Bicycling and Ethnographic Access

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Adonia Lugo.

I was thinking about how to start talking about bicycling and anthropology on Savage Minds when I saw this post on Gizmodo about bicycling through lower Manhattan during the hurricane that inundated the east coast of the U.S. earlier this week. This is what Casey Neistat saw while he was exploring via bike during flooding on Monday night:

This footage is exciting, and heartwrenching. Seeing New York City in a crisis is scary, even for those of us who don’t live there. And in light of the longstanding attempts to deny climate change, water lapping against the iconic urban density of Manhattan says something frightening, to me at least. But another statement the video makes is that a bike can take you places other forms of mobility sometimes can’t.

Back in 2009, I was taking a graduate class on “concept work” and Chris Kelty came to visit. I had a chance to babble a little bit about my dissertation project studying bicycling in Los Angeles, and Chris speculated that bicycling could be a way of hacking urban space. This made a lot of sense to me. When you are doing an ethnographic study of one mode of transport in a city where another mode of transport reigns supreme, you notice things that are otherwise hard to see. Living among bicyclists in Los Angeles meant that I learned short cuts and the locations of tunnels under freeways, found out how to avoid major streets and still get across town, and questioned the dominant academic view of Los Angeles as a postmodern non-city.

The bicycle can be an experimental tool for ethnographic work. In my case, studying the social/cultural life of bicycling worlds, this was front and center in my fieldwork life. But I know many other people have found examining the bicycle as an object and bicycling as a practice productive while studying other topics more directly. For example, Wiebe Bijker’s writing on the development of the safety bicycle has given insight into the social construction of technology. And Robin LeBlanc called her 1999 book about Japanese housewives’ political engagement Bicycle Politics because she found that her mode of transport during fieldwork gave her a useful metaphor for the limited (but existent) political power of the women she studied.

“The world we see at a given time is chosen for us by the transportation we use to get there,” LeBlanc commented in her introduction. Has bicycling gotten you into new worlds, as an ethnographer or in other areas of your life?


Adonia Lugo is finishing her dissertation on bikes, bodies, and public space in Los Angeles while living in Seattle. She is a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Irvine and she blogs about her research and activism as Urban Adonia.

10 thoughts on “Bicycling and Ethnographic Access

  1. Great piece of film, great post.

    Bicycles were our primary means of local transportation when Ruth and I were doing fieldwork for my dissertation in Puli, a market town in central Taiwan, in 1969-71. I have never again been in such great shape as I was then. Come to think of it, that might be another angle to look at. Do bikers, who are typically in better than average shape, see the world differently from other folks?

    Conversely, of course, there is what to make ethnographically of now familiar scenes in Japan, a young idiot on a bike, riding on a sidewalk and texting from his phone at the same time. Or a mother with a toddler in a child seat cruising up a hill on her electrical motor-enhanced bike….

  2. That is one of the fascinating things about studying bicycling: all the myriad ways that particular individuals combine with particular bikes in particular places. You’ve hit the nail on the head, John.

  3. I can highly recommend “Imagining Transgender: An Ethnography of a Category” by David Valentine in which the author returns to the theme of getting around NYC on bicycle in many of the ethnographic vignettes throughout the book. You can see his bike casting a shadow on the book cover. There’s a lot of theoretical heavy lifting too, but I found his use of the bicycle as a tool of fieldwork to be really intriguing. It makes for a compelling narrative device too!

  4. Thanks for the recommendation, Matt. I’ve also been told that Karen Sue Taussig’s book Ordinary Genomes talks about bicycling during her fieldwork, two things to check out.

  5. Here’s a post I wrote a looong time ago about doing fieldwork and using my bike in LA.
    I found LA by bike to be really liberating and fascinating.

    A friend I met through the monthly ride, Ride-Arc, through the city through the lens of its architecture and spaces, has done a project, too, on people in LA who don’t have cars. Some of them use bikes, some of them use public transit, but worth checking out:

    Thanks for this post. Looking forward to reading more of your work on bikes, LA, and public space.

  6. I would love to read your blog post! Looks like it’s restricted, if you want to share it with me you can email me at adonia at urbanadonia dot com. Ride-Arc is one of the first things that introduced me to LA’s bike world in 2008, and I remember when a bunch of my neighbors at the LA Eco-Village participated in Diane Meyer’s exhibition.

  7. Hi Adonia,
    The link should be accessible now. I wonder if we were on the same rides together. Ride-Arc re-shaped my relationship to L.A., and I loved the biking community in L.A., when bicycling there was still a little bit unusual. I really love that you’re working on this!
    I do think bicycling in the U.S. is a form of hacking. It’s interesting how ubiquitous bicycling has been in Europe, but it’s only recently found a mainstream(ish) practice here in major U.S. cities. I find shocking all the new bike lanes in cities like NY and SF.
    I also found bicycling changed my relationship to the highways and driving in L.A. It made me hyper-aware of how impenetrable L.A. feels by highway. There is no way to know the delights and strange things that lie below. The highways were sort of like the strip malls, also hiding fantastic restaurants or phenomena that from the outside seemed nondescript and uninteresting.
    I’ve not really written much about L.A. as a fieldsite, but I think it’s a really complex city to engage with, and the medium of engagement is crucial in a city like L.A. Or really….anywhere. L.A. provides a great lens through which to re-think one’s spatial relationships in the field.

  8. Thanks for this, Adonia. In my PhD thesis I am mentioning my cycling trips through the suburban area of Dublin (Ireland) where I conducted fieldwork on youth sport practices. My bicycle helped me see things differently. However, I was not sure I should include this in the thesis, I somehow feared nobody would understand it! Now I feel less ‘alone’. I am Italian but lived in Germany and then Ireland and in every country the bicycle has been my main means of transportation. For those who understand Italian, in 2009 I published a short ‘bicycle novel’ on Berlin in which I talk about the ‘gaze’ of the urban cyclist (its title: La bici sopra Berlino /trans. The bike over Berlin). Max

  9. Thanks Max! Bikes are good to think with. I just visited Dublin and had a great time touring the city with a local bike advocate/researcher.

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