Analysing 'Seriousness' in Roller Derby: Speaking Critically with the Serious Leisure Perspective

by Maddie Breeze
University of Edinburgh

Sociological Research Online, 18 (4) 23

Received: 2 Mar 2013     Accepted: 18 Oct 2013    Published: 30 Nov 2013


This article draws on original ethnographic research in the context of roller derby to argue for a sociological analysis of seriousness. Galvanized by the notable divergence between participants' practices of 'seriousness' and the use of this concept in the Serious Leisure Perspective (SLP), the article develops three constructively critical points. Firstly, contra to assumptions at the core of the SLP, 'seriousness' in leisure is differently accessible according to familiar intersectional patterns of inequality. Moreover, roller derby occupies a position of gendered alterity in relation to a broader cultural field of sport; 'getting taken seriously' in this context is an issue of gender contestation. Secondly, while the normative assumption that seriousness in leisure is individually and socially 'good' pervades the SLP, I argue that seriousness is more accurately understood as a generative 'mode of ordering' (Law 1994). I analyse seriousness as one discursive resource drawn upon and enacted in participants' organizational and representational practice. Thirdly seriousness cannot be defined, as the SLP does, predominantly in terms of commitment; commitment is an interactional achievement. Participants' enactments of seriousness include tactics of ridicule and satire and do not necessarily cohere. This paper thus responds to the question of what a more sociological approach to seriousness might look like and argues that seriousness-in-practice, in leisure and elsewhere, is generative of multiple and ambivalent effects and is thus amenable to, and requires, sociological analysis.

Keywords: Seriousness, Roller Derby, Serious Leisure Perspective, Sport, Gender


1.1 Roller derby is an emergent, full-contact team sport, played on roller skates, and organized according to a not-for-profit, Do-It-Yourself (DIY) ethos. Contemporary roller derby has been present in the United Kingdom only since 2006 and developed independently of established sports institutions. Despite the ascendancy of a number of men's teams in the UK, in 2013 roller derby is still played predominantly by self-identifying women. In a context of a short history of critical opposition to dominant discourses of sport, concerns with 'getting taken seriously' and being recognized as a 'real, serious sport' increasingly infuse participants' organizational and representational practice. Ambivalent and non-linear movements along trajectories of 'real, serious sport' can be understood as another instance of professionalization or struggle for position in a field of power (Bourdieu 1988; 1991; 1993) or through Weberian analyses of rationalization and disenchantment (Weber 1948; 2006). However, the thematic prevalence of 'seriousness' in my empirical material led me to Stebbins' (1982) Serious Leisure Perspective (SLP) as a potentially useful resource.

1.2 While roller derby undoubtedly fits the descriptive schema of the SLP (see below), seriousness in roller derby is considerably outside the SLP's analytic scope. Participants are wrestling with the problem of what to do when governing bodies, sports media, and a non-initiated public, do not take one's sport entirely seriously. Other 'serious leisure' participants have grappled with similar problems (Anderson & Taylor 2010) and conversely, much academic attention has been directed towards the 'co-optation', 'incorporation' and 'mainstreaming' of 'alternative' sports (Humphreys 1997; Rinehart 2003; Thorpe & Wheaton 2010). Participants' organizational and representational practice can thus be understood in part as a response to the problem of not being taken seriously, as skaters make claims for symbolic legitimacy and material resources. The league[1] I research with is thus a very appropriate empirical location from which to join critical conversations with the SLP, leisure studies and sport sociology, and from which to develop a sociological analysis of seriousness.

1.3 In arguing for a sociological analysis of seriousness, the limitations of the SLP come into focus. Reading generously (Stanley & Wise 1990), the SLP contributes to the project, shared with cultural and sport sociology, of bringing 'leisure' to sociological attention. This article contends however, that the SLP suffers from a number of faults, the critical discussion of which makes way for more constructive engagement. Crucially SLP authors seem unaware of the 'processes of [their] own ordering practice' (Law 1994: 31). The overly descriptive character of the SLP works to mask both the elusion of inequalities of access to serious leisure and its normative assumption that serious leisure is an individual and social 'good'. In response I argue that a sociological analysis of seriousness-in-practice should pay attention to the generative, multiple and ambivalent character of what seriousness is, and especially what seriousness does.

1.4 The article begins by detailing research methods, before giving an introduction to the research context via the theme of 'getting taken seriously'. I give a brief overview of the SLP before using original ethnographic material to advance a three-pronged argument. Firstly, contra to assumptions embedded in the SLP, seriousness is not equally accessible; evidence supports existing claims that participation in serious leisure is marked by familiar intersectional patterns of inequality. Additionally, roller derby occupies a position of gendered alterity in relation to a broader cultural field of sport; seriousness in this context is a site of gender contestation. Secondly, while the normative assumption that seriousness in leisure is individually and socially 'good' characterizes the SLP, I argue that seriousness is more accurately understood as a 'mode of ordering' (Law 1994: 83). I analyse seriousness as one discursive resource that informs and is enacted in skaters' organizational and representational practice. From this perspective seriousness is generative of, and generated in, practice. Thirdly, seriousness cannot be defined, as the SLP maintains, predominantly in terms of commitment. Commitment itself is achieved in interaction and moreover, seriousness cannot be reduced to notions of commitment. Participants' enactments of seriousness include satire and ridicule; seriousness is multiple, ambivalent and not always 'coherent' (Law 2003: 10-11; 2004: 98-100; Mol 2002: 63-66)

Method and Methodology

2.1 In 2008, with a group of about 20 others, I helped set up the roller derby league that 18 months later I began research with. In 2013 the league has approximately 100 members and trains for up to 16 hours per week. As the organization's size and complexity increased, the nature of my belonging also shifted and injury led me to hang up my skates and eventually quit my membership in 2012. There is much precedent for 'insider', 'participant' or auto/biographical approaches in sport sociology (Drummond 2010; Miller 1999; Ryder 2010), research with subcultures (Leblanc 1999; Furness 2012), feminist and queer research methods (Browne 2003; Cooper 2010; Lather 2007; Reger 2001) and qualitative methods more broadly (Brogden 2010; Chavez 2008; Davies & Davies 2007; Lederman 2006; Taylor 2011).

