Work and Leisure in Higher Education

BSA Annual Conference 2009, Cardiff


Prof David Harris PhD

University College Plymouth St Mark and St John



Crossing subject specialisms

Both the sociological fields of Education and Leisure have solidified and developed since I began my academic career in 1970. Both have followed vectors as a result of several pioneering individual works, and via informative struggles with organised perspectives (like functionalism and various marxisms and feminisms) and empirical findings (including historical ones). Both fields also faced constant demands for immediate ‘relevance’ at various times from practitioners. Both also enjoyed various measures of State encouragement or regulation. At the time, there was no way to predict the outcome of these struggles. For example, both fields might easily have become specialisms within a broader grouping such as Cultural Studies (Harris 2005), both might still  converge, at least in research terms,  as an effect of a ‘joined up’ State initiative addressing social exclusion in both areas. As a result, there is no need to see current boundaries or the existing academic division of labour as based on anything other than contingency, nor to rule out any work that considers implications for both fields as less worthy of attention.  This paper therefore proceeds to investigate common themes in the spirit of Adorno’s (1973:xx) remark (but without any intention to offend actual schoolteachers):

...the traditional manner of keeping the categories separate...projects onto objects the desire for order which marks a classifying science. The author, however, feels more inclined to give himself over to objects than to schematize like a schoolmaster’

We can redefine the ‘objects’ in question as social patterns which reveal characteristic tensions between various combinations of  experiences and practices of personal freedom and social constraint, political liberation and reintegration.

Leisure and education

There are some social theorists who have specifically applied the same general concepts to both areas, often using one or both as examples of the trends they are analysing. Perhaps the most easily recognized example is Ritzer’s work on McDonaldization (e.g Ritzer 1993, Ritzer 1999). Ritzer has used the term to identify the key processes at work in the modernisation of the fast food industry, but he suggests the same processes are at work more generally, based as they are on Weber on rationalisation. Ritzer also wrote a famous piece suggesting that the modern university had become McDonaldized too, (Ritzer 1996) applying the term to the growth of modularisation, casualization and the growth of so-called independent study.  These display the same logic as the personalized menu, the growth of Mcjobs, and the use of customer labour to organise the service. The whole argument has been the subject of much discussion (e.g. Parker and Jary 1995,  Pritchard and Willmott 1996, Hayes and Wynyard 2002).

 Marxist analysis clearly covers both applied areas, whichever variety of Marxism is deployed. Concepts like commodification have been developed in both fields, gramscian analysis sees both areas alike as subject to hegemonic patterns of crisis and settlement (for example Clarke and Critcher 1985 on leisure, Grace 1987 on State education) or in the work of the CCCS/OU Popular Culture Group (e.g. Hall et al. 1978, or CCCS 1981),  and both areas were cited as locations for ideological state apparatuses in Althusser’s classic essay (Althusser 1987). Many other general models could clearly be applied effectively to both areas, including versions of globalization.

Bourdieu’s work in particular focuses on the ‘objects’ suggested above  via his broad underlying sets or systems of cultural classifications and tastes affecting both leisure and education (and they are found in his anthropological work in Kabylia). The ‘popular aesthetic’ (Bourdieu 1986) features an interest in immediate involvement, and recognition, emotional identification and solidarity with the cultural activity – the obvious example would be spectating at a football match. By contrast the ‘high aesthetic’ values the opposite qualities – calm detachment, contemplation, intellectual analysis – the example here might be visiting a modern art gallery. These two aesthetics are also at work in higher education too, however. Academic values are not explicit about it, but they display the high aesthetic, coded as objectivity, critical reflection, theoretical analysis. There is, for example a close parallel with Bourdieu’s high aesthetic and the ‘deep’ approach to learning (Harris in Lockwood 1995), and a connection with the central values of academic work, at least as mediated through assessment criteria, subject benchmarks, and what might be seen as the professional ideologies of higher education in materials such as Bloom’s taxonomy or Perry’s model of academic development (see Arksey and Harris 2007).

