The walking interviews: some remarks on talking and walking
The epitome of a range of approaches in qualitative studies, the ethnographic interview is both a very widely employed method and one that appears to suffer from an increasingly lacking problematisation. Far from the dense epistemological reflexion which can be given to it (Beaud 1996; Dauvin and Siméant 2001), and beside projects with an important methodological aspect, the interview seems to easily fall into a model where it plays the role of a long questionnaire with little if any ethnographic content. The research methods described by Moe Ali Nayel are one of many examples of this phenomenon (Nayel 2013). In this note, I wish to explore a particular form of ethnographic interview, the walking interview. The goal is both to propose a basis of methodological reflexion, and a small number of publications which can be used for further reading. I will rely on two cases from my own fieldwork.
When I undertook my thesis work I had some knowledge of the interview method as used in qualitative social sciences and bases on the specificities of the method. I had nonetheless never practiced the walking interview, which has emerged in geography after the spatial turn, especially because of an increased interest for mobility, in the 2000s. The elements constituting the basis of the ethnographic interview, exposed by Beaud, are several but can be resumed simply as: the interview, to be a useful and successful method, must be considered as a part of an ethnographic project. As such there is a difference between a setting where a researcher sits with a person to figure out what is going on, who is relevant, etc., and an ethnographic interview where what is being investigated is, primarily, shared social representations. As such a quantity of what is branded as “qualitative data” in a number of publications is not qualitative at all, consisting mostly in the category of “Actor X said that event Y occurred”, or as Beaud frames it, shameful quantitativism.
The main interest in Beaud’s perspective on the interview, and the basis of my own tinkering around the notion of the walking interview, is that it is less a conversation than an observation:
The experience of investigation proves that an in-depth interview only takes its actual meaning in “context”, vis-à-vis the place and time of the interview. The situation of observation is, in and of itself, a situation of observation; more accurately only the observation of the social setup (people and places) which make the interview gives elements for its interpretation. (Beaud 1996)
To a large extent, my experimentations around the walking interview had to rely on this sole piece of methodological thinking as, at the moment of their beginning, I had not found the existing literature on the method (in broad part for lack of time, contacts, and an adequate key work for my researches). While I was at the moment in my study when using such methods was becoming in my opinion more and more pressing, the shared experience of research and its problems which is the field of methodology was of little, if any, help to me. This is why I consider my relation to the walking interview, at that point, as a tinkering in the proper sense of the term: a way to work around a problem with what little I already had, as new resources were – in the context – unavailable.
The need for a walking interview
The need for the walking interview came from the type of data I was at the time trying to accumulate: in the first months of my fieldwork, I had been mostly discovering a world of which I had no experience. Any information was a necessary cog in the machine I was trying to apprehend, and as such any progress at all was a giant’s step, partly because the information I was obtaining was easily formulated: what were the parties, what were the problems, such or such person’s work, and so forth. If the social/spatial divide of the project is considered, I was, on the social part, doing good progress. On the spatial one, after the excitement of the first times in the camps, I was on the other hand stuck. The interviews were all taking place in much formalised settings, generally an appointment had been made and we were sitting in an office or an apartment, people were avoiding us to the extent that it was possible, occasionally an interpreter was with us. The people I was interviewing, trying to follow the rule according which we should move upwards and never downwards along the hierarchical lines of a group, were mostly newcomers, mostly doubtful on what was going on, and mostly tried to stick to what they estimated were the “good answers”, not having a lot of say in the working of their organisations anyway.
This was especially the case when interviewing people on their spatial experience, in particular to try reconstructing the ways in which urban issues became relevant for them, as I have evoked elsewhere here. These questions were mostly answered with “You know what I mean”-type sentences. Which, of course, I did not, for a main reason: the short time of my own presence in the camps. Not being a local, the reality of a long-term inclusion in a space, and the many small hints it gives, eluded me, and still does for a part, appearing only in snapshots. Paradoxically I also believe that merely relying on this tends to over-represent the experience of the researcher and naturalise what one talks about when evoking these issues. It was important for me to access not only discourses, but also the very experience of a problematic space, and to – as I was hoping then – observe social actors in a “spontaneous” context.
Using walking interviews
Talking while walking is not enough to constitute a walking interview. The walking interview does not merely take place in a different place from classical ethnographic interviews. The walking part is a part of the object I wanted to study. I organised two formalised walking interviews during the fieldwork, with two specifically-chosen activists from a similar project, and in the same camp. Each time the interview lasted less than an hour, making it the same length as the average interview during my fieldwork. The interviewees were informed of the intentions I had: I had asked them to take me for a visit of the camp, explaining that I knew the camp in general, but wanted to see the places they as persons were used to going to. I had also explained that I thought it would be interesting to talk as we were walking. The interviews started from the interviewee’s workplace. As I had at that stage conducted around twenty interviews I had enough confidence in my experience of the interview guide not to bring it with me. I also had no recorder because of the questions this device would unavoidably raise in the camp’s streets. Although the guide served as a general frame for the interview, the latter consisted mostly in discussions about the things the interviewee showed me: his home, certain placards and scenes we were confronted to, but also the people we came to meet and interact with.
The elements I was trying to observe were primarily the following:
- How the people I was walking and talking with perceived certain elements of the landscape to the detriment of others, and whether there was or not a coherence to this perception. Occasionally, when the occasion presented itself, I tried “testing” this by deliberately pointing at elements they had tended to ignore and question them about those.
