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. Furthermore, play has rules – ‘The rules of a game are absolutely binding and allow no doubt’. [p.678]. In this sense Huizinga shows the relationship of play to ritual. Huizinga argues that trough culture, play is linked to rituals and the idea of sacredness and that play is bound to the development of ‘civilisation’. This is a functionalist argument – it explains a phenomenon on the basis of the purpose that it serves. However, Anthony Giddens, the Director of LSE, criticizes that all functionalist explanations can be rewritten as historical accounts of human action and its consequences; that is, human individuals and their actions are the only reality, and we cannot regard societies or systems as having an existence over and above individuals.

Against the objection that ritual is serious and play not, Huizinga suggests that play has its own seriousness, and that ritual is in fact a sub-category of play – ritual is a kind of play. In fact if we look closer at play and rituals, we could deduce a lot of similarities. First of all play is surrounded with an air of secrecy – even in early childhood the charm of play is enhanced by making a ‘secret’ out of it. Inside the circle of a game the laws and customs of ordinary life no longer count. According to Huizinga, ‘This temporary abolition of the ordinary world is fully acknowledged in child-life, but it is no less evident in the great ceremonial games of savage societies.’ [p. 679]. However, can we establish a developmental link and ascend from the lower rites and religions to the higher? In this situation E. Durkheim’s work in ‘The Elementary Forms of Religious Life’ could give us a hint. According to Durkheim, ‘all the essential elements of religious thought and life ought to be found, at least in germ, in the most primitive religions’. In his analysis Durkheim applies the principles of Cartesian logic and states that the first links of the developmental chain, in this case primitive rites, are the most important. By looking at primitive forms of play, namely at a study by C. Geertz and using the same logic we will also try to find out later in the essay, about the most essential and important elements of this phenomenon and its implications to Social life.

Durkheim’s also argues that ‘men owe it to religion not only the content of their knowledge, in significant part, but also the form in which the knowledge elaborated’. If we assumed that play and religion in its primitive form have a big impact on the development of society, we could also state that play is a fundamental category of Social life.

Let us now look at another contemporary sociologist’s, C.Geertz’s work. ‘Deep Play: a Description of the Balinese Cockfight’ is a description of the sport of cock-fighting in Bali and the gambling activities that surround it. The central point of the text is sociological: to find connections between the cultural activity and the society in which it takes place. The key point in order to understand the link between the cock fight and the Balinese society is to understand the structure of betting. Geertz provides a ‘thick’ explanation of how the ‘cock-fighting’ is organised. First of all he explains the meaning of word cock – in Balinese it metaphorically means ‘hero’, ‘warrior’, ‘champion’, which suggests that there is some aspect of status in the meaning. He then goes onto explaining how devoted Balinese men are, when preparing their fight cocks for the fight.
‘Balinese men spend an enormous amount of time with their favourites [fight cocks], grooming them, feeding them, discussing them, trying them out against one another, or just gazing at them with a mixture of rapt admiration and dreamy self-absorption’.[p.657]. It might not be apparent, but such behaviour could be explained by the fact that fight cocks are symbolic expressions or magnifications of their owner’s self and of human status. However, apart from cocks and few domestic animals, Balinese are aversive to animals as they are seen as daemons or Powers of Darkness. A cockfight is some sort of a sacrifice to the demons in order to pacify their hunger. A cock fight is in a sense a ritual, similar to the ones described previously in the essay.

Geertz explains that there are two types of betting – ‘deep’ and ‘shallow’. The play in the centre has a tendency to be balanced and even-money, and this means that the side-betting is drawn to shorter odds. In Geertz’s words: “The centre bet ‘makes the game’, or perhaps better, defines it, and signals its depth”. It is the “solid citizenry around whom Social life revolves” [p.688] who are involved in the big matches and the deep bets; those who dominate their society also dominate and define the play in the cockfight. Geertz also explains that actually ‘players’ not only bet their money, but also bet their Social status metaphorically:
‘What makes the cock fighter deep is not the money itself, but what the money causes to happen: the migration of the Balinese status hierarchy into the body of the cockfight.’ [p. 669].
The rules of a cock fight are written down in a palm leaf manuscripts passed on from generation to generation as part of the general legal and cultural tradition of the villages. At a fight, an umpire ensures that these rules are followed and his authority is absolute – he has the highest authority in the cock-fight. Only exceptionally well-trusted, solid, and knowledgeable citizens perform this job. The function of an umpire could be compared to the function of kings, judges, priests in the Western World – all these positions express a respected Social status of an individual.
Central bets in the cock fight are usually high, the peripheral bets, performed by members of the audience, are a lot smaller. Geertz explains how the structure of the fight might gives us an idea about the Social organisation of the Balinese society:

