Longing for Sleep: Assessing the Place of Sleep in the 21st Century – Part 3

This article is part of the following series:

Sleep has been in the news for the past decade or so as a matter of growing concern. Along with this popular, medical and scientific attention, social scientists have been increasingly interested in sleep as an object or process of study. The first major sociological book published on sleep was Simon Williams’ Sleep and Society (Routledge, 2005), after which a number of other monographs and edited collections followed, including Williams’ latest book on The Politics of Sleep (Palgrave, 2011). In 2012, Matthew Wolf-Meyer published the first anthropological study of sleep in the United States, The Slumbering Masses (University of Minnesota Press, 2012). In the conversation that follows Williams and Wolf-Meyer assess the field of social studies of sleep, discuss their commonalities and differences, and think about the future of sleep and its place in the social sciences and humanities.

The conversation is appearing in three posts for the purpose of comments and responses. (Read Part 1 and Part 2).  The entire interview is also available here as a pdf.


Q6.  What remains to be done, in your view, in terms of future research agendas on sleep within the social sciences and humanities?

SJW: Well we’ve covered a lot of that ground already now in what we’ve said so far. The need for more studies in the sorts of areas and on the sorts of issues we’ve already discussed, that is to say, given we are still at a fairly early or first stage in these developments and debates.  Having said that one area that remains very under researched still I think, even in this first wave of work, concerns issues of ‘race’ or ethnicity in relation to sleep and culture, both past and present.

More generally I guess my hope here, in terms of what ‘remains’ to be done, would (in part at least) be to explore and engage with sleep more as a vehicle for challenging than confirming the predominant waking assumptions and concerns of the social sciences and humanities to date, what you term ‘first-order’ issues or what I call ‘sleep itself’ sorts of questions and issues. I would also like to see, continuing in this vein, sleep woven more fully and inextricably into the fabric of the social sciences and humanities, rather than being some kind of add on or bolt on, marginal or ghettoized area of research and teaching in the social sciences and humanities, which returns us perhaps to your cautions about having specific classes or modules on sleep as such.

Finally I think we need to work hard on what, within all this, we can add or give back to sleep science and medicine, in the form of a constructive dialogue and debate which is mutually rewarding and enriching. So sleep could very well in this regard be an exemplar of such constructive or revitalized conversations if not collaborations between the biological and social sciences and humanities today.

Clearly there is much more I could say on these matters, and there are a number of other areas and issues I could flag here in terms of ‘what remains to be done’ (some of which I intend to ‘do’ myself in future of course), but I will leave it there I think in the interests of a brief answer given we have exchanged a lot of words and thoughts on these issues already.


MWM: I, too, will keep this brief. We’ve covered a lot of ground, and, like you, I think the most important thing to focus on are issues of race and ethnicity related to sleep; the anthropology of sleep is fairly meager, and it would be a wonderful outcome of this conversation if more anthropologists just took the time to document how people are sleeping in their fieldsites. Which isn’t to say that anthropology and the study of race and ethnicity are synonymous, but for the purpose of the ethnological record, attending to human variations in sleep are just as important as human variations in diet.

And, like I mention above, I’d really like to see social scientists start to attend to sleep science in other historical and social contexts – especially in Italy and Japan, which both have robust histories in sleep science, and also happen to have different ideas about normative sleep. I’m sure there are other genealogies to account for too, especially those that have had little impact on a science that’s been ruled by Americans and Western Europeans for the last half-century.

Like you, and like I mentioned above, I think there’s a lot of work to be done at the intersections of medical, scientific, social scientific and humanities research, and I’ve often found scientists and physicians to be deeply interested in what we can provide for them. They might dismiss it in practice – or at least hold it in suspension in the lab or clinic – but people drawn to sleep are often intrigued by what it has, does and can mean to people. My hope in any of these collaborations – if it isn’t obvious already – is that we can start to decenter the burden on individuals to fit societal norms, and that medicine might take seriously the impacts of society. But, at the very least, it might lead to more robust understandings of the possibilities of science, society, medicine and the arts and their rootedness in human experiences.

That being said, the one thing that I would encourage our colleagues in the sciences to pursue is more basic research on human sleep. Those of us who talk about unconsolidated or biphasic sleep often make recourse to the same few papers published by Thomas Wehr in the 1990s – which are now pretty old, and aren’t really about biphasic sleep as such (for those who don’t know his work, it’s about seasonal affective disorder and what happens when you put people in controlled environments where they have to spend most of their days indoors – they sleep biphasically). It would be great to see some people tackle the place of consolidated sleep in the sciences to see what – if any – benefits might be associated with biphasic sleep.

