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Work, Play & Boredom An ephemera conference at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, 5-7 May 2010

Via Pat Kane:

Work, Play & Boredom

An ephemera conference at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland,
5-7 May 2010
Special Issue to be published late 2010

Call for papers
(pdf version)

In recent years, play has become an abiding concern in the popular business literature and a crucial aspect of organizational culture.
While managerial interest in play has certainly been with us for some
time, there is a sense that organizations are becoming ever-more
receptive to incorporating fun and frivolity into everyday working
life. Team-building exercises, simulation games, puzzle-solving
activities, office parties, themed dress-down days, and colourful,
aesthetically-stimulating workplaces are notable examples of this
trend. Through play, employees are encouraged to express themselves and
their capabilities, thus enhancing job satisfaction, motivation, and
commitment. Play also serves to unleash an untapped creative potential
in management thinking that will supposedly result in innovative
product design, imaginative marketing strategies and, ultimately,
superior organizational performance. Play, it seems, is a very serious
business indeed.

But this has not always been the case. Until very recently, play was seen as the antithesis of work. Classical industrial theory, for examples,
hinges on a fundamental distinction between waged labour and
recreation. Play at work is thought to pose a threat not only to labour
discipline, but also to the very basis of the wage bargain: in exchange
for a day’s pay, workers are expected to leave their pleasures at home.
Given this context, we can well understand Adorno’s (1978: 228) comment
that the purposeless play of children – completely detached from
selling one’s labour to earn a living – unconsciously rehearses the
‘right life’. But play no longer holds the promise of life after
capitalism, as it once did for Adorno; today, the ‘unreality of games’
is fully incorporated within the reality of organizations. When
employees are urged to reach out to their ‘inner child’ (Miller, 1997:
255), it becomes clear that the traditional boundary between work and
play is in the process of being demolished.

A certain utopianism underpins contemporary debates about play at work, evoking the pre-Lapsarian ideal of a happy life without hard work. In
this respect, organizations seem to have taken notice of Burke’s (1971:
47) compelling vision of paradise: ‘My formula for utopia is simple: it
is a community in which everyone plays at work and works at play.
Anything less would fail to satisfy me for long’. But such idealism is
not necessarily desirable. For while play promises to relieve the
monotony and boredom of work, it is intimately connected to new forms
of management control: it is part of the panoply of techniques that
seek to align the personal desires of workers with bottom-line
corporate objectives. We should not be surprised, then, when an
overbearing emphasis on fun in the workplace leads to cynicism,
alienation, and resentment from employees (Fleming, 2005).

While play at work has been extensively discussed in the popular and academic literature, the role of boredom in organisations has been somewhat
neglected. It seems that boredom is destined to share the fate of other
‘negative emotions’, such as anger and contempt, which have generally
been silenced in organization studies (Pelzer 2005). But boredom
remains an important part of organisational life. As Walter Benjamin
(1999: 105) observes, ‘we are bored when we don’t know what we are
waiting for’. Boredom thus contains a sense of anticipation, even
promise: ‘Boredom is the threshold to great deeds’ (ibid.). Since
capitalism is preoccupied with fun and games, perhaps it is boredom
rather than play that now serves unconsciously to rehearse the ‘right
life’ in contemporary times.

This ephemera conference and special issue ask its participants to explore the interrelated themes of work, play, and boredom alongside an
exploration of the cultural and political context out of which they
have emerged. Possible topics include:

- The politics of play
- Play and reality
- Anthropology of play
- Play and utopia
- The boredom of play
- Boredom as resistance
- Identity and authenticity when played
- The blurring of work and play
- Playfulness at work
- Creativity and play
- Experience economy
- Management games
- Cultures of fun
- Play and pedagogy
- Seriousness and indifference
- Foolishness and fooling around
- Tedium and repetition
- Humour, jokes, and cynicism
- Childishness and management
- Invention and innovation through play
- Organizing spontaneity

The best papers of the conference will be published in a special issue of ephemera.

Confirmed Keynote Speakers

Professor Niels Åkerstrøm Andersen, Professor at the Department of Management, Politics and Philosophy, Copenhagen Business School, Denmark. Author of
many books, including his recent Power at Play: The Relationship
between Play, Work and Governance (2009, Palgrave Macmillan).

Professor René ten Bos, Radboud University Nijmegen, The Netherlands. His many books include Fashion and Utopia in Management Thinking (John
Benjamins, 2000).

Dates and Location

5-7 May 2010 at School of Management, University of St Andrews, Scotland, UK.
Deadline, Conference Fee, and Further Information
The deadline for abstracts is 31 January 2010. The abstracts should be submitted as a Word document to Martyna Śliwa at
martyna.sliwa@newcastle.ac.uk. The conference fee has not been set yet,
as it is dependent on the number of participants, but will be kept to a
minimum. PhD candidates pay a reduced fee.

Further information about the conference can be found on the conference website: http://www.ephemeraweb.org/conference. With queries, you can
also contact one of the conference organizers: Bent Meier Sørensen
(bem.lpf@cbs.dk), Lena Olaison (lo.lpf@cbs.dk), Martyna Sliwa
(martyna.sliwa@ncl.ac.uk), Nick Butler (nick.butler@st-andrews.ac.uk),
Stephen Dunne (s.dunne@le.ac.uk), Sverre Spoelstra


  • Adorno, T. (1978) Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life. London and New York: Verso.
  • Benjamin, W. (1999) The Arcades Project. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press.
  • Burke, R. (1971) ‘“Work” and “play”’, Ethics, 82(1): 33-47.
  • Fleming, P. (2005) ‘Workers’ playtime? Boundaries and cynicism in a “culture of fun” programme’, Journal of Applied Behavioural Science, 41(3): 285-303.
  • Miller, J. (1997) ‘All work and no play may be harming your business’,Management Development Review, 10(6/7): 254-255.
  • Pelzer, P. (2005) ‘Contempt and organization: Present in practice – Ignored by research?’, Organization Studies, 26(8): 1217-1227.

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