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A Safe Society Going Risky Sociology Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 4432 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Nothing worth having in life is ever attained without taking risk’ (Nansen, 1927 p36). Nansen; a great Arctic Explorer and Nobel peace prize winner said this in his speech about the human need for excitement. Not only this man, but up to 50% of Norwegian people are willing to take risks in life (Norwegian national survey, 2003). The number of people participating in extreme sports seems to be growing (sportbusiness.com, xtremesport4u.com), as is the number of championships in these sports. It seems there is more news about extreme sports and there are more advertisements. An example of a recent risk taking event that made the news in the Netherlands is a thirteen year old girl who wishes to sail around the world on her own. The news of this girl became prime news and many different institutions interfered with the girls’ plan. The Dutch child protection tried to stop her. Eventually they succeeded; the girl was not allowed to execute her plan by court order.

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The example in the last paragraph shows a paradox; the contrast in risk-seeking behavior and the risk avoidance or risk minimization in national policies. Modern policies are aimed on risk avoidance, all risks should be minimized (Beck YEAR, Giddens YEAR, Breivik YEAR). Modern societies do this very obviously. Clear examples; bridges, car, airplanes, nuclear reactors, elevators, toys and electrical devices, all should be safe. People all need to behave according to guidelines (i.e. laws) if you do not you will end up in jail. Different kind of examples but good examples nevertheless are an organizer of a raft event was sued for being negligent when in 2007 two young women died when their raft slipped of a dam, insurance companies giving a discount on their insurance if enough smoke detectors and other safety equipment is present in a house, or the building of gas stations outside of urban areas and dozen more examples could be given. What these different exemplifies is a seemed tension between the deeply rooted need for excitement on one hand and the risk avoidance policies by societies nowadays.

Where could this seemed tension come from? Elias and dunning (YEAR) write in their book -Quest for Excitement: Sport and Leisure in the Civilizing Process- that modern society constitutes of routines and relative lack of risk. The comparison is made between Greek wrestlers and Roman boxers to modern ones in order to exemplify the extraordinary violence permissible in antiquity and the soft and rule controlled society of present time. There are also empirical data which raise questions about the theory that the quest for the excitement of sports is an escape from the routines of modern life. This data shows a difference between the ‘richer’ and the ‘poorer’ side of society. Poorer, more often the most routinized people (i.e. factory workers), seem less prone to look for excitement in sports than the less routinized richer people of society. On the contrary of this empirical data that thrill seeking, risk taking, sensation seeking and all other synonyms of people looking for excitement has been found to be a personality trait and therefore has genetic roots. The genes involved in this trait are closely related to major personality dimensions like extraversion and psychoticism (Eysenck & Eysenck, 1977). A paper by Fulker, Eysenck, Zuckermann (1980) discards sensation seeking almost as a disease. ‘Sensation seeking was found to relate to both extraversion and psychoticism but not to neuroticism. The general pattern of relationships to other trait tests suggests that sensation seekers are impulsive extraverts, but not necessarily neurotic or anxious’ (Fulker et al., 1980 p262).

There does not seem to be an at hand answer to the question: Does a safety-orientated society make people want to look for excitement in for example extreme sports? This is the research question for this paper. We hypothesize that a safety orientated society makes people want to look for excitement in for example extreme sports.

This paper is a review of articles present about the raised topic and will try to get an insight in if, why and how people are looking for excitement nowadays. In the first chapter we described what we mean by a safety orientated society. In the second a definition is given of excitement and in the thirth excitement is related to risk. The fourth chapter explores whether extreme sports are truly sports. In paragraph one this is done from the perspective of autonomy, and in paragraph two from institutional embeddedness as proposed bij Tamboer & Steenbergen (2007). Chapter five gives an answer to the question why people participate in extreme sport. The last chapter mentions in what way extreme sports are influenced bij our safety orientated society. In the conclusion we give answer to our main question.

