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Health, Risk & Society

ISSN: 1369-8575 (Print) 1469-8331 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/chrs20

'Life would be pretty dull without risk': Voluntary


risk-taking and its pleasures
Deborah Lupton & John Tulloch
To cite this article: Deborah Lupton & John Tulloch (2002) 'Life would be pretty dull without
risk': Voluntary risk-taking and its pleasures, Health, Risk & Society, 4:2, 113-124, DOI:
10.1080/13698570220137015
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13698570220137015

Published online: 14 Jul 2010.

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Date: 31 March 2016, At: 01:35

HEALTH, RISK & SOCIETY, VOL. 4, NO. 2, 2002

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Life would be pretty dull without risk:


voluntary risk-taking and its pleasures
DEBORAH LUPTONa & JOHN TULLOCHb

Abstract Most writing in the social sciences on risk-taking tends to represent it as the product of
ignorance or irrationality. The modern subject tends to be portrayed in this writing as risk-aversive
and fearful of risk, constantly seeking ways of avoiding it. While there has been an extensive
literature on peoples perceptions of risk, little empirical research has attempted to investigate the
meanings given to voluntary risk-taking: that is, risk-taking that is undertaken without coercion in
the full acknowledgement that risks are being confronted. In this article we present ndings from our
qualitative research on a group of Australians risk knowledges and experiences, using in-depth
interviews to explore the meanings given to risk and the discourses used to express ideas about risk.
We focus here on what our interviewees had to say about their experiences of, and views about,
voluntary risk-taking. We identify and discuss three dominant discourses in our interviewees
accounts: those of self-improvement, emotional engagement and control. Our conclusion relates these
discourses to wider discourses and notions about subjectivity and embodiment.
Key words: risk, voluntary risk-taking, sociological theory, perceptions of risk, discourse

Introduction
Most of the accounts of risk circulating in contemporary Western expert and popular cultures
portray it as negative, something to be avoided. So too, much of the academic literature on
risk represents individuals in late modernity as living in fear, constantly dogged by feelings of
anxiety, vulnerability and uncertainty in relation to the risks of which they are constantly
made aware. For example, in uential sociologists Ulrich Beck (1992, 1994, 1995) and
Anthony Giddens (1990, 1994, 1998) have written about the so-called emergent risk society
of late modernity, in which people are seen to be highly aware of, and worried about, risks
and critical of the institutions that produce them. It has been contended that in both everyday
and professionalised discourses, risk is now often a synonym for danger or hazard (Douglas,
1992).
The emphasis in contemporary Western societies on the avoidance of risk is strongly
associated with the ideal of the civilised body, an increasing desire to take control over ones
life, to rationalise and regulate the self and the body, to avoid the vicissitudes of fate. To take
a
School of Social Sciences and Liberal Studies, Charles Sturt University, Australia; b School of Journalism, Media and
Cultural Studies, University of Cardiff, Wales.
Address correspondence to: Deborah Lupton, 14 Arnold Street, Killara 2071, Australia. E-mail: dlupton@csu.edu.au

ISSN 13698575 print/ISSN 1469-8331 online/02/02011312


DOI: 10.1080/13698570220137015

2002 Taylor & Francis Ltd

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114 DEBORAH LUPTON & JOHN TULLOCH


