Ethnography on Two Wheels: Q&A with Jonathan Shapiro Anjaria

Published: 3 June 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, Jonathan Shapiro Anjaria, a professor in the department of Anthropology at Brandeis University and author of the book in press ‘‘Mumbai on Two Wheels‘ and ethnographic essays on cycling such as ‘Ethnography on the Move: Doing Fieldwork on a Bicycle‘, shares his views on qualitative and ethnographic methods in cycling research.

How would you evaluate the existing cycling research methodology?

The research methodology in recent cycling research is very creative. People in this field seem open to experimenting with a variety of ways of data collection. Researchers use ride-alongs, observational research and interviews along with digital data-collecting tools like geo-trackers, bike counts and video analysis. Fortunately, in this field, researchers go beyond survey-taking to incorporate a range of methodologies. While a lot of the work leans towards quantitative approaches, I find the researchers’ commitment to thinking about various ways of collecting data to be very exciting.

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

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

Qualitative research can challenge hierarchies because it is a methodology conducive to humility. What I mean is that with a qualitative research approach, you often come in with one set of questions or frameworks and then, after listening to people, realize you got it all wrong. The approach encourages the researcher to throw out their initial questions based on what people actually say and do.

I can’t say the approach fundamentally challenges North-South hierarchies, but it can open up moments of possibility. For instance, a qualitative approach to cycling research can show how it is not just academics, but the everyday cyclist as well who have sophisticated understandings of things like traffic interactions, effective street design and effective ways of improving cycling safety.

Cycling in Mumbai
Cycling in Mumbay – Photo by Jonathan

What are the challenges for qualitative cycling researchers?

To paraphrase Sam Ladner, author of the great book Practical Ethnography: Doing Ethnography in the Private Sector, we are qualitative researchers in a quantitative world. Even though some of the biggest problems related to cycling are best addressed through qualitative approaches, often the assumption is that quantitative approaches are the best way to go because counting things seems more real. So it is up to us to show the value of methods such as ethnography and how they can reveal insights that are impossible with a numbers approach.

Also, speaking personally, another big challenge for qualitative cycling research is physical! Doing good research means you must cycle a lot, including when it is very early in the morning or very hot and humid. But that is also what makes it so fun. Being able to do the activity you are researching is incredibly enjoyable.

Which studies by qualitative cycling researchers can you recommend reading?

A must read is Adonia Lugo’s Bicycle/Race: Transportation, Culture and Resistance. Other favorites include Vivanco’s Reconsidering the Bicycle and Stehlin’s Cyclescapes of the Unequal City. I am also a big fan of Gili Hammer Malini Sur’s writing on cycling.

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

Anthropology and Cycling Research: Q&A with Sanderien Verstappen
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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