Leisure And Cultural Consumption Research Paper

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Most definitions of leisure treat it as Activity (or inactivity) opposite to or the counterpoint of work. Leisure can be considered as a reward for work, as the purpose for work or as ‘re-creation’ to recover from work. In a postmodern society in which opposites are increasingly blended, we see attempts by individuals and institutions both to make work more leisurely and to make leisure more work-like. Thus, in their work time, people dress more casually, take sabbaticals or attend retreats; while in their ‘harried leisure’ away from work they ‘work out,’ act as purchasing agents for their households, carry laptops into the wilderness or master new work skills.

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A classic definition of leisure speaks of it as ‘freedom from the necessity of labor.’ In the economic sense of that definition, America has become a leisure society par excellence, since unprecedented proportions of its citizens no longer need to earn money from their work labors to obtain adequate provisions of food, clothing and shelter. While no one has come forward with a satisfactory estimate of the proportion of the population at that level of economic comfort, it is hard to imagine that it has not increased significantly since the 1950s—probably to include a healthy majority of the US adult population (not to deny the significant minorities who remain below the poverty line and need to work to make ends meet, allowing them minimal opportunity for leisure). Yet, those Americans who have no need to care for minimal creature comforts continue to be drawn to work despite any lack of its necessity for many of them.

Indeed, economists like Schor (1991) argue that ‘overworked’ Americans are working longer hours and enjoying less leisure than earlier generations—at a time when their counterparts in Europe have much longer vacations and shorter working weeks. Some recent economic reports proclaim that Americans now work even longer hours per year than Japanese workers.

1. Measurement Of Work And Free Time

Such arguments are limited methodologically by the data sources involved, in that they are based on estimates made by workers of their work hours rather than more detailed measurement procedures, using on-site observation, electronic pagers or time diaries. One value of time diaries is that workers report on all their daily activities, and not just their work time. In accounting for all time, diary figures are less prone than estimates to problems of respondent memory loss, self-projection and double counting of time.

Time-diary figures compiled over the last 35 years show a surprisingly opposite trend from figures from government surveys that ask workers to estimate their working hours (see Sect. 5.4 for some telling biases in these estimates). In diaries, notable declines in time spent at work are recorded rather than the increases or constancies in workers’ estimated work hours (Robinson and Godbey 1999). Nor do the diary figures support arguments that there has been increasing variance in work (or free time).

Declines in diary work hours mean that there is more opportunity to use such freed time for ‘free time’ activities like socializing, fitness Activity and mass media use. That opportunity could be lost, however, should the workers in question use that reduced work time for family care or personal care activities.

However, these same diary studies indicate that family care activities have also declined and that personal care has stayed about the same since the 1950s. The surprising result from detailed diary data, then, is that Americans during their prime working years (ages 18–64) now have more free time than in the 1950s or 1960s (Robinson and Godbey 1999).

To some extent, that increased free time has come about because of structural changes in the workforce and population, in that:

(a) workers enter the workforce later in life, mainly because they receive more years of college education;

(b) workers retire at age 62 or earlier, largely due to increased benefits; and

(c) workers past age 65 live longer and thus can enjoy more free time during those retirement years— when most of them are truly freed from the necessity of labor.

The end result is that, when aggregated across a lifetime, a typical person’s free time hours will notably outweigh time spent at the workplace (Ausubel and Grubler 1994).

The diary studies suggest that further gains in Americans’ free time are also being made during work years in the form of unofficially shorter working weeks, increased holidays and longer vacations. Nonetheless, there remains the question of why Americans continue to work more (and thus forego free time) than they need to, and whether they are incapable of appreciating leisure, as Riesman (1958) worried in the late 1950s.

