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«Background The motivational factors that influence a person’s desire to participate in extreme sports have not yet been identified. Lyng (1990) ...»

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Exploring the Motivations of BASE

Jumpers: Extreme Sport Enthusiasts

Tara L. Allman, Robin D. Mittelstaedt, Bruce Martin &

Marni Goldenberg

Little previous research has been conducted exploring the motivational factors that

influence a person’s desire to participate in extreme sports. The researchers used a

means-end approach (e.g. semi-structured interviews) to explore motivations for

participation in the extreme sport of BASE jumping. BASE jumping is the activity of

parachuting from bridges, buildings, antennas, and cliffs, in which participants have been identified as voluntary-risk takers. The results indicated that BASE jumpers deliberately took risks as a means of becoming positively transformed, which was essential to their quality of life. The study findings hold important implications for researchers interested in further studies of extreme subcultures as well as practitioners interested in developing adventure tourism opportunities targeted toward extreme subcultures.

Background The motivational factors that influence a person’s desire to participate in extreme sports have not yet been identified. Lyng (1990) acknowledged that we do not fully understand what motivates individuals to partake in high-risk behavior. Lupton & Tulloch (2002) have echoed this concern by recognizing that little empirical research has strived to examine the meanings attributed to high-risk behavior. Previous research has focused on some high-risk subcultures, but not on extreme sport subcul­ tures (Katz, 1988; Lois, 2005; Lyng & Snow, 1986; Lyng, 1990). For instance, Lyng (1990) re-analyzed a 5-year ethnographic study of skydivers (Lyng & Snow, 1986), operationalizing the concept of edgework. The question has been explored to a lesser extent within the context of involvement in extreme sport subcultures. With the research on high-risk subcultures, researchers continue to be perplexed, because extreme athletes often ‘claim that the experience is essentially ineffable and can be fully understood only by actually participating in it’ (Lyng, 1990, p. 862). Extreme sport experiences are so deep and meaningful, they are beyond words, and leave a person mystified. Even if understanding is gained, some participants report, ‘You can never fully appreciate it until you do it yourself ’ (Olsen, 2001, p. 146).

Instead of accepting the stereotypical view of extreme sport participants as darede­ vils with a death wish, previous investigations of other high-risk subcultures (Brymer & Oades, 2009; Ferrell, 1995, 1996, 1997; Ferrell et al., 2001; Lupton, 1999; Lupton & Tulloch, 2002; Lyng, 1990, 1993, 1998) have proposed a number of sociological expla­ nations exploring a range of complex motivations for risk-taking behaviors that might apply to this study. Ferrell et al. (2001) examined BASE jumpers’ practices of inten­ tionally and deliberately extending the meaning of their experiences through media production. The study focused on the legal and illegal aspects of the BASE jumping subculture, examining the sensual motivations, or ‘seductive appeal’ (Lyng, 2005, p. 29), similar to Katz’s (1988) studies on crime and deviance. But recent research on BASE jumpers has explained motivations in terms of ‘positive transformation’ (Brymer & Oades, 2009). This investigation found that extreme sport participants purposefully take risks and are transformed by the common realization of humility and true courage. Additionally, Lupton & Tulloch (2002) found that the general Australian population views risk as positive, steering away from the traditional, risk-aversive portrayal, identifying three derivatives: self-improvement, emotional engagement, and control.

This study aims to identify and clarify motivations for participation in the extreme sport of BASE jumping and, in doing so, add to previous research on high-risk sub­ cultures. It will attempt to understand motivations for continued participation in BASE jumping using a naturalistic research design (Lincoln & Guba, 1985; Patton, 1990). A brief discussion of the edgework literature, which has been applied to comprehend voluntary risk-taker motivations, will be followed by a discussion of means-end literature. Means-ends theory (Gutman, 1982) provides a framework for examining the outcomes that individuals associate with an activity. Consequently, it provides an effective lens through which to consider the motivations for participation in the extreme sport of BASE jumping.