2.2 Predicated in my prior and shifting belonging, I participated in official events as a skater (practices, bouts, after-parties, fundraisers), in day-to-day organizational work (meetings, emails, votes, online forum discussions) and on-going friendships (making and eating dinner, working out, getting drunk, dancing, sharing a flat, crying in the toilets, travelling, napping together). I took field-notes and kept a reflexive diary for approximately 18 months. I conducted 22 in-depth interviews with 26 league members, including skaters, 'fresh meat' (currently being inducted to the league) and referees. Each interview lasted between one and three hours, and included wide-ranging discussion of playing and organizing roller derby, as well as focused questions and probes. Interviews were recorded and fully transcribed before manual coding.

2.3 In late 2011 in response to challenges of generating data in a familiar context, I designed a collaborative film-making project. Skaters were invited to participate in a series of workshops, which were audio and video recorded, transcribed and manually coded. Approximately six to eight participants attended each workshop, which progressed through designing and shooting a short film about roller derby, the league and participants themselves. For example, in the planning stages I facilitated structured group-work, in which skaters were asked to discuss and critique existing media representations, brainstorm themes, debate how best to portray roller derby, decide upon an audience, develop storyboards and narrow down what should actually be filmed.

2.4 Discussion and collaborative decision-making in workshops were rich sources of data, as participants were engaged in shared projects of reflexive self-representation. On-going, creative and collaborative projects can be very productive methods, compared to interviewing where 'researchers expect people to explain immediately, in words, things which are difficult to explain immediately in words' (Gauntlett 2007: 3). The debate over how to visually articulate roller derby raised questions of what roller derby is. Participants' perceptions that non-skater-produced media failed to convey roller derby as serious sport, meant that questions of whether and how to represent roller derby with a view to getting taken seriously were repeatedly debated.

2.5 Participants[2] are referred to with a combination of initials and pseudonyms. Where participants choose their own pseudonym they often echoed 'skate names', naming practices peculiar to roller derby, and choose funny, evidently made up pseudonyms involving puns, cultural references or obscure connotations. I thus attribute empirical material using pseudonyms including 'The Beefcake' and 'Sally Tape', and less obviously, 'Pauline Baynes'. A combination of clearly fabricated humorous names with more 'straight' names and initials echoes current debates about derby names and 'getting taken seriously'; just as some skaters choose to skate under their real name, participants ask me to refer to them as 'Alabama Thunder Fuck'. It is thus a deliberate decision to put this spectrum of names to use, while empirically being-and-becoming 'serious' coalesces in shifting naming practices.

2.6 In summary, prior belonging and the use of film-making as method are particularly conducive to a nuanced analysis of seriousness in roller derby and the empirical materials produced are exceedingly appropriate to developing a critical engagement with the SLP. The research setting, in which seriousness is of particular concern, is remarkably appropriate to the task at hand.

Roller Derby: Getting Taken Seriously

3.1 Rather than discuss details of roller derby's development, game play, or rules I use participants' preoccupations with getting taken seriously to introduce the league. Playing roller derby is, in an exercise in negotiating the meaning of seriousness-in-practice:
'I wish that more people would recognise it as a sport, I know that like a big hot topic in roller derby right now is how seriously it is taken and do we move away from the other side, the kind of non-conventional side of it but, I kind of want to have my cake and eat it, I want it to be a sport, I want it to be taken seriously as a sport, well actually I want it to be a sport, I believe that it is one, I know that it is one! Yeah but I also kind of think well, just because it has another side to it, it shouldn't really take away from the fact that there's like forty odd pages of rules and like you know, huge team of referees and NSOs[3] and you know so, and tactics and training and oh my god like so, so much serious stuff involved in it! [] I take it as a given that it's a sport even though some people don't!' - Tiny Chancer, individual interview, October 2010

3.2 The ambivalence of roller derby as 'serious sport' is evident here, as Tiny Chancer wants to 'have her cake and eat it'. So too is the social negotiation of serious recognition; participants can 'take it as a given that it's a sport' in the knowledge that 'some people don't'. The 'non-conventional side' of roller derby alluded to here outfits, psuedonyms, theatricality is frequently the focus of confused family and friends, local journalists and academics.