Bourdieu’s work is both optimistic and pessimistic. It does announce firmly that intellectual activity delivers definite (aesthetic) pleasures, which needs to be announced to students, and, as we shall see, confessed by academics. At the same time, this set of pleasures and its association with social closure reproduces inequalities of educational capital and thus economic capital. In one example, Bourdieu (1988) offers a study of the actual assessment practices of elite French schoolteachers, which reveals that they use unconscious judgments to assess the worth of student work, and often refer to matters of taste as well as to technical merits.  They also rely on other social judgments, which produce a ‘whole collection of disparate criteria, never clarified, hierarchized or systematized...”handwriting”, “appearance”, “style”, “general culture”, '"external" criteria such as accent, elocution and diction’, and ‘finally and above all the bodily “hexis”’ which includes ‘manners and behaviour, which are often designated, very directly, in the remarks’ (Bourdieu 1988: 200).

Bourdieu’s work offers promise at one level as a kind of study skills approach (especially an ‘academic literacy’ approach – see Arksey and Harris 2007), explaining to the different groups that the pleasures of other people can be understood at least, albeit as a different system. Teaching about experimental film can produce considerable panic, anger and hostility among students versed in the popular aesthetic, as Bourdieu predicted, until some explanation is given of the aesthetic dimensions at work, using actual examples from the substantive study on cinematic tastes in Bourdieu (1986). In general though, Bourdieu likens the accumulation of cultural capital through educational episodes like this to the painful 'primitive accumulation' of economic capital, where 'like the Puritans [self made persons]...can count only on their asceticism...and get the chance to realise [their ambitions] by paying in sacrifices, renunciations, goodwill, recognition...' (1986: 333). And even after success, there remains the crucial status differences between 'autodidacts' and those born into the dominant habitus: the former are 'too [serious and anxious] escape the permanent fear of ignorance or blunders, or to side-step tests by responding with the indifference of those who are not competing or the serene detachment of those who feel entitled to confess or even to flaunt their lacunae' (1986: 330).

Bourdieu’s work can also be useful when running educational sessions which cross cultural boundaries in the other direction too. Those raised in the categories of the ‘high aesthetic’ sometimes find it impossible at first to grasp the pleasures of popular culture in, say, the James Bond film, or the soap opera. This sort of limit might be responsible for generations of elite cultural critics offering easy dismissals of popular forms of leisure as hopelessly degraded, worthless, harmful or ‘ideological’. I have suggested myself that such unconsciously-reproduced but deeply felt disdain is clear in most of the body of academic work critical of Disney, for example, of pornography (but not erotica), or of sport or risky leisure (Harris 2004).  Popular cultural products instead could be grasped ‘redemptively’, at least initially, if only to begin to understand their popularity, as some feminist writers have suggested with popular television or film. Genres like melodrama (Gledhill 1987), soap opera (Geraghty 1991) or the violent action film (Walkerdine 1986) respond to understandable demands for easy identification, close correspondence with ‘ordinary dispositions’, and emotional or bodily pleasure.

It may be the case that ‘cultural omnivores’, enjoying both aesthetics,  are now more common (Roberts 1997 was one of the earliest to suggest this for British youth at least, and the concept has been much discussed since in the sociology of consumption or of taste), although there is still some suggestion that it is easier for those with plentiful cultural capital to cross the barrier to enjoy popular culture than the other way around. Wilson (2002) discusses the situation in sport particularly, but Bennett et al (2009) seem to offer the most comprehensive discussion.

