Sociology of Leisure– An Off-Shoot of Organized ‘Work’

Today, in a consumerist epoch, tourism and recreation form a sizeable chunk of the global economy. The thought to ponder upon is that it was not always in history that the ordinary man set aside large chunks of surplus as “savings” to take vacations, or eat out at fancy restaurants or even to go on a “shopping spree” (different from need-based shopping). If one were to delve into the philosophical roots of leisure as phenomenon, the starting point of leisure would coincide with the era of organized “work” coming about. The Sociology of Leisure thus became an established field of academic thought and started getting attention the same time Sociology of Work was coming about in Europe.

Karl Marx famously said in The German Ideology, “For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a shepherd, or a critical critic and must remain so if he does not wish to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where no one has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, to fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have in mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.

Institutionalised work began with the coming of industry in Europe and the beginning of the capitalist epoch. This does not mean that pre-capitalist society had no economies or that they did not earn their livelihood. In the feudal era and before that at the time of serfdom, men always did some work to earn their livelihood. But the coming in of modern industry gave rise to organized work. Firstly, industrialization made the division of labour much more complex with increasing specialization. Secondly, it earmarked what was counted as ‘work’ and what physical or mental effort was ‘not work’.

The idea of work at this time got associated with monetary pay and a ‘workplace’. This especially impacted the image of women’s household work, which was not counted within ‘work’ and ignored by Marx himself when theorizing about the classes and their exploitation. Women also form a class in the Marxian sense, with respect to their relationship to the means of production.

While undoubtedly Capitalism and its specialization in a large process created alienation within the workers- both from themselves and from the end product they played a part in creating; the promise of Communism allowing man to be a generalist as talked about by Marx in the quote did not hold true either. When Communist society actually came about in Russia, albeit the general production was in the hands of the communist party, but the public was still trapped in alienated specialised roles.

This specialization of labour or performing only one physical or cognitive action everyday is thought to be unnatural to man, whose natural pre-socialised instinct is that of a generalist. The increase in human productivity that modern industrial society demanded in order to produce surplus compartmentalized men into specific work ‘profiles’ and ‘specializations’. Such a cost-benefit-analysis of the world started defining progress and development purely in the form of fiscal and technological milestones. The labour intensity that such productivity required as well the accumulated surplus which had to be invested somewhere led to the concept of ‘leisure’ or ‘recreation’. The first ‘recreation’ was in the form of theatre, music in opera houses. Slowly, a whole consumer industry emerged, that both employed people and catered to people’s recreational needs. The concept was that after a 9-5 day of hard work the men required to recharge, relax, pursue their hobbies (anything that they weren’t paid for) in order to work up fresh and happy to go to their work drudgery the next day again.

For a long time in sociology there has been debate upon how to classify tasks as leisure. Not all unpaid activity is leisure. It has taken academia time to agree that we have to look beyond the economic criteria to classify “work” and “leisure”. The grey area between work and leisure is often a confusion in terminology. For example, brushing one’s teeth is neither “work” nor “leisure”. Similarly, cooking for a woman, is “work” (regardless of whether she has come back from a day job or not) . However, cooking as done by a man once in a while for a “hobby” is leisure. Shopping is counted in leisure, but need-based shopping for the household or basic necessities is a part of unpaid “work” or chore and is different from leisure shopping. The next point of confusion is that, in defining leisure in opposition to organized work and by saying that leisure, especially today’s consumerist “recreational” leisure depends on having a surplus of income, are we connoting that the lower strata of society who have no economic surplus beyond basic needs have no semblance of “leisure” in their life?

20th century sociologists have defined the Sociology of Leisure as “how people organize their free time”. However, in my opinion, such a definition only applies to the demographic sample of salaried/wage workers and not to owners of land or businesses who are not involved in the process of production/services. An owner of capital accumulates profit merely by charging rent for use of land and many such small business owners / shop owners who don’t sit at their shops are practically in leisure all the time. Is leisure complementary to work or does one need to necessarily be working to indulge in leisure according to sociological terminology?

Leisure or recreation had existed as far back as ancient Greece of 300 BC when Plato and Aristotle wrote. However, the current study of leisure is with respect to modern industry. Different religions also impacted the patterns of leisure of people. For example, Protestantism completely discouraged leisure and encouraged working every spare minute pursuing one’s calling. In India, it was even more complex as it wasn’t just that Hindus and Muslims had different work and holiday patterns (according to festivals or offerings of prayers) but intra-Hinduism caste divisions divided access to leisure unequally among the population.

Moreover, understanding leisure patterns in modern economy becomes interesting because not everyone can have leisure at the same time. Industry, services and more importantly the consumer industries that cater to leisure need to be running 24×7. So the question is how is it decided that who gets “free time” when and for how long and who are the people providing hospitality to those who come to enjoy leisure with recreation. Is it purely a distribution curve along economic standing or are there specific job profiles or regions or classes inclined towards a particular leisure pattern?

Patterns of leisure are also cultural artefacts of a society. They vary across societies and along the history of the same society. One can probably tell a lot about a society by analyzing it leisure patterns. Cultural choices, religious ethics, economic situation, infrastructure and technological stage, skills prized by a society, all of this can be deduced by how members of that society organize their free time. The 21st century is marked with an economy and market interests are global before they are nationalistic. As consumer needs also get more and more global so do leisure patterns. Earlier hypotheses of area-demarcated leisure patterns is changing. Within the same metropolis a hundred different leisure patterns are to be found. This is because of connectivity and a larger more varied consumer market catering to everything.

Living in a time where work is seen as a “necessity” rather than one’s calling, the alienation faced at work is remedied by pursuing one’s hobbies during free time. In my opinion the field of Sociology of leisure need only grow as leisure activities like hobbies are what really define people’s “calling” today rather than specialized “work” in most cases.

Picture Courtesy- University of Kent

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