unnecessary risks is commonly seen as foolhardy, careless, irresponsible, and even deviant,
evidence of an individuals ignorance or lack of ability to regulate the self (Lupton, 1999).
Psychologists have been particularly interested in assessing and measuring the ways in
which people respond to risk. Researchers investigating the psychology of decision making
and judgement use laboratory experiments, gaming situations and survey techniques to
understand risk perception, attempting to arrive at a quantitative determination of risk
acceptance. Many of these researchers, particularly those drawing on the work of Tversky and
Kahneman, have tended to represent lay people as de cient in their abilities, drawing on
irrational assumptions when making judgements about such phenomena as risk. In particular, lay peoples ability to weigh up probabilities is seen as based on various heuristic
processes that are regarded as leading to erroneous conclusions compared to statistical
models (Lopes, 1991).
Psychometric research into peoples notions of different types of risk have produced a
number of conclusions about the ways in which risk responses tend to be organised via
heuristics. It has been argued, for example, that people tend to see risks that are familiar or
voluntary as less serious than risks that are new or imposed upon them, and that they are
more likely to be concerned about risks that are rare and memorable than those that are seen
as common but less disastrous (see, for example, Slovic, 1987; Hansson, 1989; Adams,
1995). Recent research has emphasised the social and cultural differences that are evident in
different groups assessments of risk. Finucane et al. (2000), for example, found that among
various American groups, whites were less concerned about a range of nominated risks than
were non-whites, with white men the least concerned and non-white women the most
concerned. They speculate that these differences emerged because of power differentials:
those with more power and greatest socio-economic advantage (white men) are less likely to
see the world as dangerous than are others.
These ndings are valuable in demonstrating that risk perceptions tend to form certain
patterns that are shaped by social and cultural norms. As such, they do acknowledge the
importance of worldviews and acculturation, rather than reducing risk assessment to
individual perception. Such representations of the human actor, however, assume a universal,
rational agent who is focused on avoiding risk, or else is ignorant in her or his assessment of
risk. Socio-cultural meanings tend to be reduced to bias, contrasted with the supposedly
neutral stance taken by experts in the eld of risk assessment, against whose judgements lay
judgements are compared and found wanting. Risk avoidance in this literature is typically
portrayed as rational behaviour, while risk-taking is represented as irrational or stemming
from lack of knowledge or faulty perception. Douglas (1992: p. 13) has criticised this
approach as portraying humans as hedonic calculators calmly seeking to pursue private
interests. We are said to be risk-aversive, but, alas, so inef cient in handling information that
we are unintentional risk-takers; basically we are fools.
The notion that risk-taking may be intentional and rational seems unacceptable to the
psychometric approach. So too, in the sociological literature dominated by the writings of
Beck and Giddens, the human actor is portrayed as anxious about and fearful of risk, eager
to acquire knowledge so as to best avoid becoming the victim of risk. Despite the focus on
risk in the social sciences in recent years and increasing evidence that high-risk activities such
as those involved in extreme sports or leisure activities are becoming more popular
(Stranger, 1999), little empirical research has been carried out which has sought to investigate the meanings that people give to voluntary risk-taking. In voluntary risk-taking, the
activity in which individuals engage is perceived by them to be in some sense risky, but is
undertaken deliberately and from choice. This might be contrasted, for example, with taking
part in activities that to the dominant culture are coded as risky but are not perceived as

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VOLUNTARY RISK-TAKING AND ITS PLEASURES 115

such by those involved, or in activities which are perceived by participants to be unacceptably


risky but because of their circumstances have little choice of avoiding, or of which they are
unaware at the time.
One exception to this lack of research is the literature on risk-taking in the context of
HIV/AIDS, which has offered some important insights into why people choose to engage in
certain actions that are culturally coded as risky, such as unprotected sexual activity. The
importance of ideas about clean/dirty in terms of how contaminated ones sexual partners
are likely to be has emerged as very strong in several studies (e.g. Maticka-Tyndale, 1992;
Skidmore and Hayter, 2000). Central to these assessments are notions about Self and Other.
It has been found that people tend to make assessments of potential partners based on such
attributes as their social class, appearance, social demeanour and whether or not they are
judged to be like me. Decisions about trust are established very quickly on this basis. This
research is able to demonstrate that once people have undergone the evaluative process and
judged a potential partner as safe, then concerns about the risk of HIV infection are
dissipated. Sex with that partner is no longer seen as risky.
What the above research does not clarify, however, is why people might voluntarily
continue to engage in activities that they continue to see as risky. Studies of sky-divers
(Lyng, 1990), surfers (Stranger, 1999), young male criminals (Collison, 1996), young men
engaging in drinking and ghting (Canaan, 1996) and female boxers (Hargreaves, 1997) have
revealed that voluntary risk-taking is often pursued for the sake of facing and conquering fear,
displaying courage, seeking excitement and thrills and achieving self-actualisation and a sense
of personal agency. It may also serve as a means of conforming to gender attributes that are
valued by the participants, or, in contrast, as a means of challenging gender stereotypes that
are considered restrictive and limiting of ones agency or potential.
As these ndings suggest, against the dominant discourses on risk that portray it as negative
there also exist counter discourses, in which risk-taking is represented far more positively. It
is upon these counter discourses that this article focuses, drawing on an empirical study that
involved interviews with Australians about their understandings and experiences of risk. Our
approach to risk adopted a social constructionist position (Lupton, 1999) which recognises
that knowledges about risks, including those of experts on risk as well as those of lay people,
are mediated through discourses, or social and cultural frameworks of understanding. As
such, risk knowledges and meanings are dynamic, historical and contextual.
As we noted above, most psychological research, at least in recent times, has recognised the
importance of socio-cultural frameworks in risk assessment. Our approach differs in both
acknowledging the importance of discourse in the construction of risk epistemologies and in
emphasising that all risk epistemologies are socially constructed, including those of experts.
Rather than drawing a distinction between rational and irrational (or accurate and
biased) risk assessments, we prefer to concentrate on the meanings that are imputed to risk
and how these meanings operate as part of peoples notions of subjectivity and their social
relations. We also chose to use a qualitative rather than a quantitative methodology in our
attempt to identify the role played by risk epistemologies and experiences in peoples
everyday lives. A qualitative approach allows us to elicit to a greater depth the meanings
imputed to risk and risk-taking. Identifying the dominant discourses that inhere around risk
in the talk of experts and lay people and give it its meaning is a way of gaining access to the
social and cultural frameworks in which we are interested. In so doing, we are drawing on the
poststructuralist understanding of the importance of language and discourse in constituting
meaning and shaping subjectivity.
In another article (Lupton and Tulloch, 2002) we have analysed the ways in which the
concept of risk was de ned by the participants in our study. We found that although risk was

