Rational Recreation and Self-Improvement

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"Rational recreation" was the ideal that nineteenth-century middle-class reformers hoped to impose on the urban working class of their day. They believed that "leisure activities should be controlled, ordered, and improving" (Cunningham, p. 90), qualities not typically found in the free-time behavior of laboring men. More particularly, recreation was viewed as rational when it fosters personal acquisitions like self-improvement and self-enrichment and, as a result, enhanced self-expression and personal and social identity. Pursuing excellence in, say, amateur tennis, hobbyist stamp collecting, or volunteer work with youth exemplifies such recreation; whereas nonrational recreation—leisure that leads to no such acquisitions but, rather, is done for pure pleasure—is the classificatory home of activities like napping, strolling in the park, and, of course, watching television (primarily for entertainment).

In the past, leisure theory has treated rational recreation under a variety of headings, of which that of "serious leisure" has gained widest currency. One advantage of this perspective is that it incorporates "casual leisure," the theoretical label for nonrational recreation. Both terms were coined by Robert Stebbins (1982), following the way people he interviewed and observed defined in daily life the relative importance of these two kinds of activity. Serious leisure is systematic pursuit of an amateur, hobbyist, or volunteer activity that participants find so substantial and interesting that they may launch themselves on careers centered on acquiring and expressing its special skills, knowledge, and experience. The adjective "serious" (often used by participants) embodies such qualities as earnestness, sincerity, importance, and carefulness, rather than distress, gravity, solemnity, and joylessness. Although the second set of terms occasionally describe serious leisure events, they are uncharacteristic of them and fail to nullify or dilute the overall deep satisfaction gained by participants. The idea of "career" in this definition follows sociological tradition, where careers are seen as available in all substantial, complex roles, including those in leisure. By contrast, casual leisure is immediately rewarding, relatively short-lived pleasurable activity requiring little or no special training. It is fundamentally hedonic, pursued for its appealing measure of pure enjoyment.

Amateurs are found in art, science, sport, and entertainment, where they are invariably linked in a variety of ways with professional counterparts. The two can be distinguished descriptively in that the activity in question constitutes a livelihood for professionals but not amateurs. Furthermore, professionals work full-time at the activity whereas amateurs pursue it part-time. The part-time professionals in art and entertainment complicate this picture; although they work part-time, their work is judged by other professionals and by the amateurs as of professional quality. Amateurs and professionals are locked in and therefore defined by a three-way professional-amateur-public system of relations, known as the P-A-P system. Hobbyists lack this professional alter ego, suggesting that all amateurs were hobbyists before their fields professionalized. Both types are drawn to their leisure pursuits significantly more by self-interest than by altruism, whereas volunteers engage in noncoerced helping of others that requires a more or less equal blend of these two motives.

Six Qualities

The rational nature of serious leisure is evident in the six qualities that distinguish it from casual leisure, qualities uniformly found among its amateurs, hobbyists, and volunteers. One is the occasional need to persevere. Participants who want to continue experiencing the same level of satisfaction in the activity have to meet certain challenges from time to time. It happens in all three types of serious leisure that deepest satisfaction sometimes comes at the end of the activity rather than during it, from conquering adversity along the way.

A second quality distinguishing serious leisure is the opportunity to follow a career in the endeavor, as shaped by its own special contingencies, turning points, and stages of achievement and involvement. Nevertheless, in some fields, notably certain arts and sports, this career can include decline. Moreover, most, if not all, careers here owe their existence to a third quality: Serious leisure participants make significant personal effort based on specially acquired knowledge, training, and skill.

Fourth, serious leisure is further distinguished by several durable benefits, or tangible, salutary outcomes of such activity for participants. They are self-actualization, self-enrichment, self-expression, regeneration or renewal of self, feelings of accomplishment, enhancement of self-image, social interaction and sense of belonging, and lasting physical products of the activity (for example, a painting, a scientific paper, a piece of furniture). A further benefit—self-gratification, or pure fun, which is by far the most evanescent benefit in this list—is also enjoyed by casual leisure participants. The possibility of realizing such benefits constitutes a powerful goal in serious leisure.

Fifth, serious leisure is distinguished by a unique ethos that emerges in each expression of it. At the core of this ethos is the special social world that evolves when enthusiasts in a particular field pursue over many years substantial shared interests. According to David Unruh every social world has its characteristic groups, events, routines, practices, and organizations. In the typical case, the social worlds of serous leisure participants are neither heavily bureaucratized nor substantially organized through intense face-to-face interaction. Rather, communication is commonly mediated by newsletters, posted notices, telephone messages, mass mailings, radio and television announcements, and similar means.

