Leisure Research Paper

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The meaning of leisure has been difficult to pinpoint throughout history as cultures and technologies have changed, but is often defined in three categories: the possession of “free” or unobligated time, the participation in pursuits as varied as rest and outdoor recreation, and as a state of mind rather than a reflection of physical activity.

Leisure occupies a major role in the lives of many people. Its history, like that of most other things, activities, or concepts, depends on how it is defined. Leisure, however, has been particularly difficult to define for a variety of reasons. For one, it has been impossible to craft a definition that is both inclusive (i.e., all forms of leisure are included) and exclusive (i.e., everything that is not leisure is excluded). Moreover, few other languages around the world have a word with the same meaning as the English word leisure, making a cross-cultural understanding of the concept problematic. In North American and European leisure research, the term has been most often defined in three ways. First, leisure has been defined as free or unobligated time. Second, it has been defined as action or participation in “leisure activities.” Third, leisure has been defined as an experiential state of mind or being wherein meaning is the critical issue.

Leisure as Free Time

The idea that leisure as free time contributes to the development of civilization is central in the “surplus theory” of cultural evolution that developed in the middle of the twentieth century. The U.S. anthropologist Franz Boas stated this thesis most clearly:

A surplus of food supply is liable to bring about an increase of leisure, which gives opportunities for occupations which are not absolutely necessary for the needs of life. In turn the increase of population and of leisure, which may be applied to new inventions, give rise to a greater food supply and to further increase in the amount of leisure, so that a cumulative effect results. (1940, 285)

But evidence accumulated since the late 1950s, initially based on studies of the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert in southwest Africa, refutes the idea that food collectors have little or no free time compared to sedentary agriculturalists. The anthropologist Elman Service indicated that the Arunta, for example, an aboriginal hunter-gatherer group from Australia, have abundant free time, claiming that “The Arunta . . . are literally one of the most leisured people in the world” (1958, 10).

With the development of civilization, the amounts of free time, as well as its use, varied substantially between men and women and among social classes. In ancient Athens the leisure of upper-class males was supported by the labor of women, slaves, and working classes. In ancient Rome, public games, known as ludi, began during the third century BCE. The number of holidays increased rapidly with seventy-six celebrated by the first century BCE. By the fourth century CE, 175 holidays were devoted to theatrical performances, chariot races, and gladiatorial combats.

In post-Roman Europe, the agricultural cycle and the Roman Catholic Church largely dictated the free time of commoners. Sundays and saints’ days provided free time opportunities. Attempts to regulate working hours met with mixed results. A 1495 law in England prescribed a 5 A.M. to 7 P.M. working day, but ten- or ten-and-a-half-hour days were still common. Tradesmen often took an informal holiday on Mondays because raw materials were not delivered until late that day or the following morning, a practice that came to be known as “Saint Monday.”

The Industrial Revolution, beginning in the mid- 1700s in England, had the most important influence on the allocation of time to labor and leisure since the development of agriculture. It segmented days into specific periods of work time and leftover time through the imposition of “clock time” while factory work segmented families. Men, and frequently boys, left their homes to work in factories and mines while women and girls remained at home. Religious leaders often saw factory work as providing discipline and advocated long hours of work while recreation and play were devalued.

Hours of work declined only slowly from as many as eighty per week in early factories to fifty in much of Europe by 1847. The eight-hour day became widespread only after World War II. Although forty hours of work per week remains the legal standard in North America, France legislated the thirty-five-hour work week in 1998, and industry-employee-negotiated thirty-five-hour work weeks are common elsewhere in Europe. The vacation, another form of leisure as free and unobligated time, is also largely a product of the Industrial Revolution. Two weeks of vacation per year is typical in the United States. Chinese workers currently average about fifteen days of paid vacation per year, and Japanese workers twenty-five, while Europeans receive between four and six weeks per year.

How industrialization and technological change has influenced free-time availability is unresolved. In her 1991 book, The Overworked American, the economist Juliet Schor claimed that Americans are working longer hours since the 1960s because of employer demands coupled with employees’ preference for more money rather than more free time. On the other hand, John C. Robinson and Geoffrey Godbey, in their 1997 book Time for Life, state that Americans have more free time than ever before, about five hours per week more than in the 1960s. The contrast between Shor’s and Robinson and Godbey’s results stems, at least in part, from the manner in which they gathered their data. Shor used aggregate work time estimates from the U.S. government and pollsters while Robinson and Godbey’s data were based on time diaries kept by research respondents.

Leisure as Activity

The most common leisure activity for humans, both past and present, is undoubtedly resting or sleeping. The anthropologist Lauriston Sharp indicated that the Yir Yiront, an Australian Aboriginal tribe, devoted the majority of their leisure to rest:

Any leisure time the Yir Yiront might gain by using steel axes or other western tools was invested, not in “improving the conditions of life,” and certainly not in developing aesthetic activities, but in sleep, an art that they had thoroughly mastered. (1952, 82)

Socializing with family and friends surely occupied a major segment of the free time of members of early food-collecting societies. Games are ubiquitous in known human cultures, past and present, as well. Leisure in ancient Greece, albeit for male citizens, included Olympic sports, games, narrative and drama, art, debate, and contemplation. The Romans added several activities to those already practiced by the Greeks, such as gladiatorial combats, public baths, and the circus. The precursors to many modern games and sports were developed in central, south, and east Asia, such as chess (India), cards (China), and polo (Central Asia). Music, art, and poetry were popular pastimes for the elite classes in China and flourished during the Han (206 BCE–220 CE) and the Tang (618–907 CE) dynasties. Along with games, music, art, and forms of narrative, festivals provide recreation for individuals in both technologically simple and complex societies. Recreational drug use, especially alcohol, and recreational sex, including prostitution and varieties of pornography, have been common in most of human history.

