If you’re like most Americans, you’ve already had a taste: a family pilgrimage to Disneyland or a summer night at the state fair. You’ve felt the adrenaline surge as your roller coaster hurtled into that first loop, and you’ve sat gasping as it lurched to a halt. That hunger for excitement has made theme parks a $4 billion industry in the United States.
But a growing number of people are no longer satisfied with the passive thrills these theme parks provide. A 1998 report from the Travel Industry Association of America shows that half of all adults in this country – more than 98 million people – have sought out something even more exhilarating. From mountain biking to mountain climbing, scuba diving to sky diving, more and more Americans turn to interactive adventure as a means of entertainment. In doing so, they spend millions of dollars on equipment, lessons, outings and guides for a chance to experience the thrill of real danger, however brief or illusory.
Lori Holyfield, University of Arkansas sociologist, has spent the past 10 years studying this trend. She’s one of a growing number of researchers looking into the adventure tourism boom. Many of these researchers focus on marketing and demographics, finding out who participates in adventure activities. But as a sociologist, Holyfield’s interest reaches beyond the individual participants to examine the social circumstances that seem to be driving people – in ever increasing numbers – to embrace risk as a form of recreation.
“This is becoming a big enough phenomenon to raise interesting questions. What is it about everyday life that leads people to seek an adrenaline rush in their leisure time?” Holyfield said. “Some social critics would say our days are so routine and mundane that we have to go looking for spectacle, excitement. But others say the modern culture so bombards us with imagery, slogans and hype that we’re desperately searching for something authentic.”
Either way, what could be more exciting, more authentic, than the most primal of human emotions: fear?
Recreation on the Edge
“The first few times, you wonder why you’re doing it. For me, I had that feeling right up until I got to the door. Once I got in the door, I knew I was committed. Once you leave the airplane and are in the wind, there’s no more fear or anxiety. You’re just overwhelmed with the experience. You’re 100 percent in that moment. There’s no past and no future. There’s only then and what you’re doing right then.”
David Brussin has been jumping out of airplanes for three years – booking excursions nearly every weekend when the weather and his schedule permit. At 27 years old, he’s the chief technology officer for a privacy consulting firm in Philadelphia. He’s tall and trim with dark hair and a straightforward manner. He’s intelligent and intensely focused, and although he doesn’t realize it, he’s a model example of what sociologists have come to call “edgeworkers.”
First coined by sociologist Stephen Lyng in 1990, the term edgeworkers refers to individuals who pursue activities involving the highest degree of risk. Mountain climbers, sky divers, base jumpers – these individuals place themselves in situations that would render most people inert with fear, honing their strength and skill to overcome ever more challenging obstacles or to perform increasingly fantastic feats.
Holyfield and Lyng speculate that such extreme risk-taking may be a reaction to the highly ordered and secure nature of our day to day lives. “When almost every aspect of your life is regulated, bureaucratically or otherwise, it’s really hard to feel any sense of self-determination – that what you do is a consequence of your own decisions and abilities,” said Lyng, a professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University. “But in edgework, you do have that sense. Every choice you make directly and immediately impacts your situation.”
In a society that takes great pains to eliminate risk, to protect the safety of all its citizens, our lives have largely ceased to contain fateful events – moments of truly meaningful action. In addition, the social institutions that define and guide us – work, family, religion – demand increasingly disciplined control over emotion. More and more, success in the social realm requires people to suppress their own feelings and display those most beneficial or acceptable to the institution.
Living in an insulated world, full of insincere sentiment, people have begun to feel anaesthetized, out of touch with their true identities and emotions, Holyfield explained.
Social psychologists have proposed that human beings experience four primary emotions: fear, anger, sorrow and joy. Unlike other, socially constructed emotions, these contain a physical component. The sinking stomach of fear, the throb and heat of anger, the dizzy euphoria of joy – each represents a rush of sensation integral to the experience of that feeling.
Holyfield refers to these as “felt” emotions, a term she borrows from sociologist Norm Denzin. She believes that by placing ourselves in situations where we encounter them, we may regain contact with what we believe to be authentic in ourselves. Edgeworkers accomplish this by pushing themselves to physical and psychological extremes. They seek to confront and then control their most basic human reactions.
But in the process, something extraordinary happens. Many edgeworkers report experiencing a sort of transcendental high in their exertions – a profound elation that includes feelings of omnipotence and oneness with nature, an obliviousness to the passage of time, and an intensity of focus that makes their actions and surroundings seem hyper-real.
It’s the sense of immediacy and purpose that our lives most noticeably lack. Unfortunately, the vast majority of Americans never attain the level of strength and expertise required to perform edgework.
“Most people crave adventure, but they don’t have the time or wealth or inclination to master all the skills and own all the equipment,” Holyfield said. “So do you discount those people, or do you provide a place within the culture for services that meet their needs?”