Despite the applicability of such general work, there are also different emphases and examples of unevenness. My work on the UK Open University (Harris 1987) , pointed out that academics in post, teaching Cultural Studies, were offering students excellent critical analyses of how conventional media worked ideologically. Their analyses maintained, for example, that an illusory ‘neutrality’ based on professional values masked a deeper hegemonic project to manufacture consent (the classic example is Policing the Crisis..., Hall et al. 1978). At the same time, they seemed remarkably incurious and uncritical about the effects of the media that lay at the heart of the teaching system at the OU, and seemed to think their own televised efforts were not worth analysing. Even more ironically, the same academics then used the same forms and conventions in educational broadcasting, run by the BBC, to disseminate their critical views. They evidently simply believed that academic values and critical intentions would overwhelm the conservative tendencies of the media. Even analytic methods might be in contradiction: As a consequence of what in hindsight appears to be a lack of self-reflection, Hall et al. may have become caught in a “recursive loop”... [they]...document  some of the “ideological methods” of the press. Then ... they repeat these very same “ideological practices” in their own analysis’. (Doran 2008: 194). 


To take another example, many academic critics have launched scornful attacks on the Disney Company for distorting history and representing the interests of powerful corporations, but it seems to be perfectly possible to apply the same attack to the modern university, which misrepresents its own traditional history in order to market to overseas students, while allowing major corporations to establish the Rupert Murdoch Chair, or endow a Coca-Cola professorship. We seem to have the curious spectacle of one institution in ‘late capitalism’ with a characteristic mix of commercial and liberal values subjecting another one, with a slightly different mix,  to some sort of indignant moral and social critique.

In the same uncritical spirit, the potential for combining the genres in order to borrow the attention-demanding features and pleasures of popular television to ‘make education fun’, or to do ‘education by stealth’ has been much explored since. Examples abound from Sesame Street to current UK schools broadcasting which uses quiz show, detective story, science fiction or electronic game formats. There has been considerable critical discussion of these examples ever since, however, much of it focused on unintended ‘hidden curriculum‘ effects of popular forms – sentimental identification with individuals and conventional realist narratives for Ellsworth (1989); commercial values for a number of critics from Mattelart (1985) on Sesame Street through to Cook (2001) on Pokemon; ideological forms like conventional narratives and representations from Ferguson on Blue Peter to the cognitive and affective harm arising from adult ‘postmodern’ pleasures in a range from Turtles... to Muppet Babies for Kinder (1991). It is rare to see much discussion in the use of popular television or electronic genres in university teaching, however.

Work in HE

There has been much discussion about the ways in which the work of academics in HE has been changed by the new managerialism, the impact of various audit or ‘quality’ initiatives, or rationalisation and the vocational turn with a new crushing emphasis on the recruitment, training and credentialising of the new ‘mass’ entrants. The many summaries of this discussion include Ainley and Canaan (2006), or Harris (2006). What is still less well-discussed is the effect of more specific work conditions in universities, the production of ‘teaching objects’ of various kinds (Harris 2005), the need to codify and operationalize academic knowledge as a series of modules, programmes, teaching materials, and assessment tasks. Another common academic self-misunderstanding imagines that these circumstances have no constraining effects at all, that academics freely and spontaneously generate ideas regardless of the conventions operating in the institutions which employ them. Yet institutional mechanisms define and regulate what counts as a ‘good’ or ‘balanced’ argument, reasonable and fair assessment and assessment  criteria, work of a suitable ‘level’ and standard, and what counts as an ‘ethical’ research proposal. Institutions insist on a steady output of approved publications, the pursuit of funded research, ideally as part of a programme, the generation of income, a reasonable teaching workload which includes the production of assessable material, particular recruitment and retention policies and so on. In my view, these constraints have, at least on occasion, been as important in the development of academic knowledge as theoretical disputes or methodological breakthroughs.

