Occasional Cafe

Play: A Sociological Approach

In their recent essay ‘Heterophony and Hyper-Responsibility’, Åkerstrøm Anderson and Knudsen present a sociological approach to play that is worth recording:


Gregory Bateson suggests that play is a special form of communication in which the message is that ‘these actions in which we now engage do not denote what those actions for which they stand would denote’ (2000: 180). When children play-fight, they continually draw up a distinction between play-fighting and fighting. Thereby, they establish that a marked strike signifies the strike but does not signify that which a strike would signify. Bateson’s final and more precise formulation is, ‘These actions in which we now engage do not denote what would be denoted by those actions which these actions denote’ (2000: 180). Thus, play represents a distinct communicative doubling machine. Play doubles the world so that we have a world of play and a real world, and the doubling takes place on the side of the play. Dirk Baecker (1999: 103) formulates it in this way:

‘In play, socialness is constituted by ways of reflection onto itself as the other side of itself. In play, socialness is experienced as what it is, namely as contingent, roughly meaning that it is neither necessary nor impossible, or again, given yet changeable. Play in general reveals the form of the social by which the play infects the world.’

Play represents a communicative sociality, which is characterised by its doubling of this sociality so that the contingency of the social reality becomes visible. In play, certain rules exist. Hans Georg Gadamer says that in play you forget yourself, you dedicate yourself totally to the play process (1985: 92).


Åkerstrøm Anderson, N. and H. Knudsen ‘Heterophony and Hyper-Responsibility’ in Knudsen, M. (ed.) Systems Theory and the Sociology of Health and Illness: Observing healthcare (Abingdon: Routledge, 2015) p. 90.
Baecker, D. (1999) ‘The Form Game’, in D. Baecker (ed.), Problems of Form, Calif.: Stanford University Press, pp. 99– 107.
Bateson, G. (2000) Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology, Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press.
Gadamer, H.G. (1985) Truth and Method, New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company.