3.3 Existing sociological engagements with roller derby mostly focus on sensationalized practices that mark a relation of gendered alterity to 'sport', and on the question of the subversive or resistant potential of such practices (Beaver 2012 and Pavlidis 2012 are exceptions). Of particular interest are derby names and dress. Carlson is indicative; 'One of the most noticeable differences between roller derby and other women's sports is the use of a stage name' (Carlson 2010: 433), and 'showcasing skaters' menacing names, skater uniforms usually include short skirts, ripped fishnets and exposed panties' (2011: 86; and see Hern 2010; Finley 2010). A recurrent theme in sport sociology more broadly is that sport is a site where the gender binary is 'crossed as well as preserved' (Grindstaff & West 2006: 515; and see Breeze 2010; Heywood & Dworkin 2003; Chase 2006). 'Alternative' sports, where emancipatory and/or resistant possibilities have received much attention (Beal & Weidman 2003; Humphreys 1997; Thorpe & Wheaton 2011; Rinehart 2003; Wheaton 2004; 2007; Wheaton & Gilchrist 2011), alongside international 'mega-events' such as the Olympic Games, are arenas where whiteness, maleness, heterosexuality, transphobia and normative embodiment both remain dominant and are subject to on-going contestation (Cavanagh & Sykes 2006; Theberge 1993; 1997; 1998; Yochim 2009).

3.4 Derby names that articulate a 'violent, sexually raw femininity' (Carlson 2010: 433) and 'uniforms' of 'exposed panties' are very much on the decline in the league, and indeed never represented the whole story. A small minority of skaters in the UK have ceased to use a derby name, sometimes explicitly with a view to being taken seriously. Research participants are increasingly likely to choose 'athletic' branded apparel over ripped fishnets. Nevertheless, skate names and fishnets are continually drawn upon in academic and journalistic accounts, much to the chagrin of participants. In considering these issues, the Beefcake positions her thoughts in relation to broader perceptions of roller derby:

'It might kinda, take a bit of the focus off it being a sport, rather than entertainment I suppose [] you know we are playing the sport, we're playing it properly, we're not hamming it up, like they used to and, and to me some of the old, you know like sexy outfits and names kind of fits in with how we used to play it rather than how its developing.'
- The Beefcake, individual interview, October 2010

3.5 That contemporary roller derby consists of 'not hamming it up, like they used to' points to how skater and fan-authored publications (Joulwan 2007: 45; Mabe 2007: 23; Barbee & Cohen 2010; Bordner 2005) and academic work alike (Carlson 2010; Hern 2010) trace roller derby's origins to depression era North American endurance races. Narratives of an evolution to 'modern' roller derby commonly include references to past contrived or 'staged' versions, popularly and academically understood as involving 'outlandish theatrics and stunts', including 'alligator pits' (Mabe 2007: 47-8) and 'staged predetermined spectacles' (Carlson 2010: 436). Participants' claims for contemporary roller derby's seriousness are articulated in terms of development and progress away from this past, and are visible across even shorter time spans. After Pauline Baynes read Carlson (2011) she commented that the article seemed out of date by virtue of its references to derby names and fishnets, and that what it described was 'more like 2006 style derby' (field-notes, December 2011). Narratives of ever increasingly seriousness are indicative of contemporary quests for recognition as a serious, legitimate sport.

3.6 Seriousness then, is on the agenda, as something upon which skaters reflect. It is easy to theorise the dissonance between skaters' claims for roller derby's serious sport status and broader perceptions as evidence of struggle for position in a broader cultural field of sport, or as an early stage of professionalization. The key point for this article however is that seriousness in roller derby is tangibly a subject/object of skaters' practice, and that this seriousness-in-practice differs remarkably from the concept's definition in the Serious Leisure Perspective.

The Serious Leisure Perspective

4.1 The Serious Leisure Perspective classifies leisure activities into an extensive taxonomy according to relative degrees of 'seriousness'. In a series of publications stretching back three decades Robert Stebbins elaborates a 'theoretic framework that synthesizes three main forms of leisure, known as serious leisure, casual leisure, and project based leisure' (2007: 1 emphasis original). 'Serious leisure' is distinguished as 'sufficiently substantial and interesting for the participant to find a career there in the acquisition and expression of its special skills and knowledge' (Stebbins 1992: 3). Aside from further distinctions, seen as obfuscation by some (Martin 2008), the 'qualities distinguishing serious leisure from unserious forms' (1982: 256) have remained substantially unchanged since first outlined in the early 1980s. In a simplified form they are:
  1. The occasional need to persevere, conquering adversity.
  2. A tendency to develop careers in the leisure endeavour, with stages of achievement and developing involvement.
  3. Opportunities for significant personal effort based on special knowledge, training or skill, requiring persistent individual effort.
  4. As involving eight durable benefits: self-actualization, self-enrichment, re-creation or renewal of self, accomplishment, enhancement of self-image, self-expression, social interaction and belonging, lasting physical products.
  5. Encompassing a unique ethos, subcultures of special beliefs, values, moral principals, norms and performance standards.
  6. Participants tend to identify strongly with their chosen pursuits.
    (Taken from Stebbins 1982: 256-258)

4.2 While roller derby undoubtedly fits this definition, it is the disruptiveness of my ethnographic material that informs the following three points of critical engagement and the development of a sociological analysis of seriousness. Formulations of seriousness in the SLP are overly descriptive and restricted to an individual level, as such the core of the perspective does not do the essential work of making connections between personal troubles and public issues (Mills 1959), oft-cited as the guiding principal of sociological inquiry. This contributes to the first problematic assumption embedded in much of the SLP; the idea that seriousness in leisure is accessible regardless of intersections of multiple axes of inequality.