The emphasis on work tends to dominate much student activity too, as in classic approaches to study skills. It is often students from unconventional backgrounds that are particularly targeted here. The whole approach suggests that these students really ought to get some self-discipline, practise self-denial, get themselves organised and workmanlike. Sometimes this turns into advice to pursue the most gruelling regimes of primitive knowledge accumulation. McIlroy (2003: 45) sounds a Foucaultian note: 'Grades may suffer and career ambitions may not be realised if students are unable to regulate their lives'. He goes on to advocate memorizing the module outlines and a list of key terms. It is very common to advocate a technique called SQR3 (whose origins are lost in time— study skills literature tends to be very self-referential rather than particularly well-referenced). Students are urged to survey, question and read each piece of work thoroughly and carefully at least three times. Burns’ and Sinfields’s (2003) best seller has an equally pervasive and repetitive mnemonic QOOQRRR, pronounced ‘cooker’ – question, overview, overview, question, read, re-read and review – apparently to be applied to a text one paragraph at a time.

Even if they are well intentioned, and sometimes effective at coping with some of the more trivial academic tasks, such approaches can seem to offer nothing but grinding continuous work as the only way to cope with higher education. I have met students who have been rendered exhausted, demoralised and desperate by such advice. Some have thought they should just memorise academic articles – in one case, to remember what the student called ‘all the dates’ (the dates of all the references listed in the approved Harvard style – 12 in the first paragraph alone). Unsurprisingly, he found himself failing to do so. With this case, and with many others, I have wondered why anybody would want to undertake three years of tedious work like that, let alone pay for it.

Of course, many students go into higher education because they do want qualifications that will guarantee them a better job. Of course it is perfectly reasonable for governments to insist that we address the skills agenda, but as we all now know, it is simply not that easy to design fully vocational degree schemes anyway. The Leitch Report (HMSO 2006) simply assumed that qualifications would index some vocational skills, especially after employer engagement, but many studies raise doubts (Taylor 2005 has a good review, but the most systematic examination of the actual workings of the knowledge economy and tests of Leith’s ‘win-win’ scenario is Brown and Lauder). Leitch caused quite a bit of earnest debate in some institutions but now looks ludicrously optimistic anyway, of course. Many students must feel badly let down by a system that demands vocational credentials then cuts jobs in a recession.


Work-Leisure Relationships

Early interest in leisure tended to operate with a strict distinction between leisure and work, with no specific mention of education at all. Leisure was often opposed diametrically to work: leisure took place in a precious area of social life free from compulsion and authority, where pleasure was being pursued and freely chosen by individuals. Work was the classic location of dull compulsion, exploitation, treating people as means to an end, mass labour and regulation. Mostly, people went from one of these separate areas to the other during the working day. I would suggest this is still a common view of the relation between work and leisure, especially in higher education: work is the dull, belittling, demoralising  business of addressing other people’s agendas when coping with compulsory assessment, while leisure is the excessive release of inhibition and restraint while binge drinking in the evenings. Leisure Studies, however, has developed much broader and deeper understanding of the work-leisure relationship. These can influence thinking about policy and practice in HE.

Even the earliest analyses of work and leisure noticed an ‘extension’ pattern, rather than an oppositional one, where members of the elite, who spent all day at work managing, making decisions and networking, carried those activities over into their leisure time, possibly by running charities, and joining clubs and societies.  Feminists reminded us that the separation of work and leisure was probably a stance available only to married men who began their leisure when they got home after work, unlike their partners. It also became clear that one person’s leisure was another person’s work, especially as leisure was turning into an industry itself.  Conversely, it was clear that not all areas of work were as dehumanising as the classic factory production line:  some work could even offer pleasures.  Even for the wretched worker chained to the machine, moments of fantasy and escape were possible occasionally; a kind of mental or virtual leisure, Rojek insists (2000). The possibility arises that such pleasures are available in academic work too, even for the hard-pressed academic or student. In higher education, people are still officially encouraged to be independent, free, not operating under compulsion, able to make decisions after a challenge, and come to personal resolutions.


