by Ben Fincham
Like Jeffrey Kidder I spent some time studying the bicycle messenger industry. In contrast to him I examined the European context and undertook an ethnography in the UK – working as a messenger for a couple of years – as well as interviewing messengers across Europe and conducting a European quantitative survey. As such I was interested in this article particularly as many key features of bicycle messengering appear to me to be present in both the United States and in Europe.
My experiences – a decade old now – were marked by low pay and a hazardous working environment. My colleagues, several of whom are still friends, were an eclectic mix of middle class idealists, cycling enthusiasts, people that had difficulty finding regular employment and a few people that seemed to revel in the performance of bicycle messengering and all that this entailed.
For the purposes of this commentary – and in the spirit of academic debate – I would like to suggest that edgework is perhaps less useful in thinking about these people’s orientations to working experiences than might first appear. My feeling is that Jeffrey Kidder is quite correct to reassert the question of motivations to particular areas of work or ways of working especially in relation to non-standard employment arenas such as bicycle messengering but edgework does not really do it for me.
There are two reasons for this. The first is that messengering was not nearly as thrilling as it at first appeared. My own experience was that days were marked by long periods of routine riding – sometimes boredom or frustration. This is a point well illustrated by Justin Spinney’s recent observations based on footage from head mounted cameras on messengers to see what actually happened in a working day – often not a lot. The thrills when they came were few and far between – and for many of my fellow messengers were not particularly welcome.
Second, with regard to edgework I always felt that the distinction between ‘risk taking for kicks’ and ‘risk taking as consequence of work’ was an important one to make – and one that is not addressed by an edgework approach. The risks undertaken by bicycle messengers were underpinned by an economic imperative and in this sense should be thought of as a consequence of the configuration of a particular labour market than an individual’s orientation to risk taking behaviour.
My discomfort with edgework arises from Hamm and Lyng’s own attempts to describe edgework as involved with studying activities at the edges of conventional acceptability – ‘criminal’, ‘irresponsible’ or ‘dangerous’. These descriptions sound too macho for me and do not remind me of my time as a messenger. I was studying a peripheral labour market activity where Gi Baldamus’ idea of traction was easily as important as Lyng’s edgework – and Howard Becker’s descriptions jazz musicians in the 1950s were more reminiscent than studies of, for example, free fall parachuting.
Ben Fincham is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Sussex. Ben is a founding member of the Cycling and Society Research Group. His current research involves gender, sexuality, work and mental health. He is a co-author of two recent books on mental health – Understanding Suicide: A Sociological Autopsy and Work and the Mental Health Crisis in Britain.