Edgework is a socio-psychological concept that understands voluntary risk taking as a temporary escape from social boundaries and the search for mental and/or physical borderline experiences.
Edgework is not a crime theory in the strict sense of the word. Rather, it is a concept of the sociology of risk developed by American sociologist Stephen Lyng in the early 1990s. Lyng understands Edgework as the search for and/or experience of physical or psychological borderline experiences.
The term “Edgework” goes back to the writer and journalist Hunter S. Thompson. In his 1966 book Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, he describes the lives of members of the motorcycle gang as a borderline experience:
But with the throttle screwed on there is only the barest margin, and no room at all for mistakes. It has to be done right … and that’s when the strange music starts, when you stretch your luck so far that fear becomes exhilaration and vibrates along your arms … until the next dark stretch and another few seconds on the edge … The Edge … the edge is still Out There. Or maybe it’s In. The association of motorcycles with LSD is no accident of publicity. They are both means to an end, to the place of definitions.
(Thompson, 1967, S. 345; zitiert nach Ferrell: The Only Possible Adventure: Edgework and Anarchy. In: Lyng, 2005, S. 76)
In the theoretical foundation of his Edgework concept, Lyng refers to works by Karl Marx (among others: The German Ideology, 1932) and George Herbert Mead (Mind, Self, and Society, 1934). The Marx-Mead synthesis serves to trace the individually experienced risk behavior back to a macro-theoretical level of explanation. Accordingly, the risky actions are to be understood as an escape from an obligation imposed by rationals and restrictions. Edgework as an activity primarily carried out in leisure time (“play” in the sense of Mead) is a compensatory antithesis to the (externally determined) everyday life permeated by bureaucracy and economic constraints.
Critical Appraisal & Relevance
Lyng himself initially refers the Edgework concept to (illegal/ deviant) activities such as base jumping. However, he also sees a connection to Katz’ claim that criminal activities have aesthetic and emotional attractions but also to Cultural Criminology namely to a “‘criminology of the skin’ that attends to the embodied pleasuresand emotions generated by certain forms of criminal behavior” (Lyng, 2004: 359).
- Lyng, S. (1990). Edgework: A Social Psychological Analysis of Voluntary Risk Taking. American Journal of Sociology 95(4): 851-886.
- Lyng, S. (2004). Crime, edgework andcorporeal transaction. Theoretical Criminology 8(3): 359–375.
- Lyng, S. (ed.) (2005): Edgework: the sociology of risk taking. Routledge. New York.