Deviant Leisure: A Criminological perspective

Oliver Smith and Thomas Raymen

The broad area of deviant leisure has garnered increasing interest within criminology and the social sciences over the last several months. Robert Stebbins has very recently returned to issues of hedonism, incivility and the negative or ‘deviant’ side of leisure. Members of this research network, such as Steve Redhead, have begun to communicate deviant leisure perspectives to an increasingly global audience, whilst cultural criminology is beginning to expand its gaze beyond the limited constructs of crime and deviance to take interest in the relationship between consumer culture and normalised harm. Dedicated panels and streams at various international conferences serve to compound the suggestion that this is a perspective that is gaining traction within the social sciences.

Of course for us and to those who have been following this blog, such interest is entirely unsurprising. As evidenced by the wide array of topics covered here and beyond, deviant leisure is indeed a ‘broad church’ of exciting research areas. However in light of this spate of recent activity, we feel it is time for us to  bring greater clarity to the deviant leisure project by explicitly outlining our understanding of deviant leisure as a theoretical concept. What follows below is an abridged version of a forthcoming journal article in which we begin to present the fundamental theoretical principles of a deviant leisure perspective.


The non-work activities of human beings have rarely been far from the inquisitive gaze of the social sciences. Cultural criminology in particular, has a rich tradition of exploring some of the most visible forms of ‘deviant leisure’ such as graffiti writing, street racing, BASE jumping and innumerable exemplars of what Lyng (1990) describes as edgework. Utilising a deviant leisure perspective enables us to look beyond these spectacularly deviant activities and explore the harms around more culturally accepted and embedded forms of leisure. Our theoretical framework draws upon advances in both cultural criminology and ultra-realist criminology. We bring together these theoretical approaches to present a conceptual basis for deviant leisure which illustrates how individual, social, economic and environmental harms are structurally embedded within many accepted and normalized forms of leisure.

This initial exploration of a deviant leisure perspective includes a range of illustrative examples, but is of course far from being an exhaustive list. While deviant leisure remains far from a ‘finished’ theoretical perspective, these initial examples and theoretical discussions will highlight the basic theoretical approach in order to contribute to the on-going development of the study of deviant leisure from a criminological perspective.

Leisure, pleasure and harm

Early work by cultural criminologists claims that deviant forms of leisure arise as a result of the timeless natural desire to seek thrills, pleasure and excitement. Indeed, this view is pervasive across disciplines, forming part of a liberal orthodoxy, which tends to promote individual agency and a naturalist view of resistance to authority in narratives of harm. In this sense, the choice to seek thrills and excitement in a way that supposedly challenges authority is often celebrated and positioned as politically charged. Elsewhere, the opprobrium drawn by clearly visible forms of violence and illegality detract from the more pertinent source of the violence and disorder, ignoring the necessity to locate harm within the social structures of late modernity. Continuation with the orthodox analysis of leisure and deviance serves to obfuscate the range of harms that occur as a direct or indirect result of commodified forms of leisure and their attendant cultural supply chains.

One of the challenges associated with the harm-based approach is the role of morality in deciding what we classify as harm. The construction of a moral calculus will have to be left for another time, but suffice to say that within the context of a marketised leisure economy, we follow Zygmunt Bauman in his assertion that morality is manipulated by social structures and systems, most specifically the late modern form of capitalism. The competitive individualism that lies at the centre of the economic exchange mechanisms of consumer capitalism is, we argue, the driving impetus behind the willingness of individuals to inflict primary or secondary harms upon others, with moral judgments being superseded by the special liberty (see Hall, 2012) that is synonymous with success in the hyper competitive individualized environs of the current social order. However, our problematisation of contemporary leisure goes further than a critique of firms and corporations unethically profiteering from leisure forms which harm individuals, cultures or the environment. Rather, we problematize the systemic absence of a categorical imperative around a moral commitment to leisure practices which are ‘harm neutral’ or actively pro-social. This is underpinned by what Bauman describes as a ‘duty to the other’, a collective human responsibility to look out for, care, and act in such a way that not only avoids harming others, but positively contributes to society, culture, and the environment. We argue that this is the minimum we must demand of a more progressive engagement with leisure cultures. However the dominant neoliberal ethos of individualism contributes to the continual erosion of the social, and the eradication of a collectivist conception of morality.

The point here is that these harms are embedded in culturally acceptable, value-normative behaviours, bound inextricably to what Zizek terms the ‘cultural injunction to enjoy’. Not only are these harms often experienced as hidden, systemic forms of violence, but in many cases are largely preventable. In short, prosocial forms of leisure are possible, but lie beyond what we term a hedonic realism, the inability to see beyond the horizon of a social order where leisure identity is synonymous with the hyper-competitive and individualized arena of consumer capitalism.

