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College students are tired of sleeping, according to a BBC interview with Catherine M. Coveney. She’s a British sociologist who recently explored the sleeping practices and subjective sleep experiences of two notoriously sleep-deprived groups: shift workers and college students. After conducting 25 semi-structured interviews with individuals dispossessed of rest, she concludes that our social context impacts how we understand the meaning of sleep and how we manage our sleeping schedules as a result.

The hospital-based doctors, nurses, police officers, call center employees, and other shift workers Coveney interviewed describe actively managing their sleep schedules around work patterns, finding childcare, and spending time with their partner. It is something that is constantly at the back of their mind. To illustrate why they view “broken sleep” as part and parcel of the job, Coveney explains how sleeplessness is built-in to the work structure:

There are some occupations where nothing is sanctioned…. The two nurses that I spoke to, they had to work waking nights. So even on their break, they weren’t allowed to go to sleep during the night. That’s not to say it didn’t occasionally happen, but that it was not a sanctioned practice. That was something that was seen as going against the rules of their profession.

On the surface, the sleep patterns of the college students look identical to the shift workers: “They did describe a kind of similar pattern; they did describe taking naps during the day, having a shorter sleep at night, having a two hour nap the next day.” Yet because they see sleep as an  “expendable luxury,” they don’t view their own erratic sleep as “broken.” According to Coveney, for the college students,

…it was more flexible, it was more their choice, so in a sense they were customizing their sleep patterns to fit around their social activities…. I suppose it was seen as disposable in a sense, they could cut back on sleep if they chose to, they could indulge in sleep if they chose to.

Although both groups thought of sleep in functional terms—the necessary amount determined by what was needed to get them through what they had to do the next day—Coveney reports, “None of the students I spoke to said they would prioritize a night in bed because they thought they hadn’t had enough sleep. If there was something else they wanted to do, they‘d do that. And they’d catch up later, they’d sleep longer the next day, they’d take a nap…. Some of them did go as far as to say if they could get rid of their need for sleep, it would give them much more time to do other things.” Even the value of sleep depends on supply and demand.

To learn who else is getting more sleep than you are, check out these TSP classics on the gender sleep gap and on segmented sleep.

Photo by Adam Lynch via
Photo by Adam Lynch via

It seems like there’s never enough time: today’s workplaces demand efficiency and getting more done in less time. Workers cut down on breaks, vacation, and precious sleep. Luckily, Tony Schwartz brings good news in his op-ed for the New York Times:

A new and growing body of multidisciplinary research shows that strategic renewal—including daytime workouts, short afternoon naps, longer sleep hours, more time away from the office and longer, more frequent vacations—boosts productivity, job performance and, of course, health.

In a country where “more than 50 percent [of workers] assume they’ll work during their vacations,” “an average of 9.2 vacation days [go] unused,” and “sleep deprivation costs American companies $63.2 billion a year in lost productivity,” these midday renewals offer much needed relief. Schwartz cites study after study showing everything from a full night’s sleep improving basketball performance to naps improving memory test results and alertness and reaction time among air traffic controllers. Another study found:

Working in 90-minute intervals turns out to be a prescription for maximizing productivity. Professor K. Anders Ericsson and his colleagues at Florida State University have studied elite performers, including musicians, athletes, actors and chess players. In each of these fields, Dr. Ericsson found that the best performers typically practice in uninterrupted sessions that last no more than 90 minutes.

Next time you find yourself joking about needing a nap, pull up that carpet square, kindergarten style. Those kids know what they’re up to.

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Just gotta find the gold one... Photo by takingthemoney via

Here in the Citings & Sightings section at The Society Pages we strive to go beyond simply turning your attention to the social scientists getting their work and names in the news. We also aim to commend journalists who, in the pursuit of bringing depth and context to their pieces, reach out to social scientists and take advantage of the unique perspective and data they provide. Without further ado, we are proud to announce the winner of our  TSP Media Awards for Measured Social Science for the month of March 2012:

Stephanie Hegarty, “The myth of the eight-hour sleep.BBC News, February 22, 2012.

As we discussed in our write up of the piece, this article uproots conceptions of “the way it has always been” by highlighting the implications of  historical research. Something as common as our nightly sleep patterns and how we understand “normal sleep” are challenged by Hegarty’s treatment of historians and sleep scientists in a rich and though-provoking manner.

We admit the selection process for this award isn’t exactly scientific or exhaustive, but we did, as a board, work hard to winnow down to our favorite bunch of nominees, and then debate more from there. We also don’t have the deep pocketbooks to offer the winning journalists Stanley-Cup-sized trophies or cash prizes, but we hope our informal award offers both cheer and encouragement to continue the important work of bringing social scientistific knowledge to the broader public. Here’s to March’s best!


The Society Pages

PSU Mon Feb 20, 2012 81Poor sleep is said to affect everything from productivity to anxiety (not to mention anxiety about productivity), and worse still, it’s believed to affect, oh, nearly everyone. But could this modern malady have a historical cure?

The BBC reports that historians and sleep scientists alike are increasingly convinced that all evidence points to a preindustrial pattern of bimodal or segmented sleep. That is, as historian Roger Ekirch reported in his 2005 book At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, before lights and blinking devices filled our days and nights, weary bodies would fall into a sleep pattern that included some sleep when it got dark, then a period of wakeful (but still restful–sometimes including chatting with bedfellows or sex) time sometime during the night, and one more deep sleep before dawn. By the end of the 1600s, the article says, most European cities were lit at night, and, ever since, our pattern has been dashed. Our cities never sleep, and it seems we don’t do a good job of it either.

Now, as countless doctors recommend a standard 8 hours of sleep each night (and gently chide those who admit to more or less than that number), a psychological study from the 1990s, performed by Thomas Wehr (now an emeritus scholar with the National Institute for Mental Health), is being coupled with historical research like Ekirch’s to revive the idea that humans are built for a much different sleep pattern than we generally follow today. In Wehr’s study, subjects were kept in the dark for 14 hours a day. It was a tough adjustment, no doubt, but soon they fell into an easy and uniform cycle that looked just like what Ekirch had found in heaps of historical references: sleep, quiet wakefulness, and sleep.

A sociological look at sleep by Simon J. Williams can be found in the Winter 2011 issue of Contexts, as well.