Academic journal article Ethnologies

Play: An Identity-Constructing Action?

Academic journal article Ethnologies

Play: An Identity-Constructing Action?

Article excerpt

If games and sports are theatres of worldviews that bring identity construction into play, it is surprising to notice the relative "intellectual disinterest" they inspire (Wendling 2002: 31), especially in Ethnologies. Throughout the journal's entire history, only three articles on play (i.e. re-creation of self and recreation in the form of a leisure or sports activity) have been published. The first article was by the Canadian specialist of folklore, Delf Maria Hohmann, who, in a 1985 regular issue of Canadian Folklore Canadien, analysed a game involving dolls. Basing his ideas on Roger Caillois' work, he highlighted the behavioural models in the game that reproduced or, more accurately, reflected the young player's family experience. The child's game was here described as a cultural construction that participated in the learning of both social norms and self-expression. Twelve years later, our colleague Michael Robidoux, Professor in the School of Human Kinetics at the University of Ottawa, explored the theme of masculine social construction by discussing nuances between the masculine and non-masculine in a hockey team. He described hockey competitions as vectors of sociability, or, more precisely, as forms of normative social glue. This functionality necessarily involves power relations, both inside and outside the game (1997). Finally, Christine Dallaire, who is also a Professor in the School of Human Kinetics at the University of Ottawa, contributed to the "Language and Culture" 2003 issue. The goal of her article was to gain a better understanding of the paradox between the concept of competitiveness inherent to the Alberta Francophone Gaines and the recreational aspect justifying the Francophone meeting and, ultimately, the Games themselves. She thus tried to identify the limits of the experience of play which is highly complex owing to its contradictory nature.

Thanks to its creation of possibles, play is a highly promising area for field research on identity, but its interpretative potential remains misunderstood, or, more precisely, neglected, in both English- and French-language ethnological research. Yet, the three articles mentioned above show clearly that play and sports are focal points for individual and collective expression. This was a main issue in the work of the early folklore specialists who prepared the ground in this area. For example, Madeleine Doyon-Ferland, in her 1948 PhD thesis and later work (Paradis 1980), produced monographs on traditional games in an attempt to show the usefulness of studying that form of cultural expression. She was successful. Gaines and sports are now accepted subjects of study, as for example in Clifford Geertz's study of Balinese cock fighting (1983) and Andre Rauch's (1994) analysis of radio commentary on boxing. Their work continues to mark the field. The twenty-fifth issue of Terrain (1995) was devoted to games and sports in relation to changes in the social interactions that provide the framework and generate sporting and leisure activities. In 2006, a special issue of Ethnologie francaise focussed on extreme sports, in which feeling of enthusiasm and danger push the limits of identity construction even further. For both the journal and the discipline, there has been food for thought on the topic of play as a founding theme, on one hand, and, on the other hand, in order to reaffirm the relevance of play in understanding culture.

Understanding play

Understanding the cultural component of play was "first" the mission of the Dutch historian, Johan Huizinga, who described play as a meaningful and profoundly cultural action in his book, Homo ludens (1951). This reading abandoned the conception of play as a mechanical action. Play thus became a "supracultural" action. As a producer of culture, play generates and breathes lift into culture by instituting codes and rules. When rules and codes are imposed, they create desires, inventions, fantasies, joy and freedoms, which (also) create culture. …

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