An autoethnographic account of sorts, that doesn’t quite pan out

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Åke Nilsén
Halmstad University


Stephen C. Poulson
Why Would Anyone Do That?: Lifestyle Sport in the Twenty-First Century
224 pages, paperback.
New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press 2016
ISBN 978-0-8135-6443-2

A combination of a very intimate and private personal story, and a scholarly task in the social sciences, is a hazardous and rarely tasty brew. Either the personal story becomes too trivial without reaching depths that touches upon universal life experiences, or the distance required for a good scholarly task is lacking. Another obstacle to tackle is your own preconceptions, since they can guide you in a direction that you may not be fully conscious of. Stephen C. Poulson, a sociologist from James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, USA, struggles successfully with these issues in his book Why Would Anyone Do That? Lifestyle Sport in the twenty-first Century, where he takes on the assignment of analysing the origins and outcomes of his childhood experiences, over time transformed into lifestyle sports such as mountain biking and competitive triathlon.

Poulson is somewhat disappointed with his fellow scholars, especially with those who have experiences of their own from participating in the activities, for a lack of critical approach to the activities and just settling with a descriptive ambition. Poulson is critical, but the foundation from where his critique originates is not clearly reflected upon, which I will come back to later. He investigates the formation of new sporting activities from the seventies onwards, based on ethnographic material such as participant observations and interviews and contributions to relevant journals, but also his own recollections from early participation as a pioneer mountain biker as well as organizer of adventure trips on mountain bikes.

Poulson’s main research question is whether these activities are an expression of freedom, or if a disciplinarian aspect of the activities has developed over time and is imposing more constrains on the participants. For the disciplinarian aspect Poulson uses Michel Foucault’s perspective on how society imposes different constrains on man over time, through institutions or self-technologies. His critical approach is also present in the investigation on the whiteness and male dominance in lifestyle sports. Poulson is critical of the commodification of the activities by market forces, which jeopardizes the quest for authenticity and freedom.

The reader is invited to follow Poulson through his childhood experiences of outdoor activities, with a special occasion, defined as an epic adventure, in focus – being exposed to sudden changes of weather – and his thick descriptions of teamwork in twenty-four-hour mountain bike races. These accounts are the high mark of the book – they give you both a good understanding of the specific undertakings signifying the activities and the social interaction involved, and they give you a good sense of who Stephen C. Poulson is as a person. This is rare in the field of research where the dominating ideal is to neutralize the scholar in order to avoid bias on account of his/her subjectivity.

I would like to challenge Poulson on two points: Firstly, the understanding of lifestyle sports, and as a consequence his selection of examples for his study. Secondly, the lack of an understanding of the development of modernity and the changing status or meaning of lifestyle sports over time.

I brand them adventure sports, which is a somewhat narrower definition than what Poulson uses, lifestyle sport. The definition of lifestyle sport is borrowed from Belinda Wheaton.

In my own research of adventure sports I am often confronted with questions about my selection of examples, climbing and scuba diving, and how they can be compared and if they have anything in common. I brand them adventure sports, which is a somewhat narrower definition than what Poulson uses, lifestyle sport. The definition of lifestyle sport is borrowed from Belinda Wheaton and basically distinguishes lifestyle sport from traditional sport on account of how influential the sport is on your everyday life in general. This distinction would, however, include all professionals in every sport since their commitment has to be 24/7 and it does not recognize any difference between the professionals and the committed amateurs in sports that are the central source of identity for the participators, such as climbing. This makes the two examples Poulson have chosen problematic in my eyes. Mountain biking, as presented by Poulson, involves a wider range of lifestyle markers, such as the playfulness, attitudes towards the environment, subcultural ingredients and, sometimes, a great resistance towards the phenomenon of sportification (not mentioned in his analysis), while triathlon is genuinely all about competition, discipline and goal-oriented actions. The differences are to my mind so distinct that an analysis of them would demand different conceptual frameworks in order to be relevant.

My second point concerns the changed status of lifestyle sports over time, which in Poulson’s version almost becomes a story of the decline of once authentic activities, now hijacked by market forces. Poulson’s analysis could do with an altered understanding of this process, an understanding that makes it possible to distinguish between different stages of modernity and its dynamic influences on activities like lifestyle sports. This would make it possible to understand how the development of different subcultural phenomena, as a reaction to a solid modernity in the post-war period, over time becomes central to the popular culture when a neo-liberal version of modernity has smashed the solid institutions of society. Lifestyle sports simple adapt to new ideals in a neo-liberal society where the once goofy and anachronistic activities now have become signs of a highly competent risk-embracing and a self-disciplined entrepreneur of our times. If Poulson had incorporated an extended reading and discussion of the late Foucault, this understanding of the influence of neo-liberal society on everyday life would have been possible.

The greatest benefit of Poulson’s book is the personal accounts and the deeper understanding of the activities he manages to communicate. However, because of his deep commitment to these activities he does not fully reflect on his preconceptions. In a sense that might be another reason why his understanding of the development of lifestyle activities over time becomes problematic – Poulson wants to save his childhood experiences of freedom.

Copyright © Åke Nilsén 2017

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