Sleep is essential for our health and well-being but it has, historically, been the subject of little sociological study. Yet sleep is not, as common sense would have us believe, ‘asocial inaction’. Like our waking lives, it is a time of interaction. The sociology of sleep presently exists in a state similar to the early stages of development of the sociology of the body, waiting for something like Frank's (1991) typology of body action, which served as a heuristic guide through which action and its multifaceted components could be understood. This paper argues that one productive analytical framework is to adapt Watson's (2000) ‘male body schema’ for the sociological investigation of sleep. This revolves around four interrelated forms of embodiment: normative (opinions and perceptions about healthy sleep behaviour); pragmatic (‘normal’ as related to social role); experiential (feelings related to sleep); and visceral (the biological body and sleep). The possibilities this model provides for the sociology of sleep is illustrated in the paper through the analysis of a case study of sleep negotiation between a couple.
Sleep tends to be considered as a time of quiescence and tranquillity, a time when the body and mind relax to recuperate from the day's activity, a time when relatively little happens. These assumptions are partly incorrect since sleep is, in fact, an active process (Sloan and Shapiro, 1997: 7)
The basic sociological assumption is that when, where and how we sleep are all, ‘to a considerable degree, socio-cultural matters’ (Williams, 2002: 178). For example, according to Taylor (1993) sleep becomes more private as we grow older. We move from infancy, where sleep is observed through such means as the intercom, to adulthood where we attain the right to be left alone whilst asleep and to sleep at a time of our own choosing. The prevalence of observed sleep within hospitals and prisons, and especially residential care homes, could be seen as reverting the adult back to childhood. This echoes, somewhat, Goffman's (1961: 17) notion that:
A basic social arrangement in modern society is that the individual tends to sleep, play, and work in different places, with different co-participants, under different authorities, and without an over-all rational plan. The central feature of total institutions can be described as a breakdown of the barriers ordinarily separating these three spheres of life.
It is argued here that, although the work of Taylor (1993) and others has gone some way to establishing the sub-discipline of the sociology of sleep as something more than ‘a luxurious curiosity to be classified alongside the ‘bizarre’ topics that periodically interest the outer reaches of the sociological imagination’ (Shilling, 2003: x), the field has been left in a position that has resonances with the early development of the sociology of the body.
Overarching theoretical frameworks do not exist and no sustained attempt has been made to theoretically integrate these, or other more fundamental, issues. It is this which concerns this paper. An integrative analytical framework is offered which rests upon several key assumptions: firstly, that sleep should be viewed as a negotiated act; secondly, the sociological investigation of sleep requires a joint ‘focus on the experience (ie phenomenological) as well as the representational (ie discursive/symbolic), the material as well as the cultural, the institutional (ie macro-) as well as the individual (ie micro-) aspects of sleep’ (Williams and Bendelow, 1998: 186); thirdly, any analytical framework must accept that reverting to pure social constructionism would deny the underlying physiological elements of sleep. ‘Sleep Action’ (that is waking action concerned with sleep) can influence ‘Sleep Activity’ (the physiological occurrences whilst asleep) and vice versa. Just as the body is simultaneously a social and natural phenomenon (Shilling, 2003: 16) so is sleep.
The first part of this paper discusses these assumptions further; elaborating upon the key concept of ‘embodied sleep negotiation’. The second section offers an analytical framework which enables ‘embodied sleep negotiation’ to be empirically investigated. Here, it is suggested that, building on Watson's (2000) ‘male body schema’, a ‘typology of embodied sleep negotiation’ can be constructed: enabling the move beyond identification, through to description and into explanation (Watson, 2000: 7–8). The paper concludes with a case study illustrating the applicability of the analytical model.
Negotiation and sleep
Think of those pinched, yawning faces you can see every day on the trains and in buses and in cars crawling through jams. They look as if they have been brainwashed, but they are just tired (Martin, 2002: 6).
According to Strauss (1978) all social life has a negotiated element. The social meaning of activities in which participants are involved is negotiated; in the sense of having to develop shared understandings and expectations.
