Leisure both shapes and is shaped by society, and is such is both an independent variable (which does the shaping) and a dependent variable (which is shaped by various elements in society which act as independent variables). This discussion of the role of leisure in society has been primarily led by sociologists, using both structure-functional and symbolic interactionist approaches, as discussed by John R. Kelly in “Leisure and Society: A Dialectical Analysis. In his analysis, leisure primarily is a dependent variable, which is shaped by work and time, family and community, age and the life course, culture, social development, and political policy.
Work can shape leisure in various ways, and it also is affected by the particular type of work one does and one’s position on the job. While the time one is off from work can provide a time frame in which to engage in leisure, the amount of time off from one’s job is shaped by the type of work one does, as well as by one’s income level and whether one has other contributors to one’s income (such as a working spouse or working children in the household) or whether one is involved in a second job, either because of economic necessity since one doesn’t earn enough from the first job, or by choice, such as if one hopes to develop this work on the side into a full time business.
At the same time, the particular type of leisure one engages in is shaped by one’s job and one’s associates there, as well as by any organized leisure activity sponsored by one’s company. One’s gender and age may also play a part in shaping the leisure one engages in. For example, older male factory workers may enjoy going to the bar after work as a form of leisure, while older female factory workers might like going to fun sales parties to see jewelry and fashion displays after work. By contrast, younger female factory workers might like hanging out in the mall shopping, while older male factory works might like to go to a local lounge.
While managerial employees, company owners, and entrepreneurs might enjoy some of these same activities, they might make different choices in the particular form of the activity. For instance, instead of going to a bar that caters mainly to male factory workers, they might go to a more expensive lounge or night club that caters to both men and women. And the women who go shopping might choose to go to more expensive shops and boutiques, instead of stores like Ross which cater to lower income clients who want to save money. Then, too, managerial employees, company owners, and entrepreneurs might participate in other types of activities, such as networking events sponsored by groups like the local Chamber of Commerce that have an element of leisure, in that they are fun events, where people can relax and talk about non-work activities, but for some people, these are also work-related, in that they provide opportunities for sales and marketing leads for those in sales and for clients for those in professions like writing, legal services, and PR.
Income can also shape leisure in affecting what one can afford to spend. For instance, while people of any gender and age might go out to eat, someone with a higher income may be able to spend more in a luxury restaurant, where they can enjoy fine cuisine and wines, such as at a French or German restaurant, while those with lower incomes may eat at a fast food restaurant like a Burger King, McDonald’s, or Wendy’s, or they might choose lower priced ethnic cuisine, such as at a Chinese, Thai, or Vietnamese restaurant. And race and ethnicity can shape food choices, too, such as when members of an ethnic group tend to go to restaurants offering their own ethnic food.
Then, too, while income can shape leisure choices because of what one can afford, class can play a part aside from income in affecting what one considers an appropriate choice of activity. For instance, a high status person could easily afford to enjoy many lower cost forms of leisure, but social norms might prevent that person from doing so, such as when it might be considered inappropriate by an upper class family for a family member to go to a wrestling match or cock fighting event, since those are considered to be lower class activities. At times, an upper class member may escape derision of his or her peers by describing what he or she is doing as “slumming” – enjoying “low friends in low places” as the popular Garth Brooks song puts it. But a high status person continues to participate in such low status activities, he or she could jeopardize his or her social standing, which sometimes leads high power people to lead double lives, where they enjoy a type of leisure not considered appropriate for their high class position.
The family and community context can similarly shape leisure activity, since one may be introduced to certain leisure activities by members of one’s family or friends, since as Kelly points out “most leisure takes place in or around the home” and “the most common leisure companions are family and other close friends and intimates.” For example, if many family members or friends enjoy bowling or shopping at the mall, a person is likely to join them, and then having been introduced to that activity, he or she may continue to participate in that activity with other people.
Likewise, as one ages over the life course, the leisure activities one is attracted to can change. Though at one time sociologists seemed to think that these leisure activities contracted as one aged, so for example, there was a decline in participation in sports activity, this view is clearly incorrect, because while one may participate less in one activity, one will participate more in other activities. For instance, those who are younger may be more apt to participate in active physical sports, like football, hockey, and wrestling, whereas those who are older may turn to other less physical sports, such as bocce ball. And while younger travelers may be more drawn to trips involving more physical activity, such as adventure travel, older travelers may be more apt to go on cruises. Moreover, a life course rather than an aging approach seems more appropriate today, since many older individuals are very physically fit since they eat healthy food and exercise regularly, while some younger individuals are out of shape and obese, due to unhealthy eating and a lack of exercise.
Then, too, leisure might be shaped by technological developments in society, since new technologies become the basis for leisure activities. For instance, the development of GSP devices has given rise to geocaching, since President Clinton made this technology, originally developed for the military and considered classified, available to everyday citizens in the 1990s. Another example is the way the Segway, which was developed primarily as a new form of transportation, in which one person stands on a platform with wheels and maneuvers it with a steering wheel, gave rise to the sport of Segway polo. And online games, such as Farmville and Mafia Wars, have been made possible by social networking software and fast online connections.
However, these are all examples of the way leisure is shaped by social conditions. Leisure also has the power to shape society. A key way it can do so is when a leisure activity becomes so popular that it becomes the basis for a new form of work and contributes to jobs or when it shapes the way people interact with each other. For instance, at one time people engaged in sports like baseball, football, and soccer just for fun. But gradually, the popularity of these sports led to the creation of large industries devoted to the sport that shaped fan behavior and purchases. Similarly, the new sport of geocaching has led to not only Websites and paraphernalia sold to geocachers, but it has provided a technique for some work coaches and consultants to use in teambuilding in the workplace.
Another example of the way leisure shapes society is shown by the power of popular entertainment, such as music, movies, and TV, to shape everyday culture. Fans are inspired by the top performers in these fields, who have become celebrities, to help them decide what to wear, what perfume or cologne to buy, and what books to read (such as when Oprah suggests a title she likes). In turn, advertisers, seeing the power of these celebrities created by leisure activities to shape opinion, have hired them to sell their brands to others. Similarly, the toy industry have used celebrity endorsers on TV program to help sell toys to kids, thereby using one form of leisure activity to sell another.
Thus, in many ways, leisure is both shaped by society and culture and shapes it.