The sixth quality—participants in serious leisure tend to identify strongly with their chosen pursuits—springs from the preceding five. In contrast, most casual leisure, though not usually humiliating or despicable, is for most people too fleeting, mundane, and commonplace to generate distinctive identities.

The Emergence of Rational Recreation

Gary Cross notes that, during much of the nineteenth century, employers and upwardly mobile employees looked on "idleness" as threatening industrial development and social stability. The reformers in their midst sought to eliminate this menace by, among other approaches, attempting to build bridges to the "dangerous classes" in the new cities in order to transform them in the image of the middle class. This approach led to efforts to impose (largely rural) middle-class values on this group, while trying to instill a desire to engage in rational recreation—in modern terms, serious leisure—and consequently to undertake less casual leisure.

Part of this reform revolved around attempts to get the working classes to embrace an ethic of self-control, individualism, and respectability, an approach that did not meet with great success. More central to the rational recreation movement were projects that facilitated serious leisure, such as establishing museums, opening reading rooms, and providing spaces for athletic and performing arts activities. Some of these activities were organized by working men's social clubs, established in part for this reason, and some were organized by their employers. Many of today's urban parks and museums owe their existence to this movement.

Cross concluded, "It is doubtful whether workers' leisure became more respectable in precisely the ways endorsed by reformist patrons" (p. 99). He noted that the social classes may have walked the bridges that the patrons built, but no new understanding resulted. Yet, even if most wage earners failed to replace traditional casual pleasures with rational satisfactions, many added aspects of the reformers' program to their leisure repertory. "The result was in part a more privatized, more sedate, and more universal recreational culture. For some individuals, rational recreation may have helped to create a personality suitable to the competitive upwardly mobile society of the Victorian city" (p. 100).

The Rise of Modern Amateurism

As professionalization spreads from one occupation to another, what was once considered play in some of these spheres is evolving quietly but inevitably into a new form—one best named "modern amateurism." Modern amateurism has been rising alongside those occupations where some participants in the occupation are now able to make a substantial living from it and, consequently, to devote themselves to it as a vocation rather than an avocation. Although there are possibly others, we know that science, entertainment, sport and games, and fine arts are major occupational areas where work was once purely play and where modern amateurism is now a parallel development.

What has been happening is this: Those who play at the activities constituting the core of these occupations are being overrun in significance, if not in numbers, by professionals and amateurs. It is a process that seems to unfold as follows. As opportunities for full-time pursuit of a skill or activity gradually appear, people with even an average aptitude for such skills are able to develop them to a level observably higher than that of the typical part-time participant. With today's mass availability of professional performances (or products), whatever the field, new standards of excellence soon confront all participants, professional or not. Although the performances of professionals are frequently impressive, no category of participant is more impressed than that of the nonprofessionals who, through direct experience, know the activity intimately. Indeed, once they become aware of professional standards, all they have accomplished seems mediocre by comparison. For example, amateur basketball and hockey players are frequently in awe of the abilities of those who play in the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League, as are amateur classical musicians of the way their counterparts perform in the New York Philharmonic Orchestra or the Juilliard String Quartet. They are thus faced with a critical choice in their careers as participants: Either they restrict identification with the activity so as to remain largely unaffected by such invidious comparisons, or they identify sufficiently with it to attempt to meet those standards.

With the first choice, which is still common, the part-time participant remains a player, dabbler, or dilettante. Following Johan Huizinga, we can say that leisure of that type lacks necessity, obligation, and utility, and will be produced with a disinterestedness that sets it, as an activity, apart from the participants' ordinary, real lives. The second, increasingly common choice impels part-time participants away from play toward the pursuit of durable benefits. The road to these benefits, however, passes through necessity, seriousness, commitment, and agreeable obligation as expressed by regimentation (such as rehearsals and practice) and systematization (through schedules and organization), and progresses on to the status of modern amateur for some and professional for others. Jacques Godbout has noted this trend in what he calls the "professionnalisation des loisirs" (professionalization of leisure), basically its regimentation or systematization. As evidence of all this note the emphasis on perfection of play in the Olympic Games, in college sports, and even in high school athletics, as well as the standards held up to civic orchestras and community theaters, amateur writers and Sunday painters.

Players in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in sport and music, and quite possibly other fields, were referred to as "gentlemen" (few were women). But first Johan Huizinga and then Gregory Stone commented on the gradual disappearance of such players from sport. Indeed, it is an ongoing process. Jacques Barzun discusses this transformation in music.