With every new situation certain elements are ‘taken-for-granted’. Although these elements can be challenged they rarely are (as this would disrupt the ‘flow of interaction’ and stop people ‘getting things done’ (Finch, 1989: 183)). In essence in working out the ‘proper thing to do’, pre-existing, normative rules are identified as relevant. Drawing upon the work of Douglas, Finch illustrates how normative rules are used to make analogies to other situations, to select rules which may help achieve the purpose in hand and to help construct plausible accounts of what is being done (Finch, 1986: 184). As well as these ‘shared understandings’, audiences and public morality are also important within any negotiation.
It could be argued from this that prior to any negotiation with others an individual negotiates with themselves: identifying the relevance of norms, doing ‘emotion work’ and understanding how they ‘ought to feel’, identifying alternative options to negotiation and developing appropriate strategies. If negotiation with others is then attempted, the relative skills and power of each party and their opinions as to how they (and others) ought to feel become paramount in determining the outcome.
This paper argues that sleep resides within this ‘negotiated order’ and therefore it needs, like gender, to be seen as constructed by dynamic, dialectic relationships (Courtenay, 2000) and as ‘negotiated’ (Cameron and Bernardes, 1998); both with others and with self (McDaniel, 2002). On a simplistic level this is evidenced by the fact that, as Martin argues, our daily cycles of sleep and wake are no longer driven by dawn and dusk but by electric lighting, clocks and work-schedules (2002: 5). These mechanisms involve ‘choices’: which are made as a result of a negotiation between individual expectations, desires and social roles and the expectations, desires and social roles of others.
Perhaps the strongest empirical indicator that sleep is arrived at through negotiation with self comes from the work of Hislop and Arber (2003a; 2003b; 2003c). Their study into the sleep patterns of women aged over 40 demonstrates how they ‘negotiate’ between their own sleep expectations, their social role(s) and the social context of their lives.
Women were shown to prioritise their partner's and children's sleep above their own (Hislop and Arber, 2003a). For example one respondent reported that:
Dark, I like dark. It's a hassle between us because my husband likes light to read by if he wakes up and it is light and I like the dark. Well we usually have it his way because otherwise I’m woken up by him biting his nails because he wants to turn the light on. (2003a: 704)
The interaction of the physical and emotional labour involved in caring for babies, young children and teenagers, and the worries and concerns associated with family responsibilities, work, and caring for ageing parents, also compromised women's access to quality sleep (Hislop and Arber, 2003a). Although not explicitly discussed, the extent to which women ‘allowed’ these negotiated intrusions into their sleep and whether or not they saw their sleep as problematic, could be said to be dependent upon how they prioritised sleep individually (a negotiation with self).
Embodiment and sleep
Negotiation with both self and with others is a form of social action and, as such, involves the ‘mindful body’: ‘the active sentient basis of agency and meaning creation in relational and social forms’ (Williams and Bendelow, 1998: 208; emphasis in original). It is therefore more appropriate to talk of ‘embodied negotiation’. As Leder states, the lived body is not just a ‘thing in the world’ but a way in which the ‘world comes to be’. We cannot understand objects without reference to the bodily powers through which they are engaged; sense, motility, desires and language to name a few (1992: 25; see also Nettleton and Watson, 1998: 11).
Going beyond the dualisms of mind/body and physiological/social embodiment includes ‘the internal genetically acquired makeup of the organism and the nature of its interactions in both its physical and social environments’ (Lakoff, 1987: xv quoted in Watson, 2000: 112). Biology is recast in experiential terms with emotions, for example, being viewed ‘as thinking, moving, feeling complexes which radiate through the body as an ongoing stream of lived experience’ (Boden and Williams, 2002: 497). This enables the physiological to work on the social self as well as society ordering the body (Watson, 2000: 112), and the interweaving of personal life and social structure (Connell, 1987: 61). Put another way, embodiment enables the investigation of individual desires and motivations, shared understandings, audiences, public morality, skills, power, time and emotions in a way which is sensitive to sleep being both a biological phenomenon and a time of interaction.
For Watson, following Csordas, analysis within a paradigm of embodiment should focus on the body-as-subject in experiential terms (Watson, 2000: 112). Crucial to this, is the need to focus on lived experience, or put another way, lay perspectives; which hold the key to understanding the relationship between body, self, culture and society. With this in mind, Watson moves to propose an embodied, core grounded concept for analysing men's health practices. This he calls ‘being in shape’ and it is this framework that will be offered as the key to analysing ‘embodied sleep negotiation’.
