“Walking shares with making and working that crucial element of engagement of the body and the mind with the world, of knowing the world through the body and the body through the world.” — Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking
The wondrous effects of walking in nature are not new to anyone. We all know that walking, along with its physical benefits has hugely positive implications for mental wellbeing, it’s associated with better cognitive mapping and memory and may drive creative idea production and facilitate imaginative thinking (Oppezzo and Schwartz, 2014). More generally, there’s a certain clarity that comes when placing one foot in front of the other for an extended period of time, come rain, or shine. But what are the implications of walking within the context of socialecological research? And how can it inform our methodologies? In this blog I reflect on the philosophy and practice of walking in the context of my recent fieldtrip to Pondoland where I walked for three and a half days along South Africa’s Wild Coast, conducting interviews with fisherfolk, traditional healers and activists about their resistance to the Shell seismic survey off this coastline and their connections to the ocean.
As human geographers, we all know the classic transect walk but I am trying to pinpoint something more subtle than walking through a landscape with a research participant pointing out the natural resources. A transect walk has a specific aim – usually to understand the landscape through the lens of someone who lives there. Walking methodologies are not so explicit. They more deeply implicate the researcher in the process and invite them to be more reflective on the way that walking shapes what they are experiencing and the way they relate to their research questions. Walking methodologies are an invitation to transform the mundanity of walking into “an investigation, a ritual, a meditation” (Solnit, 2001: p1). Below are just some of the ways that walking could be more explicitly considered in socialecological research.
- Time. Walking for an extended period of time, for at least a few hours forces you to stop whatever you were doing prior to the walk. In the academic space researchers are always doing a million things with a million people, with a million deadlines. Time is never our friend. But walking forces us to pause and befriend time. It’s just you, committing to putting one foot in front of the other in time and space. Walking methodologies align beautifully with slow scholarship – a project that fights against the toxic culture of quick, fly by night, parachute research that churns out data and papers like a factory production line; questions + participants + methods = data + paper. Research, as we know, is deeply entrenched in neoliberal modernity and is not immune to the temporal forces that speed up time to a point where April comes immediately after January! Where is the time for deep thoughtfulness when we are always in a rush? Walking slows down time and thus slows down the research, allowing space for sensitive engagement with the critical questions of our work.
- Mind/Body/World. Research is so often considered something that only happens in our brains. Researchers sit at a desk for most of the day – mind in gear, body slouched in a chair, aching. We only need to read slightly into the literature on feminist research methodologies to understand that emotions are valid research tools, and the body is a site of knowing (Thanem and Knights, 2019). Walking begins to dissolve the lines between thinking and being and can act as a synapse that makes the often-lost connection between mind and body to be made once again. Supposedly, our brains are the site of rationality, and our bodies simply follow instructions from our brain. Yet the body keeps the score (Van der Kolk, 2014) and embodied research practices have an ability to fill in the gaps that normative social science methods leave behind. In socialecological research, we are trying to access and explain the wholeness of life and critique the ways in which life has been superficially separated and categorised into discrete components. Walking – symbolically and materially – forces us to practice a wholeness of experience where we can engage the body and the mind with the world. Echoing and adapting insights from Tim Ingold’s ‘dwelling perspective’ (2000); through walking, like dwelling, connections are not solely produced in the mind, but through the ongoing interactivity of mind, body, and environment through time. In practical terms, this means that connections with the world are not just cognitive or intellectual but are rooted in embodied experiences of the world. By attending to our senses and engaging with our environments in a deliberate and mindful way, we are able to create richer and more meaningful connections with and across the world around us.
- Human/Nature. Social-ecological research is sensitive work. It requires the recognition that humans are part of nature and nature is part of humans. Growing up in a Euro/American or Westernised society, in the 21st century, this recognition often only happens on an intellectual level. Yet, when walking with a landscape hand in hand with all its inhabitants, you gently and slowly become part of the ensemble and even if just for a moment, can feel in both mind and body that humans are indeed constituted by and through social-ecological relations. The walls built between the interiors of your mind and the exteriors of the world lessen with the practice of walking. In one stride you see mushrooms growing out of cow dung and with the next stride you’re thinking of multi-species entanglements, Donna Haraway, Thom Van Dooren, and Anna Tsing. Walking with intention, in a research context where the theories that you know from your computer come alive in the present moment and make so much more sense. And yet, our normative social science methodologies seem lacking in their ability to fully comprehend socioecological relationalities– they suffer, in many ways similar to the natural sciences, from the hangover of the Scientific Revolution that forced apart humans from nature. I walked along the Wild Coast for three and half days. My feet walked bare across mossy, mushy, squelchy ground – the wetlands of Pondoland, wetlands that paint the crystal green hues across the voluptuous hills and deep valleys. My feet were scratched by thorns, kept cool by the water, and fed by a world of microbes. My porous body met a permeable nature; walking is theory is practice.
But what does all of this mean for socioecological research? It means that you are practising what you preach. As researchers, we often produce accurate GIS maps of our research ‘sites’. There’s a settlement here, a river there, and we can compare maps across time to see environmental change. But what are we missing when we rely on a scientific map to tell a story of place? For my research, walking was a way to complement and enrich my interviews with people that inhabited the landscape that I was walking with. The walking interludes between the interviews acted as a way to connect them across space and overall, provide a more holistic set of data with which to tell compelling stories within my research.
The idealisation of walking in a research context, however, comes with limitations and necessary critiques. Being mindful of these can ensure that you take mitigative measures to reduce their impact on your work.
- In rushed modern society and academic turnaround times, time is money and thus taking time to slow down costs money too. This means that those researchers privileged with funding and financial assistance are more likely to be able to subscribe to models of slow scholarship than those without.
- Walking with nature can also too easily reinscribe the separation between humans and nature when nature is conceived as somewhere you go, not something that you are.
- Following on from the above, this separation is deeply entwined with the colonial idealisation of pristine wilderness, frontier colonialism, the construction of national parks, and the militarised conservation that has followed them.
- Accompanying this are the narratives of who are legitimate walkers. Walking, not as a means but as the ends, has historically been associated with privileged, white, males. While walking can provide the opportunity for a reclamation of the practice it may also therefore provide the opportunity to encounter prejudice.
- Walking may also be viewed as a self-absorbed practice that centres the researcher rather than focussing on achieving and sustaining impactful research for participants.
Haraway, D. (2015). Anthropocene, capitalocene, plantationocene, chthulucene: Making kin. Environmental Humanities, 6(1), 159-165.
Ingold, T. (2000). The perception of the environment: essays on livelihood, dwelling and skill. Psychology Press.
Oppezzo, M., and Schwartz, D. L. (2014). Give your ideas some legs: the positive effect of walking on creative thinking. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition. 40, 1142–1152. doi: 10.1037/a0036577
Solnit, R. (2001). Wanderlust: A history of walking. Penguin.
Thanem, T., & Knights, D. (2019). Embodied research methods. Sage.
Tsing, A. (2012). Unruly Edges: Mushrooms as Companion Species for Donna Haraway. Environmental Humanities, 1(1), 141-154.
Van der Kolk, B. (2014). The body keeps the score: Mind, brain and body in the transformation of trauma. Penguin UK.
Van Dooren, T., Kirksey, E., & Münster, U. (2016). Multispecies Studies Cultivating Arts of Attentiveness. Environmental Humanities, 8(1), 1-23.