Thursday, 18 March 2010

Extreme Sports and Sociology

Time AVPS returned to brass tacks and started blogging again about sociology. A few weeks ago your humble scribbler went along to a paper given by James Hardie-Bick on 'Flow, Enjoyment and High Risk Autotelic Experiences'. In everyday plain language, this was a presentation on the sociological understanding of skydiving.

To make sense of why some people go in for skydiving and other extreme sports, psychology and sociology have put forward a number of explanations. The former suggests that the desire to risk life and limb for fun reflects certain personality types. However, sociologists argue that participation is an outcome of learned behaviour - to throw yourself out of a plane is the result of an acquired preference to engage in what Stephen Lyng has called 'edgework'. He defines this as voluntarily taking part in/seeking situations with the potential to transgress daily practices. It draws attention to the positive consequences of risk-taking - the intense feelings of testing one's skills in the face of a directly observable threat (if the ground rushing up to meet you at 200 miles an hour isn't an observable threat, I don't know what is).

For Lyng this is where the thrill of risk-taking resides. As failure to act appropriately has terminal consequences, a sense of agency is heightened, which is something usually denied the overwhelming majority of people in contemporary advanced capitalist societies. And so risk-taking acts as a drug. The more one approaches the edge, the greater the buzz. So greater risks - such as jumping while on drugs or without a secondary parachute, lead to a more intense sense of gratification. Therefore you can reasonably expect this sort of behaviour to be common among extreme sports enthusiasts.

Except that isn't the case at all. James's study of skydivers (of varying levels of experience) found the opposite. The majority not only refused to take unnecessary risks, but frowned on those who did so as irresponsible. They were concerned with staying inside the limits and were foremost concerned with safety consciousness. For example, one participant said one reason he took up skydiving was that it was safer than the bungee jumping he used to do.

So what's going on here? If it's not about risk is there an alternative explanation? On this James finds the work of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi particularly interesting. His work is concerned with understanding how people live happy, fulfilled lives. Csikszentmihalyi found that happiness is linked to meeting challenges and stretching their limits. So activities that are ends in themselves - the 'autotelic experiences' of the paper's title - are their own reward (something I also found in my own research on Trotskyist activists).

To accompany this insight, Csikszentmihalyi has developed a concept of 'flow', which is a focus on/desire to engage in autotelic activities to the extent that substitutes don't ever seem to do. Now, whereas Csikszentmihalyi used artists and chess players to develop his theory, for James high risk sports can be understood in this way. He uses flow to define enjoyment as constituted by opportunities for action, actions with clear goals, the offering of immediate feedback, feelings of competence, high concentration, an altered sense of time, an (almost) loss of consciousness and a transformation of a sense of self. In a sense one's embodied experience is almost merged with the exigencies of the situation. James also notes that to continue enjoying the flow, one has to complicate activities (which isn't necessarily the same as taking greater risks). Even jumping out of planes and activating your 'chute at the designated height can get samey after a while. Learning new skills, timing pulls, performing turns etc. help keep the flow going. The training programme and activities endorsed by the British Parachute Association certainly enable this.

It follows from this that enjoyment lies not in the risk itself, but rather the minimisation of danger, of testing skills and exercising self-control. Hence, even though it might seem extreme, this form of flow activity is a good way of relaxing because the outside cannot intrude.

As you might expect, a number of questions came up in the discussion after the presentation. The most interesting one took James up on the disappearance of self-consciousness and how it can be squared with the existence of team extreme sports, such as formation skydiving? He replied that skydivers tend to jump with others they trust, and they rehearse their moves on the ground so it becomes embodied behaviour. He also noted that when skydivers die, the culture tends to focus on the actions/inactions of these unfortunate individuals - be it they didn't check their equipment properly or took too many risks.

So, once again, extreme sports are not about taking risks but minimising them. The popular image of the adrenaline junkie is a stereotypical myth. Those who do take unnecessary risks are frowned upon by actual skydivers as dangers to themselves and others. And like any other autotelic activity skydiving is about escaping the mundane insecurities of the every day, much like spending hours chatting on Facebook, doing needlework, or maintaining a blog.

11 comments:

SamG said...

Isn’t this something rich bastards do to fill time between their 20 hour days?