The tourism industry has been quick to answer that question. From white water rafting trips to outdoor excursion packages, access to adventure has never been more convenient. It’s a trend that true edgeworkers scorn – the seeking of self through an intermediary. But Holyfield considers it a natural, perhaps necessary, service, one that allows even novice adventurers an opportunity to experience fateful action and encounter felt emotions.
Adventure must be measured on a continuum, she says, from the most passive forms of risk — riding a roller coaster — to the most active — edgework. Not every person requires the same dose of fear to achieve the benefits of heightened awareness. Somewhere in the middle, commercial outlets provide a sense of danger while safeguarding customers against the imminent threat of injury. The result is a chance to take risk without necessarily taking responsibility.
“Rock climbing, white water rafting, extreme sports – a decade ago, society stigmatized these types of risk-taking,” Holyfield said. “Now we valorize them. We broadcast them on TV. It’s so mainstream, we’ve built a whole industry to ensure that anyone who wants to participate can.”
Among the most significant contingents in that industry are the white water rafting companies that, every summer, convey hundreds of thousands of people down rivers across the nation. Holyfield notes that in South Carolina alone, water tourism on the Chattooga River surged from about 800 boaters in 1971 to more than 70,000 in 1993. Information from the U.S. Forest Service suggests that within the next 30 years, white water sports will come to represent the second most popular outdoor commercial recreation, surpassed only by downhill skiing.
Curious about the way white water rafting companies orchestrate adventure and about the customers who keep these companies afloat, Holyfield spent the summer of 1994 conducting fieldwork at two commercial outlets on the Chattooga River. Over the course of several months, she attended guide training sessions at each company, observed customer orientation and safety speeches, and personally participated in 10 rafting trips. In addition, she conducted 47 interviews with managers, guides and clients, collecting information about their expectations, goals and experiences.
Holyfield’s interviews with customers confirmed that participation in these guided excursions produced an emotional catharsis similar to that experienced by edgeworkers. But her glimpse behind the curtain – into the training and techniques of raft guides – revealed the extent to which commercial providers package that experience for their clients.
Rafting outfitters portray themselves as the liaison between edgeworkers and couch potatoes – enabling average people to experience wilderness and adventure first hand. But their involvement in the process constitutes much more than simply furnishing equipment and expertise. From the moment customers arrive in the parking lot, they are snared in a highly orchestrated event, Holyfield said.
Part entertainers and part physical trainers, river guides use organizational scripts to draw customers’ attention to the beauty of their surroundings, to introduce them to rafting technique and to deliver important safety information. Guides often employ humor to downplay potentially frightening warnings and to defuse emotionally tense situations. Yet they simultaneously must be prepared to hype the dangers and amplify their own enthusiasm at the first sign of a customer losing interest.
“There’s only a narrow range of fear that is impactful yet rewarding enough for novice adventurers to come back and pay for again. So commercial providers perform a continual balancing act between downplaying and emphasizing the actual danger of white water rafting,” Holyfield said.
In addition to regulating customers’ emotions, raft companies use customers’ expectations to help shape the experience. Life vests buckled and paddles in hand, rafters prepare to play an integral role in delivering themselves down the wild stretch of river ahead. In actuality, experienced guides can maneuver a raft full of tourists down the route without anyone else’s paddle touching the water. Holyfield says some guides are so skilled they can control which position in the raft gets splashed and which person gets thrown in the event of a spill.
By allowing customers to consider themselves participants in the action rather than passengers, however, rafting companies heighten the sense of excitement and risk. The purpose is not to dupe the consumer, Holyfield contends, but to furnish them with a satisfying experience.
In her research, she likens white water rafting to a magic show, comparing the interaction between raft guide and customer with the relationship between a magician and the audience. Both activities generate uncertainty and amazement, she argues, but to accomplish the effect, an implicit understanding has to exist between the individual providing the experience and those who partake of it.
“Both parties engage in appropriate roles in order for the experience to occur,” Holyfield said. “Just as an audience agrees to be entertained and tricked, the adventure consumer agrees to be excited, challenged, always anticipating an extraordinary experience.”
The main difference, of course, is that perceptions of uncertainty and risk have more serious implications on the river. Holyfield notes that deaths associated with white water sports occur every year. And she can personally attest that – despite the manufactured experience – the fear one feels when being tossed out of a raft and sucked down a rapid is as real as it gets.
“Edgeworkers say the only way you can have an authentic experience is to seek it out yourself – test your physical limits, cling to rocks, learn the skills to save yourself. I don’t agree,” Holyfield said. “As a novice myself, I know how deeply a ‘safe’ experience can affect you physically and emotionally. Believing you’re at risk can be just as profound as actually being at risk.”
Lessons in Fear
Commercial rafting companies may attempt to shape the adventure experience, but another form of adventure recreation endeavors to shape clients’ interpretation of the experience. In addition to studying white water rafting, Holyfield has dedicated much of her time to conducting research on ropes courses.
