Affective atmospheres and digital health

I have just submitted an essay for the special issue of Digital Health I am editing on the senses and digital health. In the essay I outline how the concept of affective atmospheres can be used to understand how and why people use or fail to take up digital health technologies, with a particular focus on the sensory and affective dimensions of these responses. The preprint version is available here, and the abstract is below.

The concept of affective atmospheres has recently emerged in cultural geography to refer to the feelings that are generated by the interactions and movements of human and nonhuman actors in specific spaces and places. Affective atmospheres can have profound effects on the ways in which people think and feel about and sense the spaces they inhabit and through which they move and the other actors in those spaces. Thus far, very little research has adopted this concept to explore the ways in which digital health technologies are used. As part of seeking to redress this lacuna, in this essay I draw on previously published literature on affective atmospheres to demonstrate and explain the implications of this scholarship for future theoretical and empirical scholarship about digital health practices that pays attention to their affective and sensory elements. The article is structured into six parts. The first part outlines the concepts and research practices underpinning affective atmospheres scholarship. In the second part, I review some of the research that looks at place, space and mobilities in relation to affective atmospheres. In the third part I go on to focus more specifically on the affective atmospheres of medical encounters, and then move on to digital technology use in the fourth part. I then address in the fifth part some relevant scholarship on digital health technologies. I end the essay with some reflections of directions in which future research taking up the concept of affective atmospheres in the context of digital health technologies can go. The key research question that these topics all work towards is that asking ‘How does digital health feel?’

Seams in the cyborg

Another excerpt from my forthcoming book Digital Sociology (due to be released on 12 November 2014). From chapter 8: ‘The Digitised Body/Self’.

Such is the extent of our intimate relations with digital technologies that we often respond emotionally to the devices themselves and to the content contained within or created by these devices. The design of digital devices and software interfaces is highly important to users’ responses to them. Devices such as iPhones are often described in highly affective and aestheticised terms: as beautiful playthings, glossy and shiny objects of desire, even as edible or delicious. Advertising for the iPhone and other Apple devices often focus on inspiring child-like wonder at their beauty and magical capabilities (Cannon and Barker 2012).

Affective responses to material objects are integral to their biographical meaning to their owners and their participation in intimate relationships. Writers on material culture and affect have noted the entangling of bodies/selves with physical objects and how artefacts act as extensions or prostheses of the body/self, becoming markers of personhood. Objects become invested with sentimental value by virtue of their association with specific people and places, and thus move from anonymous, mass-produced items to biographically-inscribed artefacts that bear with them personal meanings. Over use and with time, such initially anonymised objects become personalised prosthetics of the self, their purely functional status and monetary value replaced by more personal and sentimental value (Miller 2008, Turkle 2007).

… Bell and Dourish (2011) refer to the mythologies and the mess of ubiquitous computing technologies. By myths they mean the cultural stories, values and meanings that are drawn upon to make sense and represent these technologies. The types of myths surrounding new digital technologies tend to focus on their very novelty, their apparent divergence from what has come before them and their ability to provide solutions to problems. The ‘mess’ of digital technologies inheres in the challenges to myths that suggest that they are infallible, offer an ideal solution to a problem: the ‘practical reality’ of their everyday use (Bell & Dourish, 2011, p. 4). When digital technologies operate as we expect them to, they feel as they are inextricably part of our bodies and selves. Inevitably, however, there are moments when we become aware of our dependence on technologies, or find them annoying or difficult to use, or lose interest in them. Technologies break down, fail to work as expected; infrastructure and government regulations may not support them adequately; users may become bored with using them or their bodies may rebel and develop over-use symptoms. There may be resistances, personal or organised, to their use, and contestations over their meanings and value (Lupton, 1995; Miller & Horst, 2012).

Freund (2004, p. 273) uses the term ‘technological habitus’ to describe the ‘internalised control’ and kinds of consciousness required of individuals to function in technological environments such as those currently offered in contemporary western societies. The human/machine entity, he argues, is not seamless: rather there are disjunctions – or, as he puts it, ‘seams in the cyborg’ – where fleshly body and machine do not intermesh smoothly, and discomfort, stress or disempowerment may result. Sleep patterns, increasing work and commuting time and a decrease in leisure time, for example, can be disrupted by the use of technologies, causing illness, stress and fatigue. Our bodies may begin to alert us that these objects are material in the ways that they affect our embodiment: through eye-strain, hand, neck or back pain or headaches from using the devices too much (Lupton, 1995).

