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Play Anthropology

Rafe and I attended a very interesting meeting this weekend, and I hope he will put his thoughts down on this experience as well.
It was essentially a pitch for a new business and the audience was supposed to provide feedback on the idea. The meeting, however, was a little different because it was focused on Play. Yes, the fine art and discipline of play.
Frank Forencich, the guy pitching the idea, has been making a living writing books and giving classes on his philosophy of how humans don’t move enough and Americans need to start living like Exuberant Animals, and now wants to develop a camp/home base for his classes. All the people who had been invited to hear Frank’s pitch for the Exuberant Animal Retreat (the current working name for his idea) – physical therapists, physicians, primatologists, traceurs, trainers, students, artists, yogis, outdoor trip leaders, and a budding anthropologist (me) – were all interested in how people play and how to get people to play more and incorporate it into their lives, and for some had made it their job. The best example of this was Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play (technically it’s his “retirement” job, but it’s not much of a retirement).
This idea, this concept, of studying how people play, why people play, what they get out of it, and the fact that all those things should be obvious to people and yet it’s not, is a really intriguing idea to me. The idea of studying play for a living and helping to promote play has been distracting me since last Wednesday, and it’s only getting worse. I only half-joked to Rafe that I should base my master’s thesis on watching puppies play with each other.
It was so inspiring to talk to this group of people because it showed me that I could get paid to study play, or at least parts of play. A lot of work is with corporations or doing studies on education, which is fine with me. I would be more than happy to do a study that shows, once again, that kids learn better in school if they have recess, hence taking recess away is NOT going to help them do better on standardized tests! I don’t know how that study would qualify as anthropology, since I’m not really looking at any culture per say, but it could fall under human behavior and processing the world; that’s close enough. If anybody knows someone who’s looking for a play anthropologist, let me know.
What really got me starting to think about this in a cohesive way, almost serendipitously, was an assigned essay on anthropologist Victor Witter Turner. While Turner was known mostly for his work on symbolism and study of religious ritual, his theories of liminality, structure and anti-structure, everyday ritual, and play in general really struck a chord with me. He’s one of the first theorists I’ve come across who have even looked at play and ritual and pretend and considered it as important as I certainly think it is. I’m actually having a hard time with my paper and simply writing an overview of all of Turner’s work and not just talking about his ideas on play and how according to Turner play, pretend, and cutting loose is an essential part of being human and functioning in society. I’m seriously considering a paper on that particular subject for one of the anthropological conferences coming up in the Spring.
So, even though I am still stressed and sleep-deprived, even though I feel ragged and worn, the whole experience of the past week has re-instilled a purpose in me. It has reminded me why I’m putting myself through hell to go to grad school, why I fell in love with Anthropology in the first place, and where I can be useful, where I want to put my energy into the world.
“Play” is a perfect category to describe everything I’m interested in: how do people learn, the behavior and ritual in sports, performance of all types (dancing, art, story-telling), identity, photography, people adapting to new environments and technologies, and of course looking at biology and culture combined. All of these have aspects of play, or just straight up are play. Turner’s ideas can be applied to all of these cultural actions as well, and can be used to look at and dissect the meaning, the purpose, the reason why we do them.
The only sad thing is, because play is “just play” the subject probably won’t be taken seriously by many. Even I have moments of feeling silly about wanting to study the seriousness of play. But it’s not silly, it’s vital, and knowing that there are other people out there who feel the same way – Rafe, Frank, Stuart, Deborah the primatologist, the traceurs, the yogis and physical trainers – gives me strength in going forward and going after something so passionately.
Thank you!

One thought on “Play Anthropology

  1. Hi. I happened across this post and blog today and wanted to make contact. I am an anthropologist who works in play, doing playwork and research in London. My blog is infinitely out of date and about to be deleted, but if you’re interested in talking about the crossovers between these fields then email me. Take care, Morgan

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