Brymer, E and Gray, T. (2009) 'Dancing with nature: rhythm and harmony in extreme sport participation', Journal of Adventure Education & Outdoor Learning, 9: 2, 135 — 149

The meaning of outdoor adventure does not just depend on the risks involved.  This team used hermeneutic and phenomenological analysis of firsthand accounts [ha!], using 15 participants all of whom did extreme sports.  They reported a deeper relationship with nature, a ‘dance’ between partners, not just a stance towards nature that saw it as a commodity, arena, or vehicle.  Extreme sports facilitate a deeper understanding of the self in the environment: and nature becomes a 'source of innate power and personal meaning' (135).  Outdoor adventure people should develop more 'ecocentric' programmes, perhaps using extreme sports.

Many views of nature see it as something separate from humanity, something inanimate, a resource, obstacle or playground, a machine.  However it could be seen as a 'sanctuary, sacred reservoir or natural reserve' (136).  Both views still see nature as separate from humanity, and need instead to see it as deeply linked to humanity and self.  These connections need exploration and the need to be facilitated [says it all really, far from suspending presuppositions and all that, the whole thing seems to be driven by the usual policy agenda to do lots more outdoor adventure].  Extreme sports people provided their own accounts of how they had developed a growing awareness of this nicer relation to nature.  Outdoor adventure practitioners need to see extreme sportsmen as allies.

Definitions of extreme sports used in this study include the likelihood of death if a mistake or accident occurs [so we have already smuggled in a notion of risk, one which is implied in many of the accounts as we shall see].  There's been a definite growth in interest in extreme sports, from the need for people to escape regulation and sanitization.  The examples described include BASE, extreme skiing, water for kayaking and big wave surfing.  The common perception is that people undertake these activities because they are thrill seekers, have a death wish, or are somehow pathological.  Such sports people want to dominate nature, or are nihilists or self indulgents.  Le Breton is cited as arguing that it is a battle with nature that lends meaning to life [I'm not sure he does say that, and anyway, these people end up with that sort of argument too].  All this is an anthropocentric stance towards nature. The researchers pursued a phenomenological investigation to get at experiences [in other words they did in-depth interviews!]

For participants, there was a 'process or journey' [surprise!] (138).They referred to the idea of a dance, a fluid and responsive interplay, emotional, ineffable, holistic and transformational [all the good things then—sounds like American religion or some other kind of pilgrimage].  These attitudes developed over time and were ongoing, which is why they deliberately selected veterans.  Outdoor adventure personnel should encourage this kind of maturation.  This particular focus arose from a larger hermeneutic and phenomenological study of extreme sports [presumably, Brymer’s PhD, which he cites in the references].  The focus was on relations with nature.  The authors claim that this theme 'emerged' from the 'hermeneutic analysis of interview transcripts', and from 'bracketing' of presuppositions [not at all easy to do unless you pursue a phenomenological methods, of course, and it seems to mean in this case raising doubts about the conventional presuppositions about nature as a machine and so on] (139].  They were surprised by the unimportance of risk [surprised when?  When they first did the PhD?  This claim of being surprised is a classic one in qualitative research, of course, and it all depends on how dull and straight you were in the first place?]

15 participants took part, chosen because they were willing to explore their own perceptions and were mostly veterans [so the team suspected some kind of maturation process here?  Or perhaps the young ones really are only interested in risk?] There was no 'arbitrary sampling procedure'[seems precisely an arbitrary one to me].  The team also look to other accounts to cross check (139) [in other words they read through some published work already, although they also mentioned some websites—no real details are involved, but see below].  Extreme sports have to meet the definition of involving a risk of death.  The team pursued 'focused conversations' with the subjects, both face to face and over the phone.  They asked open-ended questions, which 'encouraged deeper reflection' (140).  What makes this hermeneutic phenomenology is that it is both descriptive and interpretive, relies on lived experience, and uses multiple sources of data [bollox].  The team had to bracket their preexisting understandings and compare accounts.  They thoroughly reviewed the transcripts' of the interview, which were 'thematically analysed' and 'assessed for relevancy' (140) [so their preexisting understandings were not bracketed for long].  They asked themselves what might lie beneath the text, an 'intuiting and analytical process' (140).  They were interested in both verbal and non verbal behaviour, and highlighted the latter [so this is only possible with a face to face ones I assume?].  They searched the transcripts and the published material for 'underlying schematic phrases or meaning units' (140).  The quotes that appear in the article are typical, but also 'particularly articulate or eloquent instances of the theme that was more widespread'.  [This is more or less a licence to make it up, of course.  Quotes can be heavily selected using the team's judgement, if the interviewee did not saying something explicitly it could still be interpreted after a deeper reading, it's not just interviews but published material as well.  The second part of the article seems to be strongly committed to the policy, which makes you suspects that far from suspending their belief in the wonders of outdoor adventure, this piece attempts to confirm it].

