Natalier, K. (2001) 'Motorcyclists' interpretations of risk and hazard', in Journal of Sociology, Vol 37, No 1: 65 - 80.
'Motorcyclists are in a great deal of danger when they take to the roads' (65 ) [a pretty uncompromising view that biking is an absolute hazard -- the Australian figures quoted below refer to seven fatalities per 10,000 registered vehicles for bikers, one for users of other motor vehicles]. Motorcyclists themselves are 'ambivalent to the idea of risk, and marginalise its significance' (66).
Data such as those gathered by Bellaby [see file] show the effects of riding bikes on casualty rates. Giddens and Beck have both referred to the importance of expert knowledge to assess risks in modernity since personal experience is so limited, and both have mentioned that some expert knowledge 'is also a basis for scepticism and caution' (66), especially if experts disagree. Other studies on adolescence and risk [on developing HIV in this case -- page 67] show a similar ambivalence: 'people's acceptance of expert knowledge is vitiated by their cultural assumptions and pre-existing world views' (67). Experience is never totally replaced by expert knowledge. A feeling of retaining control over risky activities seems important.
Work on 'flow' or 'edgework'describe the state in which people feel at one with the environment and their equipment and, and where they balance risk and control. Work on the phenomenology of risk seems important -- Merleau-Ponty refers to the way which people's views of the world is located in their bodies [and see Schutz on the 'here and now' as arranged around the body. Expert knowledge is based on a different standpoint, of course]. It is not surprising that knowledge gained from experience, and knowledge based on practice, can 'become the primary source of understanding, marginalising or denying the applicability of expert systems and their definition of hazards' (68).
30 Tasmanian motorcyclists were interviewed as part of this study. They were mostly male and middle-class, and varied in terms of their experience. Only five were female. The sample was gathered by 'snowballing', and it is also easy to identify bikers from the helmets that they are carrying around. Focused interviews were pursued. Even if Natalier had had a motorbike licence at the time, she still felt that her gender would prevent her from just hanging around with bikers. The interviews were focused around issues raised in the literature and issues that arose. Natalier adopted the position of the 'acceptable incompetent' enabling her to ask apparently innocent questions: the sample evidently consisted of enthusiasts who were keen to share their experiences. As a result they might have exaggerated or under-reported risky activities, but she thinks there was a core of truth to their accounts, and she checked them against materials in biker magazines, TV programmes and other informal conversations.
Bikers need to acquire both theoretical and practical knowledge. They get some of this, and training, from discussion with other bikers, although in Tasmania relations with other bikers seem to be 'voluntary, sporadic and of limited focus' (70) [almost certainly an effect of interviewing middle-class people and students?]. Women seem to be excluded from these networks, however, partly because motorcycling is seen as excessively male - dominated [but not in the sense of hegemonic masculinity -- see below].
Experience is the main source of information, however, especially in acquiring the key skill of riding within one's limits. The connection between expertise and experience helped validate practitioner's knowledge of motorcycling, certainly in comparison with those who do not ride. [A good deal of sociological work would also agree with this view that participants have privileged forms of knowledge about their activities -- especially in the case of women or ethnic minorities].
Motorcyclists refer to an ideal experience as a baseline --'what I have termed "the good ride"' (71). This involves an ideal form of 'rider - machine interface... idealized as a melding of the motorcyclist and the machine into a single unit... the body takes over the control of the motorcycle, leaving the mind to rest on strategy' (71). This is the same as what is described as flow. [I think there is a design element specific to bikes here -- each hand and foot has a separate control, unlike the rather curious notion of three pedals for two feet in cars. The bike literally can respond as if it were part of your body]. Perfect control is achieved in this state, and it involves predicting and reacting to risk. This increases the sense of agency and personal responsibility and denies the applicability of expert knowledge. Some expert knowledge is incorporated -- most bikers can see the sense of wearing helmets and protective gear; most realise that if an accident did occur, it would be unusually serious compared to car driving (although some bikers insisted there really is no greater risk because of the superior technology and skill involved in biking). All bikers seem to believe that they are personally responsible for what happens, and insist that bikers must take all possible precautions to avoid an accident [certainly emphasised in UK training].
