Sociology Of Leisure Research Paper

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Leisure studies, paradoxically, are as much about work as about leisure. Indeed, central issues in the sociology of leisure revolve around leisure activities’ emergence from historical changes in the structure and organization of work, the effects of work on workers and their ‘need’ for leisure, and the ‘consumption’ of leisure made possible by employed labor in the West. There are widely differing social science views on the character and meaning of leisure in the modern day, and they reflect both disciplinary and ideological stances of the researchers. This research paper characterizes recent approaches to the study of leisure by sociologists. It reviews the history of leisure as a sphere of Activity in the West and looks at two themes that organize much of the literature on leisure—the time and place of leisure, and leisure as a reflection of culture. Finally, the paper suggests trends that will likely inspire changes in leisure patterns and, hence, sociological research.

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1. Approaches To Leisure

Although leisure is an increasingly organized and economically important social Activity in the developed world, sociologists have rarely made leisure a central focus of study. Rather, leisure is typically treated as ancillary to the study of work, and sometimes to the study of culture. Work, sociologists often assume, defines the character, need, type, and meaning of leisure, making leisure a consequence, or a residual category in studies of work.

Sociologists are not the only social scientists to study leisure. Neoclassical economists typically defined leisure as ‘nonwork,’ the time ‘left over’ after work, with workers’ preferences determining how they allocate their time. Gary Becker (1965) revised this presumption by arguing that leisure, as well as work, is an economic Activity. Leisure is the time used for consuming goods purchased through wages. Recent economic approaches follow on Becker’s ideas and often concern the ways in which people make tradeoffs in their expenditure of time working or consuming. For example, economists have examined the ways in which culture (Scitovsky [1976] 1992) and regulation affect this tradeoff (Schor 1991).

Anthropologists and some sociologists have treated leisure as a form of cultural Activity that includes artistic expression, play, and community building (Fine and Holyfield 1996). Anthropologists have been concerned with the impact of the recreation activities of the affluent of the developed world on the culture of those who inhabit underdeveloped regions being transformed by tourism.

Social psychologists treat leisure as an Activity that can contribute to the mental and social health of actors, a sense of ‘well-being.’ For example, those who work too much and leisure too little can become stressed and suffer social pathologies such as isolation. Social psychologists look at the role of leisure in the life course, trying to ascertain how organized leisure contributes to social integration and psychological well-being. This approach underlies much of the curricula of professional recreation management programs and marketing studies examining the impulse for the consumption of leisure (Zins 1998).

Sociologists have tended to view leisure from the perspectives of either social class or culture, or sometimes both (Biggart 1994). Class theorists, largely rooted in British sociology, focus on the conditions that create different life circumstances for workers and see leisure variously as an opiate for harsh work conditions or as ameliorating those conditions. Culture theorists focus on leisure as either an expression of values—including gender, class, and racial values—or as an autonomous sphere that produces cultural values.

2. Work And Leisure In Historical Perspective

Sociologists and social historians have conducted a long-running debate on whether leisure, as a separate sphere of Activity, is a modern concept in the West (nearly all studies of leisure are concerned with leisure in Western civilization). The historical record certainly shows that people have always had leisure activities. In the Greece of Aristotle’s era, leisure, not work, was considered the highest form of occupation. Sports and cultural activities were important elements in the ethic of self-cultivation held by elite Athenians who did not need to work; productive labor was largely performed by slave labor and agricultural territories under military control.

In the feudal period of European history elites continued to live lives of leisure when not conducting military activities. Chivalric games and hunting served both as recreation and practice for military endeavors. Peasants, too, had ample time off from work when compared against modern standards. The workday was dictated by the amount of daylight and the demands of agriculture, and was as long as 16 hours in the summer. Tradition, however, conferred time for three meals a day, naps, and refreshments. Historians have also noted that workers sometimes ‘played’ while working, for example by singing and dancing as they labored. The number of days free from work varied in different parts of Europe, but probably averaged about one-third of the year. The religious tenor of the time assured observances for holy days of various sorts including long Christmas and Easter breaks and observances for the birthdays of saints. The word ‘holiday’ comes from ‘holy day.’