Towards an analytical framework for the sociological investigation of sleep
The aim of a sociology of sleep, then, is to better understand this embodied negotiation: to identify, describe and explain the way in which physiological need and social constraint interact both within and between individuals and how the resulting sleep reality is (non) justified and explained. Through this, the discipline can then begin to offer both a sociology of sleep and a sociology for sleep.
Within his text Male Bodies: Health, Culture and Identity (2000), Watson develops a schema which may offer a framework for better understanding the embodied negotiated aspects of sleep. Analysing the accounts of a group of thirty men, aged between thirty and forty and living in North East Scotland, Watson seeks to explore whether or not masculinity is intrinsically damaging to men's health. He offers ‘being in shape’ as “an analytical concept – situated within the theoretical paradigm of embodiment – which provides an interpretation of how the men in these studies experienced and made sense of personal health” (Watson, 2000: 115).
Within Watson's analytical framework reside four modes of embodiment: namely normative, pragmatic, visceral and experiential. Normative embodiment is closely related to body ‘stereotypes’; however the former term is preferred as the images of healthy and unhealthy others offered to Watson were not lifeless representations. The unhealthy and healthy other was presented as ‘lived modes of construction’. That is respondent's narratives provided explanation as to how a particular body shape was achieved and maintained (2000: 117).
Pragmatic embodiment relates to the idea of having a ‘normal everyday body’ or to the notion of the ‘immediate everyday social body’ (Watson, 2000: 119). Here the emphasis is on ‘functional fitness’ and the praxis of ‘father’, ‘mate’ and ‘husband’. According to Watson, pragmatic embodiment is the means by which a man's masculinity and health is socially affirmed; as to be both male and ‘functionally fit’ is the measure of the degree to which one has ‘social fit’ (2000: 119).
Experiential and visceral embodiment relate more to the biological body. Experiential embodiment is the primary site for experiencing emotions (ibid) or the ‘blood tingling’ after a work out. It is the space in which the social and physical boundaries of the body touch. Visceral embodiment relates to the ‘unseen’, ‘body you are born with’. Here reside perceived ‘biological imperatives’ such as genes and ‘losing your hair’, or bodily behaviours you can do nothing about, and bodily warnings when its capabilities are exceeded (Watson, 2000: 119–120).
Although Watson does not discuss ‘negotiation’ between these four modes of embodiment, he does introduce the notion of ‘managing ambiguity’. Watson's respondents resisted the prevailing equation that ‘presentation (mesomorph)=masculine=health’: instead prioritising the pragmatic equation ‘function=masculine=‘fitness’ (2000: 121). Yet this did not correspond with discourses of health promotion or the respondent's own formula for assessing healthy and unhealthy others: behaviours=form=(un)healthy =(change behaviour). This ambiguity was managed through linking the embodied self-image of the pragmatic body to a younger ‘naturally healthy’ body via statements such as ‘before I became a dad and gave up football’. This pragmatic body can be aligned both with the healthy other and functional self (Watson, 2000: 122).
It is argued here, then, that this typology enables the investigation of the ways in which people negotiate sleep: offering a way of identifying which mode of embodiment is prioritised when people ‘engage’ with sleep, and the way in which this engagement is ‘managed’. Engagement and management are intrinsically linked to the individuals ‘negotiation context’ and the identification of relevant norms, the doing of ‘emotion work’ and understanding of how they ‘ought to feel’.
A theoretical framework of how the four modes of embodiment relate to sleep is outlined below. Despite the fact that Watson's (2000) original formulation derived from ‘informant conceptualizations’ of embodiment, where the research subjects were solely working age men, it will be argued that this model is also applicable to women.
Normative sleep embodiment
As related to sleep, key issues that fall within the mode of normative sleep embodiment are opinions and perceptions of ‘healthy’ sleep behaviour. More specifically, this includes vulnerability and issues of ‘safe sleep action’, appropriate sleeping places, the pliable body and issues of appropriate bodily control. In addition, it encompasses normal healthy sleep within the non stop, 24 hours a day seven days a week society (24/7), and the appropriate, healthy amount of sleep, and innovations/medicines and their appropriate healthy use.