Speeding on motorcycles illustrate the processes at work. Official speed limits represent expert definitions of what is safe, but these are often ignored and bikers substitute their own knowledge and expertise. Speed limits are seen as applying to other people, the less skilful. Many bikers have a relational notion of safety, where a safe speed varies according to the road conditions and other circumstances, including personal skill. Few motorcyclists think of risk when they're actually driving -- they are pursuing the ideal ride [only when doing recreational biking, surely? A Tasmanian theme? The bikers report slowing down in urban areas, for example whether likely to encounter less skilled car drivers].
Most bikers have actually had accidents, but they then engage in 'aligning actions: attempts to restore bolster a meaningful or action in the face of the breach between people's conduct and their received meanings' (74), citing Stokes and Hewitt). Sometimes this involves admitting partial blame, the better to insist that full concentration or experience can control risk. This is sometimes combined with blaming others, especially car drivers.
There is also a link to 'neutralisation techniques' [see file]. The seriousness of the accident can be downplayed. Alternatively, fate or luck can be blamed [this seems inherent in the very use of the term 'accident' to refer to incidents on the road, and thus is shared by experts as well as bikers?]. Most bikers are able to tell stories about people they know who have been killed [Natalier hints that some of these might be apocryphal, (75)]. These stories act as parables, and again they imply that mostly accidents can be controlled except by the intervention of unusual bad luck. It is not fatalism at all, but an extension of a belief in control [a rare and most welcome critical insight into biker talk here]. This can lead to another neutralisation technique -- denying that an accident will happen to you. Motorcyclists therefore believe that the risk to them is not high [I continue to insist this may be an accurate perception, that these motorcyclists may indeed be at the lower end of the range that official statistics average out].
Gender effects cannot really be studied with such a small number of women. Natalier did not find the classic terms of hegemonic masculinity among bikers: 'Rather than emphasising power and aggression, both women and men described riding in terms of cooperation between human and machine' (76) [I'm not so sure myself that this is much different from what Willis described as the macho desire to tame a dangerous technology -- getting the bike to cooperate means dominating it first?]. The bikers compare the experience with other flow activities, including rock-climbing, surfing, sailing and adventure sports. These may involve 'masculine attributes like fearlessness and a tolerance of risk, pain and injury' [big in biker culture in my view], but Natalier seems to think that these are not hegemonic, because women also are prepared to expose their bodies to this risk [she just begins to discuss whether this might be precisely because of the domination of masculine attributes which have affected even women]. There are gender differences in the pursuit of flow -- the women thought they were more careful than the men, although even the (inexperienced) men 'acknowledged fear, limited skills and a cautious approach to speed and cornering' (76). Overall, neither male or female bikers are victims of hegemonic male ideals though, because they all intend to reduce risk, albeit by denying it -- however, experienced male bikers may become over-confident.
Bikers marginalise risks by emphasising their experience as a means of control in danger. Expert knowledge is sidelined rather than doubted or challenged. Bikers' experience seems more valid because it is embodied and in tune with their cultural frames. At one level, they can acknowledge expert knowledge in discussing risks, but in actually riding they do not calculate risks. After an accident, they can blame themselves or invoke fate -- and both options marginalize risks and sideline expert knowledge. Natalier makes the excellent critical point that flouting safety regulations successfully often depends on everyone else obeying them: 'other road-users are following those [speed] limits, the roads are well-constructed and designed and their machines have been constructed to set engineering standards' (78). However, there is no place for the official statistics in the lived reality of biking: 'the imposition of external and non-context specific definitions of hazard lacks resonance for those who ride' (78) [and so any safety policy should avoid quoting official statistics and try to understand the lived reality instead?].
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