The Emergence and Development of UK Leisure Studies

This address was first delivered as the opening presentation at Leisure Studies 25 (September 21, 2006), a symposium to celebrate a quarter of a century of success of the Leisure Studies Association’s journal Leisure Studies. The presentation is also to be reproduced in the Leisure Studies Association’s Newsletter in the Autumn of 2006.

Opening Comments
Thank-you to Leisure Studies and its Editorial Board, and to Loughborough University, for the invitation to reflect on the last quarter of a century and more during which leisure studies has established itself in the UK. Sheila Scraton is briefed to talk of achievement, Ken Roberts of weaknesses. So I’ve got the mapping slot, the chance to look back in a descriptive overview. At first that looks easy; after a little more thought, if I’m to avoid my views on achievements and weaknesses, the danger is that the title invites a chronology or narrative of contributions to the field. But such accounts are of course always selective, and I have had my go at such accounts in the journal – two gos in fact, in 1989 and 2006. So in this talk I will seek neither to repeat my views in detail, nor provide an anatomy or genealogy of the published field. I will refer briefly, in the following section, to some aspects of these published observations on the emergence of the field, but my main question about its development will be why it has not developed further, or impacted more, in the research and scholarly life of the UK academy. I will do this by making some general points about the emergence and development of leisure studies as both a research focus and an institutionalised part of the higher education curriculum , and then looking at the social scientific, mainly sociological, context of its impact.

Emergence and development

Leisure Studies emerged in the UK in the 1970s out of an alliance of interests; policy analysts and policymakers; environmentalists and planners; physical educationalists; and sociologists with a specialism – work, the economy, or youth, for instance – that reached into the sphere of leisure. Social history also made telling contributions, in work on recreation and moral reform, leisure and social control, and social class as an influence upon taste and popular culture, work often related to the early phase of industrialization in Britain. The Leisure Studies Association (LSA) was formed in the mid-1970s and created conferences and publications that felt topical, timely and interventionist. You can consult the LSA website on this and see the range of coverage. The journal was a direct consequence of these activities, and the excitement among the early editorial board – meeting in the late John Roberts’s home in North London, or at a no-charge polytechnic boardroom or base in central London – was generated by the aspiration to establish a genuinely interdisciplinary initiative relevant to issues of the day; and to do so in a rigorous and scholarly, yet accessible, form. In those early days Stan Parker always questioned the need for extensive footnotes or over-long lists of references – this was, it is important to add, several years before the spectre of the Research Selectivity initiative in the universities, to become, in its third guise in 1992, the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). The journal was open to applied research, analyses of professional practice, interdisciplinary approaches, and discipline-based contributions (say, in history or political science, certainly not just sociology) that would inform an understanding of the place of leisure in particular times and places. I leave it to colleagues, for the moment, to judge whether the journal has managed to uphold these founding principles.

Of course there was earlier work on leisure, preceding the shaping of leisure studies as a subject community or association. Among the most prominent names in the UK were Ken Roberts, who published Leisure in 1970, and Stan Parker, hot on the heels of Ken the following year with The Future of Work and Leisure. A couple of years later Parker, together with the Smiths (Michael from Salford and Cyril from the governmental policy sector), published the edited collection Leisure and Society in Britain. This was when Penguin was still publishing academic books, when New Society was prospering, and the collection was published by the Allen Lane division of Penguin Books. Michael Smith, primary drafter of the general introduction to the book, argued for leisure to be seen as ‘a positive experience of freedom; of freedom to enter into obligations and relationships, to pursue interests and opportunities’ (p. 5). Re-reading this, there’s an emancipatory idealism at the heart of such a project. It’s fair to say, I think, that this phase of the study of leisure was driven by a kind of liberal interventionism, undeniably a form of cultural politics. One of the fascinating things, looking back the third of a century to the Penguin collection, is to see that Raymond Williams features in the opening part and the (fifth) and final part of the Reader, defining (primarily working-class) cultural institutions, and proposing alternative cultural relations (re-shapings). The liberal interventionists saw no problem in this: a different emphasis maybe, but in its eloquent and literary Williamsesque radicalism, part of the same overall debate. The reader/text began with culture, ended with education, planning and policies, and in between gave space to contributions on work, the life-cycle, and the leisure industries.

