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The how and why of leisure

As the small field of leisure studies grows, it struggles for recognition by the academy.


One of the main subjects of Gabby Riches’ master’s thesis is a guy nicknamed The Shark. He’s a heavy-metal fan who has been going to live shows in Edmonton for nearly 25 years and loves to try new things in the mosh pit, an intense slam-dancing area that forms in front of the stage. He crouches low and circles the pit, then dashes in on a diagonal and runs out again. Or, when everyone is moving in a circle like a whirlpool, he goes in the opposite direction.

He was part of the ethnographic study Ms. Riches did for her master’s in recreation, tourism and leisure studies at the University of Alberta. Some in the program raised eyebrows over her in-depth analysis of the role of moshing in heavy-metal music and experiences of pain and pleasure in the pit. But Ms. Riches’ supervisor, professor Karen Fox, supported her and even went to a metal show to observe slam dancing.

“My argument,” says Ms. Riches, “was you don’t have to understand moshing, you don’t have to understand metal music to respect the lifestyle and see that people find this an important part of their lives.” Ms. Riches is now doing her PhD in leisure, sport and entertainment at Leeds Metropolitan University in the U.K.

You can’t blame her detractors – at first blush slam dancing seems an odd fit for academic research in leisure studies. But that’s just the thing: leisure studies is a relatively new discipline whose parameters are still changing. It’s a multidisciplinary field whose breadth ranges from teaching undergraduates how to run recreation programs to assessing the health and happiness of Canadians. Why not, as Gabby Riches did, develop theories around gender, community and identity at metal shows?

This small field isn’t represented at all universities in Canada. It has its own, but variously named, departments at Brock, Waterloo, Alberta, Acadia, Moncton, Québec à Trois-Rivières and Vancouver Island universities. The universities of Manitoba and Ottawa as well as Dalhousie and Concordia have major leisure and recreation programs tucked inside another department, often health or physical education. Lakehead and the University of Northern British Columbia have independent departments that focus on outdoor recreation and tourism (see below for a full list of university leisure studies programs).

Meanwhile, only two Canadian schools offer a PhD (U of A and Waterloo) although UQTR is currently developing a doctoral program. The discipline does not have its own grant category at agencies such as the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. It could be one of the most misunderstood, and in many ways least respected, fields.

Often, leisure studies researchers are looking at what others may consider obvious phenomena, such as how seniors feel about a program at a community centre or how youth in China like to relax. The leisure sector “is one of the biggest industries going,” says Dr. Fox of U of A, “and yet most people take it for granted.”

Undergraduates at her university flock to Gordon Walker’s introductory leisure course because they think it will be easy. But when he starts talking about people’s passions and finding meaning in life through leisure pastimes, they often get excited about the topic. “We do have to sell it,” says Dr. Walker.

At the same time, he knows colleagues who’ve had real struggles with committee members on grant reviews who just don’t understand what research in the field is trying to achieve. “Why are you studying this?” they’ve been asked.

While some outside the field don’t quite get what goes on in the classroom or in academic research, some scholars working in this area feel it has expanding appeal.

“Leisure studies seeks to analyze this big part of our lives. Why we do it, how we do it and what the consequences are,” says Robert Stebbins, professor emeritus at the University of Calgary and a leading leisure researcher. He admits it is a “strange field,” with a big range of motivations: some people casually take part in various leisure activities, while others are hobbyists, and still others are committed amateurs.

It might seem as though we have more free time than ever, since people tend to retire earlier and to live longer than they did several decades ago. But when it comes to the working population, the opposite is true: their schedules are more crowded than ever, largely because they’re spending more time working and travelling to work, says André Thibault, professor emeritus at Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières and vice-chair of the World Leisure Organization. According to Statistics Canada, between 1998 and 2005, Canadians spent one-and-a-half fewer hours a week on leisure, and it was mainly time for socializing that took the hit.

“Very few people are still able to reserve a few hours to take a Spanish class every Wednesday evening for 15 weeks,” says Dr. Thibault.  As a result, spontaneous leisure has triumphed over organized leisure: a person can usually find an hour to take a spin on their bike, but they might not find time to belong to a cycling club.

As recently as the 1950s, there was no such thing as leisure and recreation studies. But across North America, cities were building community centres and needed skilled people to run programs. The University of Alberta offered the first undergraduate degree in recreation in Canada in 1962, and the University of Waterloo followed in 1967, tagging behind U.S. schools.

The field began with a prescriptive, pragmatic approach, mainly as a tool to train recreation leaders. The big concerns were about designing programs, especially those related to fitness, that would appeal to the public and be offered at times and places to draw attendance. The assumption was that if people attended planned leisure activities, benefits would follow.

