the context of sport and physical activity, the majority of the studies included in this review also reported barriers to participation that were experienced by CALD migrants. Many of these barriers are linked to migrants’ pre-existing cultural capital which is often not fully valued and recognised in the destination country, and affect their ability to develop new cultural capital. Long et al.’s (2014) research, which compared the sporting experiences of Polish and African migrants, found that Polish migrants more easily utilised their migrant-specific cultural and social capital and had a greater understanding of the rules, norms, and etiquette required within sporting spaces which, along with their whiteness, afforded them greater invisibility within various leisure spaces. Their study demonstrates how capital formation can be constrained or enabled through racialisation and the construction of whiteness. Other studies reported that CALD participants experienced forms of racism and discrimination which decreased their desire to participate in mainstream sport and physical activity settings (Bradbury 2011; Doherty and Taylor 2007; Spaaij 2013a; Stodolska 1998, 2007; Weedon 2012).

CALD migrants’ cultural capital can also act as a barrier to participation in sport and physical activity. Firstly, negative cultural attitudes towards, or limited appreciation of, sport and physical activity can limit participation (Dagkas and Benn 2006; Hancock et al. 2009; Kay 2006; Olliff 2008; Tsai and Coleman 1999). CALD migrants may not consider sport to be a priority and it might not an essential part of their primary socialisation; however, they can still feel pressure to participate because they associate sport participation with the dominant culture (Cortis 2009; Taylor 2004). Other barriers reported in the studies include the following: negative parental attitudes towards physical activity (Benn and Pfister 2013; Dagkas and Benn 2006; Kay 2006; Ramanathan and Crocker 2009; Tirone and Pedlar 2000); perceived conflict or incongruity between the cultural norms of the CALD migrants’ homeland/diasporic culture and the dominant culture (Kay 2006; Sin et al. 2004); culturally based stereotypes (Barker et al. 2014; Taylor and Toohey 1998; Taylor 2004); lack of knowledge about sporting rules and practices (Caperchione et al. 2011; Hancock et al. 2009; Olliff 2008; Stodolska 1998; Stodolska and Alexandris 2004); and low levels of proficiency in the language of the destination country (Baines 2013; Cortis 2009; Crespo et al. 2001; Doherty and Taylor 2007; Weedon 2012).

Various scholars reported that a lack of economic and human capital can inhibit the development of cultural capital (e.g. Hancock et al. 2009; Long et al. 2014; Stodolska 1998). Long et al. (2014) found that a lack of recognition of migrant-specific cultural capital affects labour market participation which, in turn, placed constraints on leisure time. Financial and time constraints were found to be restrictive to leisure time and the participants noted a more positive pre-migration experience. Where the migrant possessed a higher level of education (Hanlon and Coleman 2006) or entered the destination country under a highly skilled permanent migration category (Tremblay et al. 2006), this lowered the impact of some of the aforementioned structural and cultural barriers.

The research examined in this review further found that when sports activities do not meet a migrant’s cultural needs, this can affect their sport participation rates. Many of the studies found that there was a lack of inclusiveness within sports organisations and immigrants were expected to fit into existing social structures that did not meet their diverse needs (Agergaard 2008; Hancock et al. 2009; Taylor and Toohey 1998; Taylor 2004). Sports organisations were often not flexible to address migrant time constraints and reluctant to offer alternative participation opportunities such as drop-in and ‘pay-as-you-go’ sessions (Jeanes et al. 2014; Olliff 2008). A lack of cultural awareness within organisations (Dagkas and Benn 2006; Hancock et al. 2009; Sin et al. 2004; Taylor and Toohey 1998; Taylor 2004) and limited culturally appropriate facilities, especially gender segregated facilities, were frequently cited as a prominent barriers, particularly for South Asian and Muslim female participants (Benn and Pfister 2013; Cortis 2009; Kay 2006; Ramanathan and Crocker 2009; Stride 2014; Taylor 2002).

