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?