An autoethnographic exploration of “play at work”
MetadataShow full item record
This research brings together two concepts that are often depicted as polar opposites. Sutton-Smith (2001) however suggests that the opposite of play is not work, but depression, and moreover echoes other scholars in reclaiming play as an essential human expression, even for adults. This study, therefore, argues that, given the precarious wellness territory our workplaces are in, something about work is not working. It is furthermore proposed that, given all the evidence of the therapeutic potential inherent to play, there is indeed something nutritious at play in play. Despite these well-supported arguments, play remains hidden away in the academic shadows of more serious industrial psychological preoccupations. Surprisingly, the same conspicuous absence is even mirrored in Positive Psychology, a bustling field that claims to celebrate glee, fun, and happiness (Seligman, 2002a). Entitled “An autoethnographic exploration of play at work,” this dissertation leans on the metaphor of “exploration”, or more specifically, exploratory play. This results in two distinct yet interwoven dimensions to the research study. Firstly, the research approaches the phenomenon of play and play-based methods in workshop contexts through the lived experience of the researcher. Secondly, the research project in itself is conceptualised as work, and the methodology of autoethnography is conceptualised as a playful approach to this work of conducting research. Aside from widening the research scope, this also appropriately matches research methodology to the research domain. Aside from being about play at work, this research also is play at work. Autoethnography, as a recent development in qualitative research, remains unconventional and somewhat controversial in the South African social sciences. Autoethnography, as an offspring of ethnography, offers a method to reflexively incorporate the researcher’s own lived experience in the study of culture as a primary source of rich phenomenological data. Instead of minimising the emotive and subjective, this research amplifies and celebrates it. Given a fair degree of unfamiliarity in terms of autoethnography as well the accusation of being overly self-centred, the experience of the researcher is then complemented by the views of a number of co-creators to the culture being studied. This is done through external data-gathering in the forms of a focus group as well as number of semistructured, dyadic interviews. While therefore leaning more toward postmodern themes, this research also incorporates what has been termed analytical autoethnography (Anderson, 2006), wherein the researcher is a full-member of the setting being studied, is portrayed as such and is committed to theoretical analysis. This study can therefore be summarised as an autoethnographic case study that balances evocative and analytical styles (Vryan, 2006) while emanating from the philosophical assumptions of interpretivism and subjectivism. Internal realities and meaning-creation are thus emphasised rather than the received views of positivism. The central research question being explored is how play and play-based methods promote work-related well-being. To answer this question, firstly, play and play-based methods are explored, both from a theoretical and practical point of view. From within workshop (pedagogical) contexts, the play-based methods considered throughout this study include metaphor and story, creative-arts-based play, physical-body play and also the uncelebrated yet essential methods of icebreakers and games. A preliminary taxonomy is proposed for play-based methods to offer description and to facilitate reflection and learning. Descriptive elements in this taxonomy include interactive vs. solitary, competitive vs. cooperative, motor-sensory vs. cognitive-mind, participative vs. vicarious and rule-bound vs. improvisational. Building on this exploration of play-based methods, the second aspect explored in more detail has to do with the more internal and subjective experiences of participants, or players, if you like. These experiences are then related to prominent concepts encountered in Positive Psychology to, by proxy, understand how they relate to work-related well-being. Significant themes that emerge from this include play as fun, play as mind-body integration, play as authenticity, play as community, and play as stress-relief and resilience. This is then woven into a creative non-fiction, in accord with a trend in qualitative research called creative analytical practices (CAP) (Richardson, 2000). This creative non-fiction, detailed in Chapter 4, forms a key autoethnographic output that animates all these themes in a way that is accessible, evocative and playful. Chapter 5 complements this chapter with an in-depth exploration of the research journey as a confessional tale. While adopting the metaphor of hiking in mountains (exploring nature), this confessional tale clarifies the research process and incorporates an in-depth analysis of the themes, both in terms of research data as well as literature. This is supported by a number of separate appendixes, including interview transcripts, depictions of the interview analysis as well as a number of photos from the field. In terms of its uniqueness and unconventionality, this research joins in the choir of related work to incorporate more contemporary research genres into the social sciences in South Africa. By doing so, it opens up doors to phenomena that simply resist being studied with the ontological and epistemological assumptions of conventional modern science. Furthermore, the effect and impact of this research is that it provides accessible and practical ideas as to how a synthesis of play and work can help us renew and rejuvenate our work and workplaces. That is, how we can come alive in the work contexts that risk becoming sterile, clinical and inhuman in the wake of Taylorist reductionism and efficiency. Given that state of work and workplace, and the productive and therapeutic potential in play, indeed, we are too busy not to play.