116 DEBORAH LUPTON & JOHN TULLOCH


often de ned in negative ways as posing an unacceptable threat to physical, nancial or
psychological well-being, several people also raised the positive aspects of voluntary risktaking. Risk did tend to be associated with danger, uncertainty, threat and hazard, but these
attributes in certain contexts were seen as positive rather than negative. We take up these
issues in greater detail in the present article, focusing, in particular, on the discursive
strategies employed by our research participants in describing risk-taking and its pleasures.

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Our study
A total of 74 people were interviewed for our study during 199798: 32 living in the Sydney
and Blue Mountains area, 28 in Wollongong and 14 in Bathurst.1 These locations, all in the
state of New South Wales, were chosen to provide diversity. Sydney is the largest city in
Australia and the Blue Mountains is an adjoining rural area known for its natural beauty,
from which many people commute to Sydney and at which many Sydneysiders spend tourist
weekends. Wollongong is a large post-industrial city near Sydney currently adapting to the
gradual erosion of its steel industry, and Bathurst is a small country town some 210 km west
of Sydney.
The interviewees were recruited and interviewed by research assistants living in the locales,
who used pre-existing social networks and snowball sampling for recruitment. The group of
interviewees was dominated by well-educated, young and middle-aged adults of British
ancestry. Of the participants, 42 were female and 32 male. More than half (44) had at least
some university education and a further seven participants held a trade or technical
quali cation. Of the remainder, 2 had only completed the nal year of high school, 16 did
not complete high school and 2 were still school students. Fifty-six participants were of
British ancestry. Of the remainder, 15 were of continental European ethnicity, 2 were of
Lebanese ethnicity and 1 was Aboriginal. In terms of age, the group was concentrated around
early and middle adulthood: 8 were aged 20 or less, 20 were aged between 21 and 30, 19
aged between 31 and 40, 13 aged between 41 and 50, 7 aged between 51 and 60 and 6 aged
61 or over (one unknown).
We make no claims for generalisability of our ndings to the Australian population as a
whole. Nonetheless, we believe that the in-depth data that have emerged from the interviews
conducted with this group provide some important insights into the epistemologies and
discourses that give meaning to risk among non-experts.
Each participant was interviewed individually using a semi-structured interview schedule,
except for two group discussions comprised of four university students in Sydney and a
similar group in Wollongong. The questions asked of participants were directed at eliciting
their views and experiences of risk in relation to their personal biographies, so as to
contextualise risk in their everyday lives. They were asked to de ne risk, to describe the risks
they saw as threatening themselves personally, both in the past and the present, and
threatening Australians in general, how they had learnt about risks and who or what they saw
as the cause of risks. Our analytical emphasis was on key themes, narratives, de nitions,
discourses, personal/social histories, rhetorical and expressive devices and so on, emerging
from the transcribed interviews. In particular, we wished to identify the meanings that our
interviewees gave to the concept of risk, the ways in which they identi ed risks as affecting
themselves and how they sought to express these ideas using speci c discursive strategies.
1. This research was funded by Large Grant awarded to the authors by the Australian Research Council. Later research
included interviews with Britons: see Lupton and Tulloch (forthcoming) for a full analysis of the data from both Australian
and British interviewees.

