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Responding to the Trend of Human Enhancement Drugs: the Case of Drug-Free Bodybuilding Culture in European Context

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - HumEnBody (Responding to the Trend of Human Enhancement Drugs: the Case of Drug-Free Bodybuilding Culture in European Context)

Reporting period: 2015-09-01 to 2017-08-31

The research project set out to explore the previously uncharted culture of ‘natural’ (i.e. drug-free) bodybuilding. ‘Natural’ bodybuilding has been emerging in different parts of the world as a response to a dominant, pharmacologically-enhanced model of building bodies that has thus far monopolised lay and scientific attention and debate. Although drug-free practice can be viewed as the ‘default’ position in bodybuilding's modern trajectory which began in the 1850s, it is only in the last four decades that it has been articulated as an integrated ‘alternative’. This is precisely at a historical juncture where dominant bodybuilding culture and the wider paradigm of pharmacologically-enabled human enhancement it represents have both exploded and come under increased scrutiny.

The aim of the work has been to investigate the emergence and development of ‘natural’ bodybuilding. The key contexts for this investigation have been a) a globalised gym/fitness culture where growing numbers of people from different ages, genders, class, cultural and ethnic backgrounds get exposed to training and diet systems, vocabularies and body projects originating in bodybuilding; b) the use of image- and performance- enhancing drugs, particularly its spread outside the confines of elite sport and into the wider world of recreational exercise and the ensuing challenges to public health; and c) the wider phenomenon of human enhancement, and more specifically the trend towards enhancing human capabilities and attributes through pharmacological means that challenges our ideas of the ‘natural’ body.

Focusing on Europe as a significant and intriguing site in an emerging global mosaic of body cultures, the research’s objective was to trace and understand how those involved in ‘natural’ bodybuilding act on their bodies and how they define, experience and organize their individual and communal undertakings. In an attempt to sketch a representative and comparative picture, ‘natural’ bodybuilding culture was examined in different cities in France, the UK and Greece. These were approached as exploratory case studies marked by their own developments in the specific area of bodybuilding and gym/fitness culture as well as by wider and often transnational social and cultural processes. The research involved visits and participant observation in gyms and ‘natural’ bodybuilding events, in-depth interviews with 50 research participants, and online/social media research.
The work performed pertained to a) the conducting and dissemination of the research project and its findings, and b) the scientific and professional development of the researcher. Regarding a), the work included literature review, securing ethics approval, online data collection, planning of publications with supervisor, preparation for fieldwork, conducting of fieldwork, data organisation and analysis, writing and submission of publications, and design of further research projects. Regarding b), I undertook a 3–moth secondment at partner institution (Public Health Institute, Liverpool John Moores University) where I also co-organized an international conference on anabolic steroids attended by academics, health professionals, anti-doping officials and media, integrated in the research group in my host institution (Sport Science Section, Dept. of Public Health, Aarhus University), presented my research at three international scientific conferences, attended interdisciplinary workshop abroad, acted as article editor and reviewer for scientific journals as well as book proposal reviewer and member of conference scientific committee in my area of expertise, presented at interdisciplinary research seminar retreat, delivered seminars to Master’s students at different universities, received training, and attended stakeholders’ meetings. The key research outputs within the period of the action have been one research monograph (published) and three peer-reviewed journal articles (one published and two submitted). The data gathered have been particularly rich and as of this writing a number of further scientific publications are planned as well as a non-academic, not-for-profit report for relevant stakeholders.
By choosing drug-free bodybuilding as a novel object of study the project has shed light on a hitherto uncharted body culture and contributed to a deeper empirical and theoretical understanding of bodybuilding as a dynamic and varied phenomenon. New insights have been made possible into the complex ways people think about and experience health, gender and the body, as well as into how the choices of people involved in bodybuilding get formed and transformed over time. Methodologically, the research has been original in its comparative approach and fieldwork in three different countries, contributing to a more updated and nuanced understanding of not only bodybuilding culture but also the wider globalised gym/fitness culture.
By studying a body culture that defines itself in juxtaposition to a model increasingly relying on pharmacological means, the project contributes to the growing inquiry on human enhancement. At a theoretical level, it helps appreciate how anti-enhancement cultures are dynamically co-constitutive of the enhancement phenomenon. Regarding the specific issue of image- and performance-enhancing drugs, the findings of this project can be taken up for building social science-informed, proactive responses to the identified public health challenges by adding to the currently limited knowledge base of how and why exactly such substance use occurs or does not occur.
In terms of impact, this research project is placed in an area of intensifying public and scientific scrutiny and investment of resources. The benefit of the project and the overall action to society lies in a) generating new data and analysis with theory and policy-related implications on hotly-debated topics of social significance, and b) making findings available and accessible to different audiences. The research has been disseminated to different audiences and spaces, including peer-reviewed publications, conferences attended by academics as well as health professionals, policy makers, anti-doping officials and media, research workshops and retreats, stakeholders' meetings, scientific networks, and seminars to postgraduate students. Situated at the intersection of body culture, substance use and anti-doping research fields, the project and the training designed around it have allowed me to a) deepen my competencies in my established field of expertise (sociology/cultural studies); b) acquire basic skills in a new field (i.e. public health), and c) develop crucial transferable skills (e.g. project management, varied audience engagement). My ability for undertaking interdisciplinary work has significantly developed, and so has my understanding of the challenges and opportunities in working in and across different research environments and traditions. The action has also benefited the host and partner institutions by a) enabling knowledge transfer that strengthens their multidisciplinary profile and strategy of internationalisation, b) providing a platform for collaborations in the academic sector, and c) opening up dialogue with stakeholders in other sectors (gym/fitness industry, public health and anti-doping).