Social Science, Sport and Leisure

Spracklen on Why Social Sciences of Leisure Matter

In this article Karl Spracklen, co-series editor of Leisure Studies in a Global Era, discusses the emergence of leisure studies in the social sciences.

In the last half of the twentieth century, policy-makers and journalists were concerned about leisure because they predicted – or feared – the rise of technologies that were reducing the need to work long hours. In a leisure society, it was argued that humans would be free from the need to work to pay their bills; and the advances in science would mean all other needs would be met as easily as it looked in the utopian fantasies of popular science-fiction programmes such as Star Trek. The social sciences of leisure emerged in part as a response to the problem of the leisure society. Early sociologists of leisure divided into empiricists concerned with tracking the advance of the leisure society, and theorists who argued that the idea of the leisure society was a product of late capitalism. That is, as work places became less important in the meaning of people’s lives, capitalists and governments would use leisure spaces as the sites of social control.

From this first flourishing, leisure studies emerged as a formal social science, taught to undergraduates across the world. At the heart of the original leisure studies subject was a belief in the positive value of leisure. Being at leisure was defended by psychologists as a good state for human flourishing and well-being, because doing leisure allowed human agency to be truly free. While many sociologists of leisure in the later twentieth century provided Marxist, feminist and other critiques of agency in leisure, their criticism of constraints in leisure always supposed that there was some pure leisure space or leisure activity that could provide human meaning and purpose.

In this century, leisure faded from the public policy realm in many countries, especially in the global North. Politicians no longer think in terms of leisure – though they do understand the importance of sports, physical activity, well-being, lifelong learning, play, tourism, the internet, music and the arts (to name only a few examples), they do not have a coherent grasp of all these examples as forms of leisure. Similarly, journalists are aware that work is changing, and the things we do when we are not working are changed by the changing work patterns we are facing – but the idea that we can think of the problem as a problem of leisure seems to be beyond them, despite the long story of leisure studies and the debates of the last century that have their echo very strongly today. This is also a fault of policy-making around higher education. In the age of neo-liberalism, leisure studies courses in their old forms have disappeared in universities, replaced by sports coaching and events management, empty signifiers that point to careers without having any critical thinking attached to their content.

Despite the absence of leisure in policy and in the marketing materials of undergraduate degree programmes, social sciences of leisure continue to provoke and challenge people to think about the importance of leisure. Leisure studies flourishes in this global era, with new groups of scholars emerging in countries far beyond its original North American and European homes. The social sciences of leisure matter because leisure matters. We all want to have leisure to explore who we are as humans, but our leisure spaces and leisure choices are increasingly controlled, commodified and privatised. To fight this trend, we need to understand it.

Karl Spracklen is Professor of Leisure Studies at Leeds Metropolitan University, UK.