What’s Deviant about Deviant Leisure?

Tom Raymen, Plymouth University

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Throughout this blog and our conceptual development of ‘deviant leisure’ we have placed an emphasis on two core and interrelated issues. First is the issue of normalised harm within many areas of commodified leisure. The second is how many new, traditional and normalised forms of ‘deviance’ are arguably not ‘deviant’ at all in the sense that they contravene social and cultural values. Rather, as we and other scholars have been at pains to stress, in an era of ‘cool individualism’ in which it is culturally imperative to form a unique and individual identity that is distinct from ‘the herd’, to transgress or cultivate deviant identities is steadfastly conformist (Hall et al, 2008; Hayward and Schuilenberg, 2014; Smith, 2014). In this sense, what could under a more ethical social order be conceptualised as deviant behaviour is harnessed, pacified and repositioned as a very specific form of dynamism that serves to propel desire for symbolic objects and experiences – desires which are translated into demand within the circuits of consumption dominated by the leisure economy.

Therefore, the most pressing question would be: What is ‘deviant’ about ‘deviant leisure’? This is a valid question, one we have received quite frequently at conferences, during informal conversation with colleagues and in reviewers’ comments to article submissions. Have we have misnamed our own concept, giving it a paradoxical title which matches neither its intellectual content nor intent? We argue not. Rather, what we are attempting to accomplish through a deviant leisure perspective is to alter the foundations upon which social deviance as a concept is based and upon which it has become problematic in the contemporary context.

The major conceptual shortcoming of ‘social deviance’ is that it is rooted in the notion of ‘social and cultural values’ and reliant upon the existence of a strong consensus about what does and does not constitute ‘deviance’. However, when those values are tied to the economic and cultural structures of neoliberalism and consumer capitalism, harm, competitive individualism and a disregard for the other becomes imbued within our everyday interactions with others, normalised economic practices and, indeed, leisure. Moreover the extreme liberalism of contemporary times, in which any attempt to consider issues of harm within leisure is met with accusations of conservativism and threats to freedom and civil liberties, has resulted in a significant ‘moral relativism’ surrounding leisure. This is an example of Bauman’s point that notions of morality are manipulated by social structures and systems. Therefore, we need a conceptualisation of harm that is less malleable and more universal and detached from the values of liberal-capitalism.

Elsewhere, we have discussed our grounding of social harm in Bauman’s idea of the ‘duty to the other’. Therefore, what is ‘deviant’ about forms of ‘deviant leisure’ is not their contravention of social norms and values but their violation of this ‘duty to the other’; a duty which, sadly, is not an vital or embedded social or cultural value in our current stage of late-capitalism. This is far from a novel proposal. Green criminologists have long discussed the need to move towards harm perspectives in order to acknowledge legal, but harmful actions which negatively impact the environment. Books such as Beyond Criminology by Hillyard and Tombs (2004) have made meaningful strides in this regard, in addition to the recent work of ultra-realism.

However, too often within criminology the notions of ‘harm’ and ‘social deviance’ appear to be treated as separate terms and concepts, as separate entities which occasionally overlap. But shouldn’t any concept of social deviance always be rooted in principles of harm and a duty to the other? The deviant leisure perspective aims to rectify this, attempting to reconfigure the conceptual foundations of social deviance so that ‘harm’ and ‘deviance’ can be looked at in the same analytical frame. Only then can criminology make use of ‘social deviance’ as a concept again, one which is equipped to critically approach the harms of commodified leisure and its systemic roots in the corrosive social and cultural values of late-capitalism.

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