Understanding Walking As A Research Method

Qualitative researchers often navigate methodologies to conduct fieldwork based on the space they aim to explore. A robust research method ensures meticulous analysis and various ways of expressing the data gathered during fieldwork. Thus, the method plays a significant role in any successful research strategy. In this article, I discuss walking as an applied research method based on my experiences of incorporating it as part of several research plans and some of the merits associated with this approach that has been illustrated by walking scholars. In doing so, this article introduces walking as a research method and the kind of rigour it contributes to research output based on literature and empirical evidence. I argue that the inclusion of walking as a research methodology can enhance research findings and contribute significantly to understanding local geography and knowledge systems.

Sneharshi Dasgupta in Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary, Goa
Sneharshi Dasgupta walking in a remote indigenous village in Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary as part of conducting walking research to understand the local demographic. Source: Devidas Gaonkar, Video Volunteers.

Various scholars have posited walking as a research method differently based on their subjective understandings (see Ingold 2010; Pierce and Lawhon 2015; King and Woodroffe 2017; Duedahl 2020). There is no one way of walking as a method has been theorised. According to Stephanie Springgay and Sarah Truman, in their book Walking Methodologies in a More-than-Human World published in 2018, the four major themes in walking research are place, sensory inquiry, embodiment, and rhythm. When one considers the environment also part of the larger research setting and goes beyond humans, as the phrase “walking in a more-than-human world” by Springgay and Truman (2018) narrates, there are other themes to consider such as land and geology, affect theory, and movement. Land and geology, and affect theory is important in walking research as it breaks away from the humancentric approach to research and understands the connection between the environment and its effect on humans. Movement is pivotal because the conventional assumption is all humans move equally, but often that is not the case. There are factors such as race, gender, and disability that one must take into consideration while studying the movement of individuals in a certain geographical region (ibid: 21).

Community work in Chichwada Village, Maharashtra. Photo by Sourav Dutta
While conducting walking research, photographed community-led development work in Chinchwada Village, Maharashtra. This was an installation of a solar panel in a remote indigenous village in Maharashtra, an initiative by dJED Foundation and Samaaveshi Pathshaala based in the Karjat district of Maharashtra. Source: Sourav Dutta, on behalf of Project Nomad.

Place performs an integral role in walking research as it is imagined as a particular location, activity, or incident. Scholars argue that by walking in a place one can activate modes of participation that are situated and relational as walking can connect bodies, environment, and the sensory surrounds of a place (ibid: 19). For instance, when one walks in an urban space, one can observe various elements such as residential buildings, commercial shops, restaurants, individuals passing by, and so on. Through walking in such a space, one can interact with diverse individuals doing different kinds of work – sanitation workers, students, businessmen, tourists, amongst others. The larger setting in which they are a part of, food, sartorial choices, the way they are walking, the direction towards they are walking, or the type of the buildings and the way they have been built can voice a lot about the local culture, identity, memory, and the environment. By sensory inquiry, scholars refer to one’s inherent senses, i.e., how the researcher or research participant attunes their sensory abilities (ibid). For instance, the sound in an urban city and a rural setting can give two distinct sensory experiences or the pavement in an urban commercial complex and a rural field. Walking allows one to feel and be present in the moment, pause and close eyes, observe and think, and tap into one’s non-visual senses. This allows one to be present in their immediate setting and learn the local ways of being – how one interacts with one another, indulges in their day-to-day life, and interchanges ideas. By embodiment, scholars refer to an “embodied way of knowing” wherein the researcher or the research participant inspects the lived experience of what it means to move in a geographic region (ibid). For instance, the overall experience of moving around a busy urban commercial area – what it feels like, and how those around perceive this experience. The “pace and tempo of walking” is the fourth characteristic that is important in walking research (see ibid: 20). For instance, how fast is one walking, i.e., the way the pedestrians are moving in a geographic region. This is known as a rhythm of a place. The way individuals walk in a metropolitan city is distinct from individuals walking in a remote village. It shows the nature of their livelihood and what it entails.

Deccan Development Society Seed Bank Telangana. Photo by Sneharshi Dasgupta
Photograph of a seed bank, while conducting walking research outside of Zaheerabad, Telangana. This is an initiative by the Deccan Development Society. Source: Sneharshi Dasgupta, on behalf of the Travellers’ University.

As an AIF Fellow (2020-21), walking played an important role in understanding my host organisation’s location in Tejgadh, Gujarat – the significance of the geographic location, how it has been historically perceived, and its relevance in the collective memory of its inhabitants. For instance, a walk to the Tejgadh market and interacting with a couple of small business owners with shops helped me understand the local demographic, i.e., who the people are, what they eat, what they buy, and how they interact with each other echoed the larger sentiment of the region which is embodied in all these aspects of everyday life. My article titled Photo Essay: Fieldnotes from Tejgadh Market, published on AIF Blog addressed my analysis of this region. This walking observation helped me strategically to engage with my fellowship project which was to focus on the Adivasi Academy’s ‘Museum of Adivasi Voice’.

A house in Versova Fishing Village. Photo by Sneharshi Dasgupta
A house photographed in Versova Fishing Village, Mumbai while conducting a walking tour of the region to understand the local culture and community. This walk was hosted by Aslam Saiyad, who runs the Mumbai Rivers Photo Project and Go Hallu Hallu Walks. Source: Sneharshi Dasgupta.

