Geplaatst op: 16-10-2017
Auteur: Peter Horsten and Simon de Wijs

The value of leisure

Tony Blackshaw on leisure as a key to create meaning and find a sense of belonging

The value of leisure
Simon de Wijs (l), Tony Blackshaw (m) en Peter Horsten (r)

Peter and Simon are both researchers and lecturers at Academy for Leisure NHTV. In their role as editors of the knowledge platform Uncover they dig into future perspectives on leisure.

Tony Blackshaw is a Professor of Leisure Studies and Sociology at Sheffield Hallam University. He has published numerous books and refereed journal articles on leisure. Previous works include three volumes which together reinvigorate leisure studies for the twenty-first century by changing our sense of it (Leisure Life, 2003; Leisure, 2010; Reimagining Leisure Studies, 2017). For this edition of Uncover we asked him to share his views on the value of leisure.

Your book ‘Re-imagining leisure studies’ was the first book in the Routledge Critical Leisure Studies book series. In this book you argue that leisure studies is in a deep state of crisis. Could you explain what you mean? Is there a need for concern?

One of the key thinkers whose work I have been really interested in over the years is Zygmunt Bauman. His idea is that many of the metaphors we use to understand the world, like social class and social and economical differences, do not work as they once did. The fact is that the producer- based modernity that came on to the world scene accompanied by the Industrial Revolution is coming to an end. We are moving into a new world, but we are not quite there yet. Bauman described this situation as an interregnum, an in-between world. You become conscious of a new world, but you don’t have the cognitive framework to understand it yet. This applies to leisure studies as well. The orthodox leisure science is still based on outdated social science and lacks methods and concepts that fit modern life in the interregnum. So I stated that leisure studies is in a state of crisis.

One of your key concepts to explain leisure in this unclear state is liquid leisure. What do you mean by this liquidity?

Bauman came up with liquidity. The industrial modernity was all about solid foundations and people knew where they stood in society. All these solid aspects became liquid, especially when we are talking of leisure. In earlier years we understood leisure as the opposite of work. Leisure and work intersect and are not fixed anymore. Production and consumption are also less fixed. Think of prosuming and co-creation. In the world we live in consumerism is all around us. Just ask yourself: is leisure free for people climbing in the North-West of England knowing they have to buy all that expensive climbing gear? Dichotomies inter-collapse and liquidity helps to understand that. It is interesting to see that there appears to be a need to come up with new distinctions of the old concept of class. We see almost a feeling of nostalgia around those old (collapsed) concepts. But actually we live in a time of zombie concepts. Concepts such as class, community and even leisure, although still in use, are becoming zombies. Zombies are neither dead nor alive. We try to kill them, but we can’t because they keep coming back to life. We need to reinvent the old zombie concept of leisure too and liquidity is a good metaphor to do so. It helps us realize we are dealing with something more labile and flexible.

Can you describe a typical leisure trend to clarify these collapsing boundaries?

Urban explorers are a good example. They explore abandoned buildings and constantly reinvent themselves. Maybe they do nothing new but they do it another way. In most countries their activities are not illegal, but in a sense they are breaking into properties. They explore the waste, ruins and dumps of the industrial world. They perceive that their devotion to the edge of society is what makes them feel real. Imagine them climbing into a gigantic ship taking fantastic pictures to put on the internet. It’s about the exploration and the climbing, but it also about an artistic dimension which is shared with the rest of the world.

Immediately after the closure of the Scotland Yard building in London recently, a contest was initiated for the first group of urban explorers to ‘experience’ that location. For me, this example is typically a liquid form of leisure. It collapses boundaries between what’s deviant and not. What’s art and what’s not. It’s a new way of finding a sense of belonging and expression. People do and do not want to belong to a group, but they do make everything they do visible and constantly compare themselves to like-minded people. These new leisure forms have their own lifestyles including rituals, language and ways of inclusion and exclusion.

Are these challenging forms of leisure connected with trends you see in society or are they maybe even a reaction to those trends?

The institutionalization of fear is an important driver of western societies. The fear of losing your job, the fear of losing your partner. Nothing seems to be fixed in our liquid society. Capitalism has made people’s lives insecure and uncertain. If you use the pendula of freedom and social control to understand human life, you see that the one can’t exist without the other. We need social control to make life livable but we also need freedom. Looking at leisure there is much more choice nowadays. Just after the Second World War life was much clearer. You knew what your choices were within the boundaries of the group you belonged to. Nowadays you see the uncertainty of people, which groups they belong to, with what kind of leisure behavior, restrictions and opportunities.

People talk about inclusion and exclusion, but I think what is important is mutual recognition.

Tony Blackshaw

Another interesting phenomenon is the risk averse society. Think about the things we did as children some decades ago: climbing in the woods, breaking into old houses – all about risk taking and exploration. That is not possible anymore. Playgrounds nowadays are full of adults controlling children’s play. Chris Rojek stated that the play world is the world of children and that the leisure world is the world of adults. This is no longer the case. It has become liquid too. People play and are not willing to stop at a certain age. We all know adults playing with what were once seen as children’s playthings such as skateboards or game computers. The problem is that what these people are rebelling against is directly institutionalized, reflected in urban sports policy and infrastructure.

We are redeveloping cities and especially old (industrial) buildings in esthetic urban hotspots. The urban explorers look for edges and waste. Is there maybe a need to reintroduce risk and are policymakers making our cities too clean?