As the field further developed, challenges from more radical sociologies, figurational sociology, cultural studies, black studies, feminism, radical geographies, let alone post-modern frameworks and epistemologies driven by cultural politics, were to expose the fragility of any consensual approach. But when we look at the leisure-related work published initially in the field, by both the LSA and the journal, we should not write off the vision of these pre-journal and pre-Association pioneers.

As leisure studies emerged in master’s and then undergraduate programmes of the HE institutions, out of Physical Education and Recreation Management bases, perhaps the policy and planning, and critical sociological, frameworks, came to dominate the university and polytechnic curricula. And, as I have discussed in Leisure Studies 25/3, with sport science leading the way in its BASES-inspired specialisms, (1) and with the RAE stimulating specialist claims in university research, the all-embracing framework of leisure studies has lost ground to the more marketable sport tag. Systematic work needs to be done on these trends in curriculum design and national institutional positioning, but I suspect that we all began to lose our nerve in the mid-1990s, when it became clear just what the stakes of the RAE actually were; I handed on the BSA Leisure and Recreation Joint Study Group, (2) and with John Sugden established the Sociology of Sport Study Group. As an institutional RAE manager, I withdrew from my role as LSA Publications Officer, and directed my staff towards the journals. Leisure Studies, the journal, may have benefited from this – if the Brighton experience is typical of other colleagues – but leisure studies, the field, certainly has not. Our biggest undergraduate programme in the Sport and Leisure Cultures area in Brighton was Leisure Policy and Administration; now it is Sport Journalism. Getting the confident recruits to the latter to recognise the importance of locating sport within cultures, discourses and politics of leisure has turned out to be one of my most demanding pedagogic challenges. For more of my public self-denunciations – perhaps I’m affected at the moment by my current reading of the biography of Mao Tse-Tung – please see the discussion with David Andrews in Leisure Studies 25 (3). But let me now move back from the curriculum to the wider academic context, and, recognising the prominence of the sociological in the emergence and development of leisure studies, ask how work in our field has fared in the wider social scientific landscape.

Leisure in – or out of – the social scientific canon

Where, then, does the subject leisure fit in the social sciences? For the purposes of this overview I have taken a look at some basic contemporary sociological sources. Oxford University Press’s A Dictionary of Sociology (edited by John Scott and Gordon Marshall, 2005) offers a very brief overview of some sociological concerns with the theme of leisure, but claims that ‘leisure has rarely been a central concern of sociologists. However, as a consequence of the “cultural turn” in English-speaking sociology in the early 1990s there were signs of increasing sociological interest in the media, sport, cultural studies and consumerism, and so the subject of leisure generally may come to feature more persistently in future research’ (p. 359). Chris Rojek’s (mid-1980s) theoretical overview and intervention is cited at the end of this entry/commentary.

How long does it take for such signs to manifest themselves in the mainstream, or at least in the wider sociological consciousness? Is a decade and more long enough? Or is even the cautious judgement of these prominent dictionary writers a case of over-optimism? In 2006, Anthony Giddens published the 5th. edition of his Polity Press book, Sociology. In his 22 chapters and 1,094 pages he found no need for any separate entry or subsection, let alone chapter, for ‘leisure’. Early chapters on defining the subject, the globalized world, and theoretical thinking are followed by ones dedicated to social interaction and everyday life, the life-course, families, health, class and stratification, poverty and welfare, inequality, sex and gender, race and religion, media, organization and networks, education, work, crime and deviance, politics (and terrorism), cities and urban spaces, and environment and risk. OK, you might think, the topic of leisure is so well-established now that it needs no chapter of its own; it permeates numerous of those chapter topics: Anthony Giddens, author at postgraduate level of a dissertation touching on the sociology of leisure/sport, will have integrated our social scientific understanding of leisure into his overarching analysis of society. So it does not matter that leisure – and the same goes for sport – does not even warrant an entry in the index. It will appear, from time to time, in his coverage – how could you talk about the media without touching on changing leisure patterns, everyday life without addressing the nature of non-work practice? But such academic uses of leisure are usually employed as an illustration of some bigger theoretical point: for instance, in the way that Robert Puttnam has used the bowling-alley as a metaphor for the decline in civic participation and communal cultural practice of the citizens of the USA. Giddens actually uses Puttnam’s work in his chapter on organizations and networks.