Inequalities of Access & Gendered Contestation

5.1 Critical responses to the SLP identify intersectional inequalities in serious leisure access and participation (Rotolo & Wilson 2007). In research with women Sea Cadet Corps Raisborough criticizes the scant attention given to questions of access in the SLP; 'the emphasis is upon the benefits and progression of a career [in serious leisure] with relatively little to suggest that reaching for the first rung of the career ladder, or the career itself, is problematized by wider socio-cultural relations' (2006: 246; 2007). Similarly Bartram (2001) finds gendered practices of exclusion, which vary according to age, class, parental status and athletic ability, in women's kayaking. My original evidence supports existing work that identifies the SLP's omission of questions of disparities of access according to multiple axes of inequality.

5.2 As the league's organizational size and complexity increases, so do participants' concerns with practicing roller derby as a 'serious sport'. Contemporarily, skaters restructure the league into 'competitive' and 'non-competitive' wings and a 'recreational team' is inaugurated, separate from those skaters regularly competing in travel and home teams. A difference is instituted, between skaters who want to, or are able to, make a 'serious' commitment, and those who do not:

'Well, the league is so big now that you can't possibly have everybody wanting the same thing out of it, and there are those that desperately, desperately want to be competitive [] there's nothing that they'd rather do in their lives than spend four nights a week skating and then the other three days doing something for their committee and being a spokesperson and everything else, but not everybody's going to be like that and not everybody can be like that and also everybody can't be like that all the time' - AL, individual interview, May 2012

5.3 Playing and organizing roller derby as 'serious leisure' is not necessarily accessible. Playing competitively, winning games, is bound up with taking roller derby seriously as a sport. The increasing time commitment that an emphasis on competition leads to is not desirable, or achievable, equally among members of the league. Playing roller derby seriously is not equally accessible or achievable. Not 'everyone' wants to or is able to attend four to five practices a week alongside the committee work of running a DIY organization (see Beaver 2012: 44). The perseverance, the development of a career and persistent individual effort (Stebbins 1982: 256) that characterize serious leisure in the SLP are not equally accessible, achievable or attractive to all members of the league.

5.4 Relatedly, whilst 'inclusivity' is somewhat of a watchword among participants, Orville discusses a number of factors that compromise this in practice:

'But I think, like I mean personally, I aim for the league to be more inclusive and community orientated, and I think we're not as inclusive as we might like to be or as I would like it to be at the moment, in terms of things like you know we can't offer a crche, so we're not that inclusive to single parents, we're not that inclusive to people who are basically never going to be any good at it because we can't cater to them at the moment, but you know it would be nice to be able to, yeah it's funny that you say that I mean I hadn't even considered the colour aspect of things, but we are, 'cause I think we are predominantly, exclusively white, are we?'
MB: 'Yeah I think so yeah'

' Is that, is roller derby quite a middle class sport, I'm not sure I dunno, I think it's maybe getting more so,'

MB: 'Yeah I think especially maybe that free time you have to have',

'And money, it's quite an expensive sport as well, so yeah in fact it's quite exclusive then, basically it's open to anyone who can get there, so you have to have transport or money to pay for transport, anyone who can pay thirty odd quid a month plus buy kit, plus skates, plus wheels, and who can give up that time, so yeah just quite middle class, white, educated women'

- Orville, individual interview, June 2011

5.5 Orville's reflection suggests that class and economic resources structure access to the league; roller derby is an expensive and time-consuming hobby (Beaver 2012: 44). The league's inclusivity is compromised by the lack of a crche; playing roller derby competitively, if at all, is harder for those with parenting or caring responsibilities. The league's membership is overwhelmingly white, and there is no provision for participants with physical impairments. Evidence from the context of roller derby supports existing work that identifies multiple inequalities in access to serious leisure (Bartram 2001; Raisborough 2006, 2007; Rotolo & Wilson 2007).

5.6 Existing critical interventions in the SLP take place in a broader context of interdisciplinary work on intersections of multiple forms of privilege and oppression. Intersectionality has a long genesis in black and multiracial feminist theory (Crenshaw 1989, Hill Collins 2000) is subject to continued debate and theoretical refinement (Walby et al. 2012). Intersectionality theory emphasises the importance of the intersection of multiple forms of inequality, and the particularity of intersectional identities. Intersectionality is a well-used concept in leisure studies (Watson & Scraton 2013) and sport sociology (Scraton et al. 2005) and leisure studies itself is often understood as contributing to wider debates on intersectionality (Caudwell & Browne 2011). It is therefore fairly unsurprising that, for instance, intersections of class, ethnicity, parental status and dis/ability, can inform if and how individuals have opportunities to play roller derby. What is surprising however is the lack of attention accorded to questions of inequalities of access in the main body of work that comprises the SLP.

5.7 A striking example of the assumption of equal access comes when Stebbins compares serious leisure to a dessert: 'Bananas Foster is reasonably accessible to many people; the bananas, the ingredients, and even the flamb pan are available at modest cost' (2007: 133). This passage is indicative of a dismissive approach to the question of how class and income, among other factors, might influence opportunities for serious leisure. As Martin (2008) argues in his review, the free time and disposable income necessary to take part in serious leisure are simply not considered. The suggestion that 'even fulfilling work is essentially leisure; it just happens that some people make a living in such activity' (2011a: 8), is just as oblivious to potential differences between those who 'just happen' to be fulfilled by wage-labour and those who are alienated by the same relation.

