Friday, January 2, 2009

Research Worth Reading

About a month ago, I was engaged in an on-line discussion about what constitutes 'lousy' research. In my opinion, the majority of health research related to gay men qualifies as 'lousy'. But, I thought it would be a good idea to focus on research worth reading, holding up examples of research that is well conceived and thought-provoking.

So, I went on to and rooted through the most recent stuff pertaining to 'gay' and 'health'. I went through literally hundreds of titles and dozens of abstracts before finding the first article that I actually wanted to read.

So, here's the first installment of 'research worth reading'.

A Phenomenological Investigation of the Experience of Taking Part in 'Extreme Sports'
Carla Willig, City University, London, UK
Journal of Health Psychology 13(5):690-702
DOI: 10.1177/1359105307082459
Abstract: "This article is concerned with what it may mean to individuals to engage in practices that are physically challenging and risky. The article questions the assumptions that psychological health is commensurate with maintaining physical safety, and that risking one's health and physical safety is necessarily a sign of psychopathology. The research was based upon semi-structured interviews with eight extreme sport practitioners. The interviews were analysed using Colaizzi's version of the phenomenological method. The article explicates the themes identified in the analysis, and discusses their implications for health psychology theory and practice."

The thing that grabbed my attention about this article is that it is trying to understand 'risk' from an inherently non-pathological perspective. Basically, the author interviewed eight people who frequently engage in extreme sports (sky diving, mountaineering, etc.) about why they do it and what they get out of it.
I thought that was a brilliant strategy to get past some of the problems presented by risk-oriented thinking in various health fields, and she definitely puts it in that same context.

She encourages the reader to imagine a parallel non-pathologizing approach to understanding health-related risk taking, from smoking and diet, to speeding and unprotected sex. And so I was reading along thinking about what parallels there were to what she reported hearing in those interviews with gay men and sex. Some of it seems to fit perfectly, and some seems incongruous. The point, for me anyway, is not to portray gay sex as entirely analogous to extreme sports, but rather to begin to re-conceptualize the reasons gay men have sex they way they do that isn't about 'making bad choices' on one hand, or being completely overwhelmed by structural forces (the internalization of homophobia, racism, etc.) on the other. Of course, this re-conceptualization happens all the time, but it seems to have a hard time sinking in to public health types.

A choice quote framing her motivation for conducting the study:
"... behavioural choices that do not prioritize health and safety constitute a challenge to psychologists, and one way of meeting this challenge has been to re-conceptualize such choices as the product of psychopathology or false beliefs, and thus not really choices at all. ... An alternative viewpoint would be that there is more than one rationality and that ... it is possible, and worthwhile, to attempt to bring to light their meaning and value to those who engage in them."

Parallels with the experiences of, and motivation to participate in, extreme sports
Just imagine the parallels while reading these quotes about extreme sports participation.

"...among those who practise a particular extreme sport there may exist a strong bond and strong feelings of comraderie generated by being together during moments of great vulnerability."

"The experience offers its participants access to combinations of feelings and sensations which are not available in everyday life."

"In some cases, a sense of loss of control and letting other people take responsibility for one's safety forms an important part of the experience as a whole."

"...taking part in these activities constitutes an extremely important part of one's life and that one's sense of self, identity and well-being is clearly bound up with them. ... life without it was inconceivable."

"Gaining experience and getting better at performing the sport generated a sense of mastery, and this was experienced as rewarding."

"... one's world is reduced to the immediate present. Participants described life becoming very 'simple' and 'straightforward' ... Participants experienced this sense of being in the present as calming and relaxing, comparable to a 'meditative state'. It allowed them to lose themselves in the present and to be momentarily freed from the concerns and responsibilities associated with everyday life."

"...taking part in extreme sports on a regular basis was experienced as therapeutic, reducing stress levels and preventing the build up of tension by minimizing the significance of past and future concerns."

"the experience of extreme sport provided something vital for participants which they could not access in other ways."

"There was a sense of pleasure through feeling alive, energized and vital ... sometimes lasting for days afterwards. They were felt throughout the body and they seemed to lie outside the normal range of emotions experienced by participants in their everyday life."

"...what may appear, from an outsider point-of-view, as reckless ... participants' own accounts suggest that what is required is a carefully staged scenario which produces just the right balance between challenge and comfort in order to allow a certain kind of {transcendent} experience to become possible."

"...the acquisition of the necessary skills and experience takes place over time, ... and may involve status and identity formation within the context of a community of likeminded and supportive peers."

"...taking part in extreme sports activities means more to participants than searching for thrills and excitement, ... they are making informed choices rather than simply acting out unresolved conflicts or implementing distorted cognitions."

"These observations raise questions about the extent to which taking part in extreme sports may itself constitute a therapeutic experience."

"From this perspective, the adoption of what may appear to be extreme, excessive or maladaptive practices or preferences may, in fact, be ways of (re-)establishing psychological balance by adding missing meaning elements and by allowing neglected or marginalized dimensions of existence to be lived."


  1. I see parallels to BDSM as well as sexual athleticism beyond orientation.

  2. Great point! I think she meant it to have applicability across a variety of issues that public health sees as "risky" and goes on to equate that with disregard for one's health, rather than stopping to consider the risks that are essential for healthy living...

  3. Really great to see someone else independently drawing this parallel, as I think it's a really productive comparison - there's an emerging body of thought on 'Edge work', which can be tied into Cziksenmihalyi's concept of 'Flow', and then related via Kalichman into sexual adventurism (although it starts to get a bit pathological at that point!). It's so much more life affirming and enhancing to think about it this way. Thanks for the reference!

  4. I can always count on you for sharp observations & connections Daniel! She actually quoted someone's work about 'flow' (probably Cziksenmihalyi), but my theory-stunted brain had a hard time seeing what it meant...

  5. This is really great Bill. I have been meaning to point to it from LifeLube for some time - and have finally gotten my act together and will go live with it tomorrow morning - with pics and everything :) Thanks for your wonderful brain.


  6. There's risk that could harm the person taking the risk but then there's the kind of risk that the person taking the risk could harm other people, for example passing along the human immunodeficiency virus.