Academic journal article Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education

Adventures in Paradox

Academic journal article Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education

Adventures in Paradox

Article excerpt


The popularity of adventure recreation and adventure education has arisen, in part, from an assumption that adventure experiences are radically different from those of everyday life in modern societies. A paradox previously pointed out is that those seeking adventurous experiences often make use of technical and technological prosthetics, thus safeguarding against risk associated with adventure. This has generally been understood in the context of the risk society. However, a further and, we argue, deeper paradox than this is manifest in the current popularity of adventure recreation and adventure education. This is the conflict between the use of adventure to provide experiences supposedly 'missing' in contemporary societies and the extensive centrality of notions and ideologies of adventure in the history, literature and process of economic expansion of those same societies. We explore this paradox by characterising the current focus on adventure as either deeply contradictory at the social and economic levels, or conversely, as an unintended and reflexive process of (adventurous) subversion of the economic and social forces that initially harnessed the notion of adventure. Our purpose in doing this is to offer a novel framework for researching the notion of adventure in outdoor recreation and outdoor education.


This paper sets out to explore the notion of adventure as a socio-historical construct, with particular reference to outdoor recreation and outdoor education contexts. (Other contexts are possible but beyond the scope of this paper). Our search for previous literature on the social and historical development of the idea of adventure turned up very little in English (none of which related to non-European or indigenous cultures) but two authors provide a foundation for our analysis here. Paul Zweig's (1974) work is predominantly a history of adventure story-telling, while Michael Nerlich (1984, 1987, 1997) goes further in arguing for the centrality of adventure ideology to the development and continuity of modern capitalist societies.

Unfortunately, much of Nerlich's original output is written in non-English European languages and so is difficult for monolingual English speakers to access. In addition to this, as Nerlich himself explains (1997), his work has received little attention, perhaps because it falls between academic disciplines. We believe, however, that it represents a valuable contribution to understandings of adventure and one aim of this paper is to begin to illuminate Nerlich's work. We argue that a full understanding of adventure must include a socio-historical dimension in addition to the usual emphases on psychology, social psychology and the philosophy of human nature.

Such a socio-historical account reveals that the notion of adventure is swathed in paradox. At different times it has been conceived as either the route to securing the future or the means of opening up uncertainty and therefore possibility (Nerlich, 1987); it has been instrumental as an ideology supporting the physical and economic expansion of states and empires (Nerlich, 1987) or promoted as a therapeutic catalyst for intrapersonal self-development (e.g., Hopkins and Putnam, 1993; Gass, 1993); it has served (and helped preserve) the interests of the petty nobility in medieval Europe but has also been pivotal in the rise of the bourgeoisie (Nerlich, 1987). Today, adventure is simultaneously commodified and romanticised as escape from modernity. Most generally, adventure is an enduring notion historically yet it is a phenomenon that is tightly determined and modified by cultural, social and economic settings.

The valorisation of adventure in modern leisure and outdoor education contexts today is in many ways a simple continuation of the paradoxes apparent in the adventure concept. To an extent, the paradoxical nature of adventure has been recognised in work that has contrasted the element of risk necessary for an activity to qualify as adventure with the increasing technological management and minimisation of such risk (Wurdinger and Potter, 1999 and, more generally, Giddens, 1991 and van Loon, 2002). …

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