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.

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