In light of this I have my own theory. As capitalists have reduced risk taking in business they seek to boost their ego’s and sub consciously satisfy their self justification by indulging in ‘extreme’ sports. So when probed on their ill gotten gains they can say “I have a risk taking character, the plebs just aren’t made of the right stuff!” Or words to that affect.

But as you have said just like in business they are not really taking risks at all, so maybe they are sub consciously deluding themselves.

(I very much have Richard Branson in my mind here.)

Phil said...

While 'risk taking' has become part and parcel of entrepreneurial ideology in recent years, I don't think skydiving is the exclusive preserve of the rich or petit bourgeois types. Skydiving isn't a prohibitively expensive hobby so I would imagine you'd find people from all kinds of backgrounds.

As an aside, for every bourgeois adventurer like Branson you'll find many more ruling class types happier to indulge the traditional pastimes of their class. Also, despite the claims of entrepreneurial ideology, the capitalist firm is very risk averse.

Mike Ion said...

Phil

Can you let me have your email address? I would like to email you about something.

SamG said...

"Also, despite the claims of entrepreneurial ideology, the capitalist firm is very risk averse."

Which is kinda the whole point I was making here,

"As capitalists have reduced risk taking in business they seek to boost their ego’s and sub consciously satisfy their self justification by indulging in ‘extreme’ sports."

Phil said...

It's philbc03 at yahoo dot com.

Apols Sam, clearly writing prior to 9:30am is not for me!

Laban said...

This is the kind of 'research' that reinforces the belief that sociology is a non-subject, let alone a non-science.

"Therefore you can reasonably expect this sort of behaviour to be common among extreme sports enthusiasts.

Except that isn't the case at all. James's study of skydivers (of varying levels of experience) found the opposite. The majority not only refused to take unnecessary risks, but frowned on those who did so as irresponsible. They were concerned with staying inside the limits .."


The same conclusion could have been drawn from a trip to the library and a few biographies of climbers, divers, pilots. For all of them, deliberately taking risk for risk's sake pretty much disqualifies one as a serious practitioner. The activity itself provides quite enough risk.



"There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots"

Phil said...

What a philistine argument to make. It's a bit like saying studies into how and why cornflakes go soft when you pour milk on them threatens to make fluid dynamics and molecular science a non-subject.

Diane said...

First off, I'm far from a "rich bastard". I'm a 42 year old secretary who makes 28,000 a year. I'm not claiming to have a "risk taking character". My life is very simple and I don't take unnecessary risks in any part of my life. I am, however, a life enthusiast.

For some of us, things such as skydiving aren't about risk, adrenaline, death wishes, self justification, or anything of the sort. I knew the first time I jumped out of a plane that I was safe. I knew that my risk of injury was minimal. I wasn't after the "fear" of watching myself plummet toward the earth, I was very much relaxed and calm. I wasn't doing it to impress anyone (God knows millions of others did it before I did... it's no big deal). I did it simply because it was part of life that I hadn't yet experienced. Since then, I have done a few other things that those who are uncomfortable with anything outside of their norm would consider extreme. I don't consider anything that I have done or will do to be a risk. The only risk I see is going through my life "safely", and when I'm 85 years old saying "I wish I had done that..."

I do these things because I want to experience life to its fullest, not because I have something to prove to myself, my friends, or anyone else. It's a life experience to be taken and enjoyed like a fine wine or a gormet meal. Maybe some of you should think about getting out of your comfort zone just to see what is on the other side. You may be pleasantly suprised.

skydivers said...

The history of extreme sports is still evolving. Some extreme sports combine the techniques and physical skills of two or more sports, often mainstream sports that were once considered extreme. One of the best examples of this sort of transition is found with sky surfing, which first became popular in the 1990s. The sport combines skydiving and snowboarding. Experienced parachutists perform acrobatic stunts on boards similar to snowboards. Individually, skydiving and snowboarding were once considered extreme. And snowboarding's own development owed much to the sports of skateboarding and surfing, which were considered nontraditional when they were first popularized in the 1960s.

There is no doubt that as new techniques are tried and experimented with, the history of extreme sports will include many new and daring innovations.

Anonymous said...

hope you don't mind, using this in research paper on extreme sports. if you would like to provide more information you will be accredited in the paper

Phil said...

You'll have to credit it in the bibliography anyway ;)