2. Cultural Consumption

One answer lies in Rainwater’s (1979) argument that the costs of the ‘survival market basket’ keep increasing as community norms and expectations about possessions keep rising. Another is the increased media emphasis on the consumption of goods and services, as characterized by Schor’s (1999) ‘Overspent American’ and by Ritzer’s (1999) depiction of ‘Cathedrals of Consumption’—the ever-more elegant shopping malls, vacation cruises and home entertainment systems on which Americans spend the incomes they make from their hours at work. The hours invested in these goods and locales suggest that the ‘culture’ being consumed with these work dollars is rather superficial, redundant and spiritually uninspiring in contrast to classic leisure. On the other hand are arguments from some postmodernists who accept people’s ‘commodified’ popular culture standards as more suitable for them than those of elitist intellectuals (as argued further below).

Similar arguments arise from examination of the free-time activities chosen by Americans during the hours they are not working. As shown in Fig. 1, close to half of their free time is spent watching television programs that are undemanding and/or uncritical mainly of materialism or environmental degradation. Television hours dwarf time spent reading, and even that reading is rather undemanding (Zill and Winglee 1990). Further concern has arisen over the decreased time spent on ‘social capital’ free-time activities that provide the important social ‘glue’ that allows societies to flourish (Putnam 2000). The optimistic finding that fitness Activity has almost tripled since the 1970s (as part of other ‘healthier’ life-style changes, such as decreased smoking or red meat consumption) is offset by suggestions that even these activities are governed by values from work and efficiency experts.

Leisure And Cultural Consumption Research Paper

3. Free Time vs. Leisure

One political philosopher who foresaw many of these developments was Sebastian DeGrazia (1962). He lamented how modern democracies had overcome the ‘tyranny of man’ only to submit to the ‘tyranny of the clock,’ exemplified by the giving of gold watches to retiring employees for whom structured time was now meaningless. DeGrazia made a sharp distinction between free time, which can be quantified, and leisure, which cannot (although if DeGrazia could reliably ‘know it when he saw it,’ it was measurable in the social science sense). In ancient societies, the purest leisure emerged when individuals pursued activities (music, poetry, literature) from a personal sense of commitment, quality and fulfillment. In modern societies, DeGrazia saw such leisure in decline, even as free time continued to increase.

Perhaps the closest modern equivalent to classic leisure is evident in Csikszentmihalayi’s (1990) studies of ‘flow,’ except that here individuals seek optimal experience and joy in doing. Two ironic features of flow episodes are that (a) the sense of time in a timeoriented society largely disappears and (b) most flow episodes the author cites occur during work time rather than free time.

Like leisure, flow remains unquantified, so it is not clear whether such deep cultural experiences are more or less prevalent. One set of ‘high culture’ indicators that has been monitored since the 1980s concerns Americans’ participation in the arts. Table 1 shows the extent to which these arts activities are engaged in as spectators vs. producers in the most recent national study (Bradshaw 1998). Although level of respondent education is the best predictor of arts participation, and these levels have been rising, trend studies indicate no notable increase in arts participation across time. (The same conclusion emerges from trend studies of other cultural indicators, such as information levels, political participation and of community participation social capital. Delli Carpini and Keeter 1997; Putnam 2000). At the same time, some scholars have argued that it is remarkable that participation in live arts events has not declined, given the competition from easily accessible media. What is to be gained from attending a live performance of a Beethoven symphony one has heard hundreds of times on the radio, or a live performance of a Shakespeare play, when an episode of Hill Street Blues is easier to view and understand? Why visit an art museum when the paintings can be arrayed more meaningfully on an Internet site?

Leisure And Cultural Consumption Research Paper

The time-diary studies indicate that less than one percent of Americans’ free time is devoted to such arts participation activities, too small to be detectable in the ‘recreation’ block in Fig. 1. Even the Table 1 entries total less than five episodes, or less than 20 hours, of high culture participation per year.

Nonetheless, these data sources do point to several important conclusions about the nature of such high culture activities, in that they are engaged in more by (a) better-educated individuals (also true for many popular culture activities), and (b) busy individuals who have a long working week and are heavily involved in other activities.