5.8 Feminist critique of the SLP identifies 'androcentrism at the heart of Stebbins' conceptualization' (Dilley & Scraton 2010: 126), and suggests that women's access to serious leisure is diminished by a high likelihood of homemaking or caring responsibilities (Gillespie et al. 2002: 294; Stalp 2006). Researching 'women' as a homogenous group, especially if defined according to indicators of normative femininity, risks marginalizing queer, black ethnic minority, non-normatively embodied and working class women in a reflection of both mainstream feminism (Crenshaw 1989; hooks 2000; Taylor 2005) and the leisure practices that are most often the focus of the SLP (Martin 2008). Nevertheless, there is a well-established precedent for understanding women's leisure as subject to constraint in male dominated society (Deem 1986) and research continues to assert the specificity of women's leisure. For instance McCormack et al. (2011) claim that women's leisure is often in the service of the leisure of others.

5.9 Building on this precedent, roller derby's position as a DIY, non-professionalized 'women's sport', and corresponding relatively subordinate position in a broader cultural field of sport (Bourdieu 1991), contributes to a relation of gendered alterity to 'serious sport'. This is especially so in terms of mediated representations and 'outsiders' perceptions:

'Erm, I think like the whole image thing is a big, bone of contention within roller derby, and so I think for the people that very quickly started to take it seriously as a competitive sport the whole like "yeah we all have different names and er, wear underwear on track" thing was just really irritating and like "we should be in the fucking [newspaper] sports pages" [] erm, because it quickly became apparent that it wasn't all about wearing fishnets.'
- Orville, individual interview, June 2011

'I'd like, you know, when I talk to people about roller derby, I'm sure they don't think about it as a sport at all, [] so I would like to see it shown on TV or in the newspapers as a sport with people looking like they're playing it as a sport, you know, a lot of blokes that I've met along the way and talked about roller derby with their immediate reaction is like "oh sexy ladies on skates"'
- The Beefcake, individual interview, October 2010

5.10 When it comes to 'getting taken seriously', seriousness is bound up with gender, and a gendered terrain of sport in which femininity is traditionally and stereotypically posited as the antithesis to sporting prowess. (Kimmel 2000: xiii). 'Fishnets', 'underwear' and 'sexy ladies on skates' are not, in this schema, commensurate with 'sport'. Seriousness then, in this context, rather than being a characteristic of some leisure forms, easily identifiable by the application of Stebbins' (1982: 256-258) six-point definition, appears as more of a site of gender contestation. Seriousness in the eyes of others (blokes met along the way, as well as local newspaper reports) is something to be struggled for. This develops what Dilley & Scraton identify as a gendered hierarchy of value in the SLP's distinction of 'serious' from 'casual' leisure, where the former 'appears to be defined by traditional masculine values' (Dilley & Scraton 2010: 127). Even as skaters' practice meets Stebbin's six-point definition, roller derby's gendered position contributes to a status of illegitimate non-seriousness.

5.11 In summary, individual level analysis and an insular approach in the SLP pave the way for the assumption that serious leisure, apparently like bananas foster, is 'reasonably accessible to many people' and the corresponding neglect of a wider social context of inequality. Evidence that not only is serious leisure differentially accessible according to familiar intersectional patterns, but that seriousness itself is a site of gendered contestation, is unthinkable within the narrow scope of the SLP. The descriptive character of the SLP leads to the neglect of a consideration of inequalities of access and the gendering of seriousness. A second assumption, that serious leisure is a 'good', has a similar genesis in the SLP's analytically circular character, which I now consider in conjunction with a proposal for analysing seriousness as a 'mode of ordering' (Law 1994) in participants' representational and organizational practice.

Seriousness as a Mode Ordering

6.1 Reading the SLP through my empirical material it is clear that contrary to the normative assumption that serious leisure is a 'good', seriousness is more fruitfully analysed, borrowing from John Law (1994), as a 'mode of ordering'. Viewing the social world as a 'remarkably emergent phenomenon' that 'in its processes shapes its own flows' (1994: 15) seriousness becomes a 'recursive ordering pattern' (1994: 83) that is identifiable in 'specific strategies of reflexivity' (1994: 107). A desire for 'seriousness' in the league informs decision-making processes and justifies some courses of action over others. An orientation towards 'getting taken seriously' can change the meanings of and motivations for playing roller derby. To classify serious leisure as 'wholly positive' (Stebbins 2011a: 7) is to propagate a normative thesis in the guise of 'scientific classification' (Stebbins 1996: 46) and obscure how seriousness is enacted in and can order practice.

6.2 In the autumn months of 2011 after a period in which a higher number of skaters than usual had suffered broken bones and other injuries, the league's committees debated how, or indeed if, injury could be reduced. There was disagreement between those who felt that an 'off-season' would be an appropriate organizational intervention and those who opposed such an idea. Skaters on both sides of this debate mobilized the desire for derby to be-and-become 'serious sport' to justify their opposing positions. Skaters for an off-season gathered evidence from other sports whose seriousness and legitimacy is entrenched: 'serious sports (football, athletics) have an off-season, we should too'. Skaters who disagreed with the proposal argued that to play roller derby seriously we should not take a break. Their suggestion was that injury-prevention was a nearly inevitable part of playing a (serious) full contact sport.

6.3 Similarly, as league membership grew and practices became 'over-crowded' skaters discussed how to divide practices according to skill level while ensuring neither the serious competitiveness of the 'A' Team, nor the 'inclusivity' of the league were compromised. Thus, seriousness 'constructs problems and problem solutions' (Law 1994: 83) and generates relationships between 'what is and what might or should be' (ibid: 111). In these cases, the problem is how to be serious about roller derby, and how to get taken seriously, and the contested solutions a question of how to put seriousness into practice. Seriousness does not determine skaters' practice or 'problems and problem solutions' of course. Part of the debate around injury concerned establishing whether it was appropriate to conceptualize injury as a league problem, and which proffered 'solution' was more serious. Modes of ordering do not 'stand outside their performance' (ibid: 83); seriousness both informs and is made in interaction.