Edgework: The Role of Risk in the Extreme Sport of BASE Jumping Many sociologists have described voluntary risk-takers as edgeworkers. Thompson (1971) observed and coined the term edgework, while examining the risk-taking of notorious post-Second World War motorcycle gangs, as he anticipated continued research on the emergent risk culture. ‘Essentially, edgework involves exploring the limits of one’s ability and/or the technology one is using while maintaining enough control to successfully negotiate the edge’ (Laurendeau, 2006, p. 584). Edgeworkers are synonymous with those who ‘push the envelope’, or surpass the limits of what has been done in the past. One can then propose that edgeworkers are, therefore, voluntary risk-takers. Lipscombe (1999) described the ‘edge’ as being continually chal­ lenged by the edgeworker, as it is a symbol for life versus death, or the boundary between the ordered and disordered sense of self and environment. As edgeworkers move away from their comfort zone, and closer to the edge, they begin to face their fears, perhaps experiencing feelings of discomfort and chaos (Laurendeau, 2006). In this context, chaos occurs when taking progressively greater risks in the activity, like jumping lower or more technical objects in BASE jumping (Martha & Griffet, 2006 as cited in Laurendeau, 2008). Laurendeau (2008) suggests that voluntary risktakers crowd the ‘edge’ by coming as close as possible to chaos without losing control. Each edgeworker determines his or her own boundary, or edge, as each indi­ vidual has his or her own subjective view of risk. Considered in terms of Varley’s (2006) Adventure Commodification Continuum, crowding the edge constitutes an original adventure situated at the ‘deep’ end of the continuum.

Voluntary risk taking is defined as ‘a behavior that involves individuals’ partici­ pation in activities that they perceive to be in some sense dangerous, but are under­ taken deliberately, and from choice’ (Lupton & Tulloch, 2002, p. 114). Lupton (1999) described the common acceptance of risk within our society. Dichotomous relationships exist between ideologies of risk acceptance versus risk avoidance. ‘Risk avoidance in this literature is typically portrayed as rational behavior, while risktaking is represented as irrational or stemming from lack of knowledge or faulty per­ ception’ (Lupton & Tulloch, 2002, p. 114). Some researchers (Hansson, 1989; Slovic,

1987) believed that voluntary risk-takers continued to risk, because, as they are increasingly familiarized with those risks, they become desensitized to the level of risk and need more danger to perceive their activities as risky. Other motivations include: ‘for the sake of conquering fear, displaying courage, seeking excitement and thrills and achieving self actualization and a sense of personal agency’ (Lupton & Tulloch, 2002, p. 115).

Previous edgework literature contains numerous implications for the analysis of the BASE jumping subculture. In his pivotal study on skydivers as voluntary risk-takers, Lyng (1990) asserted that edgework was the key to helping us understand voluntary risk-takers’ motivations. Ferrell et al. (2001) maintains that studies on voluntary risk-taking have helped to further clarify and conceptualize edgework. In 1990, Lyng developed a model that framed the practice of edgework in terms of three stages.

Lois (2005) explained Lyng’s model as ‘powerful’ – since it is able to unite the micro-social (e.g. feelings) and macro-social (e.g. institutional influence) elements of edgework. As described by Lois (2005), these stages included: (a) the preparation stage, when edgeworkers feel nervous; (b) the performing stage, during which edgeworkers ‘suspend the reflexive aspect of the self, and act without thinking’ (Lois, 2005, p. 147); and (c) the aftermath stage, in which edgeworkers feel ‘omnipotent and self-actualized’ (Lois, 2005, p. 148). Self-actualization is personified by edgewor­ kers who leave their everyday –‘self ’ – behind to ‘experience themselves as instinc­ tively acting entities, which leaves them with a purified and magnified sense of self’ (Lyng, 1990, p. 860).

Lois’s (2005) study of rescue workers revealed a fourth stage in the practice of edgework: redefining feelings. She believed that her identification of this stage had little relevance to recreational risk-taking. However, since BASE jumping is an extreme sport, the fourth stage is implicit to the current study. In the redefining feelings stage, ‘rescuers were able to maintain the illusion of control, despite the negative feelings they were left with after “failed” rescues’ (Lois, 2005, p. 147).

Many BASE jumpers have experienced logistical mishaps resulting in injury. Many even know someone within the tightly-knit BASE jumping community who has died as a result of mishap while BASE jumping. Owing to the extreme nature of the sport many avid BASE jumpers have paralleled Lois’s (2005) rescuers’ decision to neutralize their feelings in order to prepare themselves for their next ‘mission’.