- How the material was used by them to “make points” when discussion a specific issue. Reference of “What we see every day” was recurrent enough in interviews for me to pay attention to how they mobilised the material.
- Where we were going in the camp itself, the parts of it they wanted to show me and, implicitly, not to show me.
Compiled, the walking interview gave pretty excellent examples of what I was suspecting, namely that there was a considerable work to mesh the everyday perspectives of a certain landscape as problematic, taking an important part in the production of social problems by the groups I was working with. The follow excerpt, from an interview with Abu Salem, a Palestinian-Syrian refugee, can be taken as an example:
Me I hadn’t been here, ever, and I hadn’t even been to Lebanon except one but for holiday. I didn’t know all that [showing the street around us].
What do you mean?
I mean look! [Pointing at a pile of dust and garbage] Look at that! Look at this! [Pointing at the cables above us] How can you live with this? There is no… look at the cables! You know that’s part of my job to know how to… This is very bad, we are having a very bad case here! [Showing the cables again] As you see, the cables of electricity are all, like that, together, and with the water as well. This is so bad it is going to go bad. And of course the sewage is there as well, it is terrible. [Pointing at a sewage pipe coming out of a house] Look at this. When I was in Syria, even in Yarmouk, by the way, even in Yarmouk, you had the cable for electricity, woosh, like that, and separate also the water, woosh, and the sewage, woosh, so it doesn’t mix. Here it’s all together, so of course there will be someday a problem, it’s inevitable!
[We arrive at a crossroads where one older and a younger man are sitting, we salute, in front of a big fresque representing classical nationalist pictures]
This, here, is where the martyrs of the massacre are buried, did you see it? You can see all the… [pointing at the fresque]. Have you been in it? [Yes I know all about it] Oh good, so you know there was a big… Anyway.
[We wish the others goodbye and proceed]
Yes and also, look, you see all the people? Why are they not doing anything? This time is for work! Why is nobody at work, do you think, because there is no work! When you are a Palestinian, look at them all, you can’t work in Lebanon, the boss even he cannot hire you if you are a doctor, or an engineer, or nurse, anything! That is very bad, it makes the camp a very very bad case, a very poor case.
The material context is not only important for the interviewer, but also for the interviewee, for a simple reason, to be found in Doreen Massey’s argument about places as collections of stories: while a sitting interview highlights to a large extent strategies of presentation of the self to a stranger, however “sincere” they are, walking interviews to an extent constraint the actors, making it possible for them to deal with what makes the stuff of daily space, contradiction and multiplicity, between Yarmouk, the past massacre, the current social crises, and so forth. More interestingly, although this would require a much broader panel, the itineraries and the speed of the deambulation must also vary depending on social group, but also along lines of gender and degree of autochthony. The walking interview thus appeared as a glimpse into a different reality, less narrated, although still considerably so. It mostly allowed me to treat the question of the production of social problems through the conception of spatial devices which I have already explored partly on this blog.
The walking interview in literature
Developing the project was an occasion to get more access to the existing literature on walking interview. The good surprise was to see that, however basic my methods have been, the epistemological reflexion was coherent, for example, with Clark and Emmel’s (Clark and Emmel 2010) description of the walking interview as useful
- To understand how individuals conceptualise their neighbourhoods
- To understand how individuals think about and articulate their neighbourhoods as well as create them through socio-spatial practices
- To understand how individuals locate their social networks and express their sense of community in relation to (local) places
My observation on the chasm between indoors interviews about place conducting to stereotypical answers was also shared by Evan and Jones: “Hitchins and Jones used a similar technique, walking with participants around gardens to investigate how they learnt about and engaged with the environment. They concluded that respondents found it easier to verbalise attitudes and feelings when ‘in place’, producing richer data. When inside respondents usually attempted to be helpful and give the ‘right’ kind of answers, whereas outside in the gardens, more informal and interesting interactions took place” (Evans and Jones 2011). Kusenbach explores this dimension the most by discussing how the method has the advantage of diminishing the rupture between the everyday and the interview: “Being able to witness in situ the filtering and shaping of their subjects’ perceptions de-emphasizes the researchers’ own perceptual presuppositions and biases, which are in the end irrelevant, and of which they might not be completely aware” (Kusenbach 2003). The walking interview does not only appear as in my case as a way to palliate the impossibility of long-term immersion, but to go beyond its limits.
Of course my own practice, from this perspective, was extremely restricted: the panel was considerably too small, I did not map my interviews, nor did I attempt imposing a trajectory, which may have given better results. I did not take photos, and scarcely any noted beside what I could remember after returning to my notebooks, sometimes several hours after the interview.
Finally, and although other references can be of interest (Anderson 2004; De Leon 2005; Jones et al. 2008; Evans and Jones 2011; Clark and Emmel 2010; Reed 2002; Carpiano 2009), the exploration of which goes beyond this paper, a few remarks can be made. Evans and Jones insist correctly in my opinion on the importance of thinking about the technology of the walking interview, GPS technology allowing a collection of a number of quantitative elements, such as the speed and accurate mapping of the tour, while cameras and recorders can become hindrances to the interview. The typology of walking interviews must also be considered, and they propose a small model which can be of interest.
This small entrance into the method should, I believe, interest sociologists in two ways: the clichéd vision of the interview at a table, sipping coffee, with an interview guide, has its limits. Those can occasionally not be overcome by simply doing better interviews. On topics such as the everyday, the invisible, the unnameable because unnoticeable, neither observation nor static interviews can bring answer. This method has an interest to be apprehended. This is