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Friday, December 7, 2012

Building an Anthropology of Bicycling [Savage Minds]


Researching bicycling, like many ethnographic projects, suggests a bodily incorporation of the ethnographer into some local practice. I mean, I could study the social and cultural life of bicycling and not also ride a bike, but that would be like a celiac studying people who sample bread. Actually, that’s kind of accurate, because there is not one kind of bicycling, just as there is not one kind of bread. The celiac could enjoy millet and rice flour loaves, while avoiding those with wheat flour. I study and practice urban transport bicycling, which includes what I think of as “urban recreational cycling,” but I don’t know much about mountain biking, long distance recreational cycling, or racing.
I don’t study those things, but I know people who do, like Sarah Rebolloso McCullough, who studies the history and practice of mountain biking. I don’t focus on gender, but I read the work of Elly Blue, a writer trained in anthropology who explores gender and many other issues in bicycling as a zine publisher. And I haven’t done fieldwork about the history of the larger urban biking movement in the U.S., but Zack Furness has. My individual project connects with a community of practice made up of these folks and many more.
In addition to providing an ethnographic subject that connects me to existing theoretical conversations in anthropology, studying bicycling has meant tracing the contours of an emerging field. For many years, transportation researchers have used quantitative methods to study bicycling and to make recommendations about infrastructure and policy. The study of bicycling as a social and cultural phenomenon is a newer endeavor whose beginning is marked most clearly by the 2007 publication of Cycling and Society, edited by Dave Horton, Paul Rosen, and Peter Cox. Many of the essays in that volume used qualitative methods and ethnographic engagement to analyze the meanings of bicycling in various contexts, paving the way for more research in this vein.

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