Is the Serious Leisure Perspective valid? Advancing the debate

By Tony Veal

In his recent ‘Leisure Reflections 47’ on the LSA blog and newsletter Robert Stebbins referred to a recent paper of mine on the Serious Leisure Perspective (SLP) in Leisure Sciences (Veal, 2016). He listed ‘four problems’ with the paper, which he had previously identified in a ‘rejoinder’ (Stebbins, 2016), but did not refer to my reply (Veal, 2017). My immediate reaction on seeing Stebbins’ comments was to consider drawing readers’ attention to my reply, together with a brief summary, which I offer below. However, I then thought it would be constructive to take the opportunity to progress the debate further, and that is the aim of the second part of this contribution. It should be noted that I am not concerned just with the concept of serious leisure, but with the SLP as a whole and the claims made for it.

  1. Summary of the debate so far

Before considering Stebbins’ ‘four problems’, I have two preliminary comments on his ‘rejoinder’. First, he claims that I am suggesting that the serious leisure perspective (SLP) be ‘reconstituted as a Leisure Experience Perspective’. This is misleading. I query both the theoretical and the classificatory validity of the SLP, so I do not propose its reconstitution but its replacement by a broader research agenda, the LEP, of which ‘seriousness’ might be a component.

My second comment is to observe that Stebbins’ comments entirely miss the main thrust of my paper, which is in two parts:

  • In regard to the SLP as theory, I argue, first, that Stebbins’ claim that two theoretical constructs, social worlds and identity, are uniquely associated with serious leisure cannot be supported since he fails to show that they are not associated with casual Second, the theoretical proposition, that serious leisure is a necessary component of any  optimal leisure style, has not been, and is unlikely to be, supported empirically.
  • In regard to the SLP as a classification system, I argue, as have others, that, since virtually all leisure activities can be engaged in with varying degrees of seriousness or casualness, the idea of discrete lists of ‘serious’ activities, ‘casual’ activities and ‘project-based’ activities, which is the core of the SLP system, is invalid.

The fact that Stebbins does not address these key conclusions of my paper could be taken to imply that he is in agreement with them.

I now turn to the ‘four problems’, briefly summarizing the discussions in my response paper.

  1. Referring to Stebbins’ most recent consolidating book (Elkington and Stebbins, 2014): it is claimed that this is an inappropriate source to use because it is in textbook format. In fact, the book claims to be a ‘comprehensive introduction’ which deals with ‘cutting edge theory’ and I referred to it because it was the most recent comprehensive statement on the SLP available at the time I was writing. However, I also made copious references to a number (19) of Stebbins’ earlier publications, so the omission of the textbook would in no way have changed the conclusions of the paper.
  2. Ignoring the concept of core activity: I am aware of the concept of core activity but do not think mentioning it would make any difference to the conclusions I draw in my paper. In fact, I would say the non-core components of both serious and casual leisure activity are neglected in the SLP literature generally.
  3. The SLP as ‘theoretic’ and not just descriptive. Stebbins claims that there is more than enough theory in his various publications ‘to anchor the types and subtypes [of the SLP] in explanatory discussion’. I would argue that much of what he refers to as ‘explanatory discussion’ would be better described as ‘detailed descriptive/classificatory discussion’.
  4. Understanding of the ‘grounded theory’ nature of the SLP: Stebbins asserts that I do not appreciate the grounded theory basis of the SLP, emphasizing the ‘work-in-progress’ nature of the 40-year project. In my paper, I contrast this stance with the claims which Stebbins makes for the SLP being a comprehensive ‘classification and explanation of all leisure activities and experiences’ and ‘established theory’. I make the point that, while claims appear to be empirically grounded in regard to serious leisure, those made in regard to casual leisure do not appear to be similarly grounded.

II Advancing the discussion

Despite himself suggesting, in his early definitional statement (Stebbins, 1982:255), that the casual-serious dichotomy was likely to evolve into a single continuum, Stebbins has continued to resist this development and its implications. It appeared that the anticipated evolutionary step had been reached in 2008 when a team, which included Stebbins (Gould et al., 2008), presented the Serious Leisure Inventory and Measure (SLIM) scale in which the serious leisure distinguishing characteristics were scored by subjects using Likert-type scales. The authors speculated as to whether low scores on the SLIM scale might imply casualness. This would indicate that casual and serious participation in an activity lie on the same continuum, so that seriousness-casualness refers not to two different sets of activities, but to varying modes of participation in the same activity. Shen & Yarnal (2010: 166) later pointed out that the use of the scale ‘inadvertently defies the dichotomous SL-CL conception’.