Furthermore, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, players and amateurs (probably differences existed between them even then) were alone in their activities, without the existence of professionals. In fact, during this period many contemporary professions (for example, astronomy, music, soccer) were made up exclusively of amateurs. In effect, these endeavors were too new, too little in demand, or too underdeveloped to be pursued as livelihoods. Thus, when their fields began, a number of astronomers, archaeologists, teachers, musicians, painters, jugglers, bowlers, soccer players, and so forth earned their living through other means; clearly, however, they were experts, by standards of the day, in their respective areas of leisure.

In some fields amateurism was an honorable tradition, and attempts at full-time employment and professionalization were met with derision. It was considered despicable to make money that way. But, as the two categories of participant began to diverge in these fields, amateurs often could be distinguished from professionals by social class. Garry Whannel notes that, in the nineteenth century, those who played sport for money belonged to the lower class, whereas those who played purely for enjoyment belonged to the upper class. For many years, informal or formal arrangements prevented the different classes of teams and individuals from competing with one another. Today, however, all but the poorest classes participate in amateur activities, even if a few activities disproportionately attract the rich (polo, for example) or the working classes (dirt bike racing).

As professionals began to dominate a field pioneered by amateurs a transformation in the meaning of "amateur" seems to have occurred. During this period, which, depending on the field, ran anywhere from the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century, old definitions clung tenaciously, merging in common discourse with new ones springing up to describe modern amateurism. From a research standpoint, the result was emergence of the idea of amateur, now an everyday term, though one defined with annoying imprecision in contemporary dictionaries.

The entries in Merriam-Webster's Unabridged Dictionary exemplify the problem. Amateurs, for instance, are defined, in one sense, as devotees who love a particular activity; in another sense as dilettantes or dabblers. Dilettantes, on the other hand, are defined, in the first sense, as lovers of the arts and, in the second, as people with discrimination or taste. Consider, also, the logical difficulties posed by yet another sense of "amateur" —that is, the inexperienced person (or player)—and the fact that devotees of an activity quite naturally put in much time at it, thereby achieving remarkable competence (that is, modern amateurs).

Leisure Education

However important rational recreation is for self-improvement and, in the case of volunteering, for community development, such activity has always been pursued by only a minority of the population. Casual leisure is far more popular. The central problem, then, is how to reach a more evenly balanced ratio of participation in the two. One way to tackle this problem is through routine, easily accessible leisure education for youth and adults. This way includes instructional programs in schools and adult-education focused on the nature of serious and casual leisure and their interrelationship, general rewards (and costs) of both types, possibility of finding a (serious) leisure career there, and variety of social and psychological advantages people can gain by pursuing a given amateur, hobbyist, or volunteer activity. Among these advantages is acquisition of a special identity, routine, lifestyle, organizational belonging, central life interest, and membership in a social world.

Although a huge variety of activities courses for youth and adults were offered everywhere in North America as of 2004 (such as those for dance, golfing, ceramics, and woodworking), rare are those expressly designed to educate about leisure and rational recreation. In the interest of enhanced personal and collective well-being, this deficiency should be eliminated.

See also: Hobbies and Crafts, Leisure Education, Literary Societies and Middlebrow Reading, Museum Movements


Barzun, Jacques. Music in American Life. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1956.

Cross, Gary. A Social History of Leisure Since 1600. State College, Pa.: Venture Publishing, 1990.

Cunningham, Hugh. Leisure in the Industrial Revolution. London: Croom Helm, 1980.

Godbout, Jacques. "La Participation: Instrument de Professionnalisation des Loisirs." Loisir et Société/Society and Leisure 9 (1990): 33–40.

Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture. Boston: Beacon, 1955.

Stebbins, Robert A. "Serious Leisure: A Conceptual Statement." Pacific Sociological Review 25 (1982): 251–272.

——. Amateurs, Professionals, and Serious Leisure. Montreal; Kingston, Ontario: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1992.

——. New Directions in the Theory and Research of Serious Leisure. Mellen Studies in Sociology, volume 28. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen, 2001.

Stone, Gregory P. "American Sports: Play and Display." In Sport. Edited by Eric Dunning. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972.

Unruh, David R. "Characteristics and Types of Participation in Social Worlds." Symbolic Interaction 2 (1979): 115–130.

——. "The Nature of Social Worlds." Pacific Sociological Review 23 (1980): 71–296.

Whannel, Garry. Blowing the Whistle: The Politics of Sport. London: Pluto Press, 1983.

Robert A. Stebbins