Essay on Play

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Play is a pattern of individual behavior and social interaction, which features competition, improvisation, and fantasy. Sociologists have made important contributions to the study of play. Mead emphasized the importance of role play in his theory of self-development. Simmel discussed the ways in which social relationships can be expressed as play-forms. Veblen criticized the degree to which play activities have been used to display and reaffirm status differences among groups, a theme that was also developed by Bourdieu. Goffman articulated some of these themes in a more general view of social life as an ”information game” or pattern of ”strategic interaction.” Following Weber’s concern with the rationalization of experience in modernity, Elias described a centuries-old ”civilizing process” and its counter-theme, a ”quest for excitement” that marks people’s attempts to de-control their emotions in socially regulated settings.

More recent sociologists have highlighted the dialectical or interactional character of play itself, the social causes and consequences of playful activity, and the ways in which formal organization transforms play. Attention has been given to the processes by which cultures and subcultures channel playful expression; to variations in play resulting from gender, class, age, and ethnic differences; and to the distinctive roles of the playground. Play has also been identified as a central element of advanced industrial or postmodern societies that feature blending of work and leisure, risk management, consumerism, and personal experience. In that light, a special focus has been the sponsorship of play by large businesses, governments, and schools. Most of these studies, however, concentrate on play in specific settings – that is, on sport, music and art, sexuality, tourism, shopping, and electronic entertainment. Future studies must integrate these narrow accounts with a broader understanding of play as a fundamental pattern of human relating that has profound implications for the character of societies.


  1. Henricks, T. (2006) Play Reconsidered: Sociological Perspectives on human expression. University of Illinois Press, Urbana, IL.
  2. Huizinga, J. (1955) Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture. Beacon, Boston, MA.

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