“It went from being didactic and focused on basic education to more research-based programs. It started to grow beyond looking at what happens down at the YMCA to really understanding the human condition and what is it about leisure [that] adds to the quality of life,” explains Tom Hinch, associate dean of community and international engagement at U of A and a leisure researcher.

Asking why leisure is important triggered thinking that was more creative, and it started to attract other researchers to this untapped topic. For instance, when Dr. Stebbins joined the University of Texas at Arlington’s sociology department in 1973 and was asked to contribute to an event on the sociology of art, the amateur jazz musician decided to write about amateurs and music.

“That’s when the apple dropped. I could see this was a neglected area.” He developed a label for pastimes that people did repeatedly and got good at: serious leisure. He then launched in-depth studies of amateur athletes, comics, magicians and other groups that academics hadn’t studied before. Forty years later, he still has ideas he wants to pursue in the field.

While the growing discipline borrowed theory from sociology, psychology and other social sciences, soon a backbone of leisure-specific paradigms emerged for research and for the undergraduate classroom. Dr. Walker says it is now accepted, for example, that recreation programs only succeed if they meet three basic human needs: autonomy, belonging and competence. Then there’s the idea of “flow,” which occurs when people are so immersed in an activity that they lose track of their surroundings and time.

At first, researchers in the field used surveys and quantitative approaches to find out whether people liked an activity or not. It’s still common for them to partner with former graduates who run on-the-ground programs to observe, say, how an art therapy program is working. But now, researchers also conduct long-form interviews and focus groups and use ethnographic techniques to probe increasingly complex questions about the meaning of leisure activities, says Bryan Smale, professor of recreation and leisure studies at the University of Waterloo.

Some researchers create programs they can study. Dr. Fox of U of A set up a music studio to observe youth and their passion for hip hop. Professor Sue Arai of the University of Waterloo worked with marginalized groups such as women prisoners and victims of homophobia to create performances about what they’ve been through as a foundation for her research.

It’s all leisure studies. This tiny field is by necessity multidisciplinary. (How small is it? The Canadian Association of Leisure Studies, headed by Dr. Smale, has about 350 members and holds a research summit only every three years.) “If you look at the background training of many of the more senior staff, it’s populated by people with a wide array of training,” says Dr. Smale, who did his PhD in geography and works with an environmental biologist and with Dr. Arai, whose PhD is in rural planning.

When crafting a research project, these scholars pull from a myriad of places, including theory and citations from social studies, health research and city planning. The ability of this field to think big yet stay focused on what’s happening to both the general population and marginalized groups has led to recent projects that are boosting the profile of the field.

For example, Dr. Arai’s ongoing relationship with the Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ontario, prompted a larger study that looked at not only prisoners’ leisure time but also their overall health. That project resulted in comprehensive recommendations for Correctional Services Canada to help women better integrate into society after release.

Similarly, it is a leisure studies professor, Dr. Smale, who, with his department at U of Waterloo, now leads the national Canadian Index of Wellbeing, after its 12 years of development by many researchers in different fields. The index encompasses eight sub-indices, and Dr. Smale wrote the report on leisure and culture. The index was designed to be an alternative to the Gross Domestic Product in measuring Canadians’ overall quality of life, rather than measuring only economic output as the GDP does.

Dr. Thibault, who researches leisure programs paid for by the public – such as parks, arenas, cycle paths and day camps – says the research shows that leisure contributes to the health of citizens and their communities by encouraging physical activity, healthy living habits and a sense of belonging. When representatives from 60 countries met in Quebec in 2008 for the World Congress on Leisure, these were among the conclusions of the congress’s Quebec Declaration. “The science of leisure is beginning to have a solid argument to defend the value of public leisure in the economic, social and cultural development of our communities,” says Dr. Thibault.

But the field still faces challenges. There’s no move to give the discipline its own category at granting agencies, so the project-by-project fight for resources will continue. And leisure studies scholars often find themselves at conferences listening to researchers from other fields talk about work-life balance or happiness or time use but ignoring basic leisure theories, says Dr. Stebbins.

Then there’s the constant struggle to get the field’s data into the right hands. Researchers, along with their graduates working in recreational programs, can offer insights into effective ways to recruit new immigrants to recreation programs or to engage youth, but they say government and other agenda-setting groups are unaware of some basic leisure data on access and inclusion. To that end, Dr. Hinch at U of A launched a partnership of the university, the Alberta Recreation and Parks Association and the province’s ministry of tourism in 2008. These groups are sharing ideas, going to each other’s meetings and participating in a plan to craft a national recreation agenda.

