Leisure Studies at the Millennium: Intellectual Crisis or Mature Complacency?

Article excerpt

A number of appraisals of the field of leisure studies have been published in recent years, in explicitly `millennial' publications (eg. the special edition of the Journal of Leisure Research and Jackson and Burton's Leisure Studies: Prospects for the Twenty First Century) and other books (e.g. Ken Roberts' Leisure in Contemporary Society) and papers (e.g. Cara Aitchison's recent paper in Leisure Studies). Depending on who you read, leisure studies is either in a state of desperate intellectual crisis or basking in a somewhat self-satisfied sense of achievement and progress after 30 years of productive work. Following a review of these and other recent appraisals of the field, it is concluded in this paper that it is possible for a field of study as broad as leisure studies to be in crisis in one part but not in another. It is suggested that `schools' or sub-fields of leisure studies be recognised, rather than assuming that leisure studies is a unitary whole.

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In the Beginning

In the English-speaking world, the study of leisure can be traced back at least to the publication, at the end of the nineteenth century, of A Theory of the Leisure Class, in which Thorsten Veblen examined the historical and pre-historical emergence of the "leisure class". These are groups of people in society who were not required to engage in work, particularly of a manual kind (Veblen, 1899). Further research and writing on leisure was spasmodic until the 1960s with the establishment in the USA of a major government inquiry conducted by the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission (ORRRC) (1962). The ORRRC was responsible for commissioning a mass of empirical research which affected the subsequent development of leisure studies throughout much of the Western world. In particular, it established "parks and outdoor recreation" as a focus of American research. Outdoor recreation resources were seen as important because of their relationship with the environment and because they faced growing recreational demands from a rapidly increasing car-owning population. Very large areas of open space were the responsibility of governments at all levels, which sponsored a substantial program of publicly available research, thus establishing a strong research tradition in the field. In addition to its focus on the outdoors, the ORRRC established the practice of using large-scale social surveys to determine leisure participation as a basis for the study of leisure behaviour, the prediction of demand and the development of government policy (see Cushman, Veal, & Zuzanek, 1996; Veal, 1993).

It is notable that a great deal of the early North American research on leisure in fact involved studies of people staying away from home, often camping, while visiting major natural attractions such as national parks. The leading North American journal in the field, the Journal of Leisure Research, established in 1969, was, for many of its earlier years, full of articles on camping-based outdoor recreation. So a great deal of what is recognised as recreation research in North America could equally be seen as tourism research with a particular focus on natural attractions. However this is rarely acknowledged.

A further feature of the Journal of Leisure Research, and to a certain extent of the second American journal in the field, Leisure Sciences, was their emphasis on research in the traditional, positivist, quantitative, "scientific" style, heavily influenced by psychology. This contrasts with the more pragmatic, sociologically-influenced and qualitative style of the UK-based journal Leisure Studies, and the social theory emphasis of the bilingual Society and Leisure, published in Quebec. This "trans-Atlantic divide" in research styles has led Coalter to label the quantitative, North American tradition "leisure science" and the primarily European tradition "leisure studies" (Coalter, 1997, 1999).

A Millennial Crisis? …