Crowds and Leisure: Thinking Comparatively across the 20th Century

By Cross, Gary | Journal of Social History, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Crowds and Leisure: Thinking Comparatively across the 20th Century


Cross, Gary, Journal of Social History


The not-so-new social history movement that emerged in the late 1960s and 1970s was strongly identified with the first industrialization and its social consequences. Despite the fact that the 20th century is now history, social historians have been slow to develop conceptual frameworks for and empirical studies of distinct trends in that century. In part, of course, this reflects the intellectual conservatism in the training of historians (who all-too-often are copies of their advisors) and the fact that 20th century historiography remains primarily political and military due to the impact of the two world wars. But there remains a curious lack of interest in broader social trends that span the entire century. And, even today, despite all the changes of the last twenty years, few students would be encouraged to do the equivalent of what I did when I wrote in 1966 a term paper on Stalin's purge of music in 1948 for the European survey course.

Among the many social trends that this intellectual conservatism has obscured is the expansion and transformation of leisure in the long (uneven and inequitable) trend toward affluence in the 20th century. This reflects a traditional bias toward the "serious" study of production and power relations and the presumption that free time use is merely a reflection of those relations. And, when leisure became a topic of study, it is often cast in terms of class, ethnic, gender, or religious identities. This makes the content and transformations of free time serve as derivative arenas for the expressions of identities and conflicts formed or with consequences in the worlds of work, politics, and elsewhere. As Rudy Kushar notes, leisure and consumption cannot be reduced as Theodore Adorno once suggested to "afterimages of the work process." This perspective surely has dominated historical analyses of leisure--as manipulations of capital, reproductions of class conflict, and compensations for alienated labor. With the decline of Marxism and laborist perspectives since the late 80s, the historical study of leisure has lacked a trajectory.

One of our tasks as social historians should be to find fresh approaches to the study of free time. Given the perpetuation of narrow research models in training new historians and the continuing dominance of the terminology of a few French cultural sociologists, this is a difficult task. All this inhibits the development of deeper analysis of leisure behaviors themselves and especially social meanings of affluence (as it impacts family, interpersonal, natural, and material relations) and especially the development of historical models for interpreting changes in traditional notions of genteel and proletarian leisure in the second half of the 20th century.

This leads to another persistent gap in the literature. Despite frequent calls for comparative and cross-national studies, almost all research is still done within the limits of the nation state. (1) The still narrow training of new PhDs in single nations and periods has missed opportunities for cross-cultural comparisons and wider historical theming. While general theories of the "modernization" of crowds and leisure activities (like tourism) are valuable, affluence and the revolution in free time not only cannot be reduced to a single trajectory and endpoint, but it is only by comparing different responses to common technological and economic trends that we can separate the particular from the "general."

By reflecting on some of the ideas and findings generated by a new study that John Walton and I conducted concerning the changes in the meanings and behaviors of playful crowds in the U.S. and Britain across the 20th century at major resorts, theme parks, and heritage sites, I hope to raise some of the possibilities and difficulties of doing a comparative social history of 20th century pleasure crowds.

Coney Island and Blackpool: Contrasting Sites of Industrial Saturnalia

In our book, The Playful Crowd, we began with the simple thesis that broad patterns in the behaviors and contextual meanings of playful crowds dramatically change in the 20th century, and that these transformations require careful comparisons of early and later crowd sites.

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