Leisure, income inequality and the Veblen effect: cross-national analysis of leisure time and sport and cultural activity

Publication Type:
Journal Article
Leisure Studies, 2016, 35 (2), pp. 215 - 240
Issue Date:
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© 2015 Taylor & Francis. This paper was prompted by the publication in Britain in 2009 of The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always do Better, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, which attracted considerable comment, both positive and negative and both substantive and methodological. The book claimed to show that, on a range of health and social measures of well-being, rich countries with more equal income distributions tended to perform better than those with less equal income distributions. Leisure time and behaviour were not among the indicators of well-being included and, while some researchers have sought to fill this gap, the range of leisure indicators used to date has been limited. This paper examines the relationship between income inequality and leisure time on a world-wide basis, and ten measures of cultural participation and two of sport and physical recreation participation in European countries. Efforts are made to address some of the methodological criticisms which have been made of The Spirit Level. It is found that more equal countries have more leisure time and higher levels of participation in cultural and sporting activities, and that there are also significant relationships with absolute Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per head and with religious-related values. The extent to which variations in leisure time and participation are related to income inequality is linked to Thorstein Veblen’s theory of pecuniary emulation, referred to as the ‘Veblen effect’.
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