Anthropology and Cycling Research: Q&A with Sanderien Verstappen

Published: 17 May 2024

My name is Mohammad Nazarpoor and I’m a cycling researcher and advocate interested in exploring the cultural, social, and political dimensions of cycling experience through an anthropological lens. In this interview series, I’ll be talking to leading scholars in the field about their experiences with ethnographic methods in cycling research. The goal is to gain a deeper understanding of how these approaches can help us better understand the complex dynamics of urban cycling.

In this post, Sanderien Verstappen, Social and Visual Anthropologist at the University of Vienna and author of the article ‘Worlding Cycling (2023) explains her views about the relation between anthropology and cycling research. She talks about the different methodologies used in cycling research and why she chooses qualitative research methods.

How would you evaluate the existing cycling research methodology?

There are many more scholars in cycling research who are trained in quantitative than qualitative methods. But scholars using qualitative methods have made important contributions to cycling research. These give us a better understanding of what a bicycle is or can be and how it is used by individuals and groups in different parts of the world. They also make an important contribution to integrating social science theories and critical thinking about social inequality in cycling research.

Does the use of ethnographic methods mean that we have to stay within the boundaries of anthropology?

Anthropologists have long been interested in mobility and mobile methods, but the discipline has mostly focused on neighbourhood-based mobility practices such as walking, or on transnational border-crossing mobility. This interest in walking can be explained by discipline’s long-term interest in micro-localities; for example, on everyday life in villages or urban neighbourhoods. In recent decades multi-sited anthropology has explored how micro-localities are shaped by transnational migration and global flows of goods and information, but these studies have in turn been critiqued for their somewhat simplified dichotomy between the local and the global, resulting in calls for a more multilayered approach.

Studies of cycling can support anthropologists’ efforts to think more carefully about other modes of multi-sitedness in addition to transnational ones, such as regional and rural-urban connections. There is something special about the scope, speed and sociality of everyday cycling in a city and its rural and peri-urban surroundings; something that the research scales more conventionally used in anthropology seem unable to capture. This promises to support anthropologists’ ongoing efforts of methodological and conceptual rescaling.

Why is a qualitative epistemology needed in cycling research?

Some researchers have claimed that there is enough cycling research already, as it is already known how policymakers can make cities more cyclable – as the geographer Samuel Nello-Deakin argued. Others have suggested that new research is very much needed, especially qualitative research in the cities of the Global South. Transport geographer Tim Schwanen and cycling geographer Paola Castañeda, for example, have argued that most transport research and cycling research has been Eurocentric. By this, they mean that the practices observed in renowned European cycling cities tend to be considered universal.

The question is: should we assume that Dutch and Danish-inspired concepts of cycling are universally applicable with a few minor adaptions around the world, or do we need to examine more deeply the needs and practices of people who cycle in other parts of the world? If the answer to the latter is yes, the need for a qualitative research strategy is immediately obvious.

How can a qualitative research approach challenge the North-South hierarchies of knowledge in cycling research?

In my article Worlding Cycling (2023) I suggest that anthropological, ethnographic and participatory research can support the efforts of cycling scholars in challenging North-South hierarchies of knowledge in cycling research. It can be a powerful antidote to the assumption that European cycling practices and planning models are universal because it centralises the bottom-up articulation of context-specific knowledge.

 Instead of using pre-established categories and indicators, as quantitative scholars do, ethnographers aspire to develop interpretation frameworks that align with the participants’ lived experiences. If the research is participatory, cyclists are no longer seen as respondents displaying certain kinds of measurable behaviour, but as intelligent co-researchers who contribute to articulating the questions and interpreting the findings. Such co-research can result in new directions of research and even new context-specific (mid-range) theories.

Of course, qualitative research alone is not enough to rework the North-South hierarchies of power and knowledge that persist in academic institutions – more is needed! But it can help us to rethink conventional assumptions about where knowledge is located and whose knowledge counts. In cycling research, the challenge is to acknowledge the uniqueness of the iconic European cycling cities while focusing on the creative ideas that people in other cities may have for making their own cities more sustainable and liveable.

What are the challenges for qualitative cycling researchers?

Cycling research is highly interdisciplinary. Scholars in this field include technically trained traffic engineers, natural scientists, and social scientists using different methods and theories. I have found it refreshing to find such a genuine interest in interdisciplinarity at the cycling conferences I have attended. There seems to be a broad agreement on the mutual dependency of different streams of scholarship in the field. After all, no single discipline can solve the riddles posed by cycling! But due to our different training it is not always easy to understand each other.

To do so requires extra investments in time, a certain amount of patience and a willingness to be transformed by the perspective of your conversation partner. I am motivated to do this because I believe that there is a lot to be gained from integrating critical social science understandings in all forms of cycling research. For example, here in Vienna we are now developing interdisciplinary collaborations between traffic engineers of the Technical University and social scientists of the University of Vienna.

Which studies by qualitative cycling researchers can you recommend reading?

For further reading on ethnographic cycling research, as an anthropologist I can highly recommend Luis Vivanco’s Reconsidering the Bicycle: An Anthropological Perspective on a New (Old) Thing (2013) and Adonia Lugo’s Bicycle/Race: Transportation, Culture, & Resistance (2018), together with the works of Jonathan Shapiro Anjaria, Malini Sur and Annemiek Prins. These authors employ ethnographic research methods including participant observation, qualitative interviews, informal conversations, media discourse analysis and, in the case of Malini Sur, also filmmaking to investigate the role of the bicycles, cargo bikes and cycle rikshaws in a city.

For reading other interviews in this series, take a look at:

An Ethnographic Eye on Cycling Research: Q&A with Léa Ravensbergen
Human-Centered Design Methods in Cycling Research: Q&A with Trey Hahn
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