6.4 Throughout 2011 an orientation towards being-and-becoming serious sport infused much of league activity. As Tiny Chancer is getting ready, on the morning of a bout in the summer of 2011 she comes into my room to tell me how she really wants to wear a new pair of fishnet tights, that are 'calling to her', but that she's feeling a pressure to dress more like a 'serious athlete'. In the end she decided against the fishnets, but I lent her a pair of glittery knee-high socks. In the same year new logos are designed, new team shirts are ordered, promotional posters evolve from being almost incomprehensible to imagery designed to be more easily recognizable as 'sport'. Seriousness as a mode of ordering here has 'dualistic effects' (Law 1994: 110), distinguishing between what is, and what is not, 'serious': fishnets are 'not serious', athletically branded leggings are. Such distinctions are not fully settled or without ambivalence however. Tiny Chancer says she wants to wear fishnets to bout in, but at the same time feels like she shouldn't. Furthermore, what is or is not serious is context specific; glittery socks are only 'serious' relative to fishnet tights.

6.5 Seriousness is bound up with organizational change and shifts in meaning. Since the early years of the league, a system of recording attendance at each practice has been in place, alongside a policy that skaters' attendance level informs team selection. High attendance is conceptualized as a signifier of commitment, each skater attending practice is awarded attendance points, and the secretarial committee compiles a spreadsheet that calculates an attendance score for each skater. Throughout 2011 there were long discussions in committee meetings as to how, and how many, points should be awarded if skaters arrived late, left early, or sat out of practice. Seriousness generates different materials, devices and social relations (Law 1994: 110) as attendance points and the attendance spreadsheet are created and put to use; enacting distinctions between skaters.

6.6 It is easy to see how the codification of attendance fits with Stebbins definition. Here is an example of roller derby as something that demands both 'perseverance' and 'significant personal effort' (Stebbins 1982: 256). Yet for some the meaning of playing roller derby shifts. In the summer of 2011 a refrain emerged along the lines of: 'I used to want to go to practice because it was fun and I wanted to, now I'm just scared my attendance wont be good enough' (field-notes, June 2011). This is not professionalization; no skater in the league is paid to skate. Yet playing roller derby is somewhat rationalized, in this case the pursuit of specific quantified ends, attendance points, emerges as a motivation. Others in the league questioned and rejected such reactions, as in 'well if the only reason you're doing it is for the attendance points then quite honestly you need to think about why you're doing it in the first place' (field-notes, June 2011).

6.7 Thinking through these aspects of seriousness contrasts with the SLP's use of the concept. While a cost/benefits model informs Stebbins' proposal that 'every serious leisure activity contains its own combination of tensions, dislikes and disappointments' (2011b: 242), the conclusion that, in serious leisure, 'powerful rewards outweigh costs' (ibid) is indicative of the SLP's handling of serious leisure as if it were, on balance, always a good. Empirical work has determined benefits accruing from serious leisure. Axelsen (2009) gives an account of how triathlon training and competition, as serious leisure, was instrumental in her surviving anorexia. Seigenthaler & Gonzalez consider how serious leisure participation can involve a 'healthy lifestyle and character development' but that the benefits of youth sport can be compromised by adults' emphasis on competition (1997: 300). Others suggest that serious leisure helps participants build skills and personal relationships and to develop new identities (Anderson & Taylor 2010; Kim et al 2011). Indeed when 'eight durable benefits' are built in to the definition of what serious leisure is (Stebbins 1982: 256) it must be difficult if not impossible to conclude anything but 'rewards outweigh costs'. Increased levels of well-being that participants in these studies experience should not be lightly dismissed, but the SLP's celebrative and prescriptive approach is cause for concern.

6.8 Stebbins' endorsement of serious leisure ranges from the vague, 'Hobbies are a good thing it seems' (1996: 61) to the prescriptive, such as when he argues that educational systems 'must be reorganized to teach people how to be amateurs, hobbyists, or volunteers' (1982: 268). The SLP can feature a generous helping of conservative paternalism, as in the suggestion that being 'informed of the full range of serious leisure activities' is a sufficient and appropriate intervention to ensure that 'the typical youth will find he or she has little time left for and relatively little interest in engaging in deviant activities.' (Stebbins 1999 para. 27). Taken as a whole the thrust of the SLP is that leisure in general, and serious leisure more specifically, despite 'tensions, dislikes and disappointments' are 'wholly positive' (Stebbins 2011a: 7), and indeed can act as a panacea for conservatively defined social ills. If a leisure practice does not involve 'eight durable benefits' (1982: 256) then it is not, de jure, serious leisure. The SLP is flawed by the assumption, built into the definition of serious leisure, that serious leisure is simply a 'good'. I am not suggesting the opposite, that seriousness in leisure is bad, but rather that seriousness itself is generative; it has multiple and ambivalent ordering effects.

6.9 Original empirical material has allowed me to demonstrate that increasing organizational emphasis on seriousness alters the meanings of playing roller derby and can inform shifts in organizational and representational practice; through reference to seriousness skaters construct problems and problem solutions. It is not simply a case of there being 'negative costs' in the pursuit of serious leisure, rather I draw on Law to propose that seriousness is a mode of ordering, mobilized and enacted in skaters' ideas of what is and what could or should be.