In post-Roman Europe, between approximately 1000 and 1400 CE, leisure activities for nobility, clergy, freemen, serfs, and slaves were prescribed and proscribed by both secular and ecclesiastical authority. Hunting was popular with nobles but, when practiced by peasants, was often regarded as poaching and was strictly prohibited. Board games, such as chess, checkers (draughts), and backgammon were popular but gambling games, including dice and card games, were frequently forbidden. Stylized war games in the form of tournaments were popular among upper classes while feasts, ball games, bull and bear baiting, dogfighting, and cockfighting were enjoyed by commoners. Alcohol lubricated much of leisure, especially for males.

Many entertainments, including music, minstrel shows, the circus, and theater became popular during the first half of the eighteenth century while participatory and professional sports flourished during the second half of the century. Increased financial means for workers combined with new modes of transportation, such as the train and streetcar, changed leisure in Europe and North America in the second half of the nineteenth century. These ushered in a commercialization of leisure, moving it from the home or local gathering places, such as the church or the pub, to the countryside, amusement parks, and resorts. The development of the automobile during the first third of the twentieth century further freed leisure seekers. The expansion of mass media such as newspapers, books, and magazines in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the introduction of movies in the early part of the twentieth century and commercial radio in the early 1920s, and the rapid development of television in the post–World War II era individualized and commercialized the leisure landscape. This trend has continued with the introduction of the personal computer in the late 1970s, publicly available services on the Internet in the mid-1980s, and the World Wide Web in the early 1990s. Computer games and Internet use, involving activities from shopping to pornography, are now both major leisure providers in the developed world and in urban areas in the developing world.

Leisure as a State of Mind

The meaning of leisure has depended on social status, broadly defined, in human groups throughout history. In technologically simple societies, and even in sedentary peasant communities, the most basic social divisions between males and females and adults and non-adults differentiate leisure in terms of time, activities, and meaning. Prior to industrialization and the institution of clock time, the separation, and therefore the meaning, of work and leisure was less distinct. For men, hunting was often arduous but also afforded excitement and companionship with peers. For women, food gathering and some kinds of chores included socializing with family and friends.

European societies largely define leisure in the context of events and eras such as the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Industrial Revolution, and, in more recent years, the rise of materialism and consumerism. The Renaissance, with beginnings in fourteenth-century Florence, Italy, was, in many ways, in contrast to Catholic theocracy. The Renaissance notion of secular humanism held that human beings, and their works, have intrinsic value, apart from their relationship to God. Hence, art, music, literature, and the events of daily life are important and meaningful, in and of themselves.

Reformation doctrine, under the influence of the theologian John Calvin, held that righteousness, sobriety, faithfulness, self-discipline, and hard work were evidence of being in a state of grace while consumption and pleasure seeking were not. Hence, leisure is a lure to sin and a threat to righteousness. Calvinists attempted to suppress the festival calendar, sport, gambling, dancing, drinking, and other traditional recreations of European culture. Sixteenth-century Catholicism, in reaction, also tried to purge profane elements from the lives of church members. The pagan elements of carnival mocked Lent and, in 1562, the Council of Trent denounced the festivals and drunkenness associated with saints’ days.

In England, under the influence of the Sabbatarian movement of the late sixteenth to mid-seventeenth centuries, saints’ days were abolished, although Sunday was kept as a day of rest. “Blue laws” were introduced in England and America that prohibited numerous leisure activities, such as theater, as well as commercial transactions on Sundays. Remnants of blue laws, such as “dry” (i.e., no alcoholic beverages sold) townships or counties in some states in the United States, or the prohibition of certain kinds of commercial transactions (e.g., no Sunday auto sales in some states) still exist. While the Reformation and subsequent religious thought may have influenced leisure meanings, in many cases, traditional leisure pursuits simply were simply kept out of the public eye as with the use of alcohol under Prohibition in the United States between 1920 and 1933.

Outlook for the Twenty-First Century

Changes in leisure since the Industrial Revolution have been driven by the combined influences of technological change, demographic change, and economic change. The digital video disk (DVD), the cell phone, now with the capacity to take and send photos, MP3 music players, and even space station vacations are recent examples of technological influences on leisure. While young people comprise major segments of populations in developing countries, the populations of developed nations are aging. Both the kinds of leisure available and the economic support for them must account for these differences. Leisure in many parts of the world will also be influenced by the rising status and economic power of women. With many national and local economies around the world depending on tourism, leisure travel will increase despite the recent threats imposed by terrorism. The same forces that determined leisure time, leisure activities, and leisure meanings in the past will continue to do so in the twenty-first century.


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  12. Service, E. R. (1958). A profile of primitive culture. New York: Harper.
  13. L. (1952). Steel axes for stone age Australians. In E. H. Spicer (Ed.), Human problems in technological change: A casebook (pp. 69–90). New York: Russell Sage.

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