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4160.0 - Measuring Wellbeing: Frameworks for Australian Social Statistics, 2001  
Latest ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 12/10/2001   
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Contents >> Chapter 10: Culture and Leisure >> Defining culture and leisure

Defining culture and leisure


In a traditional anthropological or sociological sense, the term culture describes the collective behaviour patterns of a group of people - that is, their way of life. It refers to the characteristic way they approach all living activities, i.e. work, play, family life, community management, and so on. Objects arising from these activities (e.g. clothing, tools, buildings, toys, etc.) can represent a group's culture, as can the stories, myths, art, music, rituals and traditions created and perpetuated by the group.

However, while objects or rituals may embody a culture's nature, culture exists essentially in people's memories and consciousness. Thus people within a culture do things in a similar way because they have a common way of understanding life and their environment - and a common system of belief and symbolism. For this reason, people from different cultures have to learn not only each other's spoken language, but each other's symbolic, or cultural, language (their codes of behaviour, the meaning of particular visual and gestural signals) in order to fully understand one another. A group's shared sense of meaning emerges from their collective experiences and unique historical and environmental circumstances. It imbues all their behaviours, giving them a collective personality - a character, or cultural identity. Thus culture can be defined as the shared sense of meaning that determines a group's way of life.

Cultures can be associated with particular locations (e.g. national cultures, ethnic groups), but can also exist across geographical boundaries. For example, cultures can form around a group of people interacting over the Internet who collectively understand the significance of particular symbols or behaviour conventions. People usually participate in a number of cultures (e.g. a family culture, a work culture, and a religious culture). Cultures also evolve over time. The style of dress, music or architecture we preferred in previous eras differs from what we prefer now, partly because our culture, or the symbolism we use to signify attractive or appropriate dress, enjoyable music or interesting architecture has changed.

Various areas of human activity focus on expressing, exploring and/or sustaining the cultural aspect of our lives. These include, but are not limited to, heritage, arts, sports, religious or spiritual activities, and secular rituals, ceremonies and traditions (these areas are defined in more detail the Frameworks section below).


There are a number of ways of approaching a definition of leisure. For example, leisure activities could be characterised as activities that provide enjoyment or refreshment. However, as these are subjective concepts, this approach is less than optimal for the purposes of statistical measurement. It involves making value judgements that tend to exclude certain activities according to the viewpoint of the people making the judgements. Perhaps the most straightforward way to characterise leisure, at least for statistical purposes, is in terms of time. In other words, leisure time can be said to be the residual time a person has after they have attended to the necessities of life (e.g. work, family care, self care). This time can be described as 'free time' - meaning that during this time a person is free of obligation or duty, and free to choose the way in which the time is spent (i.e. what activities they undertake in that time).

This definition is inclusive of a wide range of human activities. It tends to include activities undertaken with the primary intention of enjoyment, relaxation, rejuvenation or recreation, in other words, activities that enhance people's lives in some way. Thus free time involvement in hobbies, arts, crafts and sports is covered, as is going on holiday, to the movies, to restaurants, clubs, art galleries or museums. However, this definition makes no assumption that leisure activities are inherently beneficial. It includes activities enjoyed by some but condemned by others, and activities with both positive and negative personal and social implications. For instance, activities such as watching television, playing computer games or gambling can be relaxing, but, when done to excess, may influence health negatively. A range of activities that can be clearly linked to some negative outcomes remain prominent leisure choices (e.g. vandalism, drug use).

Definitional boundaries

There are areas where boundaries between types of time use (e.g. free or committed) and types of activities (e.g. leisure or duty) are not clear cut. For example, some people may see interacting with relations as a leisure activity, while others see it as something they are committed to do. Parents taking their children to a park, or to a movie in school holidays, are fulfilling their duty to care for their children but are also undertaking typical leisure activities.

The distinction between work and free time is also often blurred. For example, people tend to spend more time working at jobs they enjoy. Some domestic work (e.g. gardening, cooking, home repairs and renovations, and shopping) is becoming increasingly intertwined with leisure. These grey areas arise partly because the division between work and free time is in some ways artificial. There was less of a distinction between work and leisure in pre-industrial Western society, but for many people, industrialisation brought with it long uninterrupted working hours away from home or community. Workers saw the need for free time allowances to balance this. Thus the basis for a strong distinction between work time and free time was forged. Increases in material wealth gave the bulk of the population more free time and the purchasing power to exploit it, and, in the latter half of the 20th Century, leisure-specific industries became significant.

Furthermore, while the notion of free time is generally a useful way of defining leisure, in some situations there may be varying degrees of free choice involved in leisure. If people are tired from working long hours, their choices about how to spend their non-work time may be limited. The type and amount of leisure activities an individual undertakes are certainly limited by the economic resources at their disposal. The notion of free choice is particularly blurred for people whose leisure pursuits are an addiction (e.g. gambling and drug use).

While there are likely to be some areas where boundaries are not clear cut, the Time Use Framework described later in this chapter provides guidelines as to what activities and social transactions are classified by the ABS as free time activities. These activities are predominantly those that are of interest when analysing the contribution of leisure to wellbeing.


Culture and leisure clearly have much in common. Many activities are both cultural activities and leisure activities (e.g. visiting a museum). Often what separates a cultural activity from a leisure activity is simply the context in which it takes place. For instance, professional artists do not paint for leisure - for them, painting is a livelihood. On the other hand, many people paint for relaxation in their free time, and do not expect to have their work sold or hung in galleries. In other words, the same cultural activity may or may not be a leisure activity depending on purpose and context. This distinction might be thought of as a continuum, with hobby painters at one end and professional artists at the other. A similar scenario could be applied to sport, with professional sports people at one end and community or family sports activities at the other.

Culture and leisure also support and feed off one another. Subcultures often develop around leisure activities, and leisure activities such as socialising are central to broader cultural exchange and interaction. Heritage, arts and sports activities deliver a range of major leisure options to the public (e.g. movies, theatre, museums, football matches), and the significant leisure-based consumption of these products and events, in turn contributes to their continued existence.

The discussion above, although not a full survey of culture and leisure concepts and definitional issues, provides some guidelines for defining the scope of this area of concern. In its statistical operations, as outlined in the 'Frameworks' section below, the ABS focuses on a set of identifiable culture and leisure activities and on the institutions, goods, services, and events that derive from these activities. This activity-based definition is the foundation of the ABS culture and leisure classifications.

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