People may feel overwhelmed by the sheer mass of data conveyed by their digital devices and the need to keep up with social network updates. Analyses of social media platforms such as Facebook are beginning to appear that suggest that users may simultaneously recognise their dependence upon social media to maintain their social network but may also resent this dependence and the time that is taken up in engaging with them, even fearing that they may be ‘addicted’ to their use (Davis, 2012). Users may also feel ‘invaded’ by the sheer overload of data that may be generated by membership of social networking sites and the difficulty of switching off mobile devices and taking time out from using them (boyd, 2008).

Technology developers are constantly working on ways to incorporate digital devices into embodiment and everyday life, to render them ever less obtrusive and ever more part of our bodies and selves. As the technical lead and manager of the Google Glass (a wearable device that is worn on the face like spectacles) project contends, ‘bringing technology and computing closer to the body can actually improve communication and attention – allowing technology to get further out of the way’ (Starner, 2013, p. no page numbers given, emphasis in the original). He asserts that by rendering these devices smaller and more easily worn on the body, they recede further into the background rather than dominating users’ attention (as is so overtly the case with the current popular smartphone and tablet computers). Despite these efforts, Glass wearers have been subjected to constant attention from others that is often negative and based on the presumption that the device is too obvious, unstylish and unattractive, or that the people who wear them are wealthy computer nerds who do not respect the privacy of others. They have reported many incidences of angry responses from others when wearing Glass in public, even to the point of people ripping the device off their faces or asking them to leave a venue (Gross, 2014). The design of digital devices, therefore, may incite emotional responses not only in the users themselves but also in onlookers.

Some people find wearable self-tracking devices not fashionable enough, or not water-proof enough, or too clunky or heavy, or not comfortable enough to wear, or find that they get destroyed in the washing machine when the user forgets to remove them from their clothing. One designer (Darmour, 2013) has argued that if these technologies remain too obvious, ‘bolting’ these devices to our bodies will ‘distract, disrupt, and ultimately disengage us from others, ultimately degrading our human experience’. She asserts that instead these objects need to be designed more carefully so that they may be integrated into the ‘fabric of our lives’. Her suggested ways of doing this include making them look more beautiful, like jewellery (broaches, necklaces, bracelets, rings), incorporating them into fashionable garments, making them peripheral and making them meaningful: using colours or vibrations rather than numbers to display data readings from these devices.

References

Bell, G., & Dourish, P. (2011). Divining a Digital Future: Mess and Mythology in Ubiquitous Computing. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Cannon, K., & Barker, J. (2012). Hard candy. In P. Snickars & P. Vonderau (Eds.), Moving Data: The iPhone and the Future of Medicine (pp. 73-88). New York: Columbia University Press.

boyd, d. (2008). Facebook’s privacy trainwreck: exposure, invasion, and social convergence. Convergence, 14(1), 13-20.

Darmour, J. (2013). 3 ways to make wearable tech actually wearable. Co.Design. Retrieved from http://www.fastcodesign.com/1672107/3-ways-to-make-wearable-tech-actually-wearable

Davis, J. (2012). Social media and experiential ambivalence. Future Internet, 4(4), 955-970.

Freund, P. (2004). Civilised bodies redux: seams in the cyborg. Social Theory & Health, 2(3), 273-289.

Gross, A. (2014). What’s the problem with Google Glass? Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/currency/2014/03/whats-the-problem-with-google-glass.html

Lupton, D. (1995). The embodied computer/user. Body & Society, 1(3-4), 97-112.

Miller, D. (2008). The Comfort of Things. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Miller, D., & Horst, H. (2012). The digital and the human: a prospectus for digital anthropology. In H. Horst & D. Miller (Eds.), Digital Anthropology (pp. 3-35). London: Berg.