We do this literature study as an assignment of the Sport and Society course as a part of the Master Human Movement Sciences but the outcome of this paper could be meaningful to others interested in the human need for excitement.

1. A safety-orientated society

As mentioned in the introduction the safety-orientated society does play a major part this research. Many examples have been given of this supposed risk avoidance society. But what is it and is the society that different than we world we lived in, in the past? Ulrich Beck, a respected sociologist, wrote about the risk society in 1998 (Beck, 1998; Kelman, 2003). Beck describes a risk society as risk avoiding because everything in daily live seem to be focused on risk. Society wants to know everything about risk and want to avoid every risk. All risks should be controllable, calculable and predictable. In other words each task, each product or each activity is at least statistical analyzed for hazards. Although this definition is useful to understand the term ‘risk society’ Beck and Giddens decided in a collaboration paper to extend the term risk society into six parameters of risk society. Every parameter is interconnected. The parameters are: the omnipresence of risk, risk is everywhere. At the very core reflexive modernity is characterized by an awareness of living in a society of increasing vulnerability to the unpredictable, unfamiliar and unprecedented risks manufactured by modern science and technology. Different understandings of risk, the proliferation of the risk definitions, the reflexive orientation to risk and risk and trust. These six parameters make the definition is more comprehensive, because …… Besides this cooperation between Giddens and Beck they did not agree completely. Giddens didn’t settle with the first short definition. He insisted that ‘risk is not the same as hazard or danger. Risks refer to hazards that are actively assessed in relation to future possibilities’ (Giddens, 1999). Further contributions of the definition of risk have been made by Wells, Douglas, Luhmann, Joffe and Fox. They represent different disciplinary approaches to risk. To mention all these different approaches would be beyond the purpose of this paper. But the scope of the different authors may be clear. Modern society is a risk society because societies are focused on risk.

Although we completely understand the point of view of the different authors we strongly believe that society is, for the same reasons as proposed by the authors, focused on creating a safe society. The reason why we chose for this contrast is based on our point of view. We have a propensity to look at this society as a safety-orientated society, because we feel that societies aim on safety. From this save society we look into the risks of extreme sports. This contributes to the contrast between these factors. Hereby we presume that a person who starts doing extreme sports started his live in this safety-orientated society (i.e. a predictable and therefore maybe boring society). The people who step out of the safety-orientated society to participate in an extreme sport; what are they looking for?

2. Excitement

Zuckermann (1983 and 1994) wrote that some sports activities might provide a method by which sensation seekers satisfy their appetite for excitement. Potgieter and Bisschof took it a little further and proposed that sensation seekers are not interested in low risk and low excitement activities such as marathon running (Potgieter, Bisschof 1990). But what is this need for excitement? This chapter will provide a definition for the need of excitement and explain the sub factors that come forward from this definition.

In his paper Sensation seeking: Beyond the optimal level of arousal Zuckerman provides a definition which fits seamless in this paper. He states the need for excitement as: ‘’Look for excitement is a trait defined by the need for varied, novel, and complex sensations and experiences and the willingness to take physical and social risks for the sake of such experience”(Zuckerman 1979, p.10). Between 1979 and the present there has been done much research on this topic. Other researchers added some dimensions and that is why (Zuckerman 1994, p.26) came with a new definition for looking for excitement: ‘sensation seeking is a trait defined by the seeking of varied, novel, complex, and intense sensations and experiences, and the willingness to take physical, social, legal and financial risks for the sake of such experience”. Although this better defined definition there was still the need to define it into four sub factors which are:

Thrill and Adventure seeking represents the desire to engage in sports or other physically risky activities that provide unusual sensations of speed or defiance of gravity, such as scuba diving or skiing.

Experience seeking involves seeking of novel sensations and experience through the mind and senses, as arousing music, even psychedelic drugs, art and travel.

Disinhibition describes the seeking sensations through drinking, partying, gambling and sexual variety. Items of this scale indicate seeking of stimulation through other persons.

Boredom susceptibility items indicate intolerance for repetitive experience of any kind including routine work and boring people.

