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The Ambiguity of Play [Paperback]

Brian Sutton-smith
3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

8 May 2001
Every child knows what it means to play, but the rest of us can merely speculate. Is it a kind of adaptation, teaching us skills, inducting us into certain communities? Is it power, pursued in games of prowess? Fate, deployed in games of chance? Daydreaming, enacted in art? Or is it just frivolity? Brian Sutton-Smith, a proponent of play theory, considers each possibility as it has been proposed, elaborated, and debated in disciplines from biology, psychology, and education to metaphysics, mathematics, and sociology. Sutton-Smith focuses on play theories rooted in seven distinct rhetorics - the ancient discourses of fate, power, communal identity, and frivolity and the modern discourses of progress, the imaginary, and the self. In an analysis that moves from the question of play in child development to the implications of play for the Western work ethic, he explores the values, historical sources, and interests that have dictated the terms and forms of play put forth in each discourse's objective theory. This work reveals more distinctions and disjunctions than affinities, with one striking exception: however different their descriptions and interpretations of play, each rhetoric reveals a quirkiness, redundancy, and flexibility. In light of this, Sutton-Smith suggests that play might provide a model of the variability that allows for natural selection. As a form of mental feedback, play might nullify the rigidity that sets in after successful adaption, thus reinforcing animal and human variability. Further, he shows how these discourses, despite their differences, might offer the components for a new social science of play.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; New Ed edition (8 May 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674005813
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674005815
  • Product Dimensions: 22.8 x 15 x 1.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 316,148 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Review

Brian Sutton-Smith presents a lively, contemplative and challenging theoretical discussion of the "category of diverse learnings"...that make up play...Sutton-Smith presents a variety of play dimensions that cause disturbance of theoretical certainty and bring together hitherto unconnected ideas on play in the tradition of creativity. The book explores its chosen rhetorics in a scholarly and yet undeniably accessible way. The material included is multi-faceted and multi-layered drawing on theories across the centuries and presenting a case for a new look at play. Play is taken beyond the rhetoric of progress leaving the reader alive and alert to the possibilities of play that transcend generations and cultures. -- Jill Williams British Journal of Educational Studies This book provides a comprehensive analysis of extant theory and research on the subject of play in children and adults in a variety of cultural contexts with relevant comparisons to play in nonhuman species. The work is thorough and well referenced and provides new insights on a classic topic in children's social development. The primary issue addressed is the ambiguous nature of play. Although we have a sense of what constitutes play, when asked to define it, explain its function, or even identify players, its paradoxical nature becomes apparent--it is and is not what it appears to be. Does and does not have a function, is and is not the purview of children. Child Development Abstracts & Bibliography

About the Author

Brian Sutton-Smith is Professor of Education, Emeritus, at the University of Pennsylvania.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
We all play occasionally, and we all know what playing feels like. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback
There are books on play, then are books on play studies, then there is this. Stuart Brown has an excellent book on the science of play, Huizinga wrote a pioneering work on play theory, but Sutton-Smith (SS) has outplayed them all.

Let me be Frank. This is a textbook. It reads like a textbook. It contains technical terminology, schema and classifications, definitions, references and all the usual academic tools. Some parts require serious brainpower to appreciate. The list of primary and secondary sources is massive and most impressive.

But it’s more than a mere textbook, much more. Here’s what it does for you.

It gathers together all previous theories, theorists and key works by contributors to the field of play studies. It gathers them from the widest range of disciplines possible. Then it categorises them according to seven major meta-themes or “rhetorics” that nicely bundle together all these disparate elements in such a way as to expose their core meanings and spread them over a timeline from ancient to modern. And then, for each of the seven, it picks out the main adherents, interacts with them in a lively and insightful discussion, and summarises the rest.

