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.