VOLUNTARY RISK-TAKING AND ITS PLEASURES 117

The following discussion, in analysing the meanings given by the participants to voluntary
risk-taking, addresses the three dominant discourses that emerged in their accounts: those of
self-improvement, emotional engagement and control.

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The discourse of self-improvement


When analysing the interview data, it became clear that metaphors of spatiality were an
important conceptual tool employed by people when they talked about the voluntary
risk-taking in which they engaged. When asked about the kinds of risks they took and why
they did so, the research participants commonly expressed the notion of risk as located
outside a de ned boundary. For example, 35-year-old Sonya, who lives in Wollongong and
works in the home, said that: I think risk is stepping out of your comfort zone and leaving
familiar territory and going off into the unknown, or doing something you havent done
before. Martin, a 46-year-old clergyman also living in Wollongong, expressed his idea of
risk-taking as transgressing the barriers de ning safety and security. In his case, as a minister
of religion, risk-taking involves taking a public principled stand on social matters he thinks
need redressing. Again, Martin used spatial metaphors to express this, drawing in particular
on those connoting a war zone. He said:
Im a risk junkie in some respects, in as much that I like wandering out there in
no-mans-land, behind the barriers. Every now and again its worthwhile to retreat
back in behind the safe barriers. But life would be pretty dull without risk, and I
enjoy those opportunities.
As Sonyas and Martins words suggest, risk lies outside the comfort zone and familiar
territory. It represents that which lies beyond the known: no-mans-land, as Martin put it.
Lyngs (1990) writings on edgework also employ a vivid spatial metaphor to describe
risk-taking. To engage in edgework, the term suggests, is to teeter on the brink of something,
to balance precariously on a sharply de ned boundary, to peer into the abyss. Indeed, Lyng
emphasises that edgework takes place around cultural boundaries such as those between life
and death, consciousness and unconsciousness, ordinary and extraordinary.
In some of the interviews the notion of risk-taking as imparting a momentum to the
trajectory of ones life, facilitating movement from an ontological stasis, the feeling of being
bogged down, was evident. This appeared in the words of 54-year-old Lorraine, a Bathurst
university student, who noted that: Im not saying there are things out there that we
shouldnt do, but if you dont take a risk in your life somewhere along the way, I dont think
youll get anywhere. I think youll just stay put. This idea of risk-taking as movement extends
the spatial metaphor temporally. One crosses boundaries when taking risks, moving from one
space to another. It is risk-taking that impels movement and progression.
Sometimes the notion of risk as movement may be both literal and metaphor, as in the case
of Eric, who had twice moved his home location, from South Africa to Britain and then to
Australia. Eric, a 44-year-old health promoter, described these migrations as the biggest
risks he had undertaken:
The biggest [risks] are the effect of a decision to move somewhere, somewhere away
from where I felt extremely supported and comfortable. So they had to do with
immigration, and Ive immigrated twice: Ive moved in my early twenties away from
South Africa to England and in my forties from England to Australia. Those were
the rst two biggest risks Ive ever taken in my life. The feeling of nervousness and

