Ethnographies of Cycling

Here are three of the UK’s foremost cycling thinkers – Dr Justin Spinney from the University of Surrey, Dr Katrina Brown from the Macaulay Institute in Aberdeen, and Dr Ben Fincham from the University of Sussex. They’re pictured during the Ethnographies of Cycling workshop which we ran here at Lancaster University just before Christmas.

My colleague Griet Scheldeman and I weren’t at all sure how the day would go. CeMoRe (the Centre for Mobilities Research) here at Lancaster asked whether we wanted to organise an event around cycling, so – not ones to look a gift horse in the mouth – Griet put on her anthropological hat and I put on my cycling cap, and we tried to conceive an event which would both speak to our current qualitative research into cycling (and non-cycling), and have wider resonance, appeal and value.

It struck us that, over the last few years, quite a few people have started to investigate cycling from social and cultural perspectives, and – more specifically – to explore cycling ethnographically. Put very simply, ethnography is a scientific research method, aimed at understanding people’s ordinary (and extraordinary) practices, using whatever means make sense, but generally involving ‘hanging out’ with those people whose lives and practices you are seeking to understand. If you’re curious to know more, the wikipedia entry on ethnography is probably as good a place to start as any.

Griet is an anthropologist, and ethnography is the anthropological method. I’m a sociologist who favours the ethnographic method, mainly because I love hanging out with people, seeing how things are for them, and simply dwelling in everyday life. So we’re both fans of the method, and we felt we could help to consolidate what ethnographic research into cycling has so far taken place in the UK by pulling people together to discuss ethnographies of cycling.

We also knew we wanted to run the event as a workshop – designed to share, collectively think about, and produce knowledge – rather than have a largely passive audience trying to stay awake long enough to soak up the knowledge of a few active ‘experts’.

But we didn’t know how popular the idea would be. So we were really pleased that, so soon before Christmas (though, luckily for us, before the really icy weather which disabled so many people’s travel plans), well over 40 people made the trip to Lancaster. Perhaps more pleasing was the mix of people who made the effort to participate – not only academics from across the UK (everywhere from Aberdeen to Plymouth, Edinburgh to Sussex) and further afield (Damien O’Tuama made the trip over from Dublin), but also Local Authority Cycling Officers, cycle campaigners, independent consultants and people from British Cycling.

As you can see, we organised the room in a way designed to encourage people to talk, and to get to know one another. Doing this can be risky, but what I love about cycling, and this includes thinking about cycling, is how people always so want to talk about it. I don’t know if it’s because people who are interested in cycling tend to be natural participants, or if there’s something specifically about cycling which promotes participation, but in my experience when cycling’s on the menu it’s very rarely quiet!

The morning comprised the best set of presentations I’ve ever seen and heard anywhere. OK, I might be a little biased, but we asked all the speakers to give particular attention to the methodological aspects of their research, and – in very different ways – they all did a really marvellous job at that. Ben Fincham started the day brilliantly, speaking with real verve, energy and incisiveness of his ethnographic fieldwork with cycle messengers. Robin Parker gave us a great (graphic!) and entertaining insight into his ethnography of a naked bike ride. Katrina Brown presented a carefully crafted analysis of some of the issues and difficulties involved in doing video-based fieldwork among mountain bikers. Justin Spinney gave us a bold and authoritative conceptual argument, calling for ethnographic work which contextualises bicycles and cycling as aspects of complex everyday lives. And Rachel Aldred presented a massively compelling series of sociological insights arising in connection with her ongoing investigations into cycling cultures in English cities.

Impressed is an understatement. We are very fortunate, at present in the UK, to have so many brilliant people applying themselves to thinking about cycling. I’m both incredibly glad and rather amazed to suggest that the new dawn for cycling studies which Paul Rosen, Peter Cox and I called for in our Introduction to Cycling and Society in 2007 seems to be breaking! That’s not to say I’m satisfied – I won’t, personally, be satisfied until more than half of all urban journeys in Britain are made by bike, and I believe that sociology – similarly to most other disciplines – has an important part to play in achieving such a vision.

Not only was the content of the presentations absolutely first class, but all the presenters were so damn good at sticking to time that I had no opportunity to ding my bike bell – my time-keeper’s device – at them! Here I am, finally getting the chance to bring order out of chaos via my little black bell later in the day …

Before a super lunch, Elizabeth Shove, Professor of Sociology here at Lancaster and someone with a strong theoretical and empirical interest in practices (and of course, although it is also and always much else, cycling is very clearly a practice, or set of practices), gave her thoughts on the morning, which – I think it’s fair to say – ruffled a few feathers. I’d like to think that was a good thing – Elizabeth’s comments and criticisms certainly gave many of us something to talk about, and – speaking only for myself now – will I hope prod me into being both more strident and more rigorous in arguing the value of ethnographic research into cycling.

