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Risk cultures and risk-taking among Danish youth

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Why do ‘ordinary’ young people engage in risk-taking practices such as recreational drug use, speeding in cars or getting into fights? From a sociological point of view, how can we understand and conceptualise such practices? And to what extent do socioeconomic and sociocultural differences manifest themselves in young people’s willingness to take risks? These are some of the questions which a coming post doc. project at SFI aims at addressing.

The aim of the study is to investigate youth risk cultures and risk-taking theoretically as well as empirically. Much work within applied risk research has focused on marginalised or at-risk youth, explaining their risk-taking practices either by reference to psychological factors (personality traits etc.) or social background factors (vulnerable family relations, deprived neighbourhoods etc.). However, ‘ordinary’ youth engages in risk behaviour as well, but when trying to account for this sociologically, existing theoretical approaches fall short. Therefore, the present project focuses on ‘ordinary youth’ – empirically defined as young people enrolled in high schools or vocational training – and their engagement in risk-taking.

Theoretically, the study aims at developing a new approach to studies of risk-taking, combining theories on risk with theories on embodiment and habituated action. Within the sociology of risk, the last 25 years have witnessed a development from viewing risk as something to be avoided towards viewing risk-taking as ‘edge-work’, which is part of one’s self-development and identity work. However, while it may be the case that individuals in late-modern societies are not as risk-averse as Ulrich Beck proposed, the concept of edge-work has its limitations as well. Thus, for one thing, not all practices objectively defined as risk-taking are actually experienced as such by the people involved. For another, the notion of edge-work builds on an underlying assumption about risk-taking as a deliberate and carefully considered act. While some acts of risk-taking are certainly the result of weighing off the pros and cons in terms of the pleasures obtained versus the dangers involved, not all risk-taking is as well-considered. To open up for new insights into risk-taking practices, the present study approaches this from another point of view; namely an approach that focuses on the bodily and embodied practice of risk-taking and views this as linked to social class as well as gender. Further, it is assumed that among specific groups of more drug-experienced users, drug use becomes a habituated practice; something which is not sought for the thrill of the high, but is a routinised and more or less integral part of specific modes of partying. The theoretical foundation for this approach is found in studies on embodiment and habituated action, more specifically Loïc Wacquant’s application of Bourdieu’s concepts of habitus and the logic of practice.

Empirically, the study seeks to come closer to an understanding of how risk cultures are formed among ‘ordinary’ Danish youth and to investigate differences within this heterogeneous group. The project will focus on the case of youth drug use, but other bodily practices often defined as risk-taking may be explained by the same approach, e.g. moped/car speeding, using doping in excessive fitness training, and street violence. The empirical part of the project is designed as a comparative focus group study among students at vocational schools and high schools, respectively. More specifically, 16 focus groups will be conducted across four different schools. The focus group method is chosen because of the project’s focus on an aggregate rather than individual level. For this, focus group interviews are a particularly well-suited research method, because they allow the researcher to gain insight into the social processes as they unfold.

The project is being funded by the Danish Council for Independent Research and runs from March 2013 until March 2016.

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