3. Excitement related to risk

Can we relate look for excitement to risk? Is it a relation? Or can you have excitement without taking risks? If you relate excitement to extreme sport you can answer this question with yes. Besides this perspective, (Highhouse 1996) showed a view from the perspective of society. He uppers that risk could also be taken by threats and opportunities. Threats are related to loss and opportunities are related to gain. (Highhouse 1996) Present an interesting empirical study. This study concludes that people want to take risks but there is a clear leverage beneficial to threats. This basically means that i.e. Program A 400 people will die. Program B 1/3 probability that nobody will die 2/3 probability that 600 people will die. According to Highhouse people will chose for program A. The results typically reveal a framing effect with choices involving gains revealing more risk aversion. The example shows that not always excitement can be related to risk. This test clearly showed that people are risk avoidance. They don’t grap the excitement to win 400 lives in fact they chose for not loosing another 200 people.

According to (Zuckerman) sensation seeking is always related to risk he wrote’ biosocial trait of sensation seeking as a predictor of risk-taking behavior. There are good reasons for this as the sensation-seeking motive can illuminate why some people take risks and others do not, and several studies have shown the validity of the concept in this field’. Zuckerman related to this concept , behavioral expressions of sensation seeking have not only been found in various kinds of risk-taking behaviors such as driving habits, gambling, health, financial activities, alcohol and drug use, sexual behavior and sports but the trait was found to be also involved in vocational preferences and choices, jobs satisfaction, social; premarital and marital relationships, eating habits and food preferences, creativity, humor, fantasy, media and art preferences and social attitudes. This list of Zuckerman covers all the four sub factors of the definition ‘look for excitement’.

4. Extreme sports

Many philosophers have askes themselves the questions: ‘what makes sport sport?’ and ‘what makes sports populair?’ Like ‘normal’ or ‘mainstream’ (Rinehart, 2005) sports, ‘alternative’ or ‘extreme’ sports are described by the use of these words while they are never clearly defined. In literature there has not yet been a comprehensive definition, although some have tried. Tamboer & Steenbergen (2004) have proposed that sports can be seen from two different perspectives: from its autonomy and from its institutional embeddedness. For the use of this paper the difference between sports and extreme sports is explored by using these perspectives.

Extreme sport and its autonomy

Bernard Suits describes sport as similar to game and play, and he came up with the following definition (Meier, 1988): ‘to play a game is to engage in an activity directed towards bringing about a specific state of affairs (1), using only means permitted by rules (2), where the rules prohibit more efficient in favor of less efficient means (3), and where such rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity’ (4). This somewhat philosophic definition can be clarified by an extreme sport example. In downhill mountainbiking a competitor has to follow a specified set out course (1), he is only allowed to use a mountainbike which is approved by the competition organization (2), the course set out by the organization is more difficult than the easiest way down (3) but all competitors apply to these rules because this is the game/sport they are playing

Meier (1988) wanted to distinguish sport from game and added a fifth element to the definitions. This fifth element is the demonstration of physical skill. Extreme sports can even better be described by this definition (i.e. think of all the extreme sports with a jury like halfpipe snowboarding, skateboarding, BMX, freestyle windsurfing), but there remain some characteristics which could make extreme sports different from other sports.

Most sports that people call extreme are associated with taking (physical) risk. Extreme sports are about the mastering of a skill (Willig, 2008) to overcome the risks mostly caused or provided by the environment. Mastering a skill is highly individual and this makes extreme sports very indivually aimed sports. There is not even a need for an opponent in most cases because it is about the person mastering a skill or overcoming the dangers of the environment, the environment can be seen as the opponent. In extreme sport there are less rules then in many other sport. The natural surroundings make obstacles. This makes the second element in Suits definition of sports less appropriate for extreme sports (i.e. offpiste skiing or snowboarding this is often the most efficient way down). The risk that is associated with extreme sports could be a factor that makes these sports more exciting or more sensational than other sports (or other activities). Also the environment in which these sports take place can account for the feeling of excitement and therefore be a reason to do an extreme sport.

