Based on: Finkielsztein, M. (2021). Boredom and Academic Work. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 2-6. [preview at Google Books]
There is rather little doubt that people experience boredom, especially at work. According to Walter Benjamin, who summarized Émile Tardieu’s (1913) book on the subject, ‘all human activity is shown to be a vain attempt to escape from boredom, but in which, at the same time, everything that was, is, and will be appears as the inexhaustible nourishment of that feeling’ (Benjamin, 2002, p. 102). Similar claims have been made by many well-known authors, inter alia by German philosophers Arthur Schopenhauer and Martin Heidegger; German-born American social psychologist, Erich Fromm; French poet Charles Baudelaire; French philosopher and novelist Albert Camus; or American writer, David Foster Wallace; who all indicated in one way or another that ‘most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from [the] feeling’ (Wallace, 2011, p. 85).
Boredom ‘as a factor in human behaviour has [still] received … far less attention than it deserves’ (Russell, 1932, p. 57). Boredom, ‘like normality, is a taken-for-granted part of everyday life’ (Misztal, 2016, p. 109; cf. Barbalet, 1999, p. 633), it ‘is generally paid scant and superficial attention, passed over lightly as transitory and insignificant’ (Healy, 1984, p. 9) as most people ‘do not fully acknowledge or … are not fully conscious of what a grave affliction boredom is’ (Fromm, 1986, p. 14).
Boredom studies are dominated by quantitative, questionnaire-based psychological research. This conclusion was entirely confirmed in my own literature analysis – out of 572 scientific texts with the word ‘boredom’ in the title to which I have had access (journal articles, books, books chapters, MA/PhD theses written in English (507) and Polish (65)3), as many as 273 (47.73%) are from the field of psychology. Somehow in contrast to the well-developed field of the psychology of boredom, sociology ‘has largely ignored boredom, although producing a rather large amount of it’ (Darden and Marks, 1999 , p. 33). This conclusion was confirmed in my analysis of the literature on boredom. Out of 572 academic texts I gathered, only 35 (6.12%) can be classified as ‘sociological,’ and fewer than 20 were written by a sociologist.4 Boredom still seems to be perceived as having little or no social effect, and as a result is not considered a serious issue worth an incisive investigation in sociology.
My book concerns the phenomenon of workplace boredom using the example of academic work. Yet, simple statement of academics being bored at work could be claimed a heresy. This is why, my work consists of two well-integrated parts (theoretical and empirical). The first part deals with the definition of boredom: scrutinizes both common and scientific conceptions of it and results in proposition of a new, sociological conceptualization of that emotion. The second part puts proposed definition into action by analysis of the work-related boredom of research and teaching university staff.
The main goals of the book are to (1) provide a detailed overview of existing conceptualizations of boredom in various academic disciplines, (2) propose a sociological definition of boredom, and (3) describe and analyse work-related boredom through the example of academic work. The book is divided into two parts, the first dealing with the conceptualization of boredom (Chapters 1–3), and the second with work-related boredom of academics (Chapters 4 and 5).
The first chapter reflects on methodological problems in researching boredom: (a) difficulties in observing boredom in vivo (phenomenological problem), (b) frequent denials of ever being bored, and (c) the poor common conceptualization of the feeling, which handicaps deeper reflection upon it, as boredom is often perceived as a synonym for idleness, rest, or laziness (depending on moral interpretations). This section summarizes the main problems in the operationalization of boredom for the purposes of research, and reveals the need for much definitional reflection – it may also be perceived as a ‘manual’ for possible obstacles to researching boredom, especially using qualitative methods.
Chapter 2 is a detailed description of existing approaches to the conceptualization of boredom, and covers much of the existing literature on the subject. Various disciplinary theories of boredom are offered, starting with the psychology of boredom (arousal, cognitive, psychodynamic, and existential theories), then the philosophy of boredom and microsociological perspective (interactional approach). This chapter aims to provide an interdisciplinary comparison of existing theories of boredom as well as interpretations of them.
Based on the concepts gathered in Chapter 2, the next chapter provides definitional reflection upon boredom, and results in an original proposition for the sociological, interactional definition of the state – boredom is defined as an emotion/feeling of engagement withdrawal from interactions with the social/physical environment due to a sense of meaninglessness. Considerations regarding the applicability of the definition are also included, and an original distinction between situational and chronic boredom is proposed.
The main, empirical part of the thesis (Chapters 4 and 5) consists of the description and analysis of academic work with respect to work-related contributors to the boredom of academics, and the preventive/coping techniques that they employ. The first empirical chapter concentrates on systemic factors that may potentially result in boredom – analyses organizational/institutional/normative effects on academic well-being in general, and the occurrence of boredom specifically. Chapter 5 provides a detailed description and analysis of various academic activities (scientific conferences, staff meetings, teaching, and research-related work) in terms of boredom, and is at least partial illustration of the systemic issues discussed in Chapter 4. All chapters supplement each other and provide justification for the main thesis that boredom is far from being a ‘minor irritation,’ an issue not worth further reflection, a laughing matter. I hope this work will contribute to changing the common perception of that underestimated emotion, at least among (some) academics.
Barbalet, Jack. 1999. “Boredom and Social Meaning.” The British Journal of Sociology 50(4):631–46.
Benjamin, Walter. 2002. The Arcades Project. Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Darden, Donna and Alan Marks. 1999. “Boredom: A Socially Disvalued Emotion.” Sociological Spectrum 19(1):13–37.
Fromm, Erich. 1986. “Affluence and Ennui in Our Society.” Pp. 1–38 in For the Love of Life. New York: The Free Press.
Misztal, Barbara. 2016. “The Ambiguity of Everyday Experience: Between Normality and Boredom.” Qualitative Sociology Review 12(4):100–119.
Russell, Bertrand. 1932. “Boredom and Excitement.” Pp. 57–67 in The Conquest of Happiness. London: George Allen & Unwin LTD.
Tardieu, Émile. 1913. L’Ennui. Étude Psychologique. Paris: Librairie Félix Alcan.
Wallace, David Foster. 2011. The Pale King: An Unfinished Novel. New York: Little, Brown.