Deviant Leisure – a typology

Some of these examples may be familiar to readers of this blog, but our hope is that the engagement of an ultra-realist perspective prompts a recasting of the familiar as the cornerstone of a re-engagement with the notion of deviance, leisure and harm. Our typology uses the identified harm associated with various commodified leisure practices as its rationale. harmful forms of deviant leisure are categorised according to the primary focus of harms associated with them, and are divided into the following broad categories:

  1. Subjective harms
  2. Environmental harms
  3. Socially Corrosive harms
  4. Embedded harms

1. Subjective

Subjective forms of harm involve an easily identifiable perpetrator visiting harm upon a clearly identifiable victim in action related to a clearly defined leisure activity. Perhaps the clearest example of this is the commission of violence within the alcohol-based night time economy (NTE). The NTE has become synonymous with rising levels of interpersonal violence, often portrayed within the mainstream literature and media reporting as the pathological behaviour of a minority of working class men whose actions taint an otherwise unproblematic site of creativity and identity gain. The reality is that the NTE is responsible for over a million hospital visits a year (a somewhat conservative figure which is likely to underestimate the reality of the number of assaults). In addition to this are the significant numbers of assaults on ambulance and emergency room staff who should also be considered victims of alcohol based violence. Outside of these clearly subjective forms of violence are swathes of objective forms of violence, systemic and symbolic violence meted out against other consumers, bar workers, takeaway workers, taxi drivers and other peripheral victims of deviant leisure.

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‘Headlock’ Copyright Lee Jones

The marketised environment of the night time economy is key to creating an arena of sorts for violent encounters, as well as the creation and maintenance of leisure based identity. It is characterized by a near universal adherence to intoxication and the suspension of the moral regulation and behavioural norms of the daytime, but in the starkest of terms, it is this problematic and harmful form of determined drinking that is the most valuable from the perspective of the alcohol industry, accounting for 60% of the industry’s profit. These harms can be outward facing as discussed above, or can turn inwards on the participant, such as those involving poly-drug use, and other forms of risky or dangerous activities. In these instances of subjective harm, leisure behaviours incorporate an element of risk-taking that is barely managed, and appears to be undertaken not without knowledge of danger, but in spite of it.

2. Environmental

Green criminology has done much over the last 25 years to direct criminological attention at the harms inflicted upon the environment as a result of non-criminal activities, alongside criminal and harmful behaviours that emanate from interaction with the global economy. From a Deviant Leisure perspective, we interrogate not only the harms that result from engaging with leisure cultures, but explore the role of consumerism in the creation of individual desire and the cultivation of competitive individualism. Perhaps the starkest example can be found in the case of the Maldives.

An island chain of 26 atolls in the Indian ocean, the Republic of the Maldives is the lowest country in the world, and while it is probably the most vulnerable country in terms of the threat of sea level change, it also faces a compound danger through the popularity of leisure and its desirability as a honeymoon or status destination. This economic value however, comes at a cost, with waste disposal providing a specific challenge. Perhaps most symbolic of the types of harm we are talking about here, is the creation of Thilafishu waste treatment and disposal site. In essence, this amounts to the sacrifice of an island atoll and lagoon for the disposal and treatment of waste.

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‘Garbage Island’ copyright: Muha


While the classic liberal defence of the tourist industry might rely on pointing to employment created by the tourist industry, in reality very few well-renumerated jobs go to indigenous islanders, with 42% of the population earning around $1.50 per day (Scheyvens, 2011), while money leaks out of the country due to high levels of foreign ownership and a high proportion of expatriate employment at 53% of the workforce (Shakeela et al, 2011)

For us, the challenges faced by the Maldives are not the product of tourism in an abstract sense, but are synonymous with the commodification of a range of symbolism that is closely related to consumer culture. The ubiquitous image that adorns specialist honeymoon magazines (again an indication of the importance and reach of the honeymoon tourism industry) is of miles of white sands, empty but for the carefree linen-suited groom and his sarong-wearing new bride. However, the pristine beauty of the magazine is not as natural as we might suppose. Rather, the islands have been sanitized; depilated, shaved and plucked to the detriment of local ecosystems.