The work does have a weakness, but it is not the fault of SS. The Index is inadequate to the task of serving such a key text. It only picks out major interactions with a particular author and excludes all minor mentions. This infuriates me. For example, in the chapter on “the rhetoric of self” I was excited that SS focuses attention on the ‘flow’ theory of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi but there are several places where he (ps. 200, 207) and his theory (67, 81, 174, 188, 192, 195, 207) are mentioned in the text but not in the Index. Same with Nietzsche (57, 60, 132, 151, 190-1, 220).
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2.0 out of 5 stars Depends on what you are looking for... 1 Jun 2014
Format:Paperback
If you are looking for any sort of clarity this is not the book for you, however if you are well-steeped in academia or wish to learn some new (in my view, pompous) scholarly words then this may well be!
Sutton-Smith knows his stuff, of that it is clear, but the downside of this is that he flips between theories (biological, psychological, evolutionary, philosophical...) and refers to concepts that for most of us, even those involved in research, are unfamiliar. Personally, I felt like I needed translations of much of this, and as this reads, he comes from a fairly positivist stand which may rankle those of different views.
In short: brilliant (I'm sure) if you already have a wealth of knowledge on play theory, but a complete headache if not.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 5.0 out of 5 stars  3 reviews
42 of 45 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Serious scholarship on the not-so-serious topic of play 30 Mar 2000
By felicia mcmahon - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
In a novel approach to an understanding of the everyday phenomenon that we call "play," Professor Sutton-Smith tackles this slippery subject by analyzing the persuasive techniques that researchers use to define play. "We all play occasionally, and we all know what playing feels like. But when it comes to making theoretical statements about what play is, we fall into silliness," claims Sutton-Smith. In his attempt to bring some coherence to past scholarship of the ambiguous field of play studies, Sutton-Smith not only challenges conventional definitions of play but manages somehow to succintly summarize all major and minor theorists in a mere 231 pages. The text is laced with numerous examples to support Sutton-Smith's contention that all theories of play to date fall into one of seven rhetorical categories. He clearly points to the problem of consensus on the definition of play in a field that is divided among different disciplines each claiming that its own kind of play is the one that is central to the phenomenon. Although the book is not directed to a popular audience, it is an excellent text for classroom use in many academic disciplines.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Play might be ambiguous, but the quality of this book is not 14 Mar 2014
By Allen Baird - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
There are books on play, then are books on play studies, then there is this. Stuart Brown has an excellent book on the science of play, Huizinga wrote a pioneering work on play theory, but Sutton-Smith (SS) has outplayed them all.

Let me be Frank. This is a textbook. It reads like a textbook. It contains technical terminology, schema and classifications, definitions, references and all the usual academic tools. Some parts require serious brainpower to appreciate. The list of primary and secondary sources is massive and most impressive.

But it’s more than a mere textbook, much more. Here’s what it does for you.

It gathers together all previous theories, theorists and key works by contributors to the field of play studies. It gathers them from the widest range of disciplines possible. Then it categorises them according to seven major meta-themes or “rhetorics” that nicely bundle together all these disparate elements in such a way as to expose their core meanings and spread them over a timeline from ancient to modern. And then, for each of the seven, it picks out the main adherents, interacts with them in a lively and insightful discussion, and summarises the rest.

The work does have a weakness, but it is not the fault of SS. The Index is inadequate to the task of serving such a key text. It only picks out major interactions with a particular author and excludes all minor mentions. This infuriates me. For example, in the chapter on “the rhetoric of self” I was excited that SS focuses attention on the ‘flow’ theory of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi but there are several places where he (ps. 200, 207) and his theory (67, 81, 174, 188, 192, 195, 207) are mentioned in the text but not in the Index. Same with Nietzsche (57, 60, 132, 151, 190-1, 220). Poor Maslow (184) and Carse (207) don’t get included at all. Grrr!

If the content does have a weakness, then it might be the fact that SS hardly touches on one of the main expressions of play in our world: humour. In fact, there is an entire theory of humour that centres on the notion that humour is essentially a form of play (propounded by thinkers are diverse as Thomas Aquinas, Max Eastman and John Morreall) . Beyond mentioning humour once (208), comedians once (211), and jokes in passing (56, 210), SS does not mention humour or comedy with any depth at all.

A word about the strange title is in order. Sutton-Smith regards play as “ambiguous” for several reasons. Play cannot be captured in one definition or perspective. That why he needs his seven “rhetorics” to cope with all the material. He also believes that play exists in diverse forms and experiences, with diverse players, agencies and scenarios, studied under diverse scholarship. But more than this, unlike some authors (e.g. Stuart Brown), SS allows for valid aspects to play that others might find disturbing. Some scholars (e.g. Schechner) call this “dark play”; SS labels it “cruel play” (p. 56).

I first came across the name of Brian Sutton-Smith when reading him quoted in other books. “The opposite of play isn’t work. It’s depression.” I tried in vain to source this quote in the internet. Finally, after reading this book, I had my reward of a eureka moment. Actually, the usual quote isn’t a full or accurate rendition of what Sutton-Smith says. But it does capture the heart of the matter. Turn to page 198 for the real deal.
2 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Child development must read 7 Sep 2008
By A. swan - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This is a great read and a must for anyone outside the feild of childrens play. I say that as everyone in the field know this man's work and reputation.
Anyone working with kids should learn to evaluate their own work and position within the field. This book will help you do that.
Mind you if you don't regularly learn from working with children, you are definetly doing something wrong!
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