Both findings fit in to a larger ‘Newtonian’ pattern of behavior, in which ‘Bodies in motion stay in motion’ that applies to other leisure behavior (a corollary to Parkinson’s Law that ‘If you want something done, give it to a busy person’).

4. Correlates Of Free Time

Who, then, has more of the resource of free time, which at least affords the opportunity or leisure, even if rarely used for that purpose?

4.1 Gender

While American women are generally thought to have much less free time than men, that is only true for women who are employed (Robinson and Godbey 1999). Because many women (aged 18–64) remain out of the labor force, however, the free time of women and men is surprisingly similar (as well as what they do in that free time). The gender inequality that is found is between working and non-working women, and that gap has been increasing over time. Much the same gender patterns have been found in most other Western countries (Goldschmidt-Claremont and Pagnossin-Aligisakis 1995).

4.2 Age

As expected, free time is U-shaped across the lifecycle, reaching more than 40 hours a week for teens and young adults, dropping to 30 hours or less for those raising families during the peak career years of their 30s and 40s, then rising to 40 hours again in the ‘empty nest’ years and approaching 50 hours in the retirement years.

The main reason for this curve is not age per se but the various role obligations that peak in middle age—namely work, marriage, and children. The more hours of work, obviously the less free time; however, as noted above, there is far from a 1:1 correspondence. Moreover, workers who put in long hours are more active in the arts, in fitness Activity, in civic participation, and in sexual Activity (Robinson and Godbey 1999; Putnam 2000). Getting married usually means less free time as well, as does having children, so that married women with children have 10–15 hours less free time a week than single childless women of equivalent work status.

4.3 Status

While social status may be a most powerful predictor of one’s power, resources, attitudes or behavior, it has little to do with how much free time people have. Part of that is due to the greater enjoyment of work (and other leisurely features) among higher status workers and the need for lower status workers to work longer hours to offset their lower wages. The rich ‘leisure class’ of which Veblen (1899) wrote so critically over a century ago seems to have given way to rich people who work 80–90-hour weeks today. Indeed, working long hours has become something of a status symbol in its own right, and Hochschild (1997) has documented how certain workers treat work as a consumption Activity.

4.4 Ecology

Surprisingly little difference in free time can be found by region, and in presumably less hectic rural areas; nor are notable differences found in different seasons of the year.

5. Subjective Aspects Of Free Time

Since leisure has been argued to be a fundamentally subjective state, it should require more subjective measures to reflect it. Four types of subjective measures that have been proposed as reflective of greater leisure include are discussed next.

5.1 Greater Enjoyment

When asked to rate the enjoyment levels of different activities in their time diaries, people also rate free-time activities higher than work, but the differences are not great; moreover, the lowest-rated daily activities usually involve housework or medical treatment (not work), and the personal care activities of eating and sleeping are rated higher than most free-time activities. Indeed, when asked to rate them side-by-side, most workers rate their enjoyment of work and free-time activities equally. Saturday and Sunday activities, when free time is 50 percent higher per day than during the week, are rated as no more enjoyable than weekday activities, further supporting the indistinguishability of work and free time.

5.2 Less Time Pressure

Despite the increased free time in society, more people now describe their lives as ‘always rushed’ than they did 35 years ago, with less discretionary ‘time on their hands.’ About half of Americans describe their lives as at least moderately stressful, and continue to report that they would give up a day’s pay to get a day off from work. At the same time, more Americans say they would prefer to work longer hours in general— presumably to earn extra money.

5.3 Less Fatigue

Fewer than 25 percent of workers say they are ‘very tired’ at the end of their work day—much the same as found in 1975. More educated workers are less likely to feel tired, as are male workers in general.

5.4 Appreciation Of Quality

The arts surveys do find increasing proportions of Americans saying that they enjoy more ‘sophisticated’ forms of music like classical music or jazz. There is evidence as well of consumption of more ‘gourmet’ foods and beverages. Instructive data may come from patterns of beer consumption, in which American microbreweries have taken the lead in developing classic and innovative new styles, but these have yet to capture more than 3 percent of the market; the mass-produced counterparts still claim over 90 percent of the market and there is evidence that the mass-produced product is becoming less complex over time.