118 DEBORAH LUPTON & JOHN TULLOCH

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trepidation and concern and the unknown were just on one level quite fantastic and
on the other very scary.
Eric had found that his rst geographical comfort zonea sleepy English university town
in South Africawas itself a place of severe ideological constraint. His university education,
featuring Marxist thinking, transformed him from an unthinking supporter of apartheid into
its opponent, and he felt impelled to leave the country. In Britain he encountered new risks,
relinquished other comfort zones as he discovered his gay identity and came out. Now,
having moved to Australia, he was experiencing the outcome of sexual risk-taking of the
1980s, as he saw most of his friends dying of AIDS. Yet Eric continued, despite his loneliness
(two partners have died), to value both his ideological and sexual transformations.
Both Erics and Lorraines accounts of their own risk-taking point to the notion of
risk-taking as a form of work upon the self. For Eric, the risk-taking involved in migrating and
coming out had its rewards in living in a country where freedom of expression and thought
are allowed, something he valued highly, and where he felt able to express and act upon his
sexual desires. He felt that his authentic selfthe self that is anti-apartheid, interested in
social justice and gaycould be expressed via his risky decision to leave his country of origin
and migrate elsewhere.
In Lorraines interview, she described risk-taking as a form of feminist protest against the
conventions that restrict girls and women in their lives. In her case, growing up in the country
in the 1950s, such restrictions were imposed particularly by her parents: Being a girl, you
have to take risks by trying to overcome the taboos that [limit] women. In her own life, she
said, as a young girl she chose to deliberately court risks when riding her horse, and also by
taking up cigarette smoking and drinking alcohol. In doing so, she was going against [her]
parents wishes and thereby challenging restrictions they sought to impose upon her.
Ron is 60, unemployed, and living in Bathurst. In his younger days he enjoyed riding in
rodeos, a physical activity that posed great threats to life and limb. He discussed the bene ts
and pleasures he saw as gaining from this experience:
Im thinking probably the most focused risk-taking, where you really cant predict
what might be the outcome of the activity at all, is riding in a rodeo, which I did over
about a two-year period, and each experience is unique and absolutely unpredictable. What it is that you get from success is a degree of personal satisfaction and
self-esteem as a result of taking, accepting a risk and being successful. And if you
said to me, you know, Is it worth it?, Id have to say Yes!. Its part of the whole
process of becoming the person that you nally nish being, presenting oneself in
another way. And its a totally different context, and it might sound silly to say it,
but it has some comparisons with say, taking an examination where you front up
and if you succeed there is a degree of personal self-satisfaction as a result of
whatever is the end result.
Rons account is clear about the ways in which he conceptualises this particular risk-taking
activity as contributing to his sense of accomplishment and, indeed, to the continuing process
of developing self-identity. For him, rodeo-riding was a means of testing himself and
demonstrating to himself the limits of his skills. So too, Lyng (1990) found that for the
edgeworkers he spoke to, who engaged in parachute jumping, the notions of self-realisation,
self-actualisation and self-determination were commonly claimed as goals of their dangerous physical activity. According to Lyng (1990: p. 860): In the pure form of edgework,
individuals experience themselves as instinctively acting entities, which leaves them with a
puri ed and magni ed sense of self.

VOLUNTARY RISK-TAKING AND ITS PLEASURES 119

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Chloe, a 39-year-old artist who lives in the inner city of Sydney, talked about a different
kind of risk-taking that achieves the same ends. Chloe said that she does not take risks
involving placing herself in physical peril: I de nitely do not seek out physical sport sort of
physical risks. Im very conscious that I dont do that. Im not adventurous in that way, like
Ive never been abseiling, Ive never been parachuting, you know, any of those sorts of things,
white water rafting. When she talked about her own voluntary risk-taking, Chloe focused
instead on the relationship between artistic creativity and risk in both her teaching and her
own art:
I encourage people in my workshops, my creativity workshops, to take risks. If those
people are doing a painting or whatever, and someoneIll just give you a little
example. Someone got to a point recently in a painting where she said, Oh, I keep
getting stuck at this point and Im afraid Ill mess it up. And I encouraged her to
do the thing that might mess up the painting, take that risk. And she did it and it
was a real breakthrough. And I think I tend to do that creatively, in creative areas.
Whether it be in painting or whatever the creative expression, I push myself to take
those risks. The risk of stuf ng the whole thing up.
Like Lorraine, Chloes notion of the bene ts of risk-taking includes the opportunity to go
beyond accepted convention. For her artistry, risk-taking is essential to transcend the
banalities of niceness and super ciality. Although her risk-taking is related to art rather than
physical danger, Chloe experiences the same sorts of pleasures from it. She extends herself
beyond usual boundaries, she is able to achieve self-actualisation and transformation:
The buzz of excitement when you do that daring thing or whatever, that can
transform, I think thats often where the energy is. Its hard to describe it, but I
think theres often a lot of energy and aliveness in taking a riskthat sort of risk. I
mean maybe thats the case with any risk-taking: Im just thinking about painting at
the moment. Yeah, it seems to release energy and helps and often, yeah, its like
pushing the boundaries, going further. You know, it can add depth to what youre
creating which might have just been a bit sort of nice. Too nice, or super cial or
whatever before doing that. So theres something transformative about it.
The discourse of self-improvement in relation to risk-taking bespeaks the cultural importance
placed on knowing and monitoring the state of ones self, on movement and progression of
this self, on exibility and adaptability (Martin, 1994). As Daniel, a 39-year-old Sydneysider,
put it: I dont think that you can live life fully without placing yourself in a risky situation.
I dont think that you can really fully nd your own full potential without taking risks. The
boundaries here concern the boundaries of the self: that which is deemed possible in terms
of self-realisation and expanding ones life experiences.
The discourse of emotional engagement
Risk-taking is also fundamentally associated with emotion. To be confronted with risks that
one does not choose to take is to experience fear, nervousness, discomfort, as 44-year-old
Sydneysider Raymond put it. But to deliberately take a risk may also be to seek a heightened
degree of emotional intensity that is pleasurable in its ability to take us out of the here-andnow, the mundane, everyday nature of life. As Martin contended: I think risk is good in as
much as that at least it stimulates the adrenalin. Risk is adventurous, challenging, exciting.
And according to Pete, a 35-year-old crane-driver from Wollongong: The bigger the risk the
more excitement. Even when you take out a mortgage its exciting, even though its a risk.