We were very fortunate to have Jo Vergunst, an anthropologist from Aberdeen University, come down to run the afternoon’s ethnographic exercises with Griet. Here’s Jo, later in the day, getting to grips with a Brompton – the anthropologists in particular seemed to find the Brompton a very fascinating thing. What to many of us has become an ‘ordinary’ machine was to them a whole world waiting to be explored, folded, unfolded and understood … I know that Griet’s explorations are ongoing …

We planned the afternoon as a break out of the office. We wanted everyone to have a go at ‘doing ethnographies of cycling’, no matter how contrived and limited – in so short a space of time – that would inevitably be. Although it wasn’t compulsory, we were keen for people to go outside, out – so to speak – ‘into the field’. First, Jo and Griet provided a quick overview of ethnography, and some top tips and suggestions. Then, we split into groups and headed out to get our hand’s dirty – people needed no prompting, seizing the initiative and tackling the exercise with gusto. As you can see, some people headed straight for the bike sheds …

Many people commented on the amount of stuff which people in Lancaster leave on their bikes when parked. Panniers, lights, pumps – all these kinds of things are often left with the bike – it’s normal to do so here. It’s a basic observation, but one which goes to show that you can never take things for granted, and even within the UK there’ll be significant variations in how people cycle, use bikes, park bikes, talk about bikes … you get the idea. Other groups wandered over to the main entrance to the University campus, looking for people on bikes. Alas, the weather was a bit miserable and all the students and lots of staff had already packed up for Christmas, so conditions were far from fertile for really fruitful ethnography. But hopefully everyone got the basic idea, that by really looking, concentrating on looking, you get to see all kinds of things which would otherwise probably pass you by.

With few bikes around, one group focussed on ‘traces’ of bikes and cycling – D-locks left attached to railings, cycling logos painted on the ground … Another group explored the potential meanings of cycling’s absence (weather, time of year, time of day, lack of infrastructure, lack of cultural messages announcing cycling as ‘normal’ and expected …). Another lot jumped in a car, to explore car users’ perspectives on cycling at Lancaster University (and among other things concluded, I think importantly, that there’s nothing to suggest to those inside cars that they should watch out for, or expect to negotiate space with, people cycling, let alone that they might actually be interacting with a ‘cycling environment’). One group observed a traffic island, and thought about – and with a Brompton experimented with – the different cycling lines it’s possible to take around such a piece of infrastructure, and why and how different people might take different lines, and with what consequences. Perhaps Andy Salkeld and Peter Cox had the best idea – proving that you don’t need to look for bikes or cyclists to do ethnography of cycling, they headed straight to the nearest bar! I don’t think they were motivated purely by the prospect of a pint, and certainly they garnered some good insights into experiences and perceptions of cycling from those they met.

And we even managed to see how many ethnographers it takes to unfold a Brompton …

There was an ‘expert’ in there somewhere …!

Huge thanks to everyone for coming along and making such an enjoyable and stimulating day. I hope the workshop helped to sustain the energies of people already involved in research into cycling, encouraged a few more, perhaps initiated a few new friendships, created a few more conversations, and generally acted as another small step on the road to thinking cycling into a place of greater centrality, both inside and outside of higher education. People tend to say nice things (to your face, at least!) about a workshop they know you’ve been involved in organising, but I really hope that all those who made the effort to come along got something from the day.

And how great, until late into the night, to catch up and share a few beers with some of the people I first met back in 2004, at the Cycling and the Social Sciences Symposium, also hosted by CeMoRe and held here at Lancaster. There are more parents among us now than there were back then, but it was great to see that we still know how to party, and that we’ve gained quite a few more friends along the way!

With thanks to CeMoRe and the Understanding Walking and Cycling project for hosting and financially supporting the event, and particularly to the Project’s administrator Sheila Constantine for organising it all so efficiently, and ensuring the day itself went off so smoothly, and to our boss, Professor Colin Pooley, for letting Griet and I get on with it but then showing up on the day and being a model participant. And special thanks to my long-suffering colleague Griet Scheldeman, who not only organised the workshop with me, but is once again letting me nick her quality photos for my own questionable ends …

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5 Responses to “Ethnographies of Cycling”

  1. Adonia Says:

    Thanks for the summary! As an anthropology PhD student studying bicycling in Los Angeles, I salivate over your advanced state of academic inquiry into this key cultural practice in the UK. Here in the states we have much catching up to do!

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thanks Adonia, but I guess I should stress that it’s all relative. I’d be hard-pressed to argue that research into cycling is really thriving in the UK; it’s just that it’s in a much better state, I think, than it was a few years ago, when there were various people doing research into cycling, but they were doing so relatively independently, and sometimes in ignorance, of each other. Whereas now it feels a bit more like we might be building a community of researchers with a strong interest in cycling. The Cycling and Society Research Group’s annual symposium, which pulls researchers from across the UK and sometimes further afield together, has really helped. But we’re still definitely on the margins of both transport studies and mobilities research, as well of course when we’re out there on the streets … Part of my own project is certainly to ‘talk up’ what’s happening here – there are, after all, some good grounds for optimism – but the danger with that is I create a misleading impression, that we’re really sorted – when we’re not, I’m afraid!

      Great to see your blog – excellent stuff.

      Best wishes

  2. gareth Says:

    It’s great when multiple interests come together.

    Just checked out Adonia’s blog – if she can cycle in LA then there is hope for all of us

  3. msheller Says:

    Thanks for this Dave! Not as good as being there… but I hope you don’t mind if I spread the summary to some US audiences who will be very interested, via the Center for Mobilities Research and Policy (mCenter @ Drexel).

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