That’s right. It’s not only about making cities friendly for families, but also about facilitating dark and hidden places. Everybody is talking about livable cities, but the wastelands also fulfill needs. A lot of those redevelopments in cities are done by the private sector and not accessible to all of us. An increasing number of people feels excluded from mainstream life. The sense of public place is taken away. It’s more and more about ‘can you afford it?’. To make a city attractive is almost about giving it an edge instead of taking the edge away.

Authenticity and marginal leisure seem to be under pressure. What capitalism does is pick up trends, commodify them and sell them in new ways constantly inventing new markets. This is how leisure works. Look at Ibiza. It all started in the sixties with the hippies spending their life on the beach. But then a night club market emerged. People earned a lot of money and Ibiza became expensive. A backlash followed and countermovement came up that will be exploited again. Ibiza loses its identity to the first users. Nevertheless the larger new group still sees the radicalism of the island which they are consuming. Ibiza has become more accessible, but lost its authenticity.

Another aspect of ‘mainstreaming’ leisure and the paradox around authenticity is the major shift towards standardized experiences, especially when global leisure organizations come in. Is there still a constant need for being ‘normal’ and doing what everybody does?

It’s not about being normal or average, I guess. One of the most important aspects of America is its predominant cultural hegemony. McDonalds, Levi’s and KFC were really successful. What America created was the concept that everything American is cool. (Young) people live their life through this coolness. Coolness sells things and creates connection and belonging. It’s about how we walk, interpret and evaluate things. It’s striking that you can buy the best food in India with recipes going back for generations, but the local kids prefer the rubbish sold by McDonald’s and KFC, even for much higher prices.

If there is ever going to be an industry that creates wealth, happiness and what ever, it’s going to be leisure.

Tony Blackshaw

McDonaldization is the key example of standardization. What they did is deliver one size fits all. They also created a new sense of home and familiarity. If you don’t want to try new food, you are safe at McDonald’s. That’s also what Starbucks did. They deliver safety and prevent the fear of otherness. This model is about efficiency, calculability, control, predictability and the irrationality of rationality. The fun part is encapsulated.

I think IKEAization is the new thing. IKEA did things in a more sophisticated way by including people in the whole process. IKEA recognizes that there is a nuance in what people want. A marketplace both for ‘poor’ students and for more wealthy groups. IKEAization gives more freedom and democracy. It creates a feeling of homeliness and offers affordable ‘individualized’ solutions for a better living. Even if it still embodies consumerism in a different guise.

Is leisure the new sense of belonging?

Some people choose a certain way of life and completely commit themselves to that. They decide ‘I’m going to live like this, I wear that kind of clothes, wear tattoos and I want to be in this lifestyle and value sphere’. I see leisure more and more as the art of living. People sculpt themselves as if they are a piece of art. By doing so they even exclude themselves from other possibilities. Look how people found a spirit and have come to adopt surfing as a way of life? It’s almost religious. I call this devotional leisure. The importance of religion is almost lost over night, within one generation. But people increasingly search for new structure, belonging and expression, for things to devote themselves to. They tell the world what they do and what they stand for. That’s also why social media are successful.

This means it isn’t enough just be a passionate surfer or urban explorer. Being liked is also essential?

In leisure you can get everything that society is not giving you. People talk about inclusion and exclusion, but I think what is important in leisure is mutual recognition. In groups like surfers or urban explorers people find that mutual recognition. They gain respect, can express themselves and get recognition from others through likes and reactions. They find authenticity and shared interests. In these groups connected through leisure they gather expertise and become somebody.

It’s a fact that leisure will play a future role in education.

Tony Blackshaw

Coming back to your question they are indeed not satisfied if nobody sees them. There is a need to be on a bigger stage to show themselves off. Spencer Seabrook is a slackliner. He walks on flat rope above a canyon in Canada and sets a world record. He could have done that without audience. Yet on YouTube you can see him walking, falling off the line, pulling himself back up. It’s amazing. He embodies the two aspects of leisure I distinguish: devotional leisure and performative leisure. Devotional leisure as a vocation. He educates himself, develops his masculine body and marvelous skills. But it is not complete without recognition on that global platform. It’s also performative leisure.

A society full of passionate people. Is that the core value of leisure according to you?

What is interesting is that capitalism has created a new realm of experts. Expertise used to reside in God, and later in doctors and professors. Zygmunt Bauman argued that the experts were the legislators who told you what you could or not. Pierre Bourdieu introduced the term cultural intermediaries. In my opinion these cultural intermediaries are the new experts and they are really important in educating us. They use blogs and vlogs on the internet for instance to tell us about about train models, fashion, local food and beer and so on. Gok Wan on fashion. He is brilliant. He shows women how to dress given their body shape. Jamie Oliver with food. They play such a massive role because a large group of people are not educated in the formal system. The written word is exclusive and reading is boring, not cool. That is why we need new ways of education. These cultural intermediaries can democratize education and expertise. Education is no longer about sitting in a room. It is about intrinsic motivation to find out more about a topic or a theme. I think we have an educational system and even a political system that does not match with the liquid society. Cultural intermediaries are the passionate experts on specific (leisure) fields and they will (and need to) play a crucial role.

Eventually, that is what leisure for me is fundamentally about. It’s a fact that leisure will play a future role in education.


Dit artikel maakt onderdeel uit van de serie artikelen uit Uncover die we op het NRIT Media Vrijetijdsplatform publiceren. Het volledige overzicht met reeds gepubliceerde en aanstaande artikelen staat hier. Uncover is een nieuwe periodiek van de NHTV Academy for Leisure die daarmee een platform wil bieden om onderzoek en projecten te delen met haar netwerk.

Wilt u Uncover nu al helemaal lezen? Bestel dan uw exemplaar in de webshop.

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