By Lauren White and Katherine Davies
In the UK, the first coronavirus national lockdown meant that many of us were permitted one form of exercise a day – a walk, a run, a bike ride – a pocket of freedom and an opportunity for outdoor life. In the Department of Sociological Studies at the University of Sheffield, this was the time that we usually plan for our annual sociological walk. Our walks seek to explore the role of everyday moments as a methodological route of inquiry, enabling us to be creative in academic discussions by taking them out of university rooms and thinking and learning with our feet (Ingold, 2004). In 2020, our discussions were now restricted to the virtual spheres of google and zoom, meaning our mobile methodologies required a rethink.
Determined to make the most of our mobile lives, we invited colleagues to share photographs and notes of their walks, runs and cycles throughout the lockdown. As a group we shared photographs of our families walking together, our dog walks, accounts of nature, sensory experiences of urban and rural places, and offered visual reflections of loss and future imaginaries. We joined together and discussed these online. Whilst this blog post is not about an active research project and its methodology per se, it offers a momentary reflection on walking during lockdown and the methodological possibilities we gathered from our ‘exercise’.
Through ‘taking a walk’ alone (Carpiano, 2009) but virtually discussing together, we found we were able to access many of the advantages associated with traditional go-along mobile methods. Through discussions with photographs, we were able to share the material experience of moving through place. For example, how we navigated obstacles, stepping to one side and keeping space as we experienced the world through our feet (Ingold, 2004).
We were surprised by the ease with which we accessed socio-atmospherics (Mason, 2018), understanding one another’s sensory worlds and exploring together the uncanny feelings of the times. For example, we shared the unseasonable joy of a summer’s day and reflected on how this jarred with the knowledge that crisis was, quite literally, in the air.
Though we were not together for our walks, we discussed their relational context and gained insights into personal lives and everyday mobilities. We learnt of our colleagues’ relationships with their communities, neighbours and their proximities to families and friends; from friendships formed between local dogs, to the rainbows displayed in neighbours’ windows. We were struck by the heightened role of doorstops, as we shared stories of the cakes and Easter eggs left on by the door in the absence of social contact. We shared our embeddedness and our emotional relationships with place. Talking about walking and lockdown walks was a proxy for personal discussions and a way into talk about our shared everyday sensitivities.
Whilst these are brief reflections and not based on an active research project and carefully devised methodology, we propose that there are opportunities for capturing mobilities in everyday life, even in the absence of walking together. Echoing May and Lewis’ (2020) argument, we have demonstrated that it is not necessary to physically walk together to glean rich insights into embodied and sensory experiences of place.
Walking and everyday journeys as a method is possible and offers promise for social research futures. Talking about mobilities and place virtually further opens up opportunities for those who cannot be co-present. Appreciating that walking and the ability to be outdoors is a privilege, not afforded to everyone (Rose, 2020), we invite researchers and practitioners to embrace the potential of virtual walking and go-along methodologies.
Walking alone but discussing together also offers a pedagogical tool for collective knowledge, with the potential to unlock the ‘mysteries’ of place (Bates and Taylor 2017: 20). The group nature of our discussion, along with the use of photographs, was crucial to the insights we gained and became a useful way into learning and knowing about relationships with place.
Such methodological reflections on physically distanced mobilities and virtual collective discussions can evoke the sociological imagination of mobile methods in physically distanc(ed) futures. Whilst our ability to be mobile side by side has been curtailed, we can learn through our feet as well as through our screens, together. And whilst our mobilities may have stopped at the doorstep or at the other side of a park bench, our virtual mobile accounts tell a story of relational lives in physically, but not socially, distanced times.
Acknowledgements: We would like to thank our colleagues and contributors from the Everyday Life and Critical Diversities research group for joining in on the discussions and sharing personal insights.
Bates, C. & Rhys-Taylor, A. (2017) Walking through social research. Abingdon: Routledge.
Carpiano, R. M. (2009) ‘Come take a walk with me: The ‘go-along’ interview as a novel method for studying the implications of place for health and wellbeing’, Health & Place, 15(1), pp.263-272.
Ingold, T. (2004) ‘Culture on the ground: The world perceived through the feet’, Journal of Material Culture, 9, 315-340.
Mason, J. (2018) Affinities: Potent Connections in Personal Life. Cambridge: Polity.
May, V. & Lewis, C. (2020) ‘Researching embodied relationships with place: Rehabilitating the sit-down interview’, Qualitative Research, 20(2), pp.127-142.
Rose, M. (2020) ‘Pedestrian practices: Walking from the mundane to the marvellous’, in H. Holmes & S. M. Hall. (Eds.) Mundane methods: Innovative ways to research the everyday. Manchester: Manchester University Press. Chapter 13, pp.211-229.