Leisure and pleasure in HE

Leisure Studies increasingly identified leisure as a matter of experiencing the classic pleasures of freedom and choice, via fantasy and other processes which add meanings to activities. As this very general notion developed, researchers began to investigate other types of pleasure as well. Influential work by Csikszentmihalyi, (1997), for example, opened up the issue by referring to a pleasurable mental state called ‘flow’. This refers to a feeling that one is on some sort of automatic setting, above it all, perfectly balanced between feeling challenged and feeling competent. In such a state, time appears to be suspended, as are all the petty concerns and worries that dominate everyday life. Rock climbers can experience flow when they just seem to move without any apparent effort across the rock face; so can sportspeople when they are ‘in the zone’; so can clubbers swept up in the joys and anonymity of dance; so can leisure bikers.

There has been considerable work since, thinking of implications in sport, leisure and work, in trying to measure or encourage ‘flow’ in various ways (see Bryce and Haworth 2002, Jones et al. 2003). One specific project attempted to induce aspects of the experience of flow in student assessment tasks (Gammon and Lawrence 2006), mostly by trying to get the necessary balance between risk and competence. Such efforts seem to have required some considerable and controversial operationalization of the characteristics of flow, however, for example by rendering the ‘autotelic’ qualities of the leisure task as increased choice in assessment processes, and simply  encouraging students ‘to trust in their abilities and skills and not focus on their potential grade’ (Gammon and Lawrence 2006: 138), while inciting tutors not to coach unduly. The project also seems to have involved a number of other ‘good practices’, not particularly related to flow as such which might have had an effect – certainly, flow was not itself measured during assessment. Apart from the wide variety of measures on offer to do this, the ‘talk aloud’ technique might have helped considerably to pin down the experience for the students (see Thelk and Hoole 2006).

As an example of the more quantitative approaches, Shin (2006) begins with some careful work to distinguish the various dimensions of flow before testing students’ experiences on an online course. Questionnaire data were analysed to reveal five underlying factors: ‘enjoyment (5 items), time distortion (3), telepresence (4), focused attention (5) and engagement (4)’, which together explained 60% of the variance in the flow construct (Shin 2006: 712) . ‘Telepresence’ seems to be a factor especially associated with the vividness and memorability of the interaction with a computer program. Measures of flow were then correlated with overall student satisfaction with the course, resulting in ‘a moderately strong and positive correlation’ (717). Overall, however, states of flow varied quite widely among the student sample and were also quite dynamic and volatile.


Rojek (200) notes the connection between flow and other notions of the pleasure of travelling or journeying, in the metaphorical sense as well as the literal. These are much better known to academics personally than the pleasures of rock climbing, perhaps, although confessing that academic work is pleasurable is still rare. Flow maybe one example of a more general process implicated in various methodological ‘turns’, including the narrative turn and the performative turn. It is associated with a more durable experience of shared time, as in the various kinds of ‘slow’ leisure and politics. Pink (2008) offers an example of the kinship between the methodological and political dimension in her account of performative ethnography in researching the ‘Slow Cities’ movement in various locations. She obviously finds her work pleasurable as well..

Indeed, many ethnographic studies are clearly capable of inducing pleasures of various kinds in the researcher and the reader, although confessing to those pleasures still seems difficult. To take an example that happen to be at hand, Willis’s Introduction (in The Project on Disney 1995: 2) places the issue of pleasure at the heart of her analysis of visitor reactions to visiting Disney theme parks, and this leads to some typical argument. Willis can see that visitors enjoy their visits in a rather bland and mildly enthusiastic way – but this ‘comfortable acceptance of  Disney ideologies...reside in the pleasure of not having to confront the flip side of Disney’s patriotism, hygiene and gender codes’. Although she seems to prefer the more carnivalesque atmosphere of New Orleans, Willis reminds us that she is herself immune from any pleasures – ‘I realized I would never be outside work. Everything that other people do for leisure or to escape is what I do for work...I suspect the same holds true for the co-authors in general’  (The Project on Disney 1995: 9). She clearly feels this stance need not be explained any further, unlike the visitors’ reactions, certainly not as some effect of academic ideologies.