Furthermore, I continued exploring this method as a part of my ongoing project with the Travellers’ University (2021-22), where I had the unique opportunity to conduct fieldwork in varied locations in India. I walked by the Brahmaputra tributaries outside of the Barpeta town in Assam and interacted with the Miya community who reside beside the riverbanks. Individuals from the Miya community are descendants of migrant Muslims from the erstwhile Bengal province who had migrated to the Brahmaputra Valley during the early twentieth century. Their experience of facing the loss of livelihood because of flood and erosion, the discriminatory behaviour that they endure on a regular basis owing to identity politics in the region, and their overall experience of being in the region has caused grief, deaths, detention, and in some cases displacement of many members of this community. Walking helped me to be at ease, be present in the immediate setting, and interact with several members of a community in a rather unfamiliar landscape to understand their challenging predicament. As I was walking, I remember interacting with various individuals related to their work and my project. Most notably, a ten-year-old boy named Bahirul had come up to me and stood beside me while I was interviewing a local Miya poet Kazi Neel who voices opinions of his community and runs a community media platform known as Ango Khobor (meaning: Our News). As I completed the interview, Bahirul echoed some of the issues that we discussed as part of the interview, and he felt confident to participate in the discussion. I argue that walking as a research method allows the researcher and the research participant to be present and form intimate connections in a foreign landscape. This leads to knowing personal narratives and at times issues that may be sensitive to one.

Another example would be while I was walking inside the Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary in the South end of Goa. Many residents in the nearby regions were not aware of the indigenous communities that have been living within the forests for generations. As I walked within the dense forests and interacted with several individuals from the Velip community, I learned about their way of life, culture, worldview, and some of the continuing problems that they face. Despite not knowing the local Konkani language that is prevalent in the region, walking helped me form deep connections with the locals. These connections that I developed without intermediaries helped me get a first-hand understanding of people, places, and communities. For instance, many residents in a remote village voiced that the lack of roads in the region prevented them from fetching water from the closest waterbody. They would have to walk for kilometers or ride a bicycle on dirt roads at risk to reach other villages for fetching water. As a researcher, walking helped me to go beyond my immediate setting and reach out to these communities and learn about their everyday challenges.

A walking interview with Alabin Ahmed in Rupakuchi Village, Assam about the local culture and continuing challenges.
A walking interview with Alabin Ahmed in Rupakuchi Village, Assam about the local culture and continuing challenges. Source: Sneharshi Dasgupta, on behalf of the Travellers’ University.
Community work in Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary. Photo by Sneharshi Dasgupta
While conducting walking research in Goa, villagers photographed doing agricultural work in Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary. Source: Sneharshi Dasgupta, on behalf of the Travellers’ University.

To conclude, the inclusion of movement in research is a great way of attaining a richer understanding of a space based on rapport building and empowering the research participants. Researchers on the move can effectively acquire various perspectives of not only diverse individuals and communities but also the larger setting that they are part of keeping the environment in mind. This would provide a holistic view of the unknown research terrain. With the use of methods such as walking interviews, otherwise referred to as “go-along” (see Duedahl 2020), alongside other ethnographic methods or forms of participatory research such as in-depth interviews, surveys, and analysis of public records, one can acquire a consolidated understanding of the field.

References
Duedahl, Eva. (2020). To walk the talk of go-along methods: navigating the unknown terrains of being-along. Published: Taylor and Francis Online. Accessed here: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/15022250.2020.1766560

Ingold, Tim. (2010). Footprints through the weather-world: walking, breathing, knowing. Published: The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol 16. Accessed here: https://www.jstor.org/stable/40606068

King, Alexandra; Woodroffe, Jessica. (2017). Walking Interviews. In: Liamputtong P. (eds) Handbook of Research Methods in Health Social Sciences. Published: Springer, Singapore. Accessed here: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-10-2779-6_28-1

Pierce, Joseph; Lawhon, Mary. (2015). Walking as Method: Toward Methodological Forthrightness and Comparability in Urban Geographical Research. Published: Taylor & Francis Online. Accessed here: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00330124.2015.1059401

Springgay, Stephanie; Truman, Sarah. (2018). Walking Methodologies in a More-than-Human World: Walking Lab. Published: Routledge. New York, United States.

Sneharshi is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with Bhasha Sanshodhan Prakashan Kendra in Tejgadh, Gujarat. For his fellowship project, he is conceptualizing new collections, presentations, and displays for the ‘Museum of Adivasi Voice’ and contributing to the issues on education, arts, and culture at Bhasha. Sneharshi recently graduated from the Manipal Centre of Humanities with a Bachelor’s in Philosophy and Humanities. He completed the summer programme on Political Theory and International Politics from the Department of Government, London School of Economics (LSE). At Manipal and LSE, Sneharshi worked on assignments dealing with issues related to caste, class, identity, marginalisation, material memories, and political philosophy. He also presented a paper on visual anthropology at the World Class Day organised by the University of Saskatchewan, Canada. Prior to AIF, he was an Archives and Outreach Intern at The Partition Museum in Amritsar. As an intern, he recorded, transcribed, and documented oral narratives of people who migrated to India during the 1947 partition. Sneharshi also worked as a youth worker for a platform based mobile app – ‘Meaningful’ based at the University of Cambrigde, UK. He was selected as a part of the Global Leaders programme by Exeter University, UK, and Heritage Walk Calcutta where he presented his work on heritage buildings in Kolkata. Sneharshi enjoys graphic designing, photography, filmmaking, and theatre.

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