‘Bettors themselves form a socio-moral hierarchy. At most cockfights there are, around the very edges of the cock fight area, a large number of mindless, sheer-chance type gambling games. Only women, children, adolescents and various other sorts of people who do not fight cocks – the extremely poor, the socially despised, the personally idiosyncratic – play at these games. Cockfighting men would be ashamed to go anywhere near them. and finally, there are those, the really substantial members of the community, the solid citizenry around whom local life revolves, who fight in the larger fights and bet on them around the side. <…> These men generally dominate and define the sport as they dominate and define the society’. [p.668-9].

However, to think of the cockfight in terms of the Social hierarchies it reproduces would be wrong.
‘The cock fight makes nothing happen. Men go on allegorically humiliating one another <…> but no one’s status really changes. You cannot ascend the status ladder by winning cockfights. However, cockfights catch up various themes – death, masculinity, rage, pride, loss – and, ordering them into and encompassing structure, allows us to see their essential nature. ‘A cockfight is a means of expression; its function is neither to assuage Social passions nor to heighten them, but to display them’.[p.671]. ‘The slaughter in the cock ring is not a depiction of how things literally are among men, but, what is almost worse, of how, from a particular angle, the imaginatively are.’ [p.673].


Looking at the way the essay question was formed, we could say that it implies that sociologists do tend to look at play as a fundamental category of Social life. However, this is not always true, for example with Marx and other classical sociologists. It would probably be a good idea to insert the word ‘contemporary’ to make it more clear.

Nevertheless, having analysed the texts of Huizinga and Geertz it is possible to look at play in a totally different and maybe even more interesting perspective. Analysing play does fill in the gaps which were left out by classical sociologists. This essay would not agree with Huizinga that looking at play is fundamental when trying to understand Social life. However, ‘sociology of play’ reveals a lot of useful aspects, which, combined with classical approaches, could render a richer and more elaborate view of Social life.

A final and very interesting note on the possibilities of understanding that play provides us with, comes from an article ‘Sublime Play’ by Scott Drake, an Architecture student at the University of Australia. He argues that architecture is a form of play, which ‘must be frivolous, to allow to player to engage unselfconsciously with the medium at hand. This requires a suspension of the seriousness or architecture, its significance as a shared and enduring form of Social expression. <…> To lose oneself to the play of architecture enables the player [architect] to forgo subjectively and to come closer to shared forms of meaning. This is what makes play truly sublime’[p.5]. It is a very interesting point – play might not be the fundamental category of Social life, however, because during the act of play we release our senses, it might reveal some useful information about the impact of society on us. However, this is probably questioned in psychology, rather than sociology.

‘Play seems to capture something that we all do, and which is not adequately realised from the perspective of work, or of the work that play might do’. [p.8, Jim Ottaway, 2003]


Marx, K. (1844) ‘Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts’, McLellan

Geertz, C. (1972/1976) ‘Deep Play: a Description of the Balinese Cockfight’ in Bruner, J.S./ Jolly, A./ Sylva, K. (eds.) Play – Its Role in Development and Evolution.
pp. 656-674.

Huizinga, J. (1949/1970) ‘Play and Contest as Civilizing Functions’ in Bruner, J.S./ Jolly, A./ Sylva, K. (eds.) Play – Its Role in Development and Evolution.
pp. 675 – 687.

Oxford English Dictionary (OED) Online, 2nd Edition, 1989

Drake, S., (2003) ‘Sublime Play’, University of South Australia

Ottaway, J., (2003) Lecture handout in Principles of Sociology, London School of Economics

Marshall, G., (1994) Dictionary of Sociology, Oxford University Press (1998).