Among the sociologists

BSA 2006 had one of those great general titles – ‘Sociology, Social Order(s) and Disorder(s) – that allow you to offer anything at all, as long as the identified streams are accommodating enough. And if not – as BSA 2007 is offering – there is often an Open Stream. In Harrogate there were round about 220 papers, 3 plenaries, a dozen or so study group or panel meetings, and 9 posters. Leisure (the same goes for sport and tourism) featured in no stream headings. The main headings were Cities/Spaces, Citizenship, Culture, Gender/Sexuality, Crime, Identity, Education, Risk/Safety/Justice, International Order, and, lest there not be enough chances for you there, Social Theory, Researching, and History. Around 57 papers offered under these headings might have been acceptable on an LSA conference programme – certainly at least in a programme such as our Sussex conferences in 1984 and the end of that decade. But leisure was approached in these sociological circles as an aspect of deviance, consumption, cultural identity, public space, urban lifestyle, youth culture, or public policy – and the list could go on. There is, as I’ve implied above, an argument that this registers as a success for the field. But, the papers that I attended on the nineteenth century history of urban leisure, on the remaking of heritage spaces, and on changing sources of and influences upon cultural identity in post-war Britain, cited virtually none of what, from the perspective of the LSA, its publications and its journal, might be claimed as the established leisure studies literature. What should we learn from this? That contemporary sociologists are relatively ill-read? That databases under-represent the research and scholarship achieved by leisure scholars and researchers? That the leisure studies community speaks in too limited circles and networks? More systematic analysis of these questions might lead the leisure studies constituency to consider future alliances with disciplines and complementary interdisciplinary fields.

Concluding observations and plea

David Riesman, author of The Lonely Crowd (1950), included several essays on leisure in his Abundance for What? And Other Essays (1964). His 1957 essay noted the importance of leisure (i) in providing meaning, satisfaction and challenges that work no longer provides; (ii) in its increasing indistinctness from work, with interpersonal relations growing in importance (I remain a little confused about this point); and (iii) expressing in non-work spheres ‘widely shared roles as consumers’ that ‘influence’ workers’ outlooks ‘as much as their segregated roles as producers’. In other words, Riesman postulated that leisure – conceived as time and activities away from formal work and occupational activity – has become a source of identity in a period of increasingly selective consumption: in Riesman’s terms, workers’ leisure-time specialities articulate ‘income or prestige or both’ (p. 155).There is a rebalancing under way here, with status accruing from leisure rather than work (p. 154). Yet, as Riesman observed in a further essay on ‘Leisure and Work in a Post-Industrial Society’ (1958) the sociological significance of leisure remained scarcely developed in comparison to the sociology of work or occupations: ‘we have little comparable information concerning the sociology of leisure … very few inventories of how leisure is actually spent’ (p. 174).

Half a century on in the UK we can claim to have moved beyond this starting point. And as a Professor of Leisure Studies I am grateful for the opportunity to have done work in an interesting and socially extremely important field, to have contributed to work and study on leisure, its place in contemporary life, and leisure-related institutions and practices such as sport. The title has allowed me to be true to my intellectual roots in the humanities and undertake contemporary historical analyses, as well as addressing and debating with political scientists, sociologists and social theorists on conceptual and theoretical questions concerning citizenship, civil society, consumption, identity, spectacle, and globalization. Some forms of leisure have afforded us undreamt-of opportunities to research, debate and speak internationally: the essential internationalism of sport and tourism has made this possible. Professor of Leisure Studies has also been a good ice-breaker at parties and social gatherings, among doctors and social workers, bankers and management developers: I feel that I should reveal this professional identity with a relaxed look and an air of composure. But if leisure studies is to make still more of its potential in the UK we should not relax too easily: there remains much to be done. Here is my own plea for the future.