Extreme sports and its institutional embeddedness

The national and international championships that are organized for many kinds of extreme sports show that there is an institutional embeddedness. Mountainbiking and windsurfing are even at the Olympic sports and are regularly seen on TV. According to Rinehart (2003) extreme sport is mostly developed by young people who are looking for excitement. After this first phase entrepreneurs starting to get in the sport by two ways: firstly businesses develop gear and products, which reduce the risk of an extreme sport. And secondly the sport becomes popular by magazines and TV programs. The results of entrepreneurs who enter the extreme sport is that it becomes popular in general and possible to do for the safe society. A second distinction between extreme sport and a mainstream sport is that the persons who are doing extreme sports aligning themselves with sport in addition to a lifestyle. Which again opens a new market for business ventures and entrepreneurs i.e. clothes and drinks such as Red bull. These institutions want something to say about the sport. They all profit when extreme sports becomes bigger. There will be more media attention, more sponsors, and more people to buy their products. Extreme sport is highly dependent on expensive material, so as for instance in cycling good material is a never ending business. Could this be the reason for the problem Elias and Dunning proposed? As mentioned in the introduction extreme sports are often done by the ‘richer’ members of society. This is easily explained by the highly dependence of expensive materials. The members that can afford to escape the routinized boring society. Extreme sport is surrounded by the concept of lifestyle. Extreme sport is not just participating in the sport activity but also in de kind of life that is a part of this sport. In many of these sports, but for instance bicycle motorcross (BMX) and surfing, ‘chilling’ is a part of the lifestyle. This lifestyle can be seen in de clothes that people wear, the drinks, the shoes, sunglasses and caps or scarfs.

5. Participation in extreme sports

Because it seems extreme sport has become very populair but is also associated with risk (for physical harm or even death) there is the question: ‘Why do people want to participate in extreme sport?’

Extreme sport seems to distinquish themselves from other sport because of the risk involved. Could it be possible that participators do so because of the risk? And do they need this in order to escape our (boring) safety-orientated society?

Taking risk is associated with thrill- and sensation-seeking behavior. This would mean that people are taking risk because of the excitement that comes with it. As mentioned before, in Zuckerman’s definition of sensation risk-taking behavior is not an essential part, people are only willing to take the risk to experience the sensation. It is possible to experience excitement without risk.

Whether people want to experience excitement with or without risk is dependent from the situation. Highhouse (1996) showed risk is perceived as an opportunity when in a loss position, but as a threat when in a gain position. Perceptions of threat or opportunity could have effects on risk taking (Highhouse, 1996). Catar (2006) proposes there is a difference between real risk and perceived risk. Real risk a numerical estimation of the likelihood of an event and perceived risk is influenced by cultural factors. In adventure tourism (activities like bungeejumping, raften, paragliding, etc.) 94% of the participants found there was a very low or non-existent possibility for los, which ment that almost everybody thought the activity was without risk (Catar, 2006). Besides this, the participants evaluate the activities in relation tot the risk of everyday experiences, like driving a car at high speed (Catar, 2006).

There can be concluded that de perceivement of risk is dependent on situational factors, and that people do not seek risk but the experience of sensation.

Catar (2006) states: ‘Although participants are safe in this knowledge of an outcome, there is no knowlegde as to what the experience might feel like, which is where the attraction really lies’. This experience might be so different from everyday experiences, and in combination with an outstanding environmental view the reason for people to participate in extreme sport.

At this point rises the question wheter extreme sport is still extreme without the risks involved. And do the experience and environment make extreme sport different from other sports?

There are also empirical data which raise questions about the theory that the quest for the excitement of sports is an escape from the routines of modern life. If this is the case, and it certainly seems plausible, how can we explain the well-attested fact that the advantaged rather than the disadvantaged members of society are more likely to do and to watch sports? In other words, those whose lives are least routinized, e.g., professionals, are more likely to seek excitement in sports than those whose lives are most routinized, e.g., factory workers. Perhaps the answer lies in the kinds of sports that are popular with different groups of people.