Starner, T. (2013). Google glass lead: how wearing tech on our bodies actually helps it get out of our way. Wired. Retrieved from http://www.wired.com/opinion/2013/12/the-paradox-of-wearables-close-to-your-body-but-keeping-tech-far-away/

Turkle, S. (2007). Evocative Objects: Things We Think With. Cambridge, Mass: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Moving attachments: our emotional relationship with mobile digital media technologies

I recently read an article by Dave Beer in which he discussed the current lack of academic research and theorising about the emotional attachments users of the new mobile media develop with their devices. I agree that there is rather a dearth of writing about the ways in which we use and relate to new mobile media. I was frustrated, for example, to read a new edited book recently entitled Digital Cultures and the Politics of Emotion that focused on the topic of affect and digital technologies and to find that none of the contributions dealt with the affective dimensions of the technologies themselves. The focus, instead, was on the content produced via the technologies (their texts and images) and how affective states were reproduced and circulated online: for example, racist, violent and misogynistic material shared via social networks. While this book certainly provided interesting material on ‘digital structures of feeling’ there was little discussion of the ways in which digital technologies themselves as material objects and their embodied use are part of these structures.

This is a subject in which I have long had an interest. I have written extensively both on the topic of emotions, selfhood and embodiment (published in my book The Emotional Self ) and on the sociology of computer technologies. In the 1990s, I penned some articles on various aspects of the affective relationship we have with what were then emphatically ‘non-mobile’ digital technologies: the chunky desktop personal computer (PC). My argument was that using these PCs we developed a relationship with them that borders on the anthropomorphic.

One such piece was an essay entitled ‘The embodied computer/user’ (Lupton, 1995), where I explored the emotions that may be evoked by the PC not working or taking over one’s life, including  frustration, hostility and fear, and the tendency for users to describe their PCs as ‘friends’, ‘work companions’ or even ‘lovers’. With Greg Noble (Lupton and Noble, 1997) I then conducted some empirical research using interviews to address the ways in which the users of desktop computers incorporated their technologies in the context of the academic workplace. Our findings showed that PC users tended to evince an ambivalent position between seeing their PCs as humanoid and resisting this. Some people gave their PCs human names, or ascribed a gender or personality to them, describing them as spiteful, sexy, grumpy, intelligent or stupid. One person remarked that she saw her PC as ‘part of me’, ‘an extension of myself’.

I am still very interested in these dimensions of digital technology use (see here for a recent journal article and here, here and here for my blog posts on mHealth technologies and the quantified self). Digital technologies now have far more of a capacity to be intimately involved in our lives. Now, more than ever, as the new digital technologies become ever more mobile and wearable, as we carry them on our bodies throughout the day or even wear them at night (in the case of self-tracking headbands with embedded sensors designed to monitor sleep patterns): indeed as some can now be swallowed or stuck upon the skin as paper-thin patches to measure bodily functions, they are becoming even more a part of us, part of our bodies as prosthetics of the self, part of our identities as they store more data about our experiences, our social relationships and encounters and our bodily functioning.

There are moments when we become aware of our dependence on technologies, or find them annoying or difficult to use, or lose interest in them. As I have remarked in an earlier post on self-tracking technologies for health purposes, some people find wearable self-tracking devices not fashionable enough, or not water-proof enough, or too clunky or heavy, or not comfortable enough to wear, or find that they get destroyed in the washing machine when the user forgets to remove them from their clothing.

A blog post by designer Jennifer Darmour made similar observations, arguing that the aesthetic dimensions of wearable technologies have been little addressed. If these technologies remain too obvious, she argues, ‘bolting’ these devices to our bodies (an unlikely Frankenstein metaphor) and therefore obviously proclaiming ourselves as cyborgs will ‘distract, disrupt, and ultimately disengage us from others, ultimately degrading our human experience’. Darmour asserts that these objects need to be designed more carefully so that they may be ‘seamlessly’ integrated into the ‘fabric of our lives’. Her suggested ways of doing this include making them look more beautiful, like jewellery (broaches, necklaces, bracelets, rings), incorporating them into fashionable garments, making them peripheral and making them meaningful: using colours or vibrations rather than numbers to display data readings from these devices.

Another blogger has remarked upon the emotions that wearing digital self-tracking devices may provoke in people. Putting on a self-tracking device makes some people feel athletic, some fashionable, others fat and self-conscious about their bodies. Others feel safer and develop a greater sense of security about having their health monitored by these devices. Here again it was noted that the design of the device – its ‘look’, its conspicuousness or lack thereof  – may be integral to how people feel when they wear it.

