Buying Pain: Why do people pay to get hurt?

Tough Mudder is an adventure challenge involving a series of approximately 25 military-style obstacles that participants have to overcome in half a day: running through torrents of mud, plunging into freezing water and even crawling through 10,000 volts of electric wires. Injuries have included spinal damage, strokes, heart attacks, and even death

However, people seem to love the promise of pain. Rather than being discouraged by the company’s warnings of potential injury, the promise of hurt or even the hefty entrance fee (around $150 these days), over 1.3 million men and women have to date entered the challenge. Tough Mudder made about 100 millions dollars of revenues last year (compared to $2 million in 2010) and the obstacle racing industry is about a half billion dollars business as of 2015 with double digit growth.

How do we make sense of such a success? With Rebecca Scott and Bernard Cova we conducted extensive ethnographic fieldwork to try and explain this phenomenon. Our findings highlight three main dimensions, beyond the tribal link that Bernard Cova already talks about.

First, Tough Mudder is a response to the disappearing of the body. Paul Virilio calls our society a sitting civilization. Our bodies have become ways to sit in front of a computer. The people we interviewed expressed a physical and existential malaise about the way they have come to use (or rather not use) their body.

Second, Tough Mudder is, in this context, a ritual of regeneration of the body. If the body is disappearing, if we are using our bodies les and less, then Tough Mudder can be seen as a well-orchestrated ritual of bodily regeneration, where people come to reconnect with their bodies, partly through pain.

Third, Though Mudder symbolizes and expresses what the sociologist Hartmut Rosa calls our desire to live a fulfilled life. He writes that:

“a life that is rich with experiences and developed capacities…. This idea no longer supposes a “higher life” waiting for us after death, but rather consists in realizing as many options as possible from the vast possibilities the world has to offer. To taste life in all its heights and depths and in its full complexity becomes a central aspiration of modern man”

Consistent with this, Tough Mudder allows participants to craft the narrative of a fulfilled life through their body. As evidence of this, twitter is teeming with pictures of Mudders taking and posting pictures of their wounds.
Overall, what this research tells us, is that market actors have become instrumental in selling us our bodies back, bodies that have become less central to economic life, yet remain central to our existence and our sense of being human.


Rosa, Hartmut (2010), Alienation and Acceleration: Towards a Critical Theory of Late-Modern Temporality, Vol. 3, Aarhus: Aarhus University Press.

Rosa, Hartmut(2013), Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity, New York: Columbia University Press.

Virilio, Paul (1976), Essai Sur L’insécurité Du Territoire, Paris: Stock.

New services in India

There is much talk about the growth of the service economy and the shift to a post-industrial world. However, we know relatively little about new service jobs or how people entering these jobs approach them. In this research we are looking at two new service professions in India: gym trainers and coffee baristas.

Gym training and coffee shops are relatively new to the Indian context. Fifteen years ago, when I lived in Mumbai, there were very few coffee shops or gyms. Even though the city has the tradition of Irani cafes, these have little to do with the kind of cosmopolitan “third place” between home and work, that we have come to associate with chains such as Starbucks. Similarly, the new gyms like Gold’s Gym or Talwalkars have little to do with the culture of the akhara, the traditional Indian wrestling gym.

As part of this research, we followed gym trainers and baristas, in Mumbai, New Delhi and Jamshedpur. Mostly, we wanted to see how Indian service workers approached this kind of work. We conducted long interviews, spent time with our research participants in gyms and in their homes, and we even filmed a couple of gym trainers as they went about their day. Below is a film we made about Kamran, a young gym trainer living and working in Byculla, a working class area of Mumbai:

What is striking about gym trainers like Kamran, and something I try to analyze in my work, is the way new services like gym training can become a way to gain the recognition gym trainers lack in other spheres of their public life. What gym trainers find especially gratifying is that clients call them “sir” and value the specialist knowledge they have accumulated. While this respect is somewhat circumscribed to the particular space of the gym and the interaction of trainer and client, the value trainers get from this interaction, is a good reminder that recognition is one of the most powerful dynamics animating social life. The philiosopher Alex Honneth writes that:

“The reproduction of social  life is governed by the imperative of mutual recognition, because one can develop a practical relation-to-self only when one has learned to view oneself, from the normative perspective of one’s partners in interaction, as their social addressee”

And while coffee shop baristas may get less respect from their clients, they are drawn to the perceived professional mobility associated with these jobs, the cosmopolitan image of coffee shops, and the largely respectful interactions with customers. New services, in the Indian context, can offer a new interaction frame that departs from the frame of service as servitude.

Not all services offer this kind of recognition though. One of the fastest growing professions in India and the world, security guard, seems to generate a fair amount of humiliation and alienation (see Goptu 2013).

Regardless, the concept of recognition may help us better understand the dynamics of the service economy, the frustrations and aspirations of service workers, how these new understandings and practices coming with these new jobs shape social interactions, and how they eventually diffuse into the social fabric.


Honneth, Alex (1995), The Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Goptu, Nandini (2013), “Servile Sentinels of the City: Private Security Guards, Organized Informality, and Labour in Interactive Services in Globalized India.”International Review of Social History 58 (01), 9-38.