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120 DEBORAH LUPTON & JOHN TULLOCH


It is clear from some peoples accounts that vivid awareness of the risks they are facing is
an important part of the pleasure of taking part in certain activities. Anna, a 56-year-old video
producer from Sydney, enjoys bike riding and has spent many years participating in road
racing. The risks associated with this sport were recently brought home to her when she was
hit by a car when racing and was badly injured. As she said: Quite clearly I take a risk every
time I put my helmet and my gear on and I go out there and ride 80 kilometres, get passed
by trucks and cars and Im on a bicycle. Its clearly a risk. Im aware of that.
Anna went on to say that, despite this experience and her knowledge of the risks, she is
prepared to continue to take them. Her account of why she does so draws attention to the
pleasure she feels in risk-taking, including the opportunity to feel as if she is part of a wider
world of intrepid and skilful risk-takers:
Its a very important aspect of my life and sometimes its an interesting part of a lot
of risks. I mean sometimes its almost like the risk is part of the attraction in a way
as well Until recently I raced veteran racing, and it gives me an enormous thrill.
I mean, the whole thing about racing and watching Tour de France on television
and sort of living that world and theres fantasy involved.
Stephen, a 39-year-old librarian in Bathurst, talked about the pleasure he experiences when
sur ng in rough seas in these terms:
Sometimes you want to take a risk because of the adrenalin buzz and all that sort
of stuff. Sometimes its unintentional, but still, when youre in the throes of it, like
being dumped by a huge wave, you still could be potentially killed or whatever, but
its still a great rush Even though you might be dumped by a wave and you might
go Wow, yeah, I can feel the forces of this wave just ripping through me!. And its
ecstasy sort of stuff, its still a discovery. And thats where you get the elation, and
I dont think youd get elation without taking a risk.
Stephens words, which impart an almost erotic meaning to the experience of sur ng, suggest
that an important aspect of risk-taking is the opportunity it offers to allow a swept-away
feeling. Risk-taking is a form of release in his account. His representation of the joys of
risk-taking in sur ng are echoed in the words of surfers interviewed by Stranger (1999), who
also referred to the sensuality of the ultimate sur ng experience, the link they perceived
between thrill, desire and danger. Like Stephen, those surfers commonly referred to the
sublime nature of feeling one with the wave through their exploits.
The emotional intensity of risk-taking may also be associated with a feeling of community
and camaraderie with ones fellow participants. Jason is a 27-year-old courier from Sydney.
In his interview he described some activities he undertook as a youth with friends, involving
minor vandalism at his school (they broke in and moved some furniture from one room to
another). In Jasons account, the link between the emotional pleasures of this deed and his
relationship with his friends is explicit:
Oh it was quite fun. A sense of adventure, actually carrying out the [furniture]
removal end. I dont know, it was fun, a group of guys all doing something together,
and I dont know, just experimenting with risk. It was fun and at that age we
wouldnt have been exposed to it as much. And at that age deciding I was going to
expose myself to risk, and I dont know why its so good, but when you do it its like
a drug, you know. Like the driving, the speeding, the drinking and anything else
risky you do then, its just fantastic. Its just a rush I suppose.
These accounts suggest that participating in activities that are coded as dangerous or risky