Although there was ample free time in premodern Europe, was it leisure in the modern sense of time away from work (see Marfany and Burke 1997). Clearly, both elites and the lower orders amused themselves at fairs and tournaments, and had substantial free time, but they did not ‘go to work’ or ‘go on vacation.’ Life was lived more holistically with little separation between labor, leisure, religion, and secular life.

The ascent of industrial capitalism gave rise to the idea of work as a separate sphere of life and, therefore, to leisure as an alternative set of activities. The newly affluent ownership classes emulated the traditional aristocracy in leisure activities such as travel to spas and exotic locales. Workers displaced from traditional rural roots found leisure in drinking establishments, and a new commercial leisure industry rose to provide workers with travel and space for taking holidays at newly constructed seaside resorts and sporting arenas. The owners of new transportation technologies, such as trains, promoted their use for leisure excursions.

3. Time And Place

Paradoxically, it was the industrialization and urbanization of work that led to leisure as it is known in the modern world, the recreation (literally ‘re-creation’) of the worker. Removed from the land and forced to find work in urban factories, laborers were also removed from traditional land-based activities such as hunting, fishing, and outdoor games. The time devoted to work grew dramatically with industrialization, too, from less than 2,000 hours in 1600 for an English male, to more than 3,500 hours in 1840, often under brutish factory conditions (Schor 1991, p. 45).

The idea of the ‘workday’ as fixed time for labor started in the fourteenth century in textile mill towns (Le Goff 1980). Employers rationalized work hours and pay, and instituted ‘work bells’ to note the beginning and end of a standardized day of employment. Although vigorously opposed by workers, the idea of a workday and the temporal control of labor were well established by the eighteenth century. There was relatively little free time for leisure in the eighteenth century, however, in either Europe or the USA, but the time away from work was indisputably ‘owned’ by the worker. The separation of private and work spheres was a firmly incorporated understanding by then.

The factory system and other technological advances greatly improved worker productivity during the nineteenth century, and labor hours gradually shortened. Workers had more time in which to leisure and by the end of the century a ‘leisure ethic’ developed. This ethic encouraged people to use spare time for self-cultivation and civic activities. It was an era of the development of clubs—for gardening, sports, hobbies, and all manner of scientific and literary pursuits—and physical education programs in schools and colleges. It was also the period in which governments began to develop park and recreation facilities, and to see their management as a government responsibility.

World War I and its aftermath quickly ended the leisure ethic and the movement toward a shorter workday in the USA. The industrial complex that developed during the War spewed out more goods than a peacetime economy would consume. Concerned about economic growth, retailers and manufacturers promoted consumption through advertising and credit sales. A consumption ethic—‘to consume is to be modern’—was widely promoted by business.

Labor practices established in the twentieth century have greatly influenced the availability of leisure for many workers. In the early decades of the century managers began to receive paid time off as a benefit, but by 1955, 90 percent of US industrial workers enjoyed paid vacations (Editors of Fortune 1958). After the depression of the 1930s, welfare state policies more firmly regulated work hours and conditions in developed nations. In the USA the eight-hour day was designed in part to spread available work to more laborers. Coupled with a consumption ethic, workers had both the time and justification for consumption of leisure products and services after World War II. Leisure as cultural and social practice, and as an industry, began to take its modern form.

This brief account obscures important variations. Leisure time has varied by race, social class, gender, and other social categories. African-Americans, for example, never had the same rates of regular employment as the white majority. Social and economic exclusion historically created forced ‘leisure,’ with some arguing that this time gave birth to cultural creativity in music and other art forms (La Rose 1996). Time budget studies of North America and Europe show that women do more childcare and housework and have less time to leisure than men (Hochschild 1997, Pronovost 1998). Europeans leisure considerably more than North Americans. Some argue that this is because Americans value consumption of material goods more than time off, but others argue that Americans have little choice about the hours they work (see Schor 1991).