In another more recent example, Ellis and Bochner (2006) are defending their autoethnographic approach by reproducing a conversation initiated by watching a news broadcast from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Ellis says:  

 I'm an addict getting my fix and TV news. I can't pull myself away from stories and images of the horrors of loss... I don't want people away. I want to get as close as I can... give some sign, however inadequate, that somebody is listening, somebody cares, somebody really wants to know... sometimes I feel as if I am there'  (Ellis and Bochner 2006: 430)


And later: 'Art [Bochner] and I wipe tears. "Those people feel all alone," I say. "Somebody's got to show them that we're all in this together."' (Ellis and Bochner 2006: 447). Although tears are involved, this is clearly pleasurable work for Ellis and Bochner, something they find fulfilling, both academically and as people: they want to feel emotions, and consider that academic approaches that remain impersonal are repressed and patriarchal.

The category of ‘serious leisure’ was coined by Stebbins (see, for example, Stebbins 2000) and it began to clarify the possibilities for intellectual activity as pleasurable. Stebbins uses the term to explore the pleasures of work-like activity from charity work to restoring old engines, rather as in the ‘extension’ pattern mentioned above. The concept has been applied specifically to higher education. Jones and Symon (2001: 272) tell us that Stebbins defines serious leisure as having six distinctive qualities:  'perseverance, the following of a  "career"  path, significant personal effort, benefits to the individual, their identification of participants with the activity, and the unique ethos that exists within the activity'. Clearly, this will describe the interests of the important category of students who see HE as an arena for personal or ‘lifelong’ learning. They will be looking for clear vocational outcomes from their study, and include people who are in careers already, or who are unable to enter relevant job markets, through various forms of disability, or perhaps because they are ‘occupationally mature’ or who have other commitments. One such ‘cognitive tourist’ reported that he had pursued courses at the UK Open University for 40 years, in areas quite outside his vocation: he had accumulated ‘an honours degree...[two MAs]... and three diplomas. And not one of these has been for anything but pleasure’ (Edwards 2009). Of course, recent UK Government policy insists that returning graduates now pay full fees if they wish to obtain equivalent qualifications.

Jones and Symon (2001: 275) also mention the excitement of academic study, via a link with an influential analysis of the growth of sport as a way of managing violent emotions: academic work can provide a quest for excitement --  'lifelong learning as a means of tension-relief'. This form of tension relief has important socialising and ‘civilising’ consequences, and deserves emphasis in the UK Government’s policies of social inclusion: the social capital acquired can 'strengthen the fabric of communities and encourage citizenship, critical awareness and understanding' (Symon and Jones 2001: 276).

Kjølsrød’s work also discusses the central social and personal implications of modern leisure which takes, she argues, much more complex forms than are usually captured by either terms like ‘serious leisure’  or the conventional sociological discussions of consumerism including commercial leisure. Even her own specific interest in ‘specialised play’ limits itself to particular types of leisure, although it seems to describe certain activities which are central to academic life – acquiring a knowledge and vocabulary in order to pursue in some depth and over time activities that enable us to develop and extend identity in an important area –‘metaphoric communication’. In play, 'every day expectations do not apply, and... [players]... are able to realise their own purposes in their own creations' . In this way, specialized play can be 'made to lend actors support, depth of experience and individuality' (Kjølsrød 2003: 473). Kjølsrød (2009) tries out additional approaches to   understanding modern leisure, including ‘edgework’. Her redefinition of the pleasure on offer as ‘a pattern of gratifying revolt, where people willingly take consequential risk’ (Kjølsrød 2009: 383) also leads to the implication that such pleasure is maximised after considerable ‘physical and/or psychological mastery’ (379). Although such pleasures are usually associated with physical activity, she notes that for the expert, and allowing for the ability to symbolise, fantasise or develop metaphors, even intellectual pursuits are not without risk. In other words, although she does not specify academic pursuits, Kjølsrød’s discussion helps us understand the leisure-like possibilities.


