A month or so ago, I had the pleasure of “delegating” a teaching slot in my environmental anthropology course to Tim Ingold. He was keynote speaker at the Aalto University’s Art of Research Conference 2017, so I required my students to show up to that.
In a talk that substantially reflected his 2016 autobiographical paper, ‘From science to art and back again’, in the online journal ANUAC, he certainly inspired them.
Around the same time I was asked to prepare some comments on a paper, a version of which will appear in Suomen Antropologi, on “urban hitchhiking”. A method for engaging with strangers that was born of artistic practices, urban hitchhiking was presented at the conference by the authors Tuuli Malla, Anna Kholina and Lauri Jäntti. I was happy to write a comment on the paper, particularly since back in April 2017 I had tried out urban hitchhiking at the Finnish Urban Studies Days (conference).
This description is from their paper:
Take a sign that says “May I walk with you for a while? Place yourself along a pedestrian route. Stand somewhere along that path, raise your thumb and make eye contact with people who are passing. Wait fairly passively, looking for eye contact until someone approaches you. Let the journey begin. Often the person who is giving you a lift will ask what this is about. You may answer as you like.
Walking is now part of many an ethnographer’s toolkit. Some urban walks I have done for seemingly unrelated reasons in hindsight feel like they were ethnographic exercises. Such as this Narratiimi-walk to Helsinki’s Kruunuvuorenranta, pre-development, last year.
That Malla’s and Jäntti’s hitchhiking exercises were productive is, by contrast, not in question. They had an exhibition at the Helsinki Art Museum. Who know where they will go with their innovation!
Such unorthodox research methods need not be an end in themselves. As a way to open up the researcher to the city in all its fullness and unpredictability, urban hitchhiking has analytical and critical potential, though exactly how, remains to be fleshed out. Then again, it has value whether or not it’s turned to scholarly use. I hope to adapt it for teaching quite soon.
Malla and Jäntti are artists. They listen and observe carefully. Kholina is a PhD candidate in the Department of Design at Aalto and seems to do the same. Their joint exercise again raised the question about producing, documenting and authorizing knowledge, and about who does these things – scholars, professionals or so-called lay-people.
These things have always been part of my own research. Much of it has involved working with well-educated environmental activists, whose expertise and viewpoints, though epistemologically defensible by any criteria, have often been side-lined, suppressed and even ridiculed as utopian.
Not so long ago, even those, like the active citizens that set up London’s Glengall Wharf Garden (above), were no doubt thought of like that.
As a social scientist, I have often interrupted the lives of middle-class environmentalists in seeking research material. It’s meant huge overlaps in my analysis and their analysis of any situation. When anthropology still equalled the study of exotic peoples, this kind of “horizontal” relationship with one’s ethnographic interlocutors used to be noteworthy.
These days we are more likely to see such situations as ordinary, even as imperatives to “experiment” with and redistribute the work of research. Returning to urban hitchhiking, to encourage reciprocity and collaboration (if not equivalence) between academic and non-academic questioning, is no longer gimmicky.
As my former colleague Les Back insists, experimenting with the aim of paying closer attention, describing more carefully and still applying critical judgement, is epistemologically as well as ethically the most defensible kind of social research. Exploring multiple perspectives with empathy as well as with the analytical and documentary resources available to academics, is what academics should do. If others can join in and help the process, so much the better, I think.
Anyway, I expect that what is today called experimental or unorthodox will one day be quite standard. Their popularity may also reflect a feeling that the very point of research practice is being rethought. No longer the purview of professional researchers alone, perhaps social research isn’t even aimed any more at creating new knowledge. And certainly I don’t think it is motivated by a desire to help manage unwieldy yet high-profile (and high-stakes) contemporary collectives like cities!
I’ll end on cities and their management. As lovely as it would be to turn back the clock and wish away talk of the “smart city” (brilliantly deconstructed here) or even “urban policy”, the incontrovertible fact is that just coping with cities of the scale and scope we have today, requries massive inputs of intellectual, esoteric and technical power. And it requires critical, academic, reflection to discern work out how to adapt global “development” fads to local conditions or, indeed, to reject them.
If exercises such as urban hitchhiking were to be promoted as part of urban research, it could have interesting effects. In a fit of optimism, I think it could benefit Helsinki.
Could it not be used to educate our planning professionals about the famous social bubbles that worry us all so much? Or about what it feels like to walk in over-designed or over-commercialised parts of the city? Like past this illuminated monstrosity that is currently taking up 1/3 of the wall of the Music Centre (which, BTW, I would prefer to see called the Music Building)?
In fact, I suggest Helsinki planners should go urban hitchhiking as much as they can during Helsinki’s darkest months (there are still a couple left!) I recommend that they loiter with intent in the vicinity of these vast advertising surfaces.
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Berglund E (1998) Knowing Nature, Knowing Science: An ethnography of local environmental activism. White Horse Press.
Berglund, E. (2017) ‘Steering clear of politics: local virtues in Helsinki’s design activism’, Journal of Political Ecology Vol.24, 566 – 580.
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Marcus GE (2016) Jostling Ethnography Between Design and Participatory Art Practices, and the Collaborative Relations It Engenders, in Smith RC, KT Vangkilde, MG Kjaersgaard, T Otto, J Halse, T Binder (eds) 2016 Design Anthropological Futures, London & New York: Bloomsbury: 105-119.