Like an obstacle course on steroids, ropes courses pit participants against a variety of physical and psychological challenges. Structurally, they’re designed to test the limits of an individual’s strength and courage. But socially, the courses are administered to build teamwork and promote group reliance. Corporate employees and court-ordered youth offenders – groups most interested in the development of personal strength alongside social cohesion – represent the main constituents of commercial ropes courses.
As a sociologist, Holyfield understands that social forces play a powerful role in determining how people process and define their experiences. Theodore Kemper, the social theorist who posited that humans are hard-wired for four primary emotions, also proposed secondary emotions – guilt, shame and pride – which originate, not from physiological sensation, but out of social interpretation.
“Primary emotions are so powerful and so raw that the personal and social meaning they carry has to be refined into another, secondary emotion,” Holyfield explained. “Our social group teaches us which secondary emotion to associate with certain primary emotions – for example, whether fear should elicit feelings of shame or guilt.”
According to Holyfield, ropes administrators manipulate this emotional duality to reform an individual’s attitude and outlook. Inherent to the commercial ropes experience is an institutional, ideological agenda, she said, which aims to manage emotions in accordance with social values and norms. The goal, particularly when working with adjudicated youth, is to transform potentially deviant risk-taking into a socially meaningful activity that underscores the value of courage, leadership and interdependence.
In 1993, Holyfield conducted 11 months of field research, interviewing ropes consumers and administrators, observing their interactions and participating in numerous ropes events. She witnessed how facilitators indoctrinate the group with expectations of teamwork and definitions of supportive behavior. The result was that, each time participants placed themselves at risk and confronted a primary emotional reaction, the facilitator and the group were present to help the individuals interpret the experience in a socially desirable manner.
While this approach can be effective in promoting teamwork and bolstering self-confidence, Holyfield believes it generates a troubling paradox. People who seek the genuine emotions and fateful action of adventure often do so as a means of escaping the restrictive institutions of their everyday lives. But the emotional management conducted by some commercial adventure providers can amount to another form of social restriction.
“Some sociologists say that we feel a need to seek the authentic self because it doesn’t exist in the real world. We can’t find it at work because we’re all so focused on the institutional directive. The only way to get in touch with the real self is to get out from under all those layers, and the only way to do that is to get out of the institutional framework,” Holyfield said. “That’s why solo adventurers are so leery of adventure companies – because they place you right back inside an institution.”
The effect can be particularly problematic when participants have not voluntarily opted to put themselves at risk. Ropes courses developed out of a theory of experiential education – that the most effective means of learning is doing. Further, they operate on the idea that pushing people to the point of real fear helps drive the lesson home. The juvenile justice system – a staunch supporter of this philosophy – reports significant anecdotal success with using ropes courses to alter anti-social attitudes and behavior.
But Holyfield found a different picture. Her observations showed that, when mandated to perform a particularly daunting challenge, some participants found themselves overwhelmed by the fear, unable or unwilling to perform subsequent emotional interpretive work. In other words, Holyfield’s research indicates that the voluntary nature of risk is crucial to its therapeutic or educational function.
“Lori’s research has added an important element to the study of risk-taking,” Lyng said. “In my research describing edgework, I emphasize the contrast between institutional life and adventure. There’s a definite polarity there. But Lori points out that a certain amount of adventure is, itself, being institutionalized. The polarity collapses as we see the growth of these adventure industries, offering packaged risk. That’s an important observation to make.”
Serious edgeworkers and, for that matter, certain sociologists consider the attempt to commodify adventure misguided. Edgeworkers view adventure tourism as a degradation of the very purpose behind risk-taking: to develop strength, skill and self-determination through the testing of one’s emotional and physical limits. Sociologists see it as a placebo – a means by which society can offer emotional release without actually freeing people from institutional boundaries.
Holyfield acknowledges these objections, but she maintains that even commercialized adventure has value. To the average American, perceived risk can make just as powerful an impression as actual risk, she asserts. And any method of generating authentic emotion gains increasing importance as modern life becomes more regulated and mundane.
“The idea that we now have to go to institutions to provide emotions and experiences that free us from institutional constraints can be good and bad,” she said. “A lot of that depends on the institutions we go to.”
As the adventure tourist industry gains momentum, it proves that recreation is not all fun and games – that, in fact, it raises serious questions about the function of leisure and the state of our social environment. But Holyfield is not overly concerned. In her opinion, adventure may be manufactured for profit, but it constitutes something more than a typical, store-bought product. Its emotional significance raises its value above that of physical commodities to provide symbolic and necessary meaning in our lives.
“It’s the symbolic nature of adventure that prevents it from being trivialized, regardless of the organizational aim to make a profit,” Holyfield said. “Adventure isn’t concrete in the sense that it can be brought back if it doesn’t meet the needs of the consumer. You can’t touch, smell, hear or see adventure. It must be experienced in an emotional context.”