Researching and theorising the affective dimensions of the configuration of user/mobile device potentially brings together the literatures on affect and emotion, embodiment, actor-network theory, media and cultural studies, the anthropology of material culture, digital cultures, digital sociology, digital anthropology and social computing. One way forward is to tap into the literature on the domestication of technologies emerging from media and cultural studies. This perspective is interested in how we ‘domesticate’ or ‘appropriate’ the technologies we use: that is, incorporate them into our everyday lives. I drew upon some of this work in my earlier research described above, and think that it still has much to offer in relation to understanding our affective attachments to our new digital technologies.

The material culture literature is also relevant to understanding how things in our lives are appropriated, incorporated and domesticated, how meaning and significance is invested in objects, and what the affective dimensions of this may be (see, for example, Miller’s The Comfort of Things and Turkle’s Evocative Objects, and my chapter on ‘emotion, things and places’ in The Emotional Self). So too, the work of Bourdieu, particularly his writings on the habitus, or the habitual practices of everyday life as they contribute to embodiment and subjectivity, may usefully be applied to understanding the interaction of bodies/selves with technologies. The actor-network approach to theorising the ways in which material objects join with fleshly bodies, other people’s bodies, other living things, ideas and practices to configure dynamic assemblages can potentially contribute to theorising and researching the affective dimensions of digital object use.

Computer science is well ahead of sociology when it comes to exploring what is termed in that field ‘social computing’ or ‘human-computer interaction’. The focus for computer scientists is in recognising that users interact with computerised technologies in often emotional ways (sometimes described as the subfield of ‘affective computing’), and to incorporate that recognition into designing systems and technologies that are accepted by users as useful, meaningful and a positive rather than frustrating experience.

Much remains to be explored, including the following questions: What does it feel like to carry, wear and use a mobile digital device? How much does their appearance and size matter? How are these devices incorporated into the habits and practices of everyday life (the habitus)? What are the practices of appropriation? How are they resisted? How do these devices configure users’ bodies and sense of selfhood and what are the emotional dimensions of this? What are the enabling and constraining aspects of their use? How do users adjust to giving up one device for another? How do they feel if the technology stops working? What are the interactions between the feelings configured and circulated via the texts and images produced by these devices and the physical material objects themselves?

References

Lupton, D. (1995) The embodied computer/user. Body & Society, 1(3/4), 97—112.

Lupton, D. and Noble, G. (1997) Just a machine? Dehumanizing strategies in personal computer use. Body & Society, 3(2), 83—101.

Pathologising young children’s emotions

fearfull and crying child before dental treatment

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Australian government has announced a new screening program for three-year-old children to determine whether they have a mental health problem. All children of that age will be offered the Healthy Kids Check from next month, predominantly conducted by general practitioners. As part of this check, which also seeks to identify health problems such as allergies and developmental delays and checks hearing and eyesight, doctors will ask questions of the children’s parents in a bid to identify children who are showing signs of having or developing a mental illness or condition such as anxiety disorder, autism, bipolar disorder or attention deficient hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Those who are identified as demonstrating such behaviour will be referred to paediatric psychologists or paediatricians for further diagnosis and treatment. Doctors will be looking for such behaviours as shyness, aggression, difficulty with impulse control and the desire to sleep at night with a light left on.

This is a troubling move towards pathologising young children’s emotions as indicators of mental illness. It may be seen as a progressive medicalising of what previously have been understood as normal responses and behaviours. The singling out of such emotional responses as fear of the dark, difficulty in controlling impulses and aggression represents such emotional responses as abnormal and in need of treatment and control, despite the fact that the children involved in the screening are so young that they are barely out of nappies.

Over forty years ago, sociologists such as Freidson, Zola and Illich began to write about the tendency of medicine to exert its power and authority over an increasingly large domain of human behaviour and experience. More recently, Nikolas Rose and others have noted the rise of the ‘psy disciplines’ in particular — psychology, counselling, psychiatry — as well as developments in neurobiology as progressively gathering behaviours under their authority. Rose (2010) has commented on the emergence of the concept of the ‘risky brain’, or the brain considered most likely to potentially cause its owner to behave in irrational, criminal, risk-taking or other ways considered inappropriate. He notes that attempts to identify susceptible individuals is part of a culture of ‘precaution, pre-emption and prevention’, in which it is considered important to identify potential difficulties with the ways in which people conduct themselves, even if there is only a small possibility that these difficulties may occur.