Pragmatic sleep embodiment
For Watson pragmatic embodiment included explanatory accounts of being healthy in the context of a ‘normal everyday body’. Although normative modes of embodiment may be closely linked, the emphasis here is on function. For example, an individual who avoids alcohol at night because it damages sleep engages with the normative; whereas an individual who avoids alcohol at night because it damages sleep but this is seen as problematic because it disrupts everyday functions, such as being a parent, prioritises the pragmatic.
Engaging with sleep at the level of the pragmatic will not always result in sleep being prioritised because of function: sleep may also be negatively influenced by social roles. As Steger illustrates, within Japanese society commitment to a job is judged by the time and effort spent on it (2003: 181). This opens up the possibility of a conflict between what is seen as healthy sleep (normative) and what has to be done in practice. Emphasising the potential multifaceted relationship between the pragmatic and sleep, inemuri, or napping during working situations, can be seen as a subtle method of showing exhaustion and commitment to work. The extent to which this napping is accepted though, will depend, itself, on social roles and power relations between the napper and those defining whether napping is appropriate in that particular situation (Steger, 2000: 181).
Experiential sleep embodiment
If normative embodiment relates to opinions and beliefs about healthy sleep behaviour and pragmatic embodiment is the relationship between sleep and function, then experiential embodiment is, simply, feeling ‘knackered’ or ‘well-rested’. It is here that sleep is ‘experienced’.
Visceral sleep embodiment
Others or the self cannot perceive visceral embodiment, except when it surfaces through experiential embodiment or medical procedures. This is not to argue for genetic determinism. Watson's informants appeared to be stating that adopting a particular strategy may improve some facet of self, but could not significantly override ‘biological imperatives’ (2000: 120). Here views on the biological purpose of sleep, the physiological consequences of sleep (whether positive or negative) and perceived clinical sleep disorders are important.
For example, a recent article in the journal Sleep reported that part of a gene, Per3, can be shown to be linked to delayed sleep phase syndrome and a person's diurnal preference; that is whether they are a ‘morning’ or ‘evening’ type (see Archer et al., 2003). Thus, diurnal preference may be expressed by individuals as a ‘biological imperative’, residing within the domain of visceral embodiment.
Figure 1 illustrates diagrammatically the interaction of the four modes of embodiment. At any given time an individual will engage with sleep in a way which prioritises some modes of embodiment above the others. For example, a medical doctor, quoted in Coran, states that when “you are down on sleep, it is always the routine things that you find hardest to deal with. If the patient had started to go into crisis there would have been enough adrenaline to keep me awake and alert” (1996: 196–7). Coran's doctor is engaging with sleep in terms of pragmatic and visceral embodiment. Sleep is not being discussed in relation to abstract notions of healthy sleep (normative), but rather with respect to the ability to perform (pragmatic). The underlying biological body (visceral) ensures that ‘in times of crisis’, this functioning can continue.
Within Figure 2 a circle surrounds these four modes of embodiment. This represents the social context (or negotiation context) within which the negotiation is enacted. Material factors, for example, such as income and resources available (both in terms of money and time), can all have an impact on the negotiation context and, as a result, the form that negotiations, both with self and with others, take. Similarly, the ‘commodification of sleep’ may impact upon this negotiation context, as people are informed, for example, that ‘special beds’ are a benefit because ‘inferior’ beds can lead to orthopaedic problems (Williams and Boden, 2004).
Within figure 2 the life course is highlighted as a major factor influencing the negotiation context. This works on two levels: first, on a physiologically, the nature and depth of sleep changes with age (Dijk et al., 2000). As Whalley (2001: 97) suggests, poor sleep is amongst the most common complaints of old age. Older people claim that they sleep less, take longer to fall asleep, have difficulty remaining asleep and wake early. As a result, normative beliefs about sleep may change and the priority an individual affords their visceral and experiential may adapt accordingly. Secondly, even with biological universals accepted, ageing does not occur in uniform ways but is socially structured (Arber and Ginn, 1995). For example notions of masculinity, femininity and the presentation of self may all change (to differing degrees) across the lifecourse, possibly in differing ways depending, in turn, on class and ethnicity (see James et al., 1995 and Davidson et al., 2000 for discussion).
