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Background: History and Context

Sleep is crucial to society, with important implications for the health, well-being, productivity, performance and quality of life of each and every one of us. The risks and consequences of sleep deprivation and sleep disorders in so-called '24/7 society' have been much debated in recent years (Moore-Ede 1993; Coren 1996, Dement with Vaughan 2000; Martin 2003; Bonnet and Arnaud 1995, Harrison and Horne 1995) and are now coming onto the policy agenda, including the merits of a 'well-slept society' (Leadbeater and Wilsden 2003).

It is only relatively recently, however, that social scientists have begun to enter the debate and turn their attention to the social world of sleep. How we sleep, when we sleep, where we sleep, let alone what we make of it and who we do it with, are all important social matters. Sleep, indeed, is a basic human right and resource, recognised or not. Attention to sleep, moreover, has the potential to challenge or unpack a series of predominant waking concerns and assumptions, providing a new window onto the social world and an important opportunity for new interdisciplinary research.

Early papers by Aubert and White (1959a,b), Schwartz (1970) and Taylor (1993) all set the scene and pointed to the sociological significance of sleep. This, in turn, has subsequently been taken forward through the recent work of writers such as Williams (2002), Hislop and Arber (2003a,b) on the sociological dimensions of sleep, including issues of embodiment, gender, ageing and the medicalization of sleep. There is also now growing sociological interest in the relationship between sleep, medicine and the media (Kroll-Smith 2003).

These developments are buttressed by comparative work on sleep and night-time in Asia and the West (Steger and Brunt 2003). Historians too are now turning their attention to sleep. Ekirch (2001), for example, has recently provided a fascinating account of the pre-industrial sleep in the British Isles, in which he highlights the 'segmented slumber' of our ancestors, thereby lending support to the contention that our sleep quality may well have improved over the centuries even if its quantity has declined - see also Elias (1978/1939) on the privatisation of sleep across the centuries. 

Other popular texts on sleep and dream are also increasingly evident in the bookshops, alongside the growing list of self-help or how-to-books. Martin's (2003) Counting Sheep: The Science and Pleasures of Sleep, for example, draws on a variety of literary, scientific and historical sources concerning sleep, both past and present: a book in praise of 'horizontalism' that concludes with a passionate plea for us to take the pleasures of sleep to heart, so to speak, given the risks, costs and consequences of sleep deprivation.

It is against this backdrop that the rationale for the present 'Sleep and Society' seminar series emerges. The series caters to a wide and diverse audience, within and beyond the social sciences, and aims to foster dialogue, debate and the sharing of expertise on the social dimensions and dynamics of sleep in a changing world. Participants are encouraged to reflect on sleep not simply as a rich and fascinating topic in its own right, but as a new way of approaching and accessing social processes and social relations across the public/private divide. Key themes, in this respect, include the following:

Sleep, embodiment and everyday/every night life;

Sleep across the lifecourse, with particular reference to childhood, ageing, gender, intimacy and family life;

Work, time, technology and sleep

Sleep, health and medicine

Sleep and the media

The legal, political and ethical aspects of sleep

Future research and policy-making agendas on sleep and society


Aubert, V. and White, H (1959a) Sleep: a sociological interpretation I. Acta Sociologica. 4, 2: 46-54

Aubert, V. and White, H (1959a) Sleep: a sociological interpretation II. Acta Sociologica. 4, 3: 1-16.

Bonnet, M.H. and Arand, D.L. (1995) We are chronically sleep deprived. Sleep. 18, 10: 908-911.

Coren, S. (1996) Sleep Thieves: An Eye-opening Exploration into the Science and Mysteries of Sleep. NY and London: The Free Press.

Dement, W.C. with Vaughan, C. (2000) The Promise of Sleep: The Scientific Connection between Health, Happiness and a Good Night's Sleep. NY and London: Delacourt Press/Macmillan.

Harrison, Y. and Horne, J. (1995) Should we be taking more sleep? Sleep. 18, 10: 901-07.

Hislop, J. and Arber, S. (2003a) Sleepers wake! The gendered nature of sleep disruption among mid-life women. Sociology. 37, 4: 695-711.

Hislop, J. and Arber, S. (2003b) Sleep as a social act: a window on gender roles and relationships, in S.Arber, K. Davidson and J. Ginn (eds.) Gender and Ageing: Changing Roles and Relationships. Maidenhead and Philadelphia: Open University Press.

Hislop, J. and Arber, S. (2003c) Understanding women's sleep management: beyong medicalization-healthicization? Sociology of Health and Illness. 25, 7: 815-37.

Leadbeater, C. and Wilsdon J. (2003) Time for bed. Green Futures. November/December: 40-42.

Martin, P. (2003) Counting Sheep: The Science and Pleasures of Sleep and Dreams. London: Flamingo.

Moore-Ede, M. (1993) The 24 Society: The Risks, Costs and Consequences of a World That Never Stops. London: Piatkus.

Schwartz, B (1970) Notes on the sociology of sleep. Sociological Quarterly. 11, Fall: 485-99.

Steger, B. and Brunt, L. (eds.) (2003) Sleep and Night-time in Asia and the West: Reflections on the Dark Side of Life. London: Routledge.

Taylor, B. (1993) Unconsciousness and society: the sociology of sleep. International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society. 6, 3: 463-71.

Williams, S.J. and Bendelow, G. (1998) The Lived Body. London: Routledge (Chapter 9).

Williams, S.J. (2002) Sleep and health: sociological reflections on the dormant society. Health. 6, 2: 173-200.

Williams, S.J. and Boden, S. (2004) Consumed with sleep? Dormant bodies in consumer culture. Sociological Research Online. 9, 2 <>

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