Some tourists may of course be unaware of the effects on the environment However, engaging in these leisure experiences despite the knowledge of the environmental degradation, is an example of what Steve Hall refers to as special liberty, the individual belief that one is no longer constrained by ethical codes, and has the right to freely express desires and drives, albeit with in the constrains of the external control system. It is the fantasy of special liberty that allows the individual to abdicate from moral responsibility and engage in harmful forms of leisure, perpetuating the economic, social and environmental forms of inequality that leak from commodified leisure. Moreover, the environmental harms associated with leisure and the piles of waste it builds are not restricted to the far-off lands of the Maldives, but are simultaneously experienced in multiple locations globally. As Jeff Ferrell identified a decade ago in Empire of Scrounge, the environmental harms associated with waste produced by a globalized consumer culture is only going to intensify over time as the demands of a consumer economy and its neophiliac subjects consume and discard fashions, fads and trends in an ever-shortening life cycle of commodities.

3. Socially Corrosive

Here, we identify leisure forms that contribute to the erosion of our shared social life. Baudrillard acknowledged the ‘end of the social’ with the dawn of neoliberalism, positioning consumer-citizens as increasingly atomised, cynical and disinterested in the possibility of collective interests. The social is constructed through a coherent and comprehensive sociosymbolic order, based in shared meanings and codes, which in their absence result in anxiety, unhappiness and despair, a constant state of emotional and existential precarity that can be temporarily assuaged by engagement in consumer markets.

A deviant leisure perspective must therefore examine the potential for leisure to cut individuals adrift from the social, contribute to the further erosion of social institutions such as family, class, community, and exacerbate the fragmented and individualized nature of the social under late capitalism. There are many forms of leisure that would fall into this category, but one example might be the creation of artificial scarcity, the privation of that which would otherwise be plentiful and free to the public. The creation of ‘club goods’ has the potential to create demarcated leisure zones of wealth and cultural capital. A clear demonstration of this is embodied within Donald Trump’s grab for an enormous stretch of the Aberdeenshire coastline for the creation of a ‘world-best’ $1.5 billion luxury golf-course, club, and hotel. Aided by a legal system that assiduously protects the interest of private property, these leisure spaces create cultures of fragmentation. Notwithstanding the environmental damage done to local dune ecosystems, within such spaces of cultural exclusivity, Trump’s golf-course and other similar country clubs become a no-go zone for those lacking the requisite social, cultural and financial capital.

donald-trump-puerto-rico-550x366.jpgOf course, Trump in his role as a neoliberal ‘undertaker’ (Hall, 2012) has argued that he is simply doing what has to be done in order to revitalize the economy of the region, providing jobs and attracting tourism, despite vocal opposition. Despite promises of 6,000 jobs only 200 jobs were created, while residents experienced interrupted water supply for several years. Exemplifying ‘special liberty’, Trump has transcended the ethical codes of the symbolic order in order to achieve his aims, irrespective of the effect it has on people.

Further examples of socially corrosive leisure are found in those individualized leisure forms which seduce individuals to retreat from the social into the ‘wallpapered worlds’ of fantasy through violent gaming and pornography. Rowland Atkinson and Tom Rodgers (2015) describe this as the proliferation of ‘murder boxes’, which create visually realistic zones of cultural exception based upon human harm, domination, and the perpetuation of gendered and racialized scripts of violence, domination, and subjugation.

4. Embedded Harm

Here we position leisure cultures that are notable for becoming successfully embedded within legitimate consumer markets and while imbued with potential for the creation of malleable identities based on the notion of cool, are deserving of closer criminological scrutiny. Perhaps the most illustrative example is the ubiquitous gambling industry, which has become legitimized, and normalised through becoming embedded within other forms of leisure such as the consumption of professional sport, online social networks, and the night-time economy. With an increasing array of gambling opportunities, quite literally at our fingertips, it is likely that ‘social’ gambling, fiercely defended by the gambling industry as non-problematic, masks a range of damaging social and individual effects.

While once subject to wide-ranging state control, gambling has become increasingly embedded within the night-time economy, sports fandom, and online forums of socialisation. Perhaps nowhere is the legitimized democratization of betting and gambling more visible than in the explosion of sports-betting, specifically around association football. It is impossible to watch any sports channel without being bombarded by targeted advertising of innumerable high-street and online bookmakers which visually situate the act of gambling within a wider weekend leisure experience of friends, football and beer at the pub or at home with friends. These individuals experience participation in organized gambling as integral to broader circuits of leisure, consumption and identity as gambling becomes imbued with more than the simple outcome of winning or losing. Rather, the act of betting becomes irretrievably entangled with identity, with how one bets having the potential to act as a reflective mirror of who they are. For our respondents, the reorientation of gambling away from exclusive casinos and toward sports and the night-time economy has infiltrated football fandom to the extent that gambling has become an entrenched and constituent aspect of masculine leisure environments.

