Sociology by bike

As part of my paid work, on the Understanding Walking and Cycling project, I’m undertaking what are called ‘go-alongs’ with people as they walk or cycle around their local area. Going-along with someone is one way of exploring and gaining greater understanding of how they experience their journey.

In the past, I’ve followed my own cycling journeys, talking into a digital voice recorder as I ride. I find that this really helps, later, in recalling those journeys, and it is a particularly powerful way of capturing the kinds of detail which might seem trivial, but which when assembled actually constitute the cycling experience.

It’s by really attending to the minutiae of a cycling journey that you realise how much actually goes on. I don’t want to risk boring you with all of those details here, not all in one go, anyway! But it’s fair to say that I am interested in quite gradually and carefully unpicking the taken-for-granted status of assorted cycling journeys, and in getting-more-to-grips with some of the complexities which they contain. (There’s a lot to say about this, but to  give some simple examples of initiating questions, so that you might get the gist of it – why when I ride do I sometimes feel the compulsion to go faster/slower; why sometimes the desire to go faster/slower? What happens to the discourses which attempt to legitimate, govern and structure my subjective experiences as ‘a cyclist’ (‘I am being green’, ‘I am being healthy’) when I’m actually engaged in different practices of cycling? – I mention this now mainly because it struck me, on my ride into work this morning, how my commute is supposedly good for my employer; it supposedly makes me a better, more productive, healthier worker; but actually, cycling to work often makes me want to bunk off work, because the idea of going into the office when I can just keep riding seems – sometimes and to be honest – faintly ludicrous!)

I’m also interested in using the specifics of cycling journeys as an empirical base from which to make little, slightly more analytical, observations. Analysis requires data, and data requires attention to detail.

Sociologist use various techniques for pulling mundane details out from their ordinary moorings in the quotidian, to hold them up to greater scrutiny and analysis. But I admit, it can be difficult to see the value of attending to the humdrum, the kinds of things we do without really noticing we do them. It can seem sort of, well, insignificant …

On the other hand, unless you do it, you will never know. And whilst I’m not in general a huge fan of what we might call micro-sociologies, the kinds of sociology which seek to understand the world by very close attention to the ordinary, I admit to finding the work of some sociologists in this vein to be really quite, well, extraordinary. To give one example, in his analyses of ordinary conversations, the American sociologist Harvey Sacks could make one ‘hmmmm …’ speak a thousand words. Considering the banal content of his empirical base, Sacks’ analyses were extraordinarily powerful, insightful.

As with Sacks’ conversations, and as with everything else in everyday life, every bike ride is structured, and in multiple ways. My bike rides are structured, your bike rides are structured. We can explore, understand and (if we feel the need) critique these underlying structures to our bike rides. Most of us already do so, to some extent. So for example, when we see a pinch point on the road up ahead, we know it can spell trouble, and we become hyper-alert or take remedial action, such as moving into a more central position on the carriageway, in an effort to deter traffic from behind from overtaking.

Similarly, we understand – bodily if not entirely consciously (in other words, our bodies sometimes understand better than do our minds) – that going up hill is harder and slows us down, going down hill is easier and speeds us up. Hills are pretty obdurate physical structures. Or again, we ride some times more than others, some places more than others, for a whole host of reasons (and these reasons are importantly temporally, geographically and socially structured). Sometimes we like ‘cycling structures’; for example, I’m a fan of cycling clubs (organisational structures) and many cycle lanes (spatial structures). Sometimes we might ignore or rebel against them; think of traffic lights or ‘cyclists dismount’ signs (structures which we might consider as hostile, or discriminatory, to cycling).

So I think there is much more analysis of bike rides potentially to be done, for anyone so inclined … how such rides are structured, organised and subverted; the different rhythms of cycling; the specific ways in which specific groups experience ‘what-it-is-to-cycle’. As a sociologist, I’m obviously a bit that way inclined myself, and my current job is making me that bit more so … so, over the next few months I’m planning, at least sometimes when I go for a bike ride, to leave home also with my researcher’s hat on (with, in other words, a digital audio recorder to hand, and a digital camera in the rear pocket of my jersey or pannier).

It’s only by trying these methods and techniques (‘piloting’, we call it), that you find out what they can produce, whether or not they’re worth doing, and how they might be improved …

So, watch out for some sociology from a bike, coming here soon …!

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