Guilty pleasures

One of the characteristics of the turn away from such functionalism and towards pleasure in Leisure Studies includes a controversial indifference to conventional value judgements, justified, in the classic manner, as necessary to understand phenomena and not, of course, to condone them.  One consequence has been an interest in illegal leisure like taking recreational drugs or taking part in forbidden activities such as BASE jumping. It is certainly the case that much official policy towards these illegal activities often fails to grasp that there are pleasures involved at all, and assumes that participants simply have ignored the risks and need to be solemnly warned about them. In one of the most famous controversies, Rojek and Aitchison disagreed fundamentally about attempting to see interpersonal violence and murder as explicable because they delivered the ‘peak experience’ characteristic of much risky leisure. Rojek (2000: 168) answered his critics by pointing out that violence always was and continues to be a major theme of leisure. Thus simple condemnations represent a ‘ naive and politically partisan view... [which offers]... no basis for a mature and detached approach to leisure studies’.  It is certainly the case that the pleasures of being given permission to engage in licensed violence are a major ingredient of sporting activity (Kerr 2004).

What of ‘symbolic violence’? For Bourdieu et al. (1999) it is almost inevitably present whenever an academic discourse attempts to subsume a more popular discourse by treating experiences valorised in the latter as mere data for the former. This implies first that academics are hardly in a position to criticise the violence of leisure pursuits, and more radically still, that academic violence might be as much a source of pleasure for academics as physical violence is for sportspeople. At one level, all academics know that there is much pleasure to be gained from vigorous debate and critique with other academics, and it is undeniably pleasurable to offer academic critique: it is probably like the pleasure of possessing some superior insight that so appeals to the young clubber in their pursuit of ‘cool’ ‘underground’ activities (Malbon 1999).

I know of no studies, but I have certainly heard academics describing combative debate in much the same terms as Kerr (2004) discuses sporting violence: violence is acceptable in special arenas set aside for the purpose; participants are in effect consenting to having violence inflicted upon them; violence can be justified in terms of a higher purpose (including raising standards), some deeper social cohesion is achieved after combat, and so on. Pronger’s (1999) analysis of the unconscious structure of Desire in sporting contests could also be applied to academic and business contests, the author suggests: the same 'libidinal economy of territorial domination' is found in each area (1999: 376). This kind of pleasure can serve to exclude flow, Pronger suggests, in favour of something rather more visceral.

Although writers like Ellis and Bochner (2006) (above) might deny that they are gaining pleasure from exerting symbolic violence over the people they are watching on TV by using their experiences as support for an academic argument, even they clearly enjoy scoring a point or two in the tussle with one of their critics:


“I think [critics like Anderson are] victims of their own socialization as social scientists... they can't conceive of a bridge between  [Art and Science]... Leon [Anderson] ... [and]... many others... resist the broadening of sociological inquiry beyond the empiricist agenda under which they were educated...  (432)...[Ethical domains]... are not present in Leon's piece... Leon doesn't even mention these elements...” [says Ellis]. "Do you think he missed the narrative turn? Maybe he was turning the other way." [says Bochner]  We laugh together (440)...


And later:

I know Leon [Anderson], and I've admired his work for years, and he might not do this [try to make autoethnography lose its focus] intentionally... Art [Bochner] replies:  “No surprise there. Your impulse almost always is to try to get along even with your harshest critics” (432).

Ellis and Bochner seem to be patronising the unfortunate Anderson, denying it, and then claiming a superior kind of academic openness all at once.

Clough (1992) suggest that the pleasure of ethnographic writing, possibly including autoethnographic writing, actually arises from a form of realist writing that does indeed offer a form of symbolic violence. Participants’ experiences are subsumed not into a series of abstract and impersonal categories as in positivism, but into an organising narrative which delivers a ‘knowledge effect’, an insight that some deeper reality has been grasped. We know that constructing such a narrative produces a characteristic pleasure, one that might be called the pleasures of completion, or what used to be called in an educational context ‘mastery’.