Negotiating Cultural Capital

Another major finding from our review is that CALD migrants negotiate their cultural capital by using sport and physical activity as a site to both produce new forms of cultural capital that are valued in the destination country and to (re)generate migrant-specific cultural capital valued in particular homeland and diasporic communities. For example, Bergin (2002) found that core cultural values underpinned the ethos of Maori rugby clubs in Australia. These clubs were a community hub for Maori friends and families, and helped Maori immigrants to retain their sense of cultural identity and heritage (see also McDonald and Rodriguez 2014). Interestingly, these Maori clubs also attracted interest from local Australians who liked the friendly club atmosphere and either played at, or supported, the club. Tirone and Pedlar (2000) found that CALD participants desired to experience cultural hybridity, or the ‘best of both worlds’; they wanted to be able to take part in leisure activities alongside the ‘mainstream’ community but also to create leisure spaces where they could display and celebrate their cultural identity and traditions.

Several studies investigated the role of sport and physical activity in developing CALD migrants’ cultural hybridity (Burdsey 2006; Fletcher 2012; Fletcher and Walle 2014; Kay 2006; Stride 2014; Thangaraj 2015; Vermeulen and Verweel 2009). Fletcher’s (2012) research suggests that diasporic identities should be viewed as fluid and hybrid. Many of the young British Asians described their identity as a balancing act, juggling the cultures and traditions of their parents and the cultural expectations of the British mainstream culture. Through investigating national identities in cricket, Fletcher (2012) found that sport is one of the primary grounds for the contestation, construction, and resistance of cultural identities. In a similar vein, Burdsey (2006) observed that an increasing number of British Asians supported their homeland in international cricket compared to football, where more participants supported the English national team. Furthermore, Joseph (2012b) investigated the practice of capoeira as a means of (re)producing Black diasporic identity. She found that variants of Canadian nationalism are displayed through capoeira and that diaspora culture may be enacted to contribute to, or resist, discourses of nationalism. The instructors also used capoeira as a space for conversations about injustices against marginalised groups, for example to engage with First Nations communities who had also experienced marginalisation.


The aim of this systematic literature review was to identify and synthesise what is known regarding the cultural capital of CALD migrants in the context of their participation in sport and physical activity. This section draws together and reflects on the identified patterns, issues, gaps, and implications of this review.

The relationship between sport, migration, and social capital is a well-established area of research. In contrast, while the studies reviewed here draw on elements of cultural capital, only two articles explicitly discuss the link between cultural capital, CALD populations, and sport and physical activity (Long et al. 2014; McDonald and Rodriguez 2014). This is remarkable given the influence the concept of cultural capital has had in sociology and in migration studies (e.g. Erel 2010).

This review of literature offers some scope to develop the discussion regarding the relationship between CALD experiences of sport and physical activity and cultural capital. There is an opportunity to move past the rather static dichotomy of the ‘here or there’ understanding of cultural capital. That is, rather than placing the value of cultural capital within relatively fixed CALD or majority ethic fields, there is a need to conceptualise cultural capital in relation to individual habitus and the variety of social fields that CALD migrants inhabit. Positioning cultural capital within the larger framework of habitus and field offers to provide insight into the intersectionality (class, ethnicity, gender, ability, age), and the complexity of CALD migrants’ experiences of sport and physical activity. The studies included in this review investigated distinct CALD migrant groups. Portes and Borocz (1989) argue that migrant trajectories and integration outcomes are heavily impacted by ‘modes of incorporation’, or factors that vary between specific CALD groups, such as the context of reception, race/ethnicity, parental human capital, and the relationship between source and destination country. Indeed, CALD migrants are not a homogenous group; rather, the factors listed above can have implications for the facilitation, denial, and transformation of migrant cultural capital, both in sports contexts and other life domains.

