Mapping the physical literacy controversy: an analysis of key actors within scholarly literature

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Background: Physical Literacy (PL) is a concept enduring controversy. Based on Actor-Network Theory and Venturini’s definition, PL is considered a controversy because it is a ‘situation’ in which actors disagree and there is ‘shared uncertainty’ around what it is and is not. Given the increasing expectation, in some countries, that PL becomes a feature of health and/physical education (H/PE) it is important that the profession is aware of and understands the multiple versions that exist, the actors who have assembled them and in the name of what. Purpose: The purpose of this paper is to map in unprecedented detail the controversial state of PL as presented by different actors on the scholarly web (i.e. peer-reviewed, scholarly literature). This is important, as actors assemble to create territories and these territories describe bounded spaces. This research helps to better understand what territories are being marked out on the scholarly web, defined by actors that work together to produce different PL ‘modes of ordering’ and the implications this has for further research, policy and ultimately, how PL is made to act in H/PE. Method: Utilising Venturini’s ‘cartography of controversies’, 77 PL scholarly articles were analysed to observe and describe the network of heterogeneous actors involved in the PL controversy, along with viewpoints, relations and ideologies. Finding/discussion: Analysis of the scholarly articles revealed that four clusters of actors have formed, each of which is invested in certain ideologies as to what PL should be. These clusters serve to restrict alternative perspectives of PL through a process of framing and deletion. As a result, a mix of overlapping yet contested PL framings that render PL ontologically unstable are present on the scholarly web. This instability can be attributed, at least in part, to actors who reshape their relations and bridge ideas across clusters and disciplinary boundaries. This has enabled porous boundaries and fluid ‘forms of knowledge’ of what PL should be. The implication is that the different versions of PL flow in many directions. Consequently, PL appears to be an attractive, all-encompassing concept, albeit understood/utilised differently across clusters of actors, that does everything from combating non-communicable diseases to fostering individuals’ embodied potential, with the possibility of addressing little in reality. Conclusion:As expectations rise for H/PE teachers and coaches to engage with PL, an awareness of PL’s various compositions, interests and logics should be informative. The solidity of each version of PL is highly contingent, and their influence will rise and fall with the fluctuation of alliances. The reforming and fluid nature of the PL actor-network(s) means that there is no single, grand narrative for PL, but rather multiple, and partial possibilities. We conclude by drawing on the findings to share four possible futures for PL.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)658-674
Number of pages17
JournalPhysical Education and Sport Pedagogy
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 2023


  • actor-network theory
  • cartography of controversies
  • health and physical education
  • physical activity
  • Physical literacy

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