Anthropology and Play: The Contours of Playful Experience

16 Pages Posted: 15 Dec 2008

See all articles by Thomas M. Malaby

Thomas M. Malaby

University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee

Date Written: December 12, 2008


In what follows I outline the tendencies of twentieth-century anthropological work on play and argue that anthropology, despite its ostensible neglect of the matter, nonetheless has much to offer the current aim of rethinking play. I begin by suggesting that, while the ingredients of a more useful conception of play as a disposition (as opposed to an activity) were always present, and even found expression on occasion, the field as a whole stressed only two viable possibilities: play as non-work, and play as representation. Departing from this pattern prepares us to recognize a better model for thinking about play, one that draws ultimately on the pragmatist philosophers' portrayal of the world as irreducibly contingent. On this view, play becomes an attitude characterized by a readiness to improvise in the face of an ever-changing world that admits of no transcendently ordered account.

Keywords: play, games, anthropology, pragmatism, contingency

Suggested Citation

Malaby, Thomas M., Anthropology and Play: The Contours of Playful Experience (December 12, 2008). Available at SSRN: or

Thomas M. Malaby (Contact Author)

University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee ( email )

Department of Anthropology
P.O. Box 413
Milwaukee, WI 53201
United States
414-229-4175 (Phone)
414-229-5848 (Fax)

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