Why and with what implications have sociologists tended to overlook play as a fundamental category in social life
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Why and with what implications have sociologists tended to overlook play as a fundamental category in social life


Why, and with what implications, have sociologists tended to overlook ‘play’ as a fundamental category in social life?


‘Real civilization cannot exist in the absence of a certain play-element, for civilization presupposes limitation and mastery of the self, the ability not to confuse its own tendencies with the ultimate and highest goal’.[J. Huizinga, Play and Civilization, p. 687]. However play, as a category of social life, does not seem to be so fundamental to classical thinkers like Marx. ‘It is in the working over of the objective world that a man firstly really affirms himself as a species-being. This production is his active species-life. Through it nature appears as his work and his reality.’ [Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, McLellan, p.80]. For Marx the most fundamental category of social life is labour. This is where clear contrast between classical and contemporary sociologists can be seen. Looking at works of classical sociologists E. Durkheim, K. Marx, E. Durkheim and contemporary sociologists J. Huizinga and C. Geertz this essay will compare and contrast different approaches to this issue in order to establish how significant is the analysis of play (if at all) and what it tells us about various aspects of social life.


The starting point will be the Oxford Dictionary of English, which has quite a few meanings of the word ‘play’. The main definition is ‘exercise or action for amusement or diversion; and derived uses. Exercise or action by way of recreation; amusement, diversion, sport, frolic.’ From this definition we can deduce that play is something that stands in opposition to work, something that makes individuals escape all the troubles of work and something that we all do, independent of our age, sex, race etc. Play does in fact allow us to escape the iron cage, in which according to M. Weber, when he spoke about rationalization and bureaucratisation, mankind is imprisoning itself. Furthermore, according to Jim Ottaway, a PhD student at the LSE, ‘play fills the gaps when we have no work to do, when we have too much energy to be absorbed by work, when we need something else to think about than harsh political realities, and so on’. But how can play reveal us crucial aspects of social life?

In order to find out about the importance of play in sociological perspective, the essay will look at the work of a contemporary sociologist’s, J. Huizinga’s work – ‘Play and Civilization’. Huizinga looks at various forms of play: childhood games, contests and races, performances and exhibitions, dance and music etc. Games involve absolutely every member of the society, which means we can look at a fair ‘sample’, unlike, in Marx’s case – just the working class. Huizinga defines play as ‘a primary category in life…it cannot have its foundations in any rational nexus…play is a thing on its own. Play cannot be denied. You can deny, if you like, nearly all abstractions: justice, beauty, truth, goodness, mind, God. You can deny seriousness, but not play.’ [p. 21].

Huizinga stresses the aspect of freedom in play, which is also a part of the definition of play in the Oxford English Dictionary. ‘All play is a voluntary activity. Play to order is no longer play. <…> Play can be deferred or suspended at any time. It is never imposed by physical necessity or moral duty. It is never a task. It is done at leisure, during “free time”. Only when play is a recognized function – a rite, a ceremony – is it bound up with notions of obligations and duty’. [p. 675]. This point contrasts with what the French sociologist Emile Durkheim stated in his work – ‘when a rite serves as entertainment, it is no longer a rite. <…> A rite is something other than a game; it belongs to the serious side of life’. [E. Durkheim, Elementary Forms of Religious Life, p. 386]. Nevertheless, I failed to find an implicit definition of play in any of the classical texts.

Huizinga lays out the main characteristics of play: that it is free, it has disinterestedness in a way that it stands outside the immediate satisfaction of wants and also that play is secluded, limited – it has certain limits of time and space. Play is also unproductive, which contrasts with Marx, who thought that only productive aspects of social life are significant. Furthermore, Huizinga states that play creates a feeling of togetherness – all the games have goals and in order to achieve them very often players have to team up. Furthermore, play has rules – ‘The rules of a game are absolutely binding and allow no doubt’. [p.678]. In this sense Huizinga shows the relationship of play to ritual. Huizinga argues that trough culture, play is linked to rituals and the idea of sacredness and that play is bound to the development of ‘civilisation’. This is a functionalist argument – it explains a phenomenon on the basis of the purpose that it serves. However, Anthony Giddens, the Director of LSE, criticizes that all functionalist explanations can be rewritten as historical accounts of human action and its consequences; that is, human individuals and their actions are the only reality, and we cannot regard societies or systems as having an existence over and above individuals.

Against the objection that ritual is serious and play not, Huizinga suggests that play has its own seriousness, and that ritual is in

fact a sub-category of play – ritual is a kind of play. In fact if we look closer at play and rituals, we could deduce a lot of similarities. First of all play is surrounded with an air of secrecy – even in early childhood the charm of play is enhanced by making a ‘secret’ out of it. Inside the circle of a game the laws and customs of ordinary life no longer count. According to Huizinga, ‘This temporary abolition of the ordinary world is fully acknowledged in child-life, but it is no less evident in the great ceremonial games of savage societies.’ [p. 679]. However, can we establish a developmental link and ascend from the lower rites and religions to the higher? In this situation E. Durkheim’s work in ‘The Elementary Forms of Religious Life’ could give us a hint. According to Durkheim, ‘all the essential elements of religious thought and life ought to be found, at least in germ, in the most primitive religions’. In his analysis Durkheim applies the principles of Cartesian logic and states that the first links of the developmental chain, in this case primitive rites, are the most important. By looking at primitive forms of play, namely at a study by C. Geertz and using the same logic we will also try to find out later in the essay, about the most essential and important elements of this phenomenon and its implications to social life.

Durkheim’s also argues that ‘men owe it to religion not only the content of their knowledge, in significant part, but also the form in which the knowledge elaborated’. If we assumed that play and religion in its primitive form have a big impact on the development of society, we could also state that play is a fundamental category of social life.

Let us now look at another contemporary sociologist’s, C.Geertz’s work. ‘Deep Play: a Description of the Balinese Cockfight’ is a description of the sport of cock-fighting in Bali and the gambling activities that surround it. The central point of the text is sociological: to find connections between the cultural activity and the society in which it takes place. The key point in order to understand the link between the cock fight and the Balinese society is to understand the structure of betting. Geertz provides a ‘thick’ explanation of how the ‘cock-fighting’ is organised. First of all he explains the meaning of word cock – in Balinese it metaphorically means ‘hero’, ‘warrior’, ‘champion’, which suggests that there is some aspect of status in the meaning. He then goes onto explaining how devoted Balinese men are, when preparing their fight cocks for the fight.

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