Leisure practices vary by cohort and place in the life cycle, too (Pronovost 1998). Cohorts are groups of people born at about the same time. Leisure researchers note, for example, that adults born after World War II—the ‘baby boomers’—have higher rates of cultural participation (e.g., museum going, theater attendance) than cohorts born earlier. In part this is due to the ‘period effect’ of being born during an era of prosperity with an emphasis on education. Cohorts tend to change their leisure habits depending on where they are in the life cycle, too. For example, young people consume more mass media such as films and popular music, and are more likely to participate in physically active sports than those over the age of 40.

Older people in the developed West are expected to—and expect to—retire. Retirement, a period of leisure and consumption, is expected to follow a period of work and production. Retirement is an idea that emerged at the end of the nineteenth century (Graebner 1980) and is supported by legislation, government welfare programs, the investment industry, and social expectations. Retirees are important targets of the leisure industry as retirement has increasingly been defined as a period of Activity for the consumption of travel, education, and sports such as golf and organized exercise.

4. Culture And Leisure

The sociology of leisure increasingly has been entwined with cultural studies. Social historians and sociologists have noted that leisure practice, indeed the idea of leisure, is always imbricated with cultural values. For citizens of Ancient Greece, leisure was highly valued as a time for discussion and contemplation because elites placed a high value on self-perfection (the original meaning of ‘scholar’ is to leisure). In religious premodern Europe, holy days taken off from work were intended in part as time for devotion. In contrast, the Puritan colonists of America frowned on leisure as time taken away from the performance of God’s work; they saw leisure as performing the work of the devil and prohibited dancing and card playing. In an era of rising productivity at the end of the nineteenth century, US values shifted toward the proper use of leisure as good for civil society and good for the development of the self. The Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) dates from this period. Its secularized vision promoted physical fitness as part of the development of moral character. Leisure ideologies and practices are a useful lens through which to understand the character of a society.

Recent culture studies scholars have continued the tradition of understanding social order through leisure practices. The mass production and commodification of leisure goods and services have given people of modest means and social status access to recreation activities that once were limited to the truly affluent. Cruises, time-share condominiums in luxury resort areas, user-friendly museum exhibits, and foreign cuisine are within the means and understanding of many employed workers. Global trade in media images and cultural goods transform traditional authority relations and cultural experiences once segregated by class and ethnicity.

5. Trends

Leisure is now firmly established as an acceptable and even expected part of a good life. Social practice and government regulation to limit work hours, and rising affluence in rich countries have given firm footing to the development of the leisure industry. Indeed, the scholarly recognition of leisure as an economically significant part of the economy is overdue. Spending on travel, entertainment, and vacations in the early 1900s represented about 2–3 percent of GDP in the USA, but grew to an extraordinary 10 percent of GDP by the end of the twentieth century. The influence of international travel and leisure activities on local income is substantial for a number of tourist destination cities and regions. International travel affects the balance of payments of nations. The leisure industry is increasingly large, professionalized, and globalized, and is both cause and effect of cultural and economic shifts.

The movement of people around the world for reasons of recreation, whether through travel or vicariously through film and television, has made distant events take on an immediacy and relevancy not true for earlier generations. Politics is no longer merely local, and causes such as environmentalism and ethnic conflicts take on new meaning for well-traveled populations and consumers of media images. Adventure travel and ecotourism to Nepal and the Galapagos can become the foundation for activism at home. The political implications of contemporary leisure have barely been noted.

The unification of work and play in preindustrial society was transformed into separate geographic and temporal spheres under capitalism. There is evidence that the relationship between work and play is shifting again, at least in some industries. Information technology, especially, is making it possible to work at all times of the day and night in any location. The eighthour day has little meaning for many knowledge workers, the vanguard laborer of the twenty-first century. Many work from their residences and the rigid boundaries between the workplace and home have little meaning. Leisure practices will remain entwined with the organization of work, but in new configurations.


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