Social Groups and Parks: Leisure Behavior in Time and Space

By Field, Donald R. | Journal of Leisure Research, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

Social Groups and Parks: Leisure Behavior in Time and Space


Field, Donald R., Journal of Leisure Research


KEYWORDS: Social group, recreation place, visitation patterns, time and space

I have been asked to comment on a reoccurring theme in sociological research on leisure behavior in parks. I will do so focusing on research on social groups in time and space. It might seem a bit bold to emphasize time and space as fundamental concepts in our understanding of leisure behavior associated with parks. Yet I believe time and space cuts across our growing knowledge of people and social behavior in these outdoor recreation settings in three important ways. First, the sociological scholarship on people and parks has matured tremendously through time, especially during the 1970s and 1980s. I will review what I think are key findings during this period in a progressive manner. Secondly, time and space as variables help explain both regularities of social behavior in parks as well as variations in the patterns and rhythms of park going. I will illustrate the importance of these two variables with appropriate examples. Finally, along this brief and reflective journey, I will argue combining the social group (fundamental organizing principle of leisure behavior) with time and space has led to numerous practical/applied recreation management models.

Opening the Door

Prior to the 1960s, little systematic attention was given to understanding leisure behavior on public lands set aside to provide recreation opportunities. Leisure scholarship was more than not an academic exercise pursued by philosophers, historians, economists, sociologists, and others to understand leisure as phenomena, the meaning of leisure in everyday life, leisure and sport, and variations on such themes. The impetus for a new direction in leisure research emerged with publication of The Outdoor Recreation Review Commission report (ORRRC) in the mid-1960s (Burdge and Hendricks, 1973, Burdge, 1974). The ORRRC series draws attention to rapid rise of the great outdoors for recreation and the importance of federal public lands as places to play, relax, hike, camp and drive for pleasure. ORRRC provided baseline information on the characteristics and distribution of the population descending on the outdoors, but more importantly provided the legitimacy and impetus for systematic research on social behavior i n leisure settings. Many have cited the emergence and contribution of organized university programs responding to the call for leisure research. But once parks and forests became primary venues for people and their leisure lifestyles, there became a need for sound theoretical information on leisure behavior and application of that information to guide park management. In my opinion, the emergence of federal agency research programs first the U.S. Forest Service and then the National Park Service provided this early leadership. These agency programs established the formula for studying the social group and then using principles learned, to build management models to manage people at leisure on public lands.

Emergence of the Social Group

The 1970s represents a transition period, a benchmark if you will, when students of recreation behavior moved from emphasizing visitor numbers, volume of use and visitor days to the configuration or assemblages of the parties spending leisure time in parks and forests. Two important articles changed our way of thinking about people, social behavior in parks. First is the article by Bill Burch (1965). His treatise on family camping provides one example of a new generation of research translating the purely academic into useable knowledge for public land management. Family camping provides a perspective on the social group as the primary organizing social unit influencing leisure behavior. The family as one type of social group is a unit where norms, customs, rules and social conventions are practiced on public lands. Family camping also offers a glimpse in the use of time and space in the organization of leisure behavior. …

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