Lyng, S. (1990) 'Edgework: A Social Psychological Analysis of Voluntary Risk Taking', in American Journal of Sociology, 95 (4): 851 - 86.
The paradox is that while many citizens of America want to minimise risks, others are actively seeking to increase the risk of injury or death, especially in high risk sports, which have grown in popularity.
Previous research on risk taking tends to adopt limited psychological models, stressing that risk is connected with greater rewards, for example. However, the issue is what makes risk acceptable and why the experience seems important to well-being. In particular, a sociological account is needed 'that would explain high risk behaviour in terms of the socially constituted self in a historically specific social environment' (852 - 3).
[Lyng goes on to review some unpromising psychological models which explain risk taking in terms of either innate personality factors and types, or particular forms of motivation -- for example 'as a form of tension reduction behaviour with addictive qualities related to the build-up of intoxicating stress hormones' (853). None of these address the influence of the broader social context. Most of them assume that risk taking is some constant behaviour. There is also some circularity in that the propensity to take risks is defined as taking part in risky behaviours! Edgework claims to be a more sociological approach, since it stresses the tension between order and disorder, a classic sociological concern.]
Edgework is a term originally coined by the journalist Hunter Thompson, referring to a number of important boundaries 'between life and death, consciousness and unconsciousness, and sanity and insanity' (855) [ experinced through drug-taking in Thompson's case]. The analysis is complemented by some fieldwork studies of skydivers, undertaken while Lyng was the jump pilot. He did participant observation studies of skydivers, including at some social events, and also pursued some semi structured interviews and did a search of the skydiving literature. He suspects there are common elements to other high risk activities as well, but skydiving provides the principal illustration.
Edgework involves undertaking an activity which threatens death or injury. The edge or boundary may lie between a number of different states, as above, and the thrill seems to be to approach or 'crowd' the edge, to establish the limits of performance, including the performance of certain machines, the mind, or the body. Edgework involves the exercise of particular skills or performances. Unlike other activities [such as serious leisure], skills are involved which manage the risk of complete chaos or disorder. Skills here involve avoiding being paralysed by fear or being able to focus on what is most important for survival. Many participants regard these special skills as innate or instinctive, and this can lead to 'an elitist orientation... these innate edgeworking capacities are possessed by only a select few... who often feel a powerful solidarity with one another based on their perceived elite status' (860).
Participants describe the experience in terms of self realisation, 'a purified and magnified sense of self' (860). Typical emotions include initial fear, replaced by exhilaration and omnipotence. Perceptions become highly focused, time passes in unusual ways, participants feel 'at one' with their machines, equipment or environments. The experience can seem much more real than every day life. Many participants find it hard to describe what they are experiencing, and some see it as a waste of time to try.
There are similarities here with other conceptualisations, such as Goffman on [particularly important and problematic but pleasurable] 'action', which includes both edgework and also activities such as gambling and thrill-seeking. Edgeworkers are not gamblers, however, since they want to be in charge of managing and coping with risks, using their own skills. Csikszentmihalyi's notion of flow resembles some of the sensations, but seems to focus on the 'middle regions of experience' between boredom and anxiety, rather than behaviour at the edge [I'm not sure about this -- those middle regions for rock climbers would be well towards the edge for most of us]. What is at stake is more than anxiety, as well. Further, edgework leads to a heightened sense of self, not a loss of self [but the former follows the latter?]. It may simply be that edgework is a subsample of the activities described by the others.
[Lyng then attempts to build a suitable social psychological theory of his own. He begins by noting that edgework looks rather like the opposite to 'oversocialised' role behaviour, an impulsive activity rather than an institutional one, to borrow terms introduced by Turner. Lyng rephrases this distinction as one between spontaneity and constraint. He then goes on to suggest that this polarity has been at the heart of recent theoretical work which apparently combines the models of Marx and Mead. A synthesis between these two would be able to join analysis at the level of society and individual, the macro and micro, and supply a suitable social context for stress seeking.
The actual discussion of the synthesis looks a bit odd. It clearly turns on a reading of Marx that stresses alienation, which is itself problematic. Much depends on the difference between human creativity itself and the way in which this is reified and dehumanised by capitalist work. The rather debatable origins of this approach, drawing upon philosophical notions of 'species being' are not discussed. Mead's framework drawing upon the difference between the 'I' and the 'me' is seen as offering a similar commentary on the difference between spontaneity and constraint -- the 'me' represents social constraints, the '"voice of society" that is carried within the individual at all times' (867), while the 'I' 'exists only in the immediacy of the present... [it]... is the continually emerging, spontaneous, impulsive and unpredictable part of the self' (867). Both Marx and Mead see spontaneity and constraint as inextricably linked, a dialectic. What this means to Lyng is that 'creative action can occur only within a community context' (869). In fact, this particular synthesis is not that helpful in explaining how the social conditions of modern society might lead people to try to recover spontaneity, and the actual discussion could equally be drawn from Durkheim's notion of anomie.]
