Death Defying Research

The sky is the limit for Dr. Jason Laurendeau.

Jason’s research in the Sociology Department has allowed him to develop skills that you wouldn’t normally think of as central to Sociological study, like leaping from cavern-spanning bridges―on purpose! But from Jason’s perspective, this was the logical first step in his quest for knowledge.

When most of us see an imposingly tall structure, we are awed and even intimidated. The more adventurous members of the crowd might wish to take in the view from the top of the building or bridge. If, however, someone suggested leaping off of it into the river or the street below, they would probably generate anything but enthusiasm from the crowd. Even with a parachute, it would be hard to entice most people into attempting such a leap, yet there are those who go out of their way to do exactly that.

BASE jumpers use parachutes to enable them to jump from a tall fixed structure to a target area below. These structures generally fall into one of four categories: buildings, antennae, spans (bridges) and earth (cliffs), hence the name BASE.

It is, of course, a very risky practice, and few outside of the sport are convinced that it’s something worth looking into. Jason had BASE jumping described to him in these terms: “If 95% of people think that skydiving is crazy, 95% of skydivers think BASE jumping is crazy. BASE jumping is like skydiving, only dangerous.”

It wasn’t long before Jason adopted BASE jumping as one of his main topics of research in the Sociology of Sport. And, as they say, one thing led to another: “It didn’t really surprise me that, when I started doing a project on BASE jumping, it took all of a couple of hours before I was out there doing a jump.”

One of the main areas that Jason focuses on in his research is risk. “The first real substantive topic that I became interested in was risk sport and skydiving in particular, and that’s largely because I was involved in skydiving at the time,” explains Jason. The sport of BASE jumping was an obvious choice as far as risk was concerned. It was also a logical choice for Jason to look at risk specifically in the context of sport, because his first degree was in Kinesiology.

Jason “stumbled” upon Sociology as a way to incorporate a number of research interests when he began to think about graduate work. “At the top level, my interests revolve around risk, gender and emotion, as well as deviance and social control,” he notes.

Many of these areas were touched on in a paper Jason recently co-authored, which examined the “institutionalized sexism embedded in the International Olympic Committee decision to exclude women from the ski-jumping event at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.” Jason co-authored the paper with Dr. Carly Adams, a sport historian working in the Kinesiology and Physical Education Department at the University of Lethbridge, who also happens to be his partner.

In Jason’s experience, the promotion of an integrated approach to professional and personal concerns is the rule rather than the exception at the University of Lethbridge. He explains, “There seems to be a real emphasis here on balance.”

“I take all of my responsibilities seriously as a member of faculty, and at the U of L that balance also carries forward into our personal lives. I really appreciate that administrators make a point of acknowledging that faculty have lives outside of the U of L and support them in fostering those parts of their lives. The ivory tower perception of academia is still around, and I think it’s important that we, as academics, have time and space to get involved in the ‘real world’. It just makes us better balanced in terms of what we do bring to the workplace.”

In terms of his own involvement in the community outside of the university, Jason has employed his expertise, both as a scholar of sport and as a Sociologist, to work for positive change in the city of Lethbridge.

“One of my biggest involvements at the moment is with Bikebridge Cycling Association. This group played a role in the recent city decision not to implement the bicycling bylaw recommendations, which were written with the clear intention of getting bikes off of the roadways and onto the pathways.” In a more purely sociological capacity, Jason has also served on the Board of the Lethbridge HIV Connection Society. Currently, Jason sits on the Board of Directors for the Lethbridge Food Bank.

The natural beauty of the Southern Alberta landscape culminating in the Rocky Mountains is the perfect capstone to the life that the University of Lethbridge and the City of Lethbridge make possible, and this has not been lost on Jason. “I’ve met many people in my short time here who were only planning to stay here a short while,” he explains. “Before long, though, they realized that the really enjoyed both the city and the University, and twenty years later they’re still here – and still happy! I see myself headed along that same track.”

For students, Jason believes that the University of Lethbridge’s approach to teaching promises benefits that will break social stereotypes about the relationship between students and professors.

“Professors have something of a reputation for being so caught up in their research that they don’t care about teaching. Though I think this is a dangerous misrepresentation, it’s a trap that can be tough to avoid if an institution puts much more weight on research than it does on teaching. At the U of L, they don’t just give lip service to teaching―it’s supported and recognized. So you have faculty who are passionate, committed and invested. They’re still doing cutting edge research in their areas, but they’re also excited about sharing that with students.”

What’s next for Jason? Recently, Jason hung up his “wings,” so to speak. "I'm currently in the final stages of a paper in which I write about just that," says Jason. "What started out as a paper about BASE jumping ultimately became a paper about masculinity, fatherhood, and shifting meanings of risk and responsibility."

By John Greenshields