6.10 This is not all that seriousness 'does' however, and I now move on to empirical material related to my third point of contention, which is twofold. Firstly, while the SLP's operationalization of seriousness can be seen to hinge on notions of commitment, commitment does not exist a priori but rather is constructed in on-going interaction. Secondly and furthermore, seriousness cannot be reduced to 'commitment'; seriousness-in-practice takes multiple and ambivalent forms.

Multiplicities &Amp; Ambivalences

7.1 Notions of commitment are central to practices of seriousness in the league, and to 'getting taken seriously'. This is evident in the forgoing discussion of attendance points, and in The Beefcake's description of skaters who in her eyes do not really commit:
'The worst scenario is when you come across skaters who want to be given a place on the team to bout and "be a roller girl" but don't want to go through the intensive training and reach the desired standard to bout [] They also tend to be the people who want [the league] to give something to them but they don't necessarily want to give something to [the league] to keep it going for the future.'
- - The Beefcake, email-interview, August 2012.

7.2 Commitment is a conceptual linchpin in the SLP, four of Stebbins' six points of definition hinge on commitment: the 'need to persevere', the development of a career, the expenditure of 'significant personal effort' and that serious leisure activities often have the character of a 'social world' (Stebbins 1982: 256). Commitment is a core element of serious leisure.

7.3 Commitment however, must be performed and it must be evidenced. Commitment in the league is achieved in social interaction. Attendance spreadsheets make it visible and measurable. Team selection policies make it an object of governance and administration. Commitment is a value brought into practice through organizational forms designed and developed with a specific orientation towards seriousness. Moreover, evidencing commitment through committee membership and attendance at practice is insufficient for 'getting taken seriously'. Significant others are implicated in the question of whether or not, and to what extent, roller derby is serious. Others must recognize the seriousness of roller derby in a roughly agreed, shared definition.

7.4 Skaters from leagues around the UK inaugurated the United Kingdom Roller Derby Association (UKRDA) in 2010, explicitly with a view to achieving official sports recognition. Establishing a national governing body was seen a necessary step on the path to official sports status, which in turn would facilitate access to council sports funding and practice space. When the UKRDA was awarded national governing body status by the British Roller Sports Federation (BRSF), one skater's response was 'nobody from any other sport can now say roller derby isn't a real sport' (field-notes February 2011). The seriousness of roller derby is in part the result of collaboration and the creation of new - and entry into existing - institutions. Seriousness, more than being confined simply to questions of commitment, is about the deployment of symbolic capital and the creation of new organizational forms and objects in a struggle for position in a broader field of power (Bourdieu 1991: 361-367).

7.5 While Anderson & Taylor consider gun collecting and sky-diving as somewhat 'misunderstood in the broader society' (2010: 54) they do not focus explicitly on the relationship between notions of seriousness and the degrees of legitimacy or symbolic capital of any given leisure practice. More promisingly the performative elements of seriousness and need to make seriousness visible are clear as Raisborough suggests that '"seriousness" has to be constantly displayed through acts of commitment and duty' (2006: 256). Commitment begins to appear as social achievement, realized in interaction, and that can accordingly be put to use and/or contested in pursuit of seriousness recognition.

7.6 Continuing on this theme, I suggest that there are multiple, ambivalent, not-necessarily coherent, versions of seriousness-in-practice; seriousness cannot be conceptualized so overwhelmingly in terms of commitment. The previous section argued that seriousness in roller derby is best understood as a mode of ordering. It is unsurprising then, that during the planning phase of film-making workshops participants prioritized conveying the seriousness of roller derby. One of the key themes that skaters developed to guide their filming was the 'hard work and commitment of running a league'. However, some of the strategies proposed in pursuit of this aim were less predictable:

Sally Tape: '"By day by night" is just [laughter] it's like what else do they think we do? [laughter] It's not a professional sport so we're obviously going to have to earn some money'
SF: 'Think if they made it about like amateur football players they wouldn't be like "and here's Ross in his office, typing away"'
Sally Tape: 'yeah I know [laughter] that's what I mean I just don't get why [laughter] it's ridiculous'
SF: 'that would be one way to make a documentary, take a different sport, like a traditional male sport and just do it like a roller derby documentary'
Tiny Chancer: 'oh my god that would be hilarious'
- Transcript, film-making workshop 06/09/2011

7.7 Sally Tape and SF are referencing a convention in derby documentary films that focuses on skaters' use of derby names, and interprets this practice as skaters taking on a super-hero like persona or alter ego, presented in contrast to their (often gender normative or otherwise respectable) day jobs. The 'by-day, by-night' trope is made fun of here, as Sally Tape laughs at its ridiculousness. More than this though, SF proposes mobilizing this well-worn motif but applying it to 'amateur football players'. In this suggestion the gendered 'non-seriousness' of roller derby is transposed, on to 'traditional male sport'. This move makes fun not only of patterns of non-seriousness in existing, tired cinematic representations of roller derby, but it also laughs at a gendered landscape of 'serious' sport more broadly, and at imperatives to become intelligible within such existing terms.

7.8 While much work in the SLP assumes that seriousness can be coherently defined and located in notions of commitment, my evidence demonstrates how being-and-becoming serious is not just a matter of commitment, or of Stebbins' six point definition. Rather, seriousness is an interactional achievement and practices of seriousness in roller derby can include the mobilization of tactics of satire and ridicule. Different forms of seriousness do different things; some, like establishing a National Governing Body, seek inclusion in existing institutions and intelligibility in existing terms. Others, like making a film about 'Ross, in his office, typing away', somewhat refuse such a straightforward or non-disruptive inclusion and turn a laughing face towards existing forms seriousness. Seriousness-in-practice here is multiple, ambivalent and not entirely coherent.