In the Australian government’s new initiative to identify young children who may be susceptible to mental illness in later life, thousands of children and their parents will be incorporated into a web of surveillance in which what seem like very minor behaviours common to many children (such as fear of the dark) will position these children as potentially at risk. Such a program  is overtly prescriptive in assuming that young children should not feel fear or shyness or sometimes aggressive towards others, or fail to control their impulses. The notion that children should be able to control their emotions underpins these assumptions. This conforms to a general societal trend towards lack of tolerance of the inability of children to behave in a ‘civilised’ fashion and increasingly high expectations that they should demonstrate emotional control similar to that achieved by adults (see my previous post ‘Animals as children, children as animals’).

While it is important that young children with significant mental illness receive an early diagnosis and treatment, this mental health screening directed at all children in the target age bracket will inevitably result in many children being identified as potentially at risk. It will label them with a possible mental health problem and create great anxiety in their parents. Moral judgements and stigmatisation are inevitably involved in diagnoses of what is considered ‘abnormal’ behaviour in children. Being singled out as ‘at risk’ of mental illness and requiring further medical intervention may lead to the stigmatising of children, potentially for many years.

What is more, there is a continuing debate about how to treat such conditions in children as ADHD, and indeed whether the behaviours incorporated into these conditions should be considered abnormal and requiring treatment. Some critics have argued that ADHD is simply the expression of normal, albeit challenging, childish behaviour that is pathologised because it causes disruption in contexts such as classrooms in ways that adults find difficult to manage and therefore seek to control via medical intervention and treatment with drugs (Visser and Jehan, 2009). The same might be said of aggressive, fearful or anxious behaviour in very young children. Yet it is likely that diagnosis rates of such conditions — and associated therapeutic and pharmaceutical treatments — will rise steeply in the wake of the Healthy Kids Check initiative.

References

Rose, N. (2010) ‘Screen and intervene’: governing risky brains. History of the Human Sciences, 23(1), 79–105.

Visser, J. and Jehan, Z. (2009) ADHD: a scientific fact or a factual opinion? A critique of the veracity of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties, 14(2), 127–40.

Pregnancy and loss of control

A recent review of the pregnancy film What to Expect When You’re Expecting observed that it conforms to the ‘frat house movie of the 1980s’ genre in its focus on unruly bodies and leaking body fluids such as vomit and urine (http://tinyurl.com/6wxpf8x ). This film joins a long line of cinematic representations of pregnant women as ruled by their hormones, emotionally volatile, permeable and altogether departing from the conventions of orderly embodiment. The pregnant woman who cries, loses her temper, eats strange things or eats excessively, balloons to huge proportions and experiences her waters breaking in public have all become stock-in-trade images of pregnancy in popular culture.

These depictions of pregnant women conforms to a general societal view that women in general, and pregnant women in particular, are emotionally and physically unstable. The film’s trailer features one of the pregnant women crying on a television show, saying ‘I have no control over my body or my emotions’, something that clearly distresses her. Control over one’s embodied self is a central dimension of contemporary western societies. The contained, tightly controlled body is privileged over what is viewed culturally as the unregulated, uncontained, excessive body. Pregnant women and women in childbirth are the archetypal uncontained bodies, leaking and permeable both literally and symbolically. Pregnancy is a highly culturally ambiguous state. The pregnant women is an anomaly because of the ways her body transgresses boundaries between self and other. She is, for a time, two bodies in one, a state experienced by no other human body.

Women often experience pregnancy as a time in which their bodies no longer seem to belong to them. Pregnant bodies are seen by others as no longer private: they become public bodies, viewed as public property. Other people constantly make observations about pregnant women’s size and monitor pregnant women for their behaviour to ensure that they follow what is deemed to be appropriate for their own health and that of their baby. Pregnant women also express concern that their bodies will let them down in public places by leaking inappropriate body fluids: vomit due to morning sickness, for example, or their ‘waters’ (amniotic fluids) breaking. They all too aware of the public censure and disgust which accompanies such loss of control. Many feel as if they should withdraw from public space because of self-consciousness about their bodies, physical discomfort, concerns about losing control over their bodies and the difficulty of conforming to expectations of how a ‘proper’ pregnant woman should comport herself (Longhurst, 2005).