[The rest of the account is rather curious, often beginning with a quote from a published text, followed by a comment apparently derived from the interview, which is alleged to agree with it, or at least be 'analogous’] [The early accounts actually read pretty much like male heroics as nature adventure lead becomes a partner, probably after the hero has subdued it, although we don't hear about that bit].  Themes are interaction and harmony, as both published texts and interview extracts confirm.  One of the female respondents mentions intuition [which raises an issue about whether gender might be relevant here—and of course it would have been nice to know about the social class or educational level of these veterans as well, or whether they have actually read any of the literature that they seem to agree with so effortlessly, or evn seen any documentaries or websites about the spiritual wonders of skydiving].  The team admits that there is some evidence of the 'language of myth and mysticism' (142) [but the implication is we're supposed to approve of this, and that it shows evidence of some deeper more authentic connections with nature before industrialism].  [It seems that the published literature is the one that first mentions that dance metaphor].  There is a great deal of talk of bodily engagement and pleasures in immersion in the task [which seems to me to be precisely what the concept of 'flow' is all about, although that concept also adds a missing element – the need for a manageable level of risk in order to focus the mind away from trivial concerns].  One respondent also mentioned 'heightened self awareness' (142) [and here we are close to the work on ‘edge work’ of course—note that the follow-up study to the classic one mentions the influence of the media in offering accounts which stress the spiritual and the personal].  A lot of comparisons exist between the published literature and the respondents' views [in fact most of the account is taken up with other published analyses, with hardly any mention of the interviews which were analysed so skilfully and scrupulously].  Extreme sports can involve a process of adaptation leading to reverence for the natural world, and this can in turn lead to  'largely positive change’ (142).  The authors admit that the fear of death 'facilitates a personal exploration…  And transcendence' (142), and conclude that these accounts are 'deeply embedded in human mythology…  And may be experienced as a spiritual awakening' (142).  [So it is myths that we have been analysing all along?  The conclusions hardly seem surprising, but, on the contrary, have been bandied around the outdoor adventure lobby for some years].

Outdoor education is defined and the usual claims are advanced that it enhances wellbeing and so on (143).  The disconnections between the material world and the person affects mental health [it is almost a definition of mental illness in some cases, of course, or this might just be a week reassertion of the value of 'authenticity’].  Health is defined as involving an 'intimate relationship to the natural world'[definite hint of authenticity here, and maybe a bit of sexual therapy if the natural world includes other human beings] (143).  There should be no separation.  There should be dance, and no objectifying stance towards nature.  This is moral and synergistic [some sort of green agenda pretty clear here, and the dangers of green fascism in the demotion of human needs, as we shall see].  Extreme sports can deliver the necessary feelings of connectedness and intimacy, which will lead to the desirable 'ecocentric perspective' (145).  We should note that 'we are part of nature, as perhaps the leopard or bird is part of nature' (145) [told you— we will have green fascists insisting that babies die in order to protect rats]. Positive life experiences include 'an acceptance that the natural world is more powerful than humanity’ (145), and a more responsible stance towards nature will result [my guess is a pretty nasty implication will soon arise as well, that human nature is largely natural, especially aggression violence and rape].  Outdoor education helps foster this stance, and this article shows that the outdoor adventurers can work with extreme sports people [presumably, they had dealt with them with hostility before].  More intervention is recommended in outdoor adventure programmes based on the ideas of inclusion of nature, using new metaphors and new words, such as that we 'travel with' the river (145) [I see the audience for these programs shrinking still further with this pious preaching and political correctness].  In this way, outdoor adventure can connect with and play a major role in 'the development of global environmental care' (145).

So extreme sports are not all bad.  Eventually, participants come to see nature as a partner and develop a sense of harmony and deep connection, and undergo a transformation.  Outdoor adventure practitioners should stress 'intimacy as opposed to risk' (146) [the same old agenda when the popularity of outdoor adventure fell after a number of unfortunate fatal accidents].  We need to revisit extreme sport research [they do, and read it properly this time!].  Dance has emerged as the 'extreme athletes' own metaphor’ (146) [not according to my reading it didn't].

Oh dear -- more Dances With Wolves than anything else!

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