I should also confess that I’m done with writing about sleep for the time being – and maybe for a long time. So as much as I know that there’s work to be done, I also know that I’m not the person to do it. No pun intended, but a decade of working on sleep has been exhausting to me; I’m hoping to move some of the ideas that studying sleep have provoked for me into other realms – all under the rubric of the biology of everyday life. There are still biological phenomena less studied than sleep…


Q7.       Finally, what about the future of sleep itself?

MWM: How could we not talk about the future of sleep? More than any other question, this seems to be the one that people are broadly interested in – particularly whether we’ll be rid of sleep once and for all. Well, maybe after ‘Is my sleep normal?’

I find the question a little troubling, and make the argument in The Slumbering Masses that if we were ever to succeed in being rid of sleep, we would no longer qualify as human, since the experience is so integral to being the species that we are. Probably the best place to look to think this through is Nancy Kress’ Beggars in Spain, which is a science fiction novel that is built on the idea that in the near future, humans are able to genetically remove the need to sleep from the next generation. But only the wealthy undergo the program (it being rather expensive), and this leads to new class warfare – between the sleepers and the sleepless. Kress’ sleepless are cold and calculating, which she attributes to a loss of the ability to dream. I’m not so sure about the necessity of dreaming to make us empathetic creatures, but I definitely agree that the loss of sleep altogether might prove more troubling than we think. (The more fun science fiction novel about sleep is the Gillons’ The Unsleep, which interested readers should track down.)

I tend to find the question a little perverse since most people actually really seem to look forward to and enjoy sleep – why would we want to get rid of it? It’s rare to hear people suggest we get rid of eating, and especially not sex, but still we talk about getting rid of sleep.

The more likely way forward – and this is something that we’re both interested in – is finding a way to live with sleep that’s more humane than our current situation. It seems like everyone agrees that we aren’t getting as much sleep as we need or want, and that the sleep we do get could be better. There are different solutions, which we may or may not agree on, but we agree on that basic reality: more sleep would be better. Now it’s just a matter of forging that reality, and confronting the many social and cultural impediments to making a better world for sleep.


SJW: Well first let me say, returning to your confession at the tail end of the last question, that it is a shame you are ‘done’ with writing about sleep stuff for a while, although I suspect you will find yourself constantly returning to it, like the ‘return of the repressed’ maybe, if the ‘biology of everyday life’ is your ‘new’ subject matter.  Sleep after all, would still be a kind of ‘absent presence’ here, even if you were trying to focus on other aspects of the ‘biology of everyday life.’

As for your take on the current question, well it is interesting here that you seem to answer this question, in the main, in terms of being ‘rid’ of sleep in some way or other. The question, after all, is simply asking about the future of sleep, which opens up a range of possibilities other than ridding ourselves of sleep, some admittedly more likely or probable than others. Anyway, being ‘rid’ of sleep is certainly one of the more extreme and unlikely of these future scenarios, as you yourself note in your book.

There is also a potential contradiction in your response here too isn’t there, given earlier you stated that sleep helped us decenter the human (as all life sleeps or is dormant at times in some way or others, you rightly reminded us) and yet you now seem to want to claim it as part of what makes us human?

Anyway, we both agree it seems, sleep despisers notwithstanding, that many if not most people value their sleep (even perhaps secretly those public despisers or disavowers of sleep), deriving comfort and pleasure from it as vital time out. At most then, I think, we are likely to see an increasing customization of our sleeping patterns and practices in the future, but sleep itself will not be done away with any time soon if ever indeed, even if future developments in medicine, science and technology enable us to do so. Few of us indeed, I think, would ultimately welcome continuous wakefulness or some such state, even if we signed up to it initially; look what happens, for example, to those poor surgically altered souls who no longer sleep in J.G. Ballard’s essay ‘Manhole 69’ (I won’t give the ending away for those who haven’t yet but will now read it).

As for Kress’ Beggars triology, well yes that too is a rich source to consult in the science fiction genre, as my Warwick sociology colleague Deborah Lynn Steinberg (2008) insightfully discusses in her contribution to the Body & Society special issue on  ‘sleeping bodies’ I co-edited (with Nick Crossley).

Finally let me say that that yes, whilst we both agree that finding ways to live with sleep that are more humane than current arrangements and institutions allow would be welcome, if unlikely, it is not quite as you suggest. Some sleep experts and critics, for example, would still contest or query your claim that people aren’t getting the sleep they need (even if they want more sleep), or that we live in a chronically sleep deprived society. And we can’t also claim, as you seem to suggest, that more sleep would necessarily be better: yes in many cases that would be true, of course, but not always, given too much sleep may also be problematic. As for confronting the many cultural and social barriers to making the world better for sleep, well here I couldn’t agree more: A fitting note to end upon indeed as a rallying call for the future…


View the full interview in pdf form here.

One reply on “Longing for Sleep: Assessing the Place of Sleep in the 21st Century – Part 3”

Comments are closed.