Parkour is a new sport based on athletically and artistically overcoming urban obstacles (e.g., climbing up and vaulting over walls). In this paper, I position parkour as a form of urban adventurism allowing for tests of individual character. This involves what I call rites of risk and rituals of symbolic safety. Together these rites and rituals allow individuals to seek out exciting and dangerous activities while couching their risk-taking in discourses and practices that affirm the value of the self. Thus, although parkour can be dangerous, practitioners use symbolic forms of safety to give their actions meaning and emphasize their ability to handle the risks involved.
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In the U.S., nearly 33,000 people died in motor vehicle crashes in 2010 (NHTSA 2011), well over 30,000 people a year require emergency medical treatments from table saw injuries (Chowdhury and Paul 2011), while approximately 17 % of food asphyxiations in children are caused by hotdogs—resulting in a call for officially labeling the food a choking hazard (AAP 2010). And, of course, the morbid list of ways a person might leave this world is nearly endless.
In this specific case, the outcome (once it was known) was rather ambivalent. The local media mentioned the stunt, which most traceurs seemed to take a certain degree of pride in. Conversely, the traceur’s attraction of police attention angered many within the parkour community (even those that seemed impressed by the news coverage). Several weeks after the event, Arnold was covered in a full body rash, which he attributed to his exposure to the water. For his part, he attempted to situate his skin malady as proof that he was the sort of person willing to do bold and outlandish things. Alternatively, many Chicagoland traceurs took his persistent rash to indicate Arnold’s unchecked recklessness (see below).
Corporations (e.g., apparel and shoe manufacturers, gyms, television and videogame companies, etc.) and entrepreneurial traceurs are rapidly finding ways to profit from parkour—a common progression in the development of an alternative sport (see Beal 1995; Rinehart 1998, 2008; Thorpe 2006). During the time of my fieldwork in Chicagoland, however, entrepreneurial activities were very limited (e.g., paid instructional courses at local gyms and the sale of parkour themed t-shirts) and mostly carried out by members of the local community. Corporate commercialization (e.g., television shows on MTV and G4) was mostly ignored or spoken of negatively. Parkour specific shoes, however, were highly coveted, and the companies that made them a common topic for positive discussions. Aside from shoes (a product which cannot be easily manufactured at the local level), the day-to-day activities within the Chicago parkour community were self-determined and self-governed.
The distinction between rites and rituals is often muddled in the literature. Rite is a term usually discussed in reference to specific types of activities (e.g., rites of passage). The term ritual tends to be used to describe the more general process of prescribed, reoccurring collective activities (see especially Alexander 2004; Collins 2004; Rappaport 1999). For this paper, the value in distinguishing rites and rituals is in analytically separating individual practices (i.e., dangerous stunts) from the collectively enacted, communicative performances that provide the meaningful framework for them (i.e., symbolic appeals to safety). Rites (whether performed in isolation or in a group) denote membership and faith, but the significance of such acts is forged in rituals (which are always performed communally). Thus, as I am using the terms, rites and rituals are interdependent. Rituals are composed of rites, but the social meaning of rites is generated in rituals.
There is considerable debate within the exercise and sports science literature (as well as the mainstream media) about the efficacy of warming-up and stretching, as well as the best protocols to follow. However, in a review of existing research, Woods et al. (2007) demonstrate the value of mild muscle exertion and stretching prior to intense athletic activity in reducing injury and improving athletic performance. Most important for the purposes of my argument (regardless of what future research might determine about the value of warming up and stretching before strenuous exercise), traceurs uniformly claimed such protocols were beneficial to their health.
To further clarify my use of rite and ritual: conditioning and stretching alone would be a rite (i.e., an act of membership and faith to responsible training). When done in a group, it becomes a ritual. Unless a traceur is talking to himself, talk of progression is always a ritual. While rites of risk are often performed communally, the prescribed modes for carrying out the action (i.e., Turner’s definition of ritual) are about calling forth symbolic forms of safety. Thus, I refer to risk-taking as a rite and appeals to symbolic safety as a ritual. Further, as the above data show, traceurs’ performances of safety are about communicating the significance of those symbols to others (i.e., the essential component of both Alexander and Rappaport’s definition of ritual).
Insulting a stranger, jumping a subway turnstile, booking an airline ticket and leaving town with no notice to friends and family: Should a person choose to look for it, potentially life-altering uncertainty lurks around every corner. For most people, most of the time, such decisions are so nonsensical they do not even register as options for action. Some risky actions, however, do make sense to some people, at least some of the time.
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An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction’s 2012 Couch-Stone Symposium in Evanston, IL. The organizers of the 2013 Chicago Ethnography Conference at the University of Chicago were also kind enough to let me share this research with the participants. I want to thank the anonymous reviewers at Qualitative Sociology for their insightful critiques, as well as David Smilde and Rebecca Hanson for their help in revising the manuscript.
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Kidder, J.L. Parkour: Adventure, Risk, and Safety in the Urban Environment. Qual Sociol 36, 231–250 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-013-9254-8