Power/Play: Balancing Control and Autonomy in the Social World


Fall 2013, Winter 2014 and Spring 2014 quarters

Taught by

cultural anthropology
sociology, gender studies

“My soul would be an outlaw.”—Harlan Ellison, 1965

Play incites the experience of aliveness, drawing us out of the routinized patterns of the everyday into realms of spontaneity, risk and imagination. Through play, the ordinary becomes temporarily disrupted: rules of propriety are suspended, social roles are inverted and everyday objects transform into the monstrous or fantastic. The vibrant, potentially transgressive nature of play raises questions about how it stands in relation to the forms of power that order society and shape us as individuals. How we play, when we play, and who we play with may unsettle these forms of power or become a part of how they operate. In this interdisciplinary program we will explore play as a creative pathway for the development of an authentic self, and also as a bold challenge to social mechanisms that limit autonomy and create borders between people. When we play, is there something we are playing against? What can the study of play teach us about the nature of power?

In fall, we will explore how play has been shaped culturally and historically, with a focus on childhood in the United States and around the world. We will consider how the emergence of modern school discipline, the commodification of toys, the patterning of gender in childhood and the persistence of bullying has both constrained possibilities for play and allowed new forms to emerge. We will use ethnographic field studies of playgrounds, toy stores, children’s museums and primary school classrooms as the basis for creative work designing play structures, games, exhibits and school workshops. By exploring childhood play, we will gain an understanding of power dynamics between children and teachers, parents and children and among children themselves. 

Winter quarter will emphasize the strategic, symbolic forms of play that arise through adolescence and adulthood. We will consider how subcultures play with fashion, food, collections, fetishes and other social “tastes” to both mark and subvert hierarchies of class, gender and race. We will investigate the construction of “high” and “low” culture and the controlling notions of disgust, purity and danger through studies of tastings, sports tournaments, carnival and mass entertainment. We will also study humorous forms of verbal play and body play that have the capacity to construct or violate normalized social practices.

Spring quarter turns to explorations of utopia and transgression in play. We will consider how particular forms of pleasure and desire are normalized and resisted, and how leisure and fantasy can reverse or co-opt power. Our inquiry will encompass topics such as science fiction, sexuality, space and architecture. Library research and ethnographic fieldwork will form the basis of a creative culminating project.

Our studies will be grounded in sociology, anthropology and history, but will turn to other fields, including philosophy, education, literature and visual studies, to enrich our understandings of play. Readings may include works by Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Foucault, Douglas, Barthes, Bourdieu, Stewart and Butler. Throughout the year, students will engage in seminars, films, workshops, fieldwork exercises, writing and research projects designed to deepen their knowledge and apply theory to real-world situations.

Program Details

Fields of Study

Preparatory for studies or careers in

sociology, anthropology and education.

Location and Schedule

Campus location



Offered during: Day


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Online Learning

Enhanced Online Learning: Access to web-based tools required, but use of these tools does not displace any face-to-face instruction.

Required Fees

$95 in fall and winter for museum and theater tickets and overnight field trips; $30 in spring for museum, theater or sporting event tickets.

Internship Required

Students taking the program for 16 credits must complete an In-program Internship Learning Contract (designed for this program) in consultation with the faculty and Academic Advising in preparation for 4 credit internships with community organizations and agencies.

Research Possibilities

Independent research spring quarter with faculty approval.


Date Revision
January 31st, 2014 This program will not accept new enrollment spring quarter.
November 13th, 2013 Preparatory work for joining the program winter quarter has been clarified. WInter fee has increased (from $30 to $95). In-program internship opportunity identified.

Registration Information

Credits: 16 (Fall); 16 (Winter); 16 (Spring)

Variable Credit Options

12-credit option available to students who will be enrolling in a separate language course.  Please contact the faculty for more information.

Class standing: Freshmen–Senior; 35% of the seats are reserved for freshmen

Maximum enrollment: 48


Course Reference Numbers

Fr (16 credits): 10171
So - Sr (16 credits): 10174
(1-16 credits): 10353

Go to my.evergreen.edu to register for this program.


Accepting New Students


Students joining the program winter quarter will need to read The Bully Society by Jessie Klein prior to the first day of winter quarter.

Course Reference Numbers

Fr (16 credits): 20149
So - Sr (16 credits): 20150
(1-16 credits): 20247

Go to my.evergreen.edu to register for this program.


Enrollment Closed

Course Reference Numbers

Fr (16 credits): 30129
So - Sr (16 credits): 30130
(1-16 credits): 30209

Go to my.evergreen.edu to register for this program.

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