Walking – or, practical, collective, mundane exploration of the world surrounding us

Just a few notes about walking as I’ve been thinking about it rather a lot, and, as ever, also doing the practice.

Buoyed along by environmental worries, methodological inventiveness and scholarly respect for situated knowledge, walking has become a very popular method of enquiry. Scholars are drawn to walking as a multisensory methodology, it feels just right for working in the Anthropocene. While walking, the senses can be productively  treated as both objects of curiosity and as instruments of research. The Walking Artists’ Network maintain an excellent resource including a list of publications.

It’s also been interesting to notice how doctoral students at Aalto Arts, in the qualitative methods course I have taught for the last three years, find walking so productive. One thing they have to do is a walking interview, rather a simple assignment really. Yet each year students have reported learning all sorts of new things about, well, learning. One thing I have learned here, is that as they have walked and talked, the students have also had to relinquish some of the control that, as budding researchers, they might prefer to have in that situation.

This walking that the students do seems to serve as grounding for all kinds of debates and discussions we go on to have through the course, about speaking for, learning with, taking care of and yet being critical.

(On which note, those of you interested in methods for our uneasy times, Anand Pandian’s A Possible Anthropology is a wonderful book to think with).

It matters where one walks

I’d hazard a guess that people who are lucky enough to live in or near quality environments, generally enjoy walking. It also does not take the pleasure out of walking to consider it an intellectual, even academic pursuit. I imagine Ancient Greeks were quite aware of that, and wonder how chances of nice walks correlate with other life chances in 2020.

Here we were walking with Narratiimi in 2016 in a quality environment in Laajasalo, whose future is uncertain (thanks again to Cindy Kohtala for the photo).


Walking always takes place in place. The pace of walking, its physicality and its necessary attachment to place, and its intimate connection to materiality, support and enforce connections and perhaps even attachments of value. But walking need not be about nostalgia for the past or romanticizing the natural, the small scale and/or the rural. I have been keeping an eye out particularly for ways of walking in technologically dense contexts.

Already most of us Earth-beings do most of our walking in urban landscapes. Here, futures have already been laid out and materialized in ways that will be shaping the links between security, surveillance and inequality for a long time to come. With that reality-check, the idea that one could deploy one’s body and one’s subjective experience as key tools of  sociological (or any other) investigation into these futures, is inadequate. Unless, that is, one subscribes to the (mystical?) notion that reality and experience are the same. (On that note, the philosophy of place, by the way, is pretty complicated stuff, although Edward Casey’s work is certainly worth a read!)

Fortunately, there are many fantastic initiatives around the world combining walking with a whole range of abstract, quantitative or technical ways of knowing. Often they are specifically geared to questioning technological stories.

In particular I find following Shannon Mattern (author of many excellent texts, including A City Is Not a Computer) on Twitter, a great way to get inspiration and a sense of what is happening.

Then again, to transport the preoccupations and the research methods of the global city, whether New York or London, to a place like Helsinki, might be to miss out on something that walking research highlights: being grounded in local context.

The value of losing epistemological control

Typically, walking appears as a way of slowing down, paying closer attention and provoking novel types of questions.

Those skills are under threat and yet fundamental, as Isabelle Stengers has argued. The Finnish environmental thinker Yrjö Haila discusses her work and its importance here. I hope I don’t misrepresent when I note that he – like Stengers – is very worried that institutional research today exacerbates misunderstanding and ignorance and puts everything in peril. That is how I understand the context from which Stengers is extending her invitation, in Another Science is Possible, to engage in “practical, collective, mundane exploration of the world surrounding us” as Haila puts it.

That describes exactly what it is – and probably all it is – that walking offers to most researchers. It’s just a part of what one does. Without the practicality, collectivity, mundaneness, and attention to what’s around us of walking, how could research find orientation? In the messiness of the world and even of scientific practice, and the radical uncertainties facing everyone and everything, do we not learn to think more adequately precisely in exploring the world around us (our bodies) with others?

Being interested in landscapes (as per my post last August), I’ve long been aware that walking in order to notice things is something I do for pleasure as well as learning, I often do it with political aims too (as with Narratiimi or friends in those parts of Helsinki getting caught up in the financialisation of urban life). In fact, if I were less self-conscious about my lack of  academic credentials over my working life, I’d not hesitate so much to claim that walking for me is almost always potentially a kind of researching.

In a sense walking is foundational, but, even for those for whom walking itself is the key focus of investigation, it goes with all the other things: reading, counting, assessing, judging, even lab-work and studio-work. It’s even worth it to read writings about writings about walking (and Stengers and Thoreau), as in this blog post by an amateur long-distance hiker.

I hope it’s not too grandiose to say that walking together provides a model at least for the kind of relinquishing of epistemological control that – following Stengers, Haila, Pandian and others – I believe is needed to nourish thought and inspire hopeful imagination.

In praise of walking together

Openstreetmap LauttasaariA week ago with friends I walked around the tip of Lauttasaari. It was an exceptional February evening, snowless but frosty and stunningly moonlit. I learned things about is the international space station, about art projects in hospitals, about my friends and their friends and many other things. I also learned something that I might have learnt a long time ago but never did: how to spot Venus.

Who knows, something from that practical, mundane and yet wonderfully convivial micro exploration may yet help solve some puzzle, open up some question or support some research project elsewhere one day.



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