The age of the first-time pregnant woman can make a difference to how she feels about her pregnant body. British research (Thompson et al., 2011) using interviews with women from a wide range of age groups found that for younger women (aged under 25) pregnancy was seen by many as part of their youthful capacities, the body as taken-for-granted youthful femininity, part of their physical capital. Their pregnant bodies may also have been viewed as a source of shame, however, something that others judged them about because they were pregnant so young. For women in the age group 25 to 35, the body and maternity was a more self-conscious project. They were often aware of their lessening capacity to become pregnant and of the need to juggle career imperatives with maternity, involving much forward planning. Older women (those aged over 35) still sometimes viewed their bodies anxiously as vulnerable, unruly and likely to let them down, particularly if they had previously experienced fertility problems or miscarriage.

Interestingly, at a time in which the pregnant body is viewed as deviating from the norm in its inability to contain and regulate itself, it is also portrayed in popular culture as valuable, precious and a state to be aspired to: the apotheosis of true womanhood. This is particularly the case for celebrities who are pregnant and for the models who feature on pregnancy magazines and websites, glowing with health and radiating ‘natural’ beauty. These pregnant women are positioned as ideal-type pregnant women, with nary a varicose vein, stretch-mark or morning-sickness vomit stain in sight. Such women seem to have contained their permeability, their tendency towards bodily uncontainment, through sheer will-power. They are particularly esteemed if they have managed to control excessive weight gain during their pregnancy, suggesting their ability to exert power over any pregnancy-related cravings or appetites (Gentile, 2011). Such pregnant women are viewed as especially virtuous because they have managed to tame their unruly bodies at a time when it is expected that the body is very much in control of the self.

References

Gentile, K. (2011) What about the baby? The new cult of domesticity and media images of pregnancy. Studies in Gender and Sexuality, 12(1), 38–58.

Longhurst, R. (2005) Maternities: Gender, Bodies and Space. London: Routledge.

Lupton, D. (2012) Configuring Maternal, Preborn and Infant Embodiment. Sydney Health & Society Group Working Paper No. 2. Sydney: Sydney Health & Society Group. Available at http://hdl.handle.net/2123/8363.

Thomson, R., Kehily, M.J., Hadfield, L. and Sharpe, S. (2011) Making Modern Mothers. Bristol: The Policy Press.

Edgework 2: going beyond the white, middle-class male perspective

In my previous post ‘Edgework: the fun of risk-taking’, I discussed the emotional dimension of voluntary risk-taking. Edgework research has predominantly focused on male risk-takers, the vast majority of whom are white and middle-class. These men are able to afford to engage in ‘adventure holidays’ or such ‘extreme sports’ as skydiving, BASE jumping or white-water kayaking. Other research suggests that such individuals engage in voluntary risk-taking for different reasons than do people who are less socially and economically privileged. Gender also influences why people take risks and how they feel about risk-taking.

In her study of young Scottish women imprisoned for engaging in violent behaviour and other criminal activities such as stealing and illicit drug use, Bachelor (2007) argues that these women were initially drawn to engage in this behaviour because of the shared adrenaline ‘rush’ or ‘buzz’ they felt, a desire to escape boredom and to feel as if they could foster friendships and belong to a group. Some of these young women displayed an attraction towards traditionally masculine behaviour such as violence and the feeling of power and toughness engaging in afforded them. However the women increasingly came to undertake such activities as a means of blocking out powerful emotions such as grief and rage caused by life experiences of abuse, family dysfunction and institutional care, or by eliciting more pleasurable emotions. They remarked that they often felt ‘emotionally numb’ and ‘detached’ and that risk-taking was a way of making them feel more alive.

For these young women, violent behaviour, self-harm and drug use were ways of feeling different, either by helping to avoid conscious thoughts which were distressing, evoking feelings of power and control when feeling helpless or venting feelings of anger and hurt by hurting others. These young women were not taking risks to escape the alienating world of work and to achieve a sense of authenticity and hyperreality, as do privileged white men. They were attempting to achieve a sense of control over a world in which they felt increasingly disempowered and looking for a way of feeling close to others (their peer-group) in a context in which their families had not provided intimacy and caring and a sense of belonging.

While men may experience feelings of exhilaration and omnipotence in their edgework experiences, this research showed that when reflecting on their behaviour young women were more likely to feel ambivalent about it. They viewed such risk-taking activities as irrational and expressed feelings of guilt and shame about the violent and criminal activities in which they engaged. They may have felt in control at the time of the behaviour, but when they looked back at what they had done viewed it as being ‘out-of-control’ and as ‘going too far’. In interpreting their behaviour in this way, the young women are drawing on discourses of normative femininity, which position such behaviours as abnormal and inappropriate for women.