This review highlights that sport is a site where CALD migrants (re)produce migrant-specific cultural capital that is both meaningful and valuable to them. Critics may suggest that this can have a negative effect on integration; however, research indicates that such critique is misplaced as it draws on a reductive understanding of cultural capital and of its value for positive settlement outcomes (Dukic et al. 2017). We should also note that sport and physical activity are leisure-time activities that are to be enjoyed and meaningful, and are not necessarily participated in for the sake of an ulterior motive. Individuals are able to exert agency over whom they choose to participate with; thus, many migrants and non-migrants will choose to play sport with people with similar backgrounds. A number of studies warn that caution is required in viewing people’s leisure time as a means to address social integration because participation in sport and physical activity can reproduce or exacerbate social exclusion (Krouwel et al. 2006; Janssens and Verweel 2014).

Returning to the Bourdieusian framework, the ability to ‘do’ sport in ways that produce cultural capital more often than not hinges on individuals possessing an embodied social history grounded in sport. Having a sporting habitus that aligns with the expectations of the field would be advantageous and indicative of species of cultural capital that are recognised and appreciated in multiple social fields. For example, McDonald and Rodriguez (2014) note that, for Pacific Island men migrating to Australia, playing rugby can produce legitimate forms of masculinity and offer the chance to maintain language and cultural practices while simultaneously demonstrating characteristics given value by the social fields involved with rugby in Australia. This sort of multi-directional cultural capital or, as Mila-Schaaf and Robinson (2010) describe, ‘poly-cultural capital’, privileges masculinity and favours the reproduction of ways of being. It is also racialised in that, in predominantly white fields, there may be a certain synchronicity between the appreciation of physical capital and cultural capital (Hawkins 2013). Hence, the cultural capital won on the field may not necessarily receive the same recognition off it (Long et al. 2014).

On the other hand, sport for CALD women (in the absence of a sporting habitus) may result in forms of cultural capital that are transformative, that is that they do not directly resonate with modes of cultural capital either ‘here’ or ‘there’. Walseth’s (2008) research into migrants in Norway suggests that sport for women from Muslim diaspora produces cultural capital that neither resonates with their non-sporting habitus nor with the expectations of the field (that is, that Muslim women do not play sport). Sport may, in this case, generate new forms of cultural capital valued by a diasporic field. As a social field, this imagined community holds dynamic potential as its structures may be more fluid and less fixed. At the same time, the liminality of such fields infers risk that, in ‘playing the game,’ one may actually lose cultural capital in the CALD space and not be recognised in the destination country either.

The point would be that, in thinking about CALD migrants and sport, the concept of producing cultural capital through sport and physical activity is never as simple as just doing. This falls into a reductionist logic that assumes that all experiences of sport produce the same outcomes. Rather, we need to acknowledge the agency of CALD migrants in their attempts to engage with sport policy agendas and recognise that it may involve considerable risk. Entering the field is one thing, but because capital requires recognition and appreciation from the field to exist, the power relations embedded in sport are significant. That is, that it would be harder or easier to generate cultural capital from sport and physical activity dependent on the field’s willingness to recognise this. Such recognition is determined on the intersections of a range of variables and markers, and it is at these intersections that further research should aim. Doing so will provide an enhanced focus on how different (and novel, hybrid) types of cultural capital can be developed simultaneously through involvement in sport and physical activity. This issue is of particular import with the rise of super-diverse (Vertovec 2007) or ‘majority-minority’ cities (Crul 2016), in which there is no longer a clear majority group, at least numerically.


To date, the prominent sociological concept of cultural capital has been rarely applied explicitly to the intersections of sport and migrant integration. Yet, many studies identify key aspects of cultural capital, even if they do not explicitly use the term. This review has sought to draw together and systematically analyse these disparate studies. This paper shows how participation in sport and physical activity is implicated in the (re)production and negotiation of cultural capital in various ways that are linked to processes and experiences of cultural inclusion and exclusion. In line with sport policies’ continued adherence to assimilationist vectors, the studies reviewed here provide evidence of CALD migrants being expected to fit into sporting structures that often do not meet their diverse needs. As such, the scientific literature indicates the common misalignment between facets of pre-migratory cultural capital and the forms of cultural capital that are most valued in mainstream sport and physical activity settings in Western countries, resulting in barriers to and negative experiences of participation. There is also evidence to support the argument that CALD migrants develop facets of cultural capital in sport and physical activity contexts that are recognised valued in the dominant culture. However, there is still little evidence to ascertain to what extent and how CALD migrants’ accumulation of cultural capital in sport and physical activity settings impacts, or translates to, other spheres of integration, such as employment and education.