Clough identifies a number of realist narratives, including emotional realism, which has a particular involving effect, a ‘co-presence’, what Ellis and Bochner reported (above) as the feeling that ‘sometimes I feel as if I am there’. This is because emotions are particularly valorised as being universally shared by all. A number of ‘post-structuralist’ writers in Leisure Studies, including Beezer (1995), have identified the narrative pleasures in much ethnography as still underpinned by ‘male heroics’ despite the open acknowledgement of emotions. Properly feminist pleasures seem to be guaranteed more by a complete break with that way of writing, together with its dubious categories of a narrator as a unified subject, and the division between researchers and ‘others’. For Wearing and Wearing (1996) we should consider meeting others in a special social place, a ‘chora’, a term reminiscent of Kristeva’s concept of a ‘semiotic chora’ as a linguistic location pre-existing the male-dominated symbolic order. For Fullagar (2002), using actual travel as a metaphor, feminist writing offers themes of openness, dispersal, becoming the other, transformations, a particular kind of  'feminine jouissance' (2002: 66) (citing Cixous). There is a full immersion in the present, a  'desire to disappear' (2002: 68) rather than to transcend. What a transformation of academic work would follow from pursuing these precepts!


Concluding thoughts

Posing as stern and disinterested public intellectuals, we have been unable to acknowledge to ourselves that doing academic critique is pleasurable. However, I think academic writing has an obvious leisure dimension. It has long been the custom for hard-working petit-bourgeois to denounce leisure in general as a distraction or frivolity, and this has become another aspect of the culture of the University. At the same time, academic culture has been misunderstood, especially in insisting on a strong aversion to bodily violence while condoning, in a heavily disguised form, symbolic violence, or condemning the compromises with commercialism in leisure industries while promoting it in the education industry. Making categorial distinctions of this kind and insisting that they remain uncriticised while being reproduced as if ‘second nature’ is a classic example of the pleasures delivered by the ‘high aesthetic’ of course. Bearing in mind Bourdieu’s strictures, we might use them as examples of the pleasures on offer to the assiduous student, assuming they have not already perceived them.


It is unhelpful to worship work, even academic work, and unreflective to deny the pleasures involved.  Leisure may be so important to our lives that it represents the only occasion on which we are ever likely to feel fully human. Leisure delivers those 'peak experiences' when we feel fully alive; it enables us to  'flow' into an activity so that we can leave behind petty obsessions and undesirable aspects of a self; we can experience ecstatic or  'oceanic' states that enable us to see clearly how the rest of social life constrains us.  ‘[I]ndividuals can legitimately stand outside the axioms, mores and conventions of society... Leisure enables us to objectify the rules...of everyday life and subject them to critical appraisal’ (Rojek 200: 21) Leisure has all the functions of more familiar kinds of spirituaity, including the ability to generate utopian critique, while it is also far more 'mimetic', that is, far more easily connected to mundane daily life. There seem to be considerable advantages in emphasizing the leisure-like qualities of academic pursuits, in distancing them from the dull conformity of work. Academic pursuits can provide that ‘leisure with honour’: ‘Protected by the walls of an acknowledged game-like activity with rules…participants can find the freedom they need for their particular projects’ ( Kjølsrød 2009: 383)


I have tried to remain relatively detached from the implications of seeing academic work as leisure. On the one hand, I can see considerable benefits in using these pleasures to sell the experience of university life, as one would market any aspect of the ‘experience economy’ (Pine and Gilmour 1999) by ‘adding leisure values’.  It is clear that offering vocationally valuable credentials might be less attractive in times of recession. More interestingly, and on the other hand, the possibility arises, and it can be no more than a possibility, that higher education as leisure might be a way of recapturing that critical role once associated with academic inquiry, of course only as a transgressive possibility alongside the credentialising activity that dominates us. We can at least begin to reflect on the matter by first detaching from the oppressor’s views in the classic manner: university managers and politicians have to insist that academic work is thoroughly work-like, respectable and entirely functional, but academics have no such duty.



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