Le Breton, D.  (2004)  'The Anthropology of Adolescent Risk taking Behaviours', in Body and Society, 10 (1): 1-15.

[A very general sociological account, all rather commonsensical, with massive generalisations about the effects of family upbringing and anomic forces generally. Apparently, the work has been applied to understand extreme sports, but those references are still in French. The concluding paragraph summarises it all pretty well].

In conclusion, there is an  'anthropological structure' [in other words social forces are at work and also aspects of human nature and consciousness] to explain the connection between risk, death, ordeals and the positive affirmation of life:  'Putting oneself on trial on an individual basis is one of the modern forms crystallising one's identity when everything else fails' (14). Risks generates  'jubilation... and... self-esteem'. A sense of belonging and having become an adult develops:  'A more appropriate relationship with the world is restored' (14).  [This is anthropological also because the notions of status transition, ordeal as acceptance into the adult world and ritual are also tried out, although modern versions are sometimes quite different -- for example undergoing ordeals to become an adult is not validated or celebrated by parents in our society].

[Anomie] leads to insecurity, and people can flirt with death in order to find limits and bases for existence. Risk is a way of testing oneself and one's qualities, and is therefore a quest for meaning. Adolescents can conquer fear, attain a sense of freedom and of being special, and also have a final way out should things become unbearable. Risky activity is an alternative to  'depression or the radical collapse of meaning' (2). It is an active stance rather than  'a clumsy form of suicide' (3). 

Adolescents tend to feel special and invulnerable anyway, and also feel particularly obliged to demonstrate their character and courage. This  combination of  'invulnerability and frailty' can be represented in a '"personal fable"' [citing Elkind, and see below about narratives] (3). They tend to adopt symbolic and instant solutions to life's problems. These can be manifested in a range of behaviour from petty crime, to refusing to take prescribed medicine, to dangerous games involving drunken driving  'zipping in and out of the traffic on a motorbike',  'taking dares with friends', walking on railway lines or playing  'the "strangling game"' (5). Yet these are accompanied by feelings of skill, omnipotence, and invulnerability. The influence of peer groups can be important in choosing particular activities.

Risking the body becomes important, since the body is at the heart of adolescent identity, the source of anxieties about growing up and also  'the only tangible permanence of self -- the sole means of taking possession of one's existence' (6). Adolescents are ambivalent towards it, and often mistreat it in order  'to establish their personal sovereignty' (6).

[Some risky activities clearly have a symbolic component]. 'Vertigo, leaping into a void, is a constant practice in adolescent risk taking' (6). Vertigo is also the social experience of losing direction  [geddit?]. Celebrating vertigo explains excessive drinking, drug-taking, speeding on the roads, running away or  'riding a motorbike without stopping at any halt signs or red lights in search of powerful sensations' [my favourite used to be 'all the way home without using the brakes'](7). These acts of deliberate vertigo offer  'a homeopathy of vertigo: we struggle against a feeling of emptiness by throwing ourselves into the void' (7)  [lovely literary argument -- but sociology?].

There is a gender dimension, and boys tend to take more radical risks. Risky behaviour is associated with virility and becoming a man. Adult males tend to sympathise, and the themes also appear in mass media. Males are involved in twice as much violence and criminality, and 'three boys kill themselves for every girl'  (8)  [it seems that official statistics are the source of these data, but we know there are problems in recording activities as crimes or suicides]. Disorders of the body such as anorexia, excessive drunkenness or pregnancy are increasing as female responses to  'their lack of being' (8). These patterns seem to be set in early years. Narratives addressed to males  [about how accidents occur] often  'set the stage for a competent, mature and brave actor... [while those addressed to girls]... stress their responsibility towards others' (9). Boys are encouraged be brave, endure pain, and show independence.

Ordeals offer a kind of bargain with death -- my life is put at risk, and in exchange, survival will make me feel special. Gambling with death is really 'a gamble to exist, the ultimate means of keeping in contact with the world' (10)  [for an elegant French theorist, that is, but for the adolescents themselves?]. Death replaces society itself as a  'metaphysical but powerful authority' (10). Social location itself no longer guarantees identity in meaning, while eluding death alone provides some meaningful existence. Surviving an ordeal produces personal change, likely to be positive if the ordeal is deliberately chosen. Ordeals like this are found in mock suicides, especially those where there is still a chance of being saved  [common among the young, but almost unknown among the elderly, with some more French official statistics cited, page 11]. It can also lead to renewed social ties,  'people rallying round and showing their affection' (12).

A  'zest for life dominates all others in risk-taking among the younger generations' (12). Risk is better understood as a deliberate trial, seeking meaning, whether consciously or unconsciously  [saves the need for any empirical data then?]. Survival can lead to a temporary euphoria, a renewed  'personal narcissism'. Contemporary societies are different, however since ordeal is not socially supported, and it seems to have only individual and personal significance instead of strengthening the whole community.  [Le Breton talks about narcissism and personal impulse, but we're not far from Durkheim and egoistic suicide?]. The private nature of modern ordeals make them less successful in restoring socially supported means  [although Le Breton dabbles with some notion of a latent function as well -- private rights can foster social integration by giving meaning -- although he does not seem to be very optimistic -- page 14].

Back to Key Concepts