Play, culture and social anthropology

As mentioned earlier, play can also be seen as a form of culture when it voluntarily, originally and artistically represents culture. Schwartzman (1978) gives us the most comprehensive overview of this phenomenon but Stevens (1976:11-12) describes many of the same areas and reaches the following conclusion about play in a social anthropological light:

  1. Play is reflected in and an expression of cultural values
  2. Play is instruction in social roles
  3. Play facilitates the development of motor control
  4. Play is a freeing mechanism.

In social anthropological studies, “culture” is analysed within the framework of five theoretical perspectives, viz.;

Antiquarianism - includes the ancient, often sporadically collected descriptions of customs, rites and ceremonies in “strange and unfamiliar” cultures, including play and games. Collectors were often millionaire ambassadors, teachers or explorers. Some of the early accounts are, however, sketchy and prejudiced. Others are unique cultural inheritances which give valuable information about play and games traditions.

It is a well-known fact that Freud refers to many of these collected accounts in his book “Totem and Taboo”.

Evolutionism - includes the theoretical perspectives concerned with the development of cultures. In earlier times, the motivation for these was categorised in one of three perspectives:

  • Cultures develop stage by stage on the basis of specific deterministic laws.
  • Cultures develop from simplicity to complexity.
  • The similarities between the various cultures and societies are greater than the differences because, wherever he is in the world, a human beinghas the same fundamental needs - a fact which explains the parallel and independent development of a variety of cultures/societies (cultural relativism).

Hall (1906) described how, through play, the human being recapitulates the development of Mankind.

Edwards (1973) describes how sport develops from simplicity to complexity and Ibrahim (1975:40) describes how games and sport in particular are associated with certain social classes in a society.

Diffusionism embraces the ways in which cultures have spread, including how knowledge of the various games first occurred and then disseminated.

There are three points of view on this:

  • that play spreads naturally and independently. (It just has to be useful.)
  • that play spreads out from a cultural power-house.
  • that play spreads within a specific geographic area (and goes no further).

And not only toys are spread for different reasons: stories, songs and melodies spread too.

In connection with an overview and account of the various studies of collection and play (1978:94-96), Schwartzman stated that adaptation is subject to certain laws, dependent on the nature of the eco-social systems.

Functionalism includes functional analyses of society. The idea behind this is that:

  • Each culture can be described in the light of its own functional and internal systems. (Thus certain types of play can be described as cultural play, connected to a specific culture/society.)
  • Social behaviour exists to maintain the social structures of a society (where it is the function of certain gamesto contribute to the players’ gaining knowledge about what is correct behaviour).
  • A society is a total network of social connections (which means that certain gamesare legal or illegal, depending on the social framework in which they are played).
  • Cultural characteristics are an important constituent of a society’s functions (which is emphasised by the gamesbeing played in a special or particular way, depending on local traditions, way of life or lifestyle).


  • The function of cultural characteristics is to ensure and/or fulfil individual needswithin the society (thus certain games become a safety valve for the needs of the individual).

Structuralism and functionalism are in many ways two sides of the same coin.

Structuralism describes the nature of the mutual relationship between things and how a unit is built. Functionalism describes how things work.

Sutton-Smith (1974:a:10) states, however, that, where structural and functional toy analyses are concerned, no structural system can in itself ensure the correct overview about play or a game. There are simply a variety of structures and systems and each system speaks for itself.

This will be described further in the presentation of the five theses on play (the relativistic theories of play).

One could describe the descriptions of Buydendijk (1933), Huizinga (1958) and in particular Caillois (1961) as “dissolved” or almost “antifunctional”, as these authors believe that play is defined by the form taken by the process or activity.

In this connection, Caillois states that a totally expressive state can in fact develop but that, at the same time, the situation brings the person-at-play into a state of dissolution, chaos and loss of consciousness.

An extension of this is Sutton-Smith’s (1984,b) description of these “dissolved play processes” which he characterises as self-effacing, ecstatic, anarchistic and leaderless, as control, as “a sensible explanation” and as lacking a specific cause.

I doubt, however, that they always lack a cause!

The great need to find and experience situations and events which contain these dissolved play processes and other similar (crazy) play states seems, however, to be an inevitably strong characteristic of human nature. There are several explanations for why these special situations or events are sought after and why they occur:

Geertz (1972) describes these situations as a direct result of suppression. When an individual finds himself in a situation in which he is completely powerless to flee from his needs (which suppress him), he regenerates in an attempt to find renewal in all the triviality by using intuitive patterns of abstraction, expressed from time to time as grotesque actions.

Derrida (1970) explains the phenomenon which he calls “radical play” as an unconscious and impulsive revolt or struggle against the ordered structures in the world (i.e. in society) in which nothing existentially interesting happens, apart from aesthetics or randomness.

Turner (1969) calls them for “limioid inventions”: In his social anthropological world picture, they represent a “reserve decision” which atones for the looming and ever-present threat of group conflict - due to the boredom of everyday life or the sadness of a society in which problems are predicted to take a change for the worst - unless other alternative reserve possibilities, changes or variations occur.

However, to a great extent, the content of Turner’s theory is built up on Buber’s philosophical work “I and Thou” (1959) and on his existential theories about the dialogue between the I and the Thou, the I and its surroundings. Turner also calls the phenomenon “intuitive perception of a non-transactional quality in inter-human relations”

Gadamer (1982) explains that it is the desire of the person-at-play to give himself up to the game and to seek its “spirit”. Play has its own unwritten laws and “illogical” logic in which the person-at-play can unfold in an alternating playing with and playing against the other participants in the game. As play is, at the same time, an expression of the participants’ shared free will earnestly to have fun, abandon and submission become a conscious intention.

In any circumstances, it is not easy to differentiate between play (fun, uncommitted as the definition of the word suggests) and earnestness, even though in the reality of everyday life the terms are clearly differentiated.

Nor is it easy to classify toys and play. Over the years many different types of play classifications have been drawn up. An outline of these would be a bibliography in itself which doesn’t fall within the scope of this book. (See also chapter 16.)



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