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Before people participate in new activities there are two very important elements that must be met. First, people have to be aware of the existence of the activity and the possibility to participate. And, secondly, people have to be in the circumstances that it is possible for them to participate in terms of time, skill, and money. Most extreme sports are quite new and many people are probably unaware of the existence of these activities. By television, advertisments, and stories from friends they become acquinted with the new sports. But before people decide to take part in these sports they have to be in de right circumstances to do so. Most material is very expensive, and there are many sports that cannot be done anywhere. For mountainbiking their have to be tracks or a natural environment, for skiing snowy mountains are needed, for surfing their have to be big waves etc.

People who are looking for these circumstances can probably be called sensation-seekers. Donnelly (2006) point out that the way in which research has been done on extreme sports often only includes the core participants. Their mode of participation has come to be called ‘authentic’ in contrast to the participation of so-called wannabes, posers and nonparticipants. Their relationship with extreme sport is a commercial one. The identification with extreme sport relies for a big part on the adoption of the related lifestyle (Donnelly, 2006). This points out what big influence media, advertisements and groups have on people. And it shows that there are very different kinds of people who participate in extreme sport. Of course this is also the reason why there isn’t a simple answer to the question why people do extreme sport. Extreme sport may be so popular in contrast to other sport because most participants are attracted to the lifestyle, the products and may not even be practising the sport itself.

6. Are extreme sports under influence of the safety-orientated society?

It could be concluded from chapter 5 that there is a safety-orientated society because people are looking for safety. It is not only our society, but people aren’t looking for the risk of death of great physical harm. When there are many people who want to take part in extreme sports, safety has to be guaranteed. But when extreme sport becomes safer, there will be more people who want to take part.

It seems extreme sport has a very succesfull image which has been made by media and companies. Advertisements and the way the media shows extreme sport make it sound very exciting. But these sports also have a lifestyle that is known as chilling and relaxing. Not only the sport itself but also the special places to go for participating in that sport make it also special and exciting.

In this way extreme sport mirrors our safety orientated society. Because the risks have decreased, and physical safety is assured, people can seek their needed thrills and sensation in extreme sport.


Does a safety-orientated society make people want to look for excitement in for example extreme sports?

Our safety-orientated society makes it possible for all kinds of people to seek excitement in extreme sports.


Government: If you want excitement then please do an extreme sport instead of experimenting drugs and alcohol because being physically active keeps you healthy and that’s safe!


Donnelly, M. (2006). Studying extreme sports: beyond the core participants. Journal of sport and social issues, 30, 219

Elias, N. & Dunning, E. (1986). Quest for Excitement: Sport and Leisure in the Civilizing Process. Oxford, Basil Blackwell

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Highhouse, S. & Yuce, P. (1996). Perspectives, perceptions, and risk-taking behavior. Organizational behavior and human decision processes, 65, 159-167



Meier, K.V. (1988). Triad Trickery: Playing With Sport and Games. Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, XV, 11-30.

Nansen (1927) ‘Adventure’, in G. Breivik, THE QUEST FOR EXCITEMENT AND THE SAFE SOCIETY, journ. Safety science

Potgieter, J., Bisschoff, F., 1990. Sensation seeking among medium and low risk sports. Perceptual and Motor Skills 71, 1203_/1206.

Stranger, M. (1999). The aesthetics of risk. A study of surfing. International review for the sociology of sport, 34 (3), 265-276

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Willig, C. (2008). A phenomenological investigation of the experience of taking part in extreme sports. Journal of health psychology, 13, 690

Zuckerman, M., 1983. Sensation seeking and sports. Personality and Individual Differences 4, 285_/292.

Zuckerman, M., 1994. Behavioral Expression and Biosocial Bases of Sensation Seeking. Cambridge University Press, New York.

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