First, play to interdisciplinary strengths, both in our publishing strategy in our own journal and in appropriate other interdisciplinary and discipline-based journals. Journals concerned with gender, cultural studies, cultural theory, media, race/ethnicity, space and politics, the city and public culture – submit our work to these as well as to the leisure, sport, tourism, and physical education journals, and we might fulfil the promise hinted at in the Oxford Dictionary’s glance at our field. And enter dialogue with the disciplines. We have done this over the years with the BSA (in the Leisure and Recreation, and Sociology of Sport groups), but not enough, or at least not with sufficient consistency, to profile the scholarly accomplishments of the field and get our work cited and recognised (as my comments on the BSA 2006 event evidence). But we should show the disciplines that they should draw upon the accomplishments of interdisciplinary fields. At its annual conference in Reading in 2006 the Political Studies Association staged the first meeting of its new research group on sport: papers on sport policy, contestation of water-based sports space, a critical theorisation of sport, and the political economy of football (and community) were included in the two sessions: it felt exciting and innovative to be there. If we are truly interdisciplinary we must keep up with, and continue to get to know, the disciplines, and in turn show those disciplines the quality and import of the work that we are doing. Our challenge – in agenda-setting for research, in the identification of research degree projects and recruits, and in curriculum design at undergraduate and postgraduate levels – is to sustain the promise of the connection-making cross and inter-disciplinary approach: to avoid a fragmentation back into the disciplines, a fragmentation in which leisure studies is almost absent from the UCAS listing, and its profile and quality of output questioned by the 2001 (69) RAE panel.

Second, consider in general where the future of leisure studies lies – what are its constituencies thirty years on from the founding of the LSA, a quarter of a century into the journal’s history? Has cultural studies stolen its thunder? Have ESRC (3) programmes in consumption and identity handed much of its potential over to the sociology, revived geography, economics, and cultural studies departments? Do programmes like Liverpool University and Warwick’s third-year options in leisure and sport (the sociology and politics thereof) pull a recruitment carpet from under leisure studies itself? Where are the policy-makers and educationalists of 2006 for whom leisure is a professional concern and an intellectual challenge?

Third, draw up a research agenda – rather like the late 1970s SSRC/Sports Council joint programme, stimulated by Mike Collins. Would a comparable agenda look credible today? Or has UK leisure studies been trumped by the specialisms of sport studies and tourism studies, pushed back to the margins by the sweeping generalities of cultural studies and (in our increasingly mediated cultural landscapes) media studies? Has leisure, as a topic, been downgraded in the schools, into some mix of geography and business, going nowhere as far as the HE curriculum is concerned (or perhaps into hospitality and tourism)?

Fourth, and finally, review the professional profile of leisure studies, the relation between the LSA and its journal. There have been fall-outs between these two flagships of the field, and many of us regret that the original LSA signatories to the deal establishing the journal did not keep a controlling interest for the association in the journal. I do not want to raise ugly family history at an anniversary event, and it is an unusual situation to which I refer: I know of no comparable one in sociology or sport history. But do we make the most of our main accomplishments here? For instance, do we profile the publications list sufficiently in the journal?

My plea then is to take up these four points more explicitly. We may conclude, with the founders of the Association and the planners of the journal, that leisure studies is at heart an interdisciplinary research field. ‘Nothing lasts forever’, as Brian Ferry warbled. Where today is industrial relations as a field? Where are the postgraduate programmes in trades union studies? But if we look about at some of the recurrent public issues of the day in the UK – the culture of childhood, ASBOS, healthy eating, exercise and the moral panic relating to obesity, corruption in sport institutions and practices, travel and the environment, creative industries and consumption, work and the knowledge economy, cyberculture and communication, community regeneration, sustainable anything – I can’t think of a better academic and intellectual space to occupy than leisure studies, from which to stake a claim to undertake relevant, rigorous and challenging teaching and research. I sincerely hope that at the 50th anniversary of the journal a (currently) young colleague will be able to repeat this sentiment.

(1) BASES stands for the British Association for Sport and Exercise Sciences (formerly the British Association of Sport Sciences).
(2) BSA stands for the British Sociological Association.
(3) ESRC stands for the Economic and Social Research Council.
(4) SSRC stands for the Social Science Research Council, forerunner of the ESRC (see note 3 above).

© Alan Tomlinson

Alan Tomlinson
Professor of Leisure Studies
Sport and Leisure Cultures
Chelsea School
University of Brighton UK

September 21/October 10 2006