VOLUNTARY RISK-TAKING AND ITS PLEASURES 121

can bring an adrenalin rush that allows a cionados to escape the bounds of the rational mind
and controlled body, to allow the bodys sensations and emotions to overcome them for a
time. There is a sense of heightened living, of being closer to nature than culture, of breaking
the rules that we see society as imposing upon us. Here again selfhood is important. The
emotions produced by risk-taking are seen to give access to authenticity of selfhood by
confronting the barriers of convention or social expectation.

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The discourse of control


In some of the accounts privileging the emotional intensity of risk-taking, there is a sense that
the pleasures of risk stem from loss of control over the body. It is clear, however, that there
are few situations in which we totally lose the desire to retain some degree of control over our
bodies. This is evident in the account of Brian, a 51-year-old businessman living in Sydney,
who enjoys sailing on that citys harbour in his spare time. Brian said that he saw the risks
he took as part of this pursuit to be within his control and therefore as pleasurable. He drew
a clear distinction between voluntary and involuntary risk in his account:
I think that [sailing is] associated with a sense of control and its a calculated risk
you see? I mean, in some sense its very controlled because you have control over
your welfare, as opposed to sitting in an aeroplane with someone. I think maybe that
might be as good an example as anything of my understanding of risk, where your
wellbeing is in the hands of someone you dont know. And yet I suppose the general
population would accept driving a bus or a ferry or a plane or public transport or
a taxi driver, and accept it and feel quite safe. I guess thats where I feel at risk, when
Im not in control.
Brian later in the interview went on to describe how he feels in control when facing risks in
sailing:
On the one hand you dont have control of the elements, but then you do have
control over the preparation of your vessel and you do take it on as an intellectual
challenge, to deal with the problems that are going to arise. And I suppose only a
challenge because theres a risk involved. So there you have it. I mean, you know,
I suppose here I think back to situations where you end up in an extreme situation.
Where youve gone out for a nice sail or to get from A to B or whatever, and it starts
off ne and then suddenly a storm comes along and suddenly its not so pleasant any
more. And then it gets downright unpleasant and then youre going to get cold and
then youre going to start worrying about the boat and things go wrong. And so
then, you know, it gets a risky sort of situation. Now the thrill comes from having
to turn around a position of being, feeling vulnerable, uncomfortable, unhappy and
deal with it and take control.
Daniel also talked in a similar fashion about the pleasure of control over danger as part of
risk-taking. Although he represents himself as a cautious type, taking care to drive carefully
and look after his health, there are certain times when he allows his caution to slip somewhat.
Daniel works in theatre production, and must climb ladders on occasions to check lighting
arrangements. He said that he has a fear of falling off ladders and is generally very careful
when using them. But sometimes he nds himself testing his fear and deliberately taking
risks: Occasionally when Im up on a ladder I get a bit reckless and I nd myself balancing
up in the ceilings of theatres on lighting bars, having stepped off the ladder onto the lighting
bars. And Im actually quite scared about what might happen and what the result might be.

