Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The High-End Menial Labour Movement

It’s a month old now, but Freakonomics authors Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt pondered some questions of interest in their column Laid-Back Labor in a special New York Times Magazine issue on the Baby Boomer generation. They muse “Isn’t it puzzling that so many middle-aged Americans are spending so much of their time and money performing menial labors when they don’t have to?” Cooking, gardening and knitting are idenitified as cases in point. They cite research by economists Valerie A. Ramey and Neville Francis in which activities are ranked on a scale of enjoyment from 0 to 10. Somehow, Ramey and Francis decided that activities can only be defined as leisure if they meet or exceed a score of 7.3, a lower score renders the activity “home production.” Knitting (7.7) makes the grade; gardening (7.1) and cooking (6.6) do not. Dubner and Levitt suggest that the real question here is what makes a certain activity work for one person and leisure for another?

I find this kind of theorising amusing. I like to imagine the economists stalking the knitters, clipboards in hand. [Oh, this reminds me: did you see the film Kitchen Stories? A wonderful Norwegian film about time-management experts sent out to observe Norwegian bachelors kitchen habits. I loved everything about this film: the tall umpire-type chair set up in the kitchen corner, the expert’s caravan outside, the sweet, slow cat-and-mouse game between observer and observed.] I don’t mean to diminish the importance of such research, it’s just that as specialists in one area, we can all be so blind to the bleedingly obvious in another. Dubner and Levitt recognize this, I think: their schtick is all about questioning the primacy of economic modelling when the world and people in it are just so strange.

Sociologists are a case in point. Around the same time this column appeared, a book titled Serious Leisure: A Perspective for Our Time came across my workbench. In this book, Robert A. Stebbins outlines a new paradigm for the study of the sociology of leisure. He refers to this paradigm throughout the book as the Perspective [with a capital P] , which has a slightly Orwellian feel to it. Stebbins sees that the problem of leisure is that all kinds of leisure have been lumped together as distinguished from production but indistinguishable from each other. He defines three main categories of leisure (and numerous sub-categories.) The three main categories are serious leisure, casual leisure and project-based leisure. I’m quoting Stebbins below:

Serious leisure: systematic pursuit of an amateur, hobbyist, or volunteer core activity sufficiently substantial, interesting fulfilling in nature for the participant to find a career there acquiring and expressing a combination of its special skills, knowledge and experience.

Casual leisure: immediately, intrinsically rewarding, relatively short-lived pleasurable core activity, requiring little or no special training to enjoy it.

Project-based leisure: short-term, reasonably complicated, one-shot or occasional, though infrequent, creative undertaking carried out in free time, or time free of disagreeable obligation.

I’m tempted to alert Dubner and Levitt to this book [Update: no need]. And to the urls of all our blogs about cooking, crafting and gardening. I’m always interested to read about people’s experiences of transforming initially leisure-based activities into small businesses, and how doing so effects their experience of the activity itself. And finally, to this site, which refutes Dubner and Levitt’s assertion that no-one, since the invention of the washing machine, practices doing laundry for fun.