Sunday, 29 July 2012

Who are you swimming for?

When I was training for my Channel swim, one of the most common questions I was asked (once we'd got all the goose fat questions out of the way) was: "Who are you swimming for?". While I recognise that most people asked out of a generous impulse to contribute to whatever charity I had chosen, what I find intriguing about this is the assumption that I must (should?) be doing it for charity. The idea of swimming / running / cycling / walking for something is so deeply entrenched in contemporary society that it becomes hard for people to imagine not 'swimming for' something; it also becomes difficult, then, to say, as I did, that I was doing it 'for myself', and not for charity, and I often found people actively trying to persuade me to take sponsorship from them, or looking at me rather disappointedly.

One of the roles of sociology is to ask questions about things that seem obvious and straightforward, but which are actually a quite complicated mix, and this is a good example of that. Why is it that charitable fund-raising has become so inextricably linked with endurance sport? How can we understand the moral pressure and expectation to swim for charity? And even more intriguing, perhaps: why should other people's charitable giving be dependent on me doing something as random as swimming the Channel? Why does charitable giving have to be earned through forms of suffering, rather than just given? Of course, many people do give routinely to charities; others donate as much to support a friend doing a challenge as to support a particular charity; for some, the endurance sport is a useful prod to prompt the act of giving. But the tying together of endurance sport and fund-raising in the social imagination is so strong that it raises questions nevertheless.

I've been wanting to write about this for a while, but have been very wary of doing so...not least because any kind of critical engagement with the concept of 'swimming for' something can easily look like I'm doubting the positive motives of those doing so. So, to be clear, that's not what I'm saying - I think that there is a lot of heartfelt, generous, altruistic work being done in this regard. However, the pressure to 'swim for' still troubles me, and the fact that it is tricky to say that you are not 'swimming for' something tells us that there is more going on here than just a free choice of whether or not to swim for charity.

There was some discussion of this on the marathon swimmers' forum last May, covering fund-raising in general, but predominantly whether it is acceptable to fund-raise to cover the costs of swims themselves. The general view on this latter question was that transparency was the key. But I want to return to what I see as the bigger question of the relationship between charitable fund-raising and marathon swimming. By way of contribution to the debate, and as part of the research project, I gave a paper at the Third International Conference on Sport and Society  at Cambridge University on 23-25 July, 2012. My paper was (rather wordily) called: "Who are you swimming for?: English Channel swimming, charitable fund-raising and the construction of alliances of suffering", and this is my first attempt at writing on this topic. This is part of a more extensive writing plan for an academic journal article, but the conference gave me a chance to test out a few ideas. I wasn't entirely happy with the result - too many loose ends, mostly as a result of the 15 minute time limit for the presentation, but also because I'm still a bit tangled up about what the data says and what I want to say about the data. The time limit, for example, meant that I didn't really get chance to talk about the many different kinds of charitable fund-raising that go on under the umbrella of 'swimming for', and hopefully the article will enable me to explore this in more detail. So instead, I focused on the idea that charitable swimming can act as a sort of counter-balance to the very self-directed (self-absorbed) nature of Channel swimming. I also start to develop a concept of 'alliances of suffering' that I think will help to show how the different actors in charitable projects become connected. If you'd like to read the written text of the talk, you can download it by clicking on the paper's title on this page of my research website. It's a work in progress, so all comments welcome.

As for me, I chose not to swim for a charity. Just as there are multiple, simultaneous reasons for swimming for charity, there are several reasons for choosing not to: I didn't want the extra stress and pressure; I didn't feel like I could spare the time on top of the training; I was always planning to do more swims in subsequent years, so it felt like doing the Channel swim for charity was setting an unsustainable precedent; I was frankly uncomfortable with the idea that people's charitable giving would be dependent on such a random activity as me swimming; I felt that there was some tension around fund-raising through the swimming whilst also conducting research on that process (and receiving public money to do so); and finally, and perhaps with my research hat on, I wanted to see what kind of responses I had to not swimming for charity when there was such a strong expectation that I would from others.

What do other people think on this subject? What were your experiences of 'swimming for'? Feel free to e-mail me, or leave comments below.

And in the mean time, happy swimming, whoever you're swimming for.

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