Micro-Macro Connection

A Sociology of Sleep

Everybody sleeps. Indeed, at certain moments in our lives—when we’re studying for finals, when we’re sick, when we become new parents—sleep may be the most all-encompassing preoccupation we have. One of the major ailments of modern life is lack of sleep. According to one poll, nearly two-thirds of Americans complain that they don’t get enough sleep. In the United States alone, there are over 2,000 sleep clinics to treat people’s sleep problems. “Fatigue management” is now a growing therapeutic field (cited in Kolbert, 2013).

Sleep is obviously experienced differently by different individuals. I’m sure you know people who say they can’t function on less than 10 hours of sleep a night while others say they’re wide-awake and perky on just four.

But sleep preferences are not just a matter on individual adaptation. Children, for example, typically require much more sleep than adults, especially in their first several years of life. Even here, though, individual needs can be overridden by broader social concerns. One of the key tasks of parenting is training children to fit their sleeping patterns into the parents’ schedule. “My baby slept through the night last night!!” is a celebratory exclamation all new parents long to shout. But it’s not always easy. What parent hasn’t experienced the struggle of trying to get a combative toddler to sleep at night? But parent-child conflict over sleep never completely disappears. Try waking up a surly teenager on a school day morning sometime. Incidentally, the problem of dozy teenagers has become so bad that the American Academy of Pediatrics (2014) recently issued a policy statement recommending a later start of the school day in middle and high school so that teens can get enough sleep at night.

According to sociologist Simon Williams (2011), sleep is “a window onto the social world (p. 27). How, when, where, how much, and with whom we sleep is always a product of social, cultural, and historical forces. All societies must organize the sleep of their members in some way. Think about when and where it’s appropriate to sleep. At night? In the privacy of your own home? Of course. American adults are expected to go to sleep somewhere around 11:00 at night and wake up around 7:00 in the morning—what one anthropologist refers to as “consolidated sleeping” (Wolf-Meyer, 2012). Anything else—“sleeping during the day, sleeping in bursts, waking up in the middle of the night”—is considered unsound, even abnormal and perhaps subject to some kind of therapeutic intervention (Kolbert, 2013, p. 25).

At times, going without sleep can be worn as a boastful badge of honor or pride. “If you snooze, you lose,” “I’ll have time to sleep when I’m dead” and all that. But this clearly can be taken too far. “Drowsiness…is increasingly regarded as the new drunkenness: a culpable state, since, we are every bit as dangerous behind the wheel when we’re drowsy as when we are drunk” (Williams, 2011 p. 27-28). Indeed, the U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that “driving while drowsy” causes 40,000 injuries and over 1,500 deaths a year on U.S. roads (cited in Kolbert, 2013).

The “eight hours of sleep at night” ideal has not always characterized people’s lives. Up until the mid-19th century, it was common for people to sleep in periods throughout the day. They may have gone to bed in the later afternoon or early evening, slept for several hours, woken up and engaged in a few hours of activity, then gone to bed for a “second sleep.” In some societies, periods of daytime sleep are a common part of the culture. The siesta in some Mediterranean countries and the midday rest in some Asian societies are held as acceptable, even valued, practices.

However, such a pattern was not (and today is not) conducive to a complex, global world that hinges on employment and profit. For years, the taken-for-granted 9 to 5 workday and Monday through Friday workweek have had a significant impact on how we divide and define time. Most of us can easily make distinctions between workdays and non-work days (holidays and weekends); between work hours and rest hours. And it’s pretty clear in which of these times sleep is considered appropriate.

Yet the boundary between work (wakefulness) and home (sleep) is not always so clear. In certain occupations that involve the operation of heavy machinery—like long-distance truckers, train conductors, and airplane pilots—tired workers pose obvious safety hazards. Hence they have mandatory down time policies and work hour limitations. But as the pace of life has sped up, even office-based, non-manual occupations are facing the problem of worker fatigue due to lack of sleep. It’s estimated that drowsiness costs the U.S. economy hundreds of billions of dollars each year in higher stress and lost productivity (Baxter & Kroll-Smith, 2005). One-third of respondents in one poll indicated that they’d fallen asleep at work in the past month (National Sleep Foundation, 2008).

Some sociologists have argued that recent changes in the workplace—flexible schedules, telecommuting, home-based work—have begun to blur the time-honored boundaries between public and private, work and home, and given rise to shifting conceptions of sleep. In particular, they cite the greater acceptability of the workplace nap as evidence of changing attitudes toward sleep and wakefulness: “Once a taboo act engaged in by those who knew they were violating company rules, workplace napping is emerging, albeit unevenly, in American work culture as a tolerated, if not prescribed, behavior” (Baxter & Kroll-Smith, 2005, p. 34). More and more companies have come to the conclusion that restorative naps are a relatively cheap solution to the problem of excessive drowsiness. Many now provide nap rooms (or serenity rooms) for their employees, where they can find comfortable sofas, soothing lighting, and enforced bans on tablet and smartphone usage.

I don’t think we’re yet to the point where all American employees will have opportunities to take periodic power naps at work. We’re not in danger of becoming a siesta culture any time soon. However, I hope you can now see that “the very places, spaces [and] schedules…of sleep are themselves deeply social, cultural, historical, and political matters—and potentially subject to contestation and change” (Williams, 2011, p. 31). Even in something so natural as sleep, society interacts with the individual to shape the experience.