But whatever its prominence in policy-making, for people who are asking questions about the value of their time and their work, leisure studies is neither too earthbound nor too rarefied to help find answers everyone can understand and use. “Leisure is inseparable from life and living,” says Dr. Arai. “Leisure is inseparable from the meaning of living.”

Diane Peters writes for many national publications and teaches journalism at Ryerson University. Freelance writer Jean-François Venne contributed to this article.

Leisure studies programs at Canadian universities

Independent programs with leisure studies as a principal focus:

Independent departments that focus on outdoor recreation, parks and tourism:

Major programs of leisure studies within other faculties or schools:

Presence within other departments or schools:

List is courtesy of Bryan Smale, professor at the University of Waterloo and president of the Canadian Association of Leisure Studies.

Diane Peters
Diane Peters is a Toronto-based writer and editor.
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  1. Trisha M. Khan Xing / August 7, 2012 at 17:09

    Hi Ms. Peters,

    Thanks for writing this article showcasing the breadth and significance of leisure studies. I am writing to let you know that Brock University also had a Doctoral program in Recreation and Leisure Studies – I am currently the second doctoral student in the program beginning my second year of study. It is a very new program, so I’m not surprised that you were unaware of it, but is one that is up and coming in the world of Recreation and Leisure Graduate studies.

    Thanks for your time!


  2. Jim Clark / August 8, 2012 at 16:04


    There is probably nothing wrong with leisure studies or any number of other xxx studies as true multidisciplinary programs. That is, as collections of academics with strong backgrounds in relevant disciplines (sociology, psychology, biology, …). But they all too often morph into entities that believe, wrongly I think, that one can be an expert in multiple disciplines. It is challenging enough today to master one area without thinking naively that one can master many. What results is a superficial grasp of several disciplines. Not that such limitations become noticed, as the programs generate their own publication outlets and practices, cite one another favourably, create more MAs and PhDs in their own image, and otherwise recreate a quasi-academic environment for their work. And to boot, they undermine existing programs, once denoted as the Liberal Arts, by siphoning off resources into every more idiosyncratic, narrow, and (generally) weak specialties.

  3. David Legg / August 9, 2012 at 18:23

    I too wanted to offer my thanks for writing the article and enlightening many to this exciting field of study. I also wanted to share that Mount Royal University in Calgary offers four undergraduate leisure related programs in the Department of Physical Education and Recreation Studies.

  4. Elliott Avedon / August 22, 2012 at 13:37

    It would have made a much more comprehensive article if your reporter had done a bit more research. I graduated in 1951 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Applied Social Science with a concentration in “Recreation Leadership” from the College of William and Mary in the US. Subsequently I acquired a number of additional graduate credentials at various universities – a certificate in Social Group Work, a Master’s Degree in Education, a Professional Diploma in Rehabilitation Service, and a Doctorate in Education – all with a concentration in “recreation”.

    “Recreation” is a psychological process that can occur during engagement in any activity, during any time period, in any culture: i.e. – shopping, sexual activity, playing chess.

    “Leisure” is a designated time period that has cultural, behavioral style, economic, and philosophical aspects. Both concepts are mutually exclusive, but are popularly viewed within a single context. “Leisure” is often viewed in contrast to “Labour”.

    University programs concerning either or both concepts take administrative root depending upon the academic field of the person(s) deciding to host such a program. Your author should have looked at comparable programs in Europe, Asia, and Australia to really understand the academic diversity these encounter. I recall that in the early 1960s while in England I was told that “recreation” was equated with “the playground movement” and thus was part of curriculum concerning “early childhood education”. In contrast in the 1970s, a German theologian explained that “recreation” was “slothfulness” and that “leisure” should be a time of “contemplation”!

    There are no surprises in the fact that there is a diversity of Canadian university programs. Actually, as many of my former colleagues and students realize – there isn’t a constant in what one might want to refers to a single field of study. There is a sphere of interest in many fields of study. The grants are normally allocated to traditionally established fields of study, and that is a good thing since with the current diversity, one can dip into many pots.

    Having been involved with all of this for the past 60+ years and retired for over a decade, the sad thing is I still read stuff that tells me the wheel is being reinvented!

  5. Karen Driedger / September 6, 2012 at 03:43

    There’s a pile of leisure professionals out here in the world at large, lurking in many forms, in many places, in many capacities. Recreation and Leisure programs of the past (and some that still exist) gave many of us a broad understanding of the social phenomena that many strive for daily but don’t necessarily understand. It’s one of our biggest opportunities, to work with other fields building quality of life. Still can’t leap tall buildings in a single bound or create world peace, however, we’re committed contributors to society and we know who we are. Making a difference? I think so