Thinking with your Feet: Ethnographic Research and the Rhetoric of Walking

06.05.2015

Written By: Jim Mott

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‘The fiction of knowledge is related to this lust to be a viewpoint and nothing more’

Michel De Certeau ‘The Practice of Everyday life’

Sitting and having a cup of tea with your respondents is all well and good, but good ethnographic practice involves getting up off your arse as well.

Standard qualitative research is dominated by the tyranny of the chair. We sit on horrible plastic chairs in focus groups, perch on the edges of strange armchairs and sofas in depth interviews and flail around on office chairs during workshops. We sit on chairs and we talk and we eat biscuits, because somehow sitting and talking is better for thinking. If someone is prone and inert we reason, their body at rest, then their mind will be free to devote its full attention to the task at hand.

A wax likeness of Austrian founder of th

Underlying this notion is the idea that the body is really just a vehicle that propels the mind around the place. Therefore it can be safely ignored when it comes to understanding what makes someone tick. By this reasoning walking is what goes on between the important stuff (which happens in chairs). A nice leisure activity perhaps, but cast in the shadow of a cultural history where the only people who walked were those who couldn’t afford to be carried, the domain of ‘the poor, the criminal, the young, and above all, the ignorant.’ (Ingold, 2004).

Dig further back and you have a classic division between the body (and feet) as nature and the mind (and hands) as culture. When our ancestors first stood up their hands and minds were freed to craft, to create, to mould, shape and civilise the world around us. The walking body inhabits the world, but the thinking mind acts upon it.

What all of this misses is what French thinker Michel De Certeau called ‘the rhetoric of walking’. He asserts that walking is in fact an act of communication that has a grammar and a style all of its own. How people navigate spaces, the routes they choose and the ones they ignore, where they pause, falter, stop, rush and loiter can tell us a great deal about their relationship to the environment they inhabit. People ‘think through their feet’ and the body expresses things in a way that words cannot.

Ministry of silly walks

This is why at BAMM we always make sure to walk with our respondents. We get them to take us to the places that are important to them and the locations that form part of their everyday routines. We observe how they inhabit and interact with the world around them and we make sure to document the whole process through photojournalism and video so that we’ve got an accurate record we can refer back to.

We also find that, contrary to this idea that people think best when they are sitting down, there is a richness that comes from talking and walking. When we walk with our respondents we find that there is a ‘flow’ to the conversation that comes from simply being on a journey together, the rhythm of the walk itself influencing the course of the discussion. Without the intensity of face-to-face conversation respondents tend to feel free to speak their minds and they can draw on their surroundings for references and inspiration.

Ok, so we still like sitting down and eating biscuits too – there’s always room for face-to-face conversation in a nice comfy environment where the respondent feels at home. We just make sure that when we do sit down together we don’t treat the people we work with as if they are nothing more than weird talking chairs.

References:

Ingold, T. (2004) ‘Culture on the Ground: The World Perceived Through the Feet.’ Journal of Material Culture. Vol.9. (3). P.315-340

De Certeau, M. (1984) ‘The Practice of Everyday Life’. University of California Press.

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