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An identity-based culture of sports betting, combined with relentless promises of ‘easy wins’ encourages the chasing of losses and impulsive bets. In this way the cost of an afternoon watching football spirals, costs that can loop into other areas of life. In the face of financial losses, becoming trapped in the unforgiving and high-interest cycle of payday loans to cover gambling losses or even afford more simple domestic outgoings becomes a real possibility. The combination of the accumulation of social capital allied to the allure of the gambling win, underscored by readily available credit, has the potential to cast these young people into a new culture of indebtedness. The peaks and troughs of winning and losing, against the background of the ‘objectless’ anxiety of late-capitalism, perpetuates a leisure culture which, while culturally normalised, is characterised by the harms of stress, financial uncertainty, emotional volatility, depression and anxiety.


The discussions above regarding leisure’s more interpersonal, social, and environmentally corrosive cultural dynamics suggest a need for criminology to end the moratorium on more critical approaches to commodified leisure. By taking ultra-realism’s focus on the concrete reality of liberal-capitalism’s most systemic social harms, whilst adopting cultural criminology’s interest in contested ‘theatres of meaning’, we begin to provide a deviant leisure perspective which can critique how and why the myriad harms of commodified leisure forms have become so culturally accepted and normalised in contemporary culture by positioning them squarely in their cultural meanings and functions to both the individual and economy in a global age of consumer capitalism.

In doing so, we can understand how culturally conformist practices such as parkour are excluded from the consumer-oriented urban realm, whilst the vast environmental and social harms of honeymooning in the Maldives or maintaining tenuous post-social friendships through gambling and the night-time economy continue to be ignored by both consumers and society more broadly. Most forms of commodified leisure are not capable of providing “one of the few tangible and mundane experiences of freedom which feels personally significant to modern subjects” (Cronin, 2000: 3). Rather, the absence of more stable forms of collective identity in contemporary society has intensified the need for a coherent set of symbols through which to make sense of our lives. Thus, as increasing swathes of the population have turned to leisure and consumer markets for freedom and identity, they have appended their existential security and self-esteem to the ‘velocity of fashion’. This is the precarious ‘life cycle’ of commodities, fads, and leisure trends and the spirals and loops of cultural meaning, which further intensify the objectless anxiety and the perpetual solicitation of the ‘unfreedom’ of leisure.

To date, there has been limited critical analysis not just of how harm is a predictable externality of the commodification of leisure and leisure practices, but how the ‘barbarity of leisure’ is an intrinsic feature of the drives and energies which motivate leisure behaviours. As an increasing array of forms of ‘deviant leisure’ become culturally embedded within the mainstream and their attendant harms become normalised, we argue that criminology’s usual focus on legally-defined crime and forms of deviance which controvert social norms and values requires some conceptual expansion. For a criminology that intends to keep up with a rapidly changing landscape of crime and harm, it is necessary to distance ourselves from the concept of crime and instead direct its attention towards the doxa of consumer culture and associated leisure industries. In order to understand and explain phenomena such as the statistical crime decline in the absence of any demonstrable improvement in social relations; in order to understand ‘crime’ and ‘deviance’ within a rapidly expanding zemiological field of economically and culturally normalised harm, criminology must examine the drives, desires, and underlying violence that underpin the social order. It is our hope that this expanding body of work offers a contribution to this perspective by proposing some conceptual foundations for a criminological analysis of ‘deviant leisure’.


Atkinson, R. And Rodgers, T. (2015) ‘Pleasure Zones and Murder Boxes: Online Pornography and Violent Video Games and Zones of Cultural Exception’. British Journal of Criminology. Available at:

Cronin, A. M. (2000). Advertising and consumer citizenship: Gender, images and rights. London: Routledge.

Hall, S. (2012) Theorising Crime and Deviance: A New Perspective. London. Sage.

Hayward, K. (2015) ‘Cultural Criminology: Script Rewrites’. Theoretical Criminology. Available at:

Scheyvens, R. (2011). The challenge of sustainable tourism development in the Maldives: Understanding the social and political dimensions of sustainability. Asia Pacific Viewpoint, 52(2), 148-164.

Shakeela, A., Ruhanen, L., & Breakey, N. (2011). The Role of Employment in the Sustainable Development Paradigm—The Local Tourism Labor Market in Small Island Developing States. Journal of Human Resources in Hospitality & Tourism, 10(4), 331-353.

One thought on “Deviant Leisure: A Criminological perspective

  1. This is an excellent macro-level contextualization of deviant leisure, which apart from Chris Rojek’s ideas at this level, has revolved too exclusively around the micro-level view of this kind of leisure. We need the whole picture and, of course, an integration of both levels to make a true big picture. I attempt such an integration in Chapter 9 of Leisure Activities in Context: A Micro-Macro/Agency-Structure Interpretation of Leisure (Transaction, late 2016), but the contents of this blog show how much more work there is to do in this area.



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