Why ‘Deviant Leisure’?

By Oliver Smith, Plymouth University

Set against the context of global economic collapse, rising levels of inequality and social harm, savage restructuring and privatisation throughout the Criminal Justice System, it may appear to some that the study of leisure should be a relatively low priority for criminologists. However, it is here at the nexus of leisure and deviance that we see the contradictions and damaging nature of global capitalism played out, often in overtly harmful, explicit detail. We see activities that are linked to low levels of social harm being directly or indirectly criminalised – some forms of drug taking for example, or engagement in leisure pursuits that bring individuals or groups into conflict with owners or guardians of private property such as skateboarding or free-running.

Other forms of undeniably harmful leisure meanwhile are legal, or positively sanctioned – consider for example alcohol consumption, where drunken behaviour within the context of the marketised night time economy is tolerated or even celebrated as youthful hi-jinks, despite being the site of violence, sexual assault and vandalism (Smith, 2014). Gambling too, once heavily sanctioned (at least for the working classes) is now embedded within Anglo-American culture. Recent advertising campaigns locate gambling as entirely unproblematic, a site of individuality and identity formation, in spite of the broad range of harms associated with the burgeoning gambling industry, and its questionable techniques of targeting economically marginalised communities.

Deviant leisure may also be linked to socially deleterious forms of harm, that require much more careful research and nuanced theorisation. By assiduously avoiding reversion to Moral Panic theory or Media Effects, ‘deviant leisure’ theorists should engage with a range of activities such as the creation and consumption of pornography, or the consumption of particularly violent forms of media and computer games, locating these activities as indicative of a broader slide into a form of infantile narcissism synonymous with the post-political neoliberal subject. Furthermore, if we are going to define leisure as along the lines of a ‘relatively freely chosen non-work area of life’ (Roberts, 1978: 3), then we should also consider forms of abuse and even serial murder as examples of deviant leisure.

Deviant Leisure is undoubtedly a broad church, and the term can be applied to a range of activities and behaviours. This requires an academic consideration of the social construction of crime and deviance, but also a closer engagement with the social context of norms and values. According to Downes and Rock (2011: 23), deviance is defined as ‘banned or controlled behaviour that is likely to attract punishment or disapproval’, Intrinsic to this definition is a recognised deviation from accepted values, a process that is not often simple to identify, but perhaps best exemplified by the sheer variety of topics covered within the pages of Rowland Atkinson’s Shades of Deviance (2014). Taking the recent Internet drinking-game Neknominate as an example, to what extent can we claim extreme forms of alcohol consumption to be deviant? Rather, they can be positioned as steadfastly conformist, adhering to social values of hedonism, competition and control/dominance. Similarly, it is a struggle to find many examples of ‘deviant leisure’ which are truly resistant to the dominant socio-economic order. Graffiti, Parkour, even drug use and violence are all co-opted by the culture industries, used to sell soft drinks, trainers and cars – a process which robs them of any resistance, political or otherwise, even if an argument could be made for it existing in the first place.


I offer here only some initial observations upon the notion of deviant leisure, but what is clear is the necessity for a cross-disciplinary exploration of crime and deviance within their broader context. A critical understanding of the motives and actualisation of these wide ranging and infinitely varied activities and behaviours will undoubtedly prompt new discussions around harm and human damage, processes of criminalisation and the underlying conditions and systems that provide a background to many of the activities that come under the banner of deviant leisure.


Atkinson, R. (Ed.). (2014). Shades of Deviance: A Primer on Crime, Deviance and Social Harm. Routledge.

Downes, D. M., & Rock, P. (2011). Understanding deviance: A guide to the sociology of crime and rule-breaking. Oxford University Press.

Roberts, K. (1978) Contemporary society and the growth of leisure. Longman. London

Smith, O. (2014) Contemporary Adulthood and the Night Time Economy. London. Palgrave.

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