The continuum idea is quite incompatible with the categorical classification as portrayed in the diagram now often used to summarize the SLP (see www.seriousleisure.net/slp-diagrams.html). In his LSA comments Stebbins claims that he ‘sorted out’ this matter in his recent publication on careers in serious leisure (Stebbins, 2014). However, the relevant diagram in that publication (Fig. 2.1, p. 34, also at: www.seriousleisure.net/slp-diagrams.html) just adds to the confusion. While it reflects Stebbins’ long-recognized quasi-continuum of seriousness within serious leisure (i.e. the sub-categories: neophyte; participant; moderate devotee; core devotee), in the diagram, casual leisure is bracketed with ‘dabbler’ and remains resolutely separate from the continuum. This, despite the fact that a proportion of dabblers in an activity ‘moves on to pursuing it more seriously as a neophyte’ (p. 31).

There was, however, a breakthrough, in a recent paper of which Stebbins is a co-author,  but which was published too late to be referenced in my own paper. Cheng, Stebbins and Packer’s (2016) paper is a very rare example of the inclusion in the same study of participants  engaging in a single activity (gardening) in both casual and serious modes. On the basis of a filter question, subjects were divided into casual and two serious leisure categories (‘participants’ and ‘devotees’). All three groups were then surveyed using the same instrument covering the six well-known serious leisure distinguishing characteristics (DCs) using the SLIM scale measures. Casual leisure has its own list of seven DCs (see Fig. 1 in my paper), but the SLIM scale was developed only for serious leisure so the specific casual leisure DCs do not feature in the study. So the study proceeds on the basis, in effect,  that a casual participant is likely to be one who scores low on serious leisure scale items. The summary of results (Table 2 in the paper) shows a clear gradation of scores ranging from low for casuals to high for serious devotees, for each of the six DCs. For example, on the DC of ‘identity’, casuals score 3.13, participants 4.51 and devotees 5.73 on the seven-point scale. The authors, however, ignore the theoretical significance of this finding and proceed to explore the differences between the three groups’ scores in detail – an example of what I refer to above as ‘detailed descriptive/ classificatory discussion’.

The significance of the finding is, however, that gardening can be pursued as a leisure activity in casual or serious mode. This idea is explicitly accepted in the SLP literature in the case of volunteering, which can be casual, serious or project-based. However, it is also true of virtually all leisure activities, including most sports, cultural activities and hobbies. Thus ‘seriousness’ is just one dimension which is likely to be present to varying degrees in all leisure activities. Furthermore, it is arguably just one of a number of dimensions which might be included in studying the leisure experience.

 A.J. Veal

University of Technology Sydney

April 2018

References

Veal/Stebbins exchanges

Veal, A.J. (2016) The serious leisure perspective and the experience of leisure. Leisure Sciences, 39(3), 205-23.

Stebbins, R.A. (2016) The serious leisure perspective or the leisure experience perspective? A rejoinder to Veal. ResearchGate, at: www.researchgate.net/publication/307857914

Veal, A.J. (2017) The Leisure Experience and the Serious Leisure Perspective: a response to Robert Stebbins. ResearchGate, at: www.researchgate.net/publication/317740871

Stebbins, R.A. (2018) Leisure Reflections No. 47: The serious leisure perspective: past, present, and future. LSA Newsletter, March, at: https://leisurestudiesblog.wordpress.com/ 2018/03/12/leisure-reflections-no-47-the-serious-leisure-perspective-past-present-and-future/

Other references

Cheng, E.(H-P.), Stebbins, R., and Packer, J. (2017) Serious leisure among older gardeners in Australia, Leisure Studies, 36(4), 505-18.

Elkington, S., & Stebbins, R.A. (2014) The Serious Leisure Perspective: An introduction. London: Routledge.

Shen, X.S., & Yarnal, C. (2010). Blowing open the serious leisure-casual leisure dichotomy: what’s in there? Leisure Sciences, 32(2), 162-79.

Stebbins, R.A. (1982) Serious leisure: a conceptual statement. Pacific Sociological Review, 5,  251-72.

Stebbins, R.A. (2014) Careers in Serious Leisure. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave-Macmillan.

 

 

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