The impact of a partner is also emphasised within Figure 2, as where the sleeping environment is shared, whether this is husband, wife, or mother and child, sleep is negotiated directly with others. For those sharing sleeping environments the ‘negotiated’ night is arrived at through an interrelated, dialectical relationship between the individual's sleep desires (themselves negotiated through normative, visceral and experiential) and their social roles (pragmatic) as well as the sleep desires and social roles of others.
In essence embodied sleep negotiation is not static: it is intrinsically linked to time and place. Turner and Rojek (2001) remind us that embodiment is dependent on enselfment and emplacement. Changes over the life course are linked to enselfment, or rather the process of enselfment, (the process by which actors become self-reflexive, purposeful and individuated (Turner and Rojek, 2001: x) and emplacement (embodiment in a particular time and place).
To illustrate the generic applicability of this model and suggest how it may be used in practice to identify, discuss and explain the negotiated aspects of an individual's sleep reality and (non) justifications for the outcomes, the following section examines a case study of a male and female bed partner drawn from an indepth unstructured interview. The couple were interviewed together and asked about their sleep. Both are aged 30 and they had been living together for ten years at the time of the interview and had no children. For present purposes they will be referred to as Mike and Jean.
The negotiated night
At the beginning of the interview Mike spent a substantial amount of time talking about his own sleep: demonstrating how he arrived at his sleep reality and justifications for it, firstly, through an individual interplay between normative, pragmatic, visceral and experiential embodiment.
The last few months I actually have not been sleeping properly at all because of job related stress . . . I would never believe just how much the brain just turns everything over. Absolutely. I’m thinking. Churning, churning, churning. It is not about being tired. It's actually just about the fact you’re just thinking so much, you’re processing so much information, that you’re fatigued . . . One of the things I actually realised was that I would sleep for most of the night and then I’d sort of come out of sleeping into whatever other state it is. I couldn’t physically get to sleep because I was mentally active. Like I had been doing a full day's worth of work (Mike).
Referring to how this made him feel during the day, Mike answered:
More tired, more fatigued and I know I am the kind of person that gets by on five or six hours sleep. Not a problem. And that includes going out and having a drink as well. But the problem was when I was stressed, I couldn’t do that. I needed clear, you know the same kind of sleep that [Jean] needs: 8, 9 hours.
The substantial impact of pragmatic embodiment (ie his occupational work role) is double-edged for Mike. It is clear that Mike's inability to sleep is because of stresses associated with his job. It is also evident that Mike gauges his sleep needs and how he feels (experiential embodiment) by his ability to ‘get by’, ‘go for a drink’ and function effectively the next day.
Continuing the focus on number of hours of sleep, later in the interview Mike stated that:
I suppose I go on what my body needs [his perception of visceral embodiment].
This was confirmed by Jean.
Your body definitely tells you [Mike] what you do and do not need.
Unsurprisingly, visceral and experiential embodiment (that is, what I feel my body needs and any feelings of tiredness, fatigue) do play a major part in determining an individual's sleep needs. Again, however, there is an intrinsic link with perceived pragmatic ability to perform. Feeling tired is not necessarily a problem, but feeling tired in inappropriate places or whilst trying to function at work is. Likewise the body may be considered to need differing amounts of sleep depending on the perceived requirements of differing social activities.
This was confirmed when Mike argued that the reason he did not attempt to get 8 hours sleep (widely reported as the correct ‘healthy’ amount) was because his body would not let him sleep for that long (visceral embodiment overpowering normative). This he was glad of:
8 hours sleep would get in the way of my life. I’m glad that I do not need that much sleep . . . because at the end of the day sleep is getting in the way of what I want to do with the rest of my life.
The pragmatic element of sleep for Mike is doubly important. He is aware that he needs to sleep to function but he resents this fact. Reflecting Watson's (2000) findings, pragmatic embodiment seems to be Mike's mode of insertion and (sleep) agency with the world. Messages to promote better sleep, such as sleep hygiene information, arguably need to be targeted at the pragmatic level here.
Conversely to Mike, Jean's negotiated sleep reality comes not from her own desires but primarily from a compromise with Mike’s. Her mode of insertion and (sleep) agency directly stems from his. Her sleep is controlled to a large degree by her sleeping partner. As sleeping partners their basic premise about sleep is very different as are the hours they believe they need to sleep. As Jean says (to Mike):
I view sleep as a very important thing. . . .