As this research suggests, edgework has many different nuances. It is not simply about evoking and controlling intense emotion. It is not simply about engaging in risk-taking as part of legally sanctioned and expensive leisure pursuits. Edgework also incorporates criminal behaviour, perhaps one of the few avenues for members of the underclass to seek out risky pursuits. It may not represent an escape from the banality of the safety and routines of a privileged life, but may also be a way of escaping the misery of a life including experiences of abuse, poverty and family dysfunction.

Reference

Bachelor, S. (2007) ‘Getting mad wi’ it’: risk seeking by young women. In Hannah-Moffat, K. and O’Malley, P. (eds), Gendered Risks. Milton Park: Routledge-Cavendish, pp. 205—28.

Edgework: taking risks for the fun of it

Español: persona que salto

Español: persona que salto (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is a very large literature on the sociology of risk-taking these days. Much of this writing focuses on risk as a negative concept, something dangerous or hazardous which must be avoided. One important aspect of risk-taking however, is the pleasures and emotional intensities some people may experience when voluntarily taking risks.

The work of Stephen Lyng using the concept of ‘edgework’ explores the reasons why people take risks as part of leisure activities. The concept of edgework incorporates the notion that voluntary risk-taking activities are about exploring the edges that exist along cultural boundaries. These boundaries may include those between sanity and insanity, consciousness and unconsciousness and life and death.

Edgework involves skilful practices combined with emotional intensity. But the emotional dimension of voluntary risk-taking is more complex than simply involving the desire to incite intense emotions. Emotions such as fear, excitement and anxiety are central to edgework, but so are their control. Mental toughness, the ability to master and control the fear that one is experiencing and keep calm so as to avoid physical harm or death, is an integral aspect of edgework. When risk-takers are able to exert mastery over emotions that are viewed as negative, they experience heightened feelings of control.

Smith (2005) gives the example of white-water kayaking, in which it is important to maintain control over fear so that the kayak will stay afloat and will be able navigate the hazards of the water it is traversing. Smith claims that it is the individual’s awareness of maintaining this control despite the almost overwhelming embodied sensations of fear and excitement, which produces the sense of elation that risk-takers seek.

Lyng and Matthews (2007) similarly note that what is deemed important for voluntary risk-takers is not to override fear but to acknowledge its presence and convert it into something that is sensually appealing. This involves an acceptance of fear combined with confidence that one can act skilfully to avoid accident or death. This combination of intense emotional arousal and focused attention leads to edgeworkers experience alterations in perception of time and space, feelings of hyerreality which leads to a sense of the experience as deeply authentic, as feeling truly alive. Edgeworkers commonly describe a sense of blurring of the boundaries between themselves and the technologies under their control (kayaks, climbing ropes, parachutes, racing cars, motor cycles and so on), so that they have a sense of ‘being one with their machines’.

Edgework can represent both a challenge to limits, everyday routines and social expectations, but paradoxically, may also be an expression of dominant institutional demands and imperatives. To be entrepreneurial in the business world, for example, people are expected to voluntarily take risks to increase productivity and profits. Thus there may be said to be a degree of synergy between the skills, competencies and symbolic resources engendered via participation in edgework practices and the demands of late modernity. Edgework is simultaneously part of efforts to transcend institutional imperatives in some contexts (dangerous leisure activities, for example) and in others a vital dimension of conforming to these imperatives. As Lyng (2005) notes, while these two sides of edgework may seem to be contradictory, they may also be viewed as complementary. The skills and expertise derived from leisure-based risk-taking practices may be employed to win success in the workplace.

References

Lyng, S. (2005) Edgework and the risk-taking experience. In Lyng, S. (ed), Edgework: The Sociology of Risk-Taking. New York: Routledge, pp. 17—49.

Lyng, S. and Matthews, R. (2007) Risk, edgework, and masculinities. In Hannah-Moffat, K. and O’Malley, P. (eds), Gendered Risks. Milton Park: Routledge-Cavendish, pp. 75—98.

Smith, C. (2005) Financial edgework: trading in market currents. In Lyng, S. (ed), Edgework: The Sociology of Risk-Taking. New York: Routledge, pp. 187—200.