The basic argument is that if work is not fulfilling and creative, people will seek more authentic and spontaneous alternatives. Social life can seem meaningless and mechanistic. A search for a more fulfilling notion of self can lead in several directions, including 'consumer oriented narcissism' [with a specific reference to Lasch] (870). Play is also an option, as is leisure more general, especially if they involve risk and skill. Skills have been largely 'purged from the labour process' (871). Edgework offers a particularly attractive alternative. Central to it is the belief that one can exercise control.
Actors can develop 'an "illusion of control" -- that is, they behave as if they could exercise control over events that are actually chance determined' (872). Assuming that skills can overcome chance is essential here, and when it works, people are left with 'a pronounced sense of their own competence', which increases with the difficulty of the problem (872). This is why participants commonly believed that skill alone determines the outcome, and why they don't like gambling. It also helps to explain why edgework is associated with young males, who commonly believe in their own immortality. This too can be explained sociologically in terms of differential socialization -- males are encouraged 'to develop a skill orientation towards their environment' (873). The illusion of control may also be a way of compensating for the feeling that modern societies have threats which are out of control -- 'toxic chemicals in environments, and nuclear war, financial instability, the general instability of personal relationships, and so forth' (873). By contrast, risky leisure seems to show that skill can overcome threat in an unambiguous way. Even failure supports this belief, since those who fail must clearly do so because they lacked skill.
Enjoying risk goes together with 'learned helplessness' towards social events in general (873). Engaging in edgework is thus a 'rational and therapeutic way to respond to a sense of helplessness in the face of social - ecological threats' (874). The ability to exercise skill extends to the lengthy and 'almost ritualistic' preparatory activities [of skydivers]. In addition, skydivers must be flexible -- 'It is the ad hoc character of edgework that most distinguishes it from other skilful pursuits' (875).
The article concludes by trying to analyse the pleasures of edgework:
1. Because the situations are novel, participants have to concentrate to absorb as much information as possible -- they cannot rely on routinised social knowledge
2. While preparation takes care of known hazards, the real thrill is dealing with unanticipated ones -- 'the edgework sensations are most intense... where one's actions are automatic and unplanned' (875). Nevertheless, thorough planning represents the additional skill factor that helps support the illusion of control
3. We might expect those who work in the most alienating jobs to be the ones who seek the edge more frequently. However, resources are also required. As a result, it will not only be blue-collar workers found at the edge
4. Mead offers insights into the sensations involved, including perceptual alterations and different subjective experiences of time. We can draw on Blumer's work on the crowd here -- basically, crowd behaviour disrupts the normal social constraints, leaving a 'residual, nonsocial self' (877). Edgework is also a withdrawal from the normal social constraints: normal socially acquired knowledge is irrelevant, 'imaginative rehearsal is disrupted... [so]... the "voice of society" ceases to speak and the individual is left with a residual self' (878)
5. Reflective consciousness is suppressed, which leads to a sense of increased self-actualization. People feel they are more in control of their actions, away from control by social constraints --'their actions reflect the immediate desires and goals of the ego' (878). The appearance of this ego suggests a more spontaneous or true self. Unsurprisingly, in the absence of a social dimension, it becomes difficult to describe the experience in normal terms. For the same reason, experience on the edge seems unusually real, because it escapes the artificial nature of much social interaction. Activity seems more authentic, because it seems to follow a personal agenda, and the threats to survival are serious and unambivalent [helps explain the appeal of 'authentic' travelling -- lots of social risks?].
6. Time and space themselves are heavily regulated by social relations, so the withdrawal of social relations alters perceptions [much of this argument about the constraining effects of social life is drawn from Mead, while Marx is still used to sketch in the background of alienation]. Distorted spatial relations lead to that 'feeling of connectedness with one's environment' (882), a connectedness that can even lead to the illusion that participants can mentally control objects.
Overall, the popularity of edgework can lead to a critique of modern social life. Modern American society does offer many material comforts, but it also 'propels many of us to the limits of our mortal existence in search of ourselves and our humanity' (883). The synthesis of Mead and Marx promises a new framework to link the micro and macro. More data is required, however, especially that which measures alienation and oversocialization among participants.
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