 Further clues to how Americans feel about their time and leisure emerge from comparing their estimated Activity times with their time-diary Activity times. As noted above, work activities are overestimated (by 10–15 percent) but not as much as housework and other family care activities (40–50 percent) or volunteering (200–500 percent). Sleep is underestimated by an hour a day, while free time is underestimated by 50 percent or more (18 hours estimated vs. close to 40 diary hours). (TV time, surprisingly, is accurately estimated.)

The lives that Americans think they are leading, in other words, seem to match Weber’s ‘Protestant ethic’ more than the behavior respondents report in their time diaries.

6. International Comparisons

The conclusions drawn above refer mainly to studies conducted in the USA. Many of them, however, have been replicated in other Western societies, particularly studies of time use. Using data from the 20-country archive of time-diary studies at the University of Essex in England, for example, Bittman (1998) found average cross-countries gains in free time in the period from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s. These gains largely mirrored those reported by Robinson and Godbey (1999) for the USA. Bittman found most weekly free time reported in diaries dating from about 1978 from the Netherlands (43 hours) and Denmark (47 hours) and least in France (31 hours) and Hungary (25 hours), with the USA (34 hours) about midway between these extremes.

Based on the Essex archive database, however, Gershuny and Fisher (2000) found that British respondents in 1996 did not report more free time than they did in the 1970s. He also found an international trend toward more work hours for upper middle-class respondents across time, as work hours for the working class declined. Again, the extent that such workers experienced more leisure or pleasure from that work suggests the need for more qualitative studies. In examining specific countries in more detail, Robinson and Godbey (1999) found both objective and subjective measures of time pressure to be rather similar in the USA and in Canada. In Japan, free time had increased from 1975 to 1991, much as in the USA over the same period, with surprisingly similar overall amounts of free time in the two countries.

However, on various measures of time pressure, Japanese respondents reported lower levels of stress and subjective pressure than US respondents. In Russia, free time also increased between 1965 and the 1990s, but was still well below US levels. Reports of time pressure in Russia, in contrast, were higher than in the USA.

In all these countries, the correlations of free time and time pressure with demographic factors were rather similar to those in the USA. Women, the more highly educated, and those in their 30s reported most time problems.

7. Summary

The American way of life, which is increasingly emulated in other countries, has created more free time and thus far more opportunity for leisure. However, people describe their lives as increasingly hectic and remain committed to working longer hours than necessary, presumably to keep up with the culture of consumerism. Work seems to provide more enjoyment for people than is commonly believed, even if it may be far from the ideals of leisure identified by philosophers and leisure scholars.

What is needed to advance our understanding and levels of argument is more qualitative study of the meaning of various activities in people’s lives. There are several excellent individual studies of this type (e.g., Viditch and Bensman 1959), but they, too, rarely connect with one another, address issues raised by quantitative research, or are conducted with representative samples. The meaning of free time and leisure could be the ideal focus for studies using the ‘representative ethnography’ approach described in Robinson and Meadow (1982).

What is it, then, that would represent uses of free time to satisfy criteria for leisure, or the improved quality of life implied by the term ‘leisure’? Various philosophers and social critics offer alternative criteria and rare unanimity, but one notes some of the following features of experiences or activities that involve the individual developing:

(a) a (non-work) skill or talent for its own sake;

(b) a more discriminating palate or set of tastes;

(c) a personal cosmology or philosophy of life;

(d) spiritual regeneration or insight;

(e) stronger ties to some larger community;

(f ) greater self-actualization; and

(g) elements of play, curiosity, and wonder.

What seems to be called for at this point is the operationalization of a set of reliable and valid ‘leisure indicators’ based on such concepts, that could be regularly monitored to reflect whether progress is being made on the non-material, as well as the material, quality of non-work time.


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