In addition, Lyng’s (1990) study outlined five essential dimensions that must exist to understand edgeworkers. Lyng’s (1990) dimensions included the following: (a) acknowl­ edging the socioeconomic and historical frameworks (e.g. advancements in technology);

(b) understanding the illegal/legal aspects of the edgeworker’s activity, in which ‘perhaps one of the sources of excitement is in fact to be able to overcome this added obstacle’ (as cited in Milovanovic, 2005, p. 56); (c) comprehending lesser or greater levels of emotional intensity combined with intuitive reactions; (d) being in- and out-of-control; and (e) embracing the notion of jouissance from the French, meaning the edgeworker’s ability to make sense of their activity by understanding symbols, imagery and reality.

Since the early 1980s, BASE jumping has become an alternative, extreme counter­ part to its skydiving predecessor from which it evolved. Extreme sports are defined as activities in which accidents or mistakes will commonly result in severe injury or death (Brymer, 2005). BASE jumping is considered an extreme sport because of the con­ siderably high level of risk involved in the sport. BASE is an acronym for the

various free-standing structures from which an expert-level parachutist can jump:

buildings, antennas (e.g. radio or television), spans (e.g. bridges), or earth (e.g. rock cliffs). In BASE jumping, the participant has only one parachute (with no back-up chute). Parachutes have been technologically designed specifically for BASE jumping, because specialized equipment is needed to successfully negotiate low altitude jumps. A typical BASE jump is between 400 to 2,000 feet, depending upon the height of the object, with a reaction time ranging from three to eight seconds.

Therefore, BASE jumpers must develop expert-level skills (e.g. techniques, judgment) under dedicated mentorship and practice. The quintessential, ‘One, two, three, c-ya!’ is shouted as a common parting phrase as fellow BASE jumpers leave an object, com­ monly referred to as an exit point. A BASE number is given to individuals who jump at least once from each of the four BASE objects.

The sport of BASE jumping is criminalized to some degree by legislation prohibit­ ing access to objects that jumpers use to pursue the sport. Examples of objects from which it is illegal to BASE jump include most buildings, antennas, spans, and some protected lands, such as the NPS, unless a sanctioned event is taking place. Because of these access restrictions, many of the most dedicated BASE jumpers are compelled to break the law to engage fully in the sport. The clandestine nature of the missions taken by these BASE jumpers (e.g. trespassing, night jumps) has resulted in negative public perceptions of the sport. However, Bergic (2005) has established BASE ethics to improve both safety and the image of the sport. Other BASE jumpers have expressed their concern: ‘We’re tired of being branded as careless, reckless outlaws’ (Gutman, 2003, p. 58). Since many BASE jumpers are keen to jump from officially forbidden objects, and with the growing popularity of the tourism industry, sanctions continue to be developed or maintained for this subculture.

BASE jumping also continues to emerge as a spectator sport, on the ‘shallow’ end of Varley’s (2006) Adventure Commodification Continuum. Rinehart (2000) suggests that unlike mainstream sports that spread like artifacts from one culture to the next, extreme sports are simultaneously emerging and arriving. The popularity of extreme sports as a spectator sport can be attributed to the media (e.g. X-Games), technological advances, and lifestyle changes, in which tourists are motivated to escape from their everyday lives (Pomfret, 2006). Park (2004) asserts that Generation Y has been the coveted target market and catalyst behind the extreme sports industry, because of its impressionable age category, from 12–25, and the fact that it encom­ passes over 70 million people, which is three times larger than Generation X.

Means-End Theory Means-end theory was developed by Gutman (1982), and originated in the field of marketing as a way to determine consumer motivations for buying a specific product. Gutman (1982) explained that Rokeach’s (1973) value systems research had been the driving force within this methodology to link consumer values to con­ sumer choice of products. To improve marketing initiatives to consumers, Gutman (1982) rationalized that understanding consumer values systems can help explain con­ sumer preferences (or valued end states). ‘The motivation to consume a product therefore originates from the expected benefits the product conveys to the consumer and the expectation of achieving individual goals’ (Mort & Rose, 2004, p. 222). This is similar to Rosenberg’s (1956) expectancy theory in which ‘consumer actions produce consequences and consumers learn to associate particular consequences with particu­ lar aspects of a product’ (Gutman & Miaoulis, 2003, p. 106).

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