7.9 This critique cannot be assimilated into proposals for a 'continuum' along which forms of serious and casual leisure can be placed (Shen & Yarnal 2010) as Stebbins predicted would be the development of the SLP (1982: 255). I have no doubt that roller derby could be placed securely within such a continuum by SLP enthusiasts. What I am proposing however is much more extensive. I am arguing for more conceptual rigor, and closer attention to the multiple, not always coherent, forms of seriousness in practice. I am arguing against the idea that 'serious leisure' could function as a 'scientific classification' (Stebbins 1996: 46). The claim that 'serious leisure' should have such a role itself appears as the pursuit of scholarly legitimacy, of being taken seriously.


8.1 This article has mobilized original ethnographic evidence from the context of roller derby to critically engage with the SLP and to develop proposals for a more robustly sociological analysis of seriousness. Firstly, analysis of participants' reflections on the increasing 'seriousness' of roller derby provide evidence for the argument that doing roller derby 'seriously' is not necessarily accessible or achievable, but rather is marked by familiar patterns of inequality along multiple axes. Thus my original evidence supports existing critiques of the SLP's individual-level approach and its neglect of broader social contexts often characterised by intersectional patterns of inequality. Moreover, roller derby occupies a position of gendered alterity in relation to a broader cultural field of sport and skaters' frequently bump up against representations of roller derby as 'not really a sport'. Achieving serious recognition, or 'getting taken seriously' in this context is an issue of gendered contestation. Secondly, the normative assumption that serious leisure is an individual and social 'good' is built-in to the SLP's descriptive character and cost/benefit style analysis. I propose instead that seriousness is more accurately and fruitfully analysed as a mode of ordering, a discourse which skaters' organizational and representational practice enacts and that can delineate possibilities for future action. From this perspective, seriousness, rather than a normative description of some forms of leisure, is generative of, and generated in, practice. Seriousness is brought into being in, and continues to inform, skaters' everyday practice of roller derby. Thirdly I have argued that seriousness cannot be defined narrowly or exclusively in terms of commitment. Commitment itself is a social achievement, the result of interaction between skaters and existing institutions. Participants' claims for serious recognition and enactments of seriousness are neither entirely singular nor coherent, but include critiques of the gendering of serious sport in strategies of ridicule and satire; seriousness-in-practice is resolutely multiple, ambivalent and not necessarily or always coherent.

8.2 I'm not merely suggesting that the SLP miss-defines seriousness, nor am I arguing that concepts should be static or mutually exclusive in their definition. 'Seriousness' can of course encompass all the things that Stebbins does with it, all the things that I do with it and all the things that skaters do with it, and more. Rather I am suggesting that the narrowly a-social conceptualisation of seriousness in the SLP limits the perspective's theoretical rigor and analytical clout. The SLP rests on the unexamined assumption that 'hobbies are a good thing it seems' (Stebbins 1996: 61) yet not only are 'hobbies' inaccessible to many, but the claim that serous leisure is by definition 'beneficial' appears to be the product of insufficient critical self-awareness, where a supposedly singular and coherent concept of 'seriousness' underwrites, rather than being subject to, analysis. As such, these assumed values at the core of the perspective are in need of more candid evaluation, to which this article is one contribution.

8.3 The overly descriptive character of the SLP's use of 'seriousness' works to mask both its elusion of multiple inequalities of access and its normative assumptions. I have argued in response that not only is access to serious leisure structured by multiple forms of inequality and specifically that 'getting taken seriously' is an issue of gender contestation, but that a necessary sociological analysis demonstrates that seriousness-in-practice is generative of multiple and ambivalent effects. While this article has focused on seriousness in the context of just one roller derby league, and by extension, a broader context of women's sport and leisure, seriousness-in-practice may be productively explored in a full range of social and cultural locations, not least institutions of academia, where the imperative to get taken seriously 'is precisely what compels people to follow the tried and true paths of knowledge production' (Halberstam 2011: 6). What the SLP has neglected to attend to is precisely what the roller derby practices I consider, at times, revel in; that seriousness is a contingent, non-coherent and ambiguous social phenomena, and that being taken seriously is, at times, completely absurd.


Sincerest thanks to my supervisors Dr Kate Orton-Johnson and Prof John MacInnes for their patient and generous guidance, and to the anonymous reviewers of this article for their detailed and very helpful comments and suggestions. I am endlessly and gratefully indebted to, and always inspired by, all past, present and future members of the Auld Reekie Roller Girls.


1'League' in roller derby refers to location-based organizations, run on 'by the skaters, for the skaters' models, that field up to three travel teams to compete against teams from different geographical areas. In addition to this 'inter-league' competition, leagues often organize member skaters into two or more 'home teams' who compete against each other in annual 'home season' or 'intra-league' completion.

2Participants agreed to be involved in the research via a range of informed consent procedures, including; written forms and declarations to accompany each interview; verbal descriptions of the research and agreement to participate before each workshop; an on-going description and discussion of my participant-observation and broader research activities on the league's online forum/message board; skaters' reading and commenting on their interview transcripts; sharing draft articles and thesis chapters; and my authorship of a research blog.

3NSOs, Non Skating Officials are volunteers who fill roles during bouts such as keeping score and tracking penalties.


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