Overall, these findings show that we need to reconceptualise cultural capital. Following Erel (2010), it is essential to step back from ‘rucksack’ approaches that view cultural capital as something that migrants either possess or lack, and instead aim for a multi-faceted conceptualisation of cultural capital that emphasises CALD migrants’ (bounded) agency and views integration as a two-way process of change and adaptation in particular contexts. Critically, the findings provide strong evidence that CALD migrants maintain and enact their cultural heritage and identities through actively constructing alternative sporting spaces and practices that validate their existing cultural capital. In this regard, it will be pertinent to consider how the growing prevalence of super-diversity within large cities affects the context of migrant integration by potentially decreasing majority-minority divisions.

Future Directions for Research and Practice

There is scope for further empirical research on the nexus between migration and cultural capital in the context of sport and physical activity. A fruitful area for future research concerns the ways in which CALD migrants deploy their cultural capital to navigate social exclusion and related barriers to participation, and how their ability to do so varies across different community segments, especially gender, ethnicity, visible difference, generation, and educational attainment. The research literature is still to fully account for these axes of difference and, particularly, their intersections. Another question that is ripe for further research is how CALD migrants’ sport and physical activity patterns and attendant cultural capital evolve throughout the life span, with a particular emphasis on (intergenerational) dynamics of cultural hybridity and fluidity.

The findings presented in this paper have implications for sport policy and practice. The most important implication is for sports managers and policy makers to organise sport and physical activity in ways that create and support opportunities for CALD migrants to develop different forms of cultural capital, which will benefit the participant in various ethno-cultural contexts. In order for this to be achieved, assimilationist tendencies within sporting institutions need to be challenged and inclusive practices such as anti-discrimination need to be embedded within all levels of sport and physical activity. Critical reflection is needed on the part of policymakers and practitioners to consider how mainstream sports structures may be adapted to better meet the diverse cultural needs of migrants. Current sport policy places an emphasis on migrants assimilating to existing sports structures (Jeanes et al. 2014; Spaaij 2012), and hence the cultural capital produced emanates from either assimilation or integration processes (Agergaard 2018). In contrast, more ethno-specific sports spaces, which generate complementary or alternative forms of cultural capital, are arguably considered less valuable because they symbolise segregation (Janssens and Verweel 2014; Spaaij 2012). CALD migrants cannot simply be expected to ‘fit in’ with current practices, especially where this implies that they leave their ethnic or cultural identity at the door (e.g. not practising certain religious or cultural beliefs or customs, such as prayer, dietary regulations, or wearing a hijab). We recognise this proposed shift presents a major dilemma given the current prevalence of (neo-)assimilationist approaches through which political and policy attention is drawn to the adaptation of CALD migrants and descendants into their new nation states (Agergaard 2018).

In term of structural changes, culturally and gender appropriate sports services, flexible programming, and cultural awareness education for practitioners can increase inclusivity. Moreover, to meet the diverse needs of CALD migrants, equitable partnerships between sport organisations, providers, community groups, and families are essential (Hancock et al. 2009). The existing research literature provides several suggestions as to how this goal may be achieved. Doing so will enhance the capacity of CALD migrants to develop cultural capital in the context of sport and physical activity that is valued by both migrants themselves and by other members and institutions of the destination country.



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Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made.

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Exercise SciencesUniversity of TorontoTorontoCanada
  2. 2.Institute for Health and SportVictoria UniversityMelbourneAustralia
  3. 3.Department of SociologyUniversity of AmsterdamAmsterdamNetherlands

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