Luck Be a Parachute

Why people risk death as a hobby

a parachute, colorful, on a plain white background

Ethnographer James Hardie-Bick jumped out of an airplane.

He was thousands of feet up and he went thousands of feet down. His skydive was a success: he did not die. It was his third time not dying.

On the ground, his skydiving instructor criticized the performance.

“Your arch was quite flat, and you kicked your legs,” the instructor told him. “It’s only natural, it’s quite common actually. You know what you’re doing don’t you? You’re looking for the ground, but the ground’s not there.”

The instructor offered a few pointers for a more graceful next-time and then said, “I bet you can’t even remember your first jump. Like everyone else, you were shitting yourself. At the end of your first jump you were just pleased to be alive. But now you’re more aware that you’re jumping from a plane, so you need to control that…”

Dr. Hardie-Bick, like late US President George H. W. Bush, wanted to know what it feels like to risk death by falling.


Controlled Chaos

A popular social science explanation for why people risk death is called “edgework.” The edge is the line that divides success and catastrophe; the work is the effort to get as close as one can to that line without crossing over.

To court risk is to invite chaos. Risky activities like drugs and gambling can cause literal or financial demise; success depends on factors that are beyond control. Edgeworkers see benefits to this. For them, the attempt at chaos control stimulates an acute awareness of life in all of its fine & exquisite details. Awareness is the shining path to self-actualization.

Or ruin.

But Hardie-Bick and his colleague think that edgework misses a huge point: edgeworkers don’t really want to die, so they take elaborate safety precautions. They seek feedback from the instructor. They double-check their equipment.

 “I mean most skydivers have an interest in fatal accidents,” said Anna, an experienced skydiver.

“Not because they are particularly morbid, but because they want to know exactly what happened in order to learn… The more time you look at them the more you learn and the more safety conscious you become.”

The thrill is not chaos. The thrill is controlled chaos.

“You’re in control,” said Stewart, who has more than once jumped from airplanes. “It’s like you’ve got that control; with a roller coaster ride you do nothing… you are there for the ride whereas parachuting you’re not there for the ride, you’re the pilot.”

It is often said that when the edgeworker gets too much experience, the excitement is less exciting. To get that awareness high, some seek new thrills, or add more risk to old thrills. Edgeworkers create new edges to work.

But for the skydivers, each safety-check, and each controlled jump, lowers the risk and heightens their thrill.

Awareness emerges. Self-actualization kicks in.

“A lot of people do find it sort of puts things in perspective…” A skydiver said. “No matter how much trouble they’re having at work during the week say, you know, tedious boss and they don’t like the job and they’re not certain whether they want to continue doing this job.”

“All these things are just not important.”



This was written by Josh Dubrow based on James Hardie-Bick and Penny Bonner. “Experiencing flow, enjoyment and risk in skydiving and climbing,” published in Ethnography in 2016 (17, no. 3: 369-387). They also wrote about rock climbing, but I focused on the skydiving.

Indie wrestlers are a kind of edgeworker – read “The Wrestler’s Paradox” here in Occam’s Press.

Hardie-Bick spent 15 months, sometimes jumping off of planes, in (and toward) the UK. He interviewed 14 fellow skydivers (9 men, 5 women) as young as 20 and as old as 53, who represent different levels of skydiving experience (p. 375).

“Your arch was quite flat, and you kicked your legs…” p. 378

“I mean most skydivers have an interest in fatal accidents…” p. 376

“You’re in control…”p. 379.

“A lot of people do find it sort of puts things in perspective…” p. 381.

Copyright Occam’s Press 2021: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs CC BY-NC-ND

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