122 DEBORAH LUPTON & JOHN TULLOCH

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Daniel went on to explain what he got out of this risk-taking: Balancing on a bar thirty feet
off the ground and continuing to work for a little while, and then escaping from that situation
and making your way back down to some sort of solid oor, can give me a feeling that Im
very much in control of my body. And that is a very nice feeling really, I like that feeling.
Anna described the sense of control she achieved from taking physical risks in her youth,
despite suffering quite serious injury:
I can remember we were living in northern Europe and living in the 50s, early 50s,
we had no heating except fuel stoves. And it was always my task to chop the wood
at autumn time, and the wood then got stacked in the outhouse and would dry. And
I was very skilled, Ive always been very skilled with my hands, and I would, I mean
I was probably 12, and I would use an axe with great skill and I would just chop
these logs, and I would do it very quickly. And thats where I lost a bit of my thumb
and the axe went into my hand another time. I mean they were sort of risks, I knew
I was going far too fast, but I got a pleasure out of using that skill, and I felt in
control.
Voluntary risk-taking, for these people, is inherently implicated in their notions of the
boundaries of their bodies, how far they feel they can push themselves, how well they can
conquer their emotions of fear and feelings of vulnerability. They are engaging in edgework
that allows them to experience an intensi ed body awareness but that also contributes to their
sense of being able to control their bodies. Even within the meanings of edgework, control
of the body remains a central preoccupation. Edgework is also characterised by an emphasis
on skilled performance of the dangerous activity, involving the ability to maintain control over
a situation that verges on complete chaos, that requires, above all, mental toughness, the
ability not to give in to fear. Cultivated risk-taking in this context is seen to provide an
opportunity for individuals to display courage, to master fear, to prove something to
themselves which allows them to live life with a sense of personal agency.
Conclusion
Our study revealed three major discourses employed by our participants to describe the
pleasures and bene ts of voluntary risk-taking. The discourse of self-improvement was
employed to describe the importance of working on the continuing project of the self through
taking risks, while the discourse of emotional engagement drew on a neo-Romantic ideal of
the body/self allowed to extend itself beyond the strictures of culture and society (Lupton,
1998).The third discourse, that of control, in some way counters that of emotional engagement in privileging control over ones emotions and bodily responses as a valued aspect of
engaging in risky activities. All three discourses represent a life without risk as too tightly
bounded and restricted, as not offering enough challenges.
These discourses are also underpinned by contemporary ideas about the importance of
identity and selfhood. The notion of risk-taking as contributing to self-development, selfactualisation, self-authenticity and self-control is part of a wider discourse that privileges the
self as a continuing project that requires constant work and attention. Risk-taking, in this
context, becomes a particular practice of the self (Foucault, 1988), a means by which
subjectivity is expressed and developed according to prevailing moral and ethical values.
Further, the use of spatial metaphors in talk about risk-taking demonstrates the importance
of the concept of cultural boundaries in thinking about the body, self and social relations.
Mary Douglass (1966) work on purity and danger highlights the integral role played by
conceptual boundaries in constructing ideas of Self against those of the Other. She argues

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VOLUNTARY RISK-TAKING AND ITS PLEASURES 123

that it is particularly at the margins of the body and society that concerns and anxieties about
purity and danger are directed. Because margins mark and straddle boundaries, they are
liminal and therefore dangerous, requiring high levels of policing and control. This is why we
tend to think of risk-taking as involving the transgression of boundaries; and why there may
be an additional sense of self-improvement when policed boundaries are crossed. That which
lies beyond the boundaries of the Selfthat is, the domain of Othernessis risky. Risk is
dangerous, but also exciting, in its lack of certainty and challenging of the borders between
the known and the unknown.
The discourses employed by people when describing their risk-taking speak of intensity of
emotion and embodied sensation, of movement, ows and waves that break down or cross
cultural boundaries. These tropes suggest that the pleasures invoked by risk-taking for some
are also implicated with transgression of the civilised body image. Against the ideal of the
highly controlled civilised body/self is the discourse which valorises escape from the bonds
of control and regulation, which hankers after the pleasures of the grotesque body, the body
that is more permeable and open to the world. This discourse rejects the ideal of the
disembodied rational actor for an ideal of the self that emphasises heightened sensual
embodimentthe visceral and emotional ights produced by encounters with danger. The
transgression it involves is pleasurable because of its association with the dangerous, the
forbidden, the polluting, the contaminated, the disorderly, the carnivalesque. The very fear,
anxiety and disquiet aroused by these cultural categories are implicated in the excitement
generated by confronting these feelings and crossing over to the other side, at least for a
time.
Yet, as we have argued, risk-taking is not only about loss of control over the body/self. For
some people, notions of control remain central to risk-taking and are an important part of its
pleasures. Indeed, if successfully undertaken without disaster striking, voluntary risk-taking
can lead to a greater sense of control, resulting in a feeling of accomplishment and agency.
Risk-taking, therefore, is far more complex than is suggested in the traditional social scienti c
literature. It may be based just as much on knowledgeof the self, of ones own bodily
capacities and desiresas on ignorance.

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