Better Drowned than Duffers…?

Last Saturday, I went to the theatre to a see a touring production based on Arthur Ransome’s novel, Swallows and Amazons, which will visit various parts of the UK during Spring 2012. It was a thrilling evening, where a versatile company brought the novel to life with immense flair and creative imagination. It also prompted a number of thoughts about risk and risk management in the contemporary world.

For international readers, it may be helpful to fill in some background. Arthur Ransome was a colourful character who found himself stranded in Russia at the beginning of the First World War and became a first-hand witness to the Revolution, which he covered both as a journalist and a spy, possibly for both sides. He married Trotsky’s personal secretary and returned to England, settling in the Lake District in 1925. Swallows and Amazons was published in 1930, followed by eleven more novels until 1947. These were immediately hailed as children’s classics and he won the first Carnegie Medal in 1937. Most feature a cast of characters based on the children of Ransome’s friends. They formed a big part of my own childhood reading – I lived for a while in Harwich, on the Essex/Suffolk border, where four of the novels are set.

Swallows and Amazons, however, is set firmly in the Lake District. It describes the adventures of two groups of children aged between 7 and 12 – the Walkers, sailing the dinghy, Swallow, and the Blacketts, sailing the Amazon. As the book, and the play, open, the Walkers have recently arrived to stay on a farm for the summer holidays. Their mother has recently had a new baby and their father, a naval officer, is away at sea. The children have asked their mother to let them sail the Swallow to an island in the lake and camp out on their own. She is doubtful but sends a telegram – a 1930s text message – to their father for his opinion. The response is Delphic: Better drowned than duffers if not duffers wont drown. This is deciphered as a statement that it is better to be dead than a duffer – an incompetent and cowardly person – but if his children prove themselves not to be duffers, then they will not drown. The children are authorized to embark on a series of risk-taking adventures, whose full threat may be lost on younger readers but which were vividly dramatized.

If you want to know more of the plot, read the book or see the play. My focus here is the attitude to risk. Thrilling as the evening was, I suspect a good many contemporary parents would feel exposed to a child protection intervention if they allowed similar liberties. Some of this is about class: although Ransome was an admirer of Lenin and Trotsky, and wrote for the liberal Manchester Guardian, his child characters clearly come from affluent families and have something of a boarding school manner. They are used to command, to getting their own way and to taking responsibility. However, all of the children clearly grow through overcoming challenges. Risk is the foundation of their personal development.

Put this alongside a case that has recently come to my notice about two third-year undergraduates at an urban university who wanted to write dissertations about lap-dancing clubs. I have to confess that the fascination of students with the sex industry often baffles me and results in some assignments that can be quite unpleasant to mark. However, in the UK, lap-dancing bars and clubs goes on are commonly places open to anyone over 18. These young women could walk into these premises, spend the evening observing interactions and write a blog about them. They could not, however, use that material to write a dissertation because their research ethics committee would not approve the project ‘in case something happened to them and the university was held responsible’.

This raises some interesting issues about why research ethics committees are tangled up in health and safety, and liability, issues that have nothing to do with the treatment of human subjects. Research ethics is co-opted to infantilize students who are legally adults but treated as if they should never be allowed to risk a bad experience. This might not be a project that I would want to do, and I might reasonably discuss the students’ plans to ensure that their whereabouts were known and someone would notice if they did not come home – as I did with a PhD project on domestic violence in the 1990s way before the UK invented ethics regulation. However, students surely have a right not to have their spirit of adventure stifled by institutional prissiness. If they are banned from taking everyday risks, how will they ever venture beyond what is safe and known? If universities cease to be places where unexpected, and possibly dangerous, things can happen, what is the point of universities? Are we just creating duffers?

Robert Dingwall

Robert Dingwall is a consulting sociologist, providing research and advisory services particularly in relation to organizational strategy, public engagement and knowledge transfer. He is co-editor of the SAGE Handbook of Research Management.

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