But it really is an issue the fact that you [partner] need 5 or 6 hours sleep and I need 8 or 9.
Jean, who seems to be more influenced by her understanding of normative sleep messages, has her sleep disturbed by Mike coming to bed after her and by his nocturnal movements when it is hot. Mike is very aware that he is having a detrimental effect on his partner's sleep. As he states:
I am actually very acutely aware – you know when someone's not eating properly or something is not right with their diet, and that is why they are not well. I am actually very acutely aware that [Jean] is like that [when it comes to lack of sleep].
Yet Mike does not adjust his behaviour. Jean considers adjusting her behaviour but does not do so:
When [Mike] is restless I would love to get up and sleep next door.
When asked why she does not go to sleep in a different room, Jean replies:
He hates it . . . Even when I am ill, I am conscious that I am tossing and restless and how it disturbs [Mike] and I say to [Mike] ‘shall I sleep in the other bedroom’? He says ‘no’ . . . That explains the different importance we put on sleep. You (partner) don’t view sleep as important, therefore you view the closeness of sleeping together as far more important. . . . Which is why sometimes when I am restless or he is restless I will say to [Mike] that I will go and sleep in the other room and he says ‘No, No, please don’t’. So I don’t.
The closeness of sleeping physically together is a social product and for Mike is an important normative part of a couple relationship. For Mike, when and how he sleeps may be largely engaged with at the level of the pragmatic but, where he sleeps reflects his normative opinions. Sleeping together for Mike is far more important than Jean's lack of sleep (which he is aware can at times make her ill).
As with the work of Hislop and Arber (2003a; 2003b; 2003c), the above case study suggests that gender dynamics play an important part. Mike may also, due to societal expectations, be placing himself at risk of health problems because of lack of regard for the amount of sleep he is getting.
Through the ability to explain the reasoning behind an individual's negotiated sleep reality, the adaptation of Watson's model will help enable the appropriate targeting of messages to eradicate the ‘sleep sickness’ in society. By examining the way that a person's sleep reality may change with ageing and life course events, sleep hygiene messages can be ‘individualised’ as opposed to being aimed at the young 24/7 working person. Where the model is used alongside a physiological measurement, such as actigraphy (a small watch like device which measures movement) an informed multifaceted understanding of sleep, with a sociological predominance, can be arrived at.
Sleep is essential for health and well-being. The nascent sociology of sleep has an important role in understanding sleep, especially where it is lacking. However, this paper argues that to date there has been no clear analytical framework offered which enables the ‘getting at’ sleep in a way which respects that it can neither be reduced to naturalistic or social constructionist concerns. Sleep is multifaceted.
The key starting point is that sleep is negotiated. This is most notably evidenced by Hislop and Arber's (2003a) empirical study of sleep patterns in mid-life women. They discovered that the interaction of the physical and emotional labour involved in caring for babies, young children and teenagers as well as partners, and the worries and concerns associated with family responsibilities, work, and caring for ageing parents, compromised women's access to quality sleep. The extent to which women ‘allowed’ these negotiated intrusions into their sleep and whether or not they saw their sleep as problematic, justified, accepted or rationalised it depended upon how they prioritised sleep individually (a negotiation with self). The aim of a sociology of sleep is to target and understand this negotiation.
Adapting Watson's ‘male body schema’, which rests on a general theory of embodiment’, offers one possible way of achieving a sociology of sleep. The schema revolves around four interrelated forms of embodiment: normative (opinions and perceptions about healthy sleep behaviour); pragmatic (‘normal’ as related to social role); experiential (feelings related to sleep); and visceral (the perceived biological body and its need for sleep). In determining which mode an individual prioritises over another, why and how, the sociological study of sleep can inform debates about ‘sleep hygiene’, that is the advice offered as to how to resolve sleep problems. With tiredness and reduced alertness creating a major financial toll through loss of productivity, accidents and the cost of unsafe behaviours, the need is more than academic.
The author would like to thank Jenny Hislop, Neil Stanley, Sue Venn, the two anonymous reviewers and the editors of The Sociological Review for useful comments on earlier drafts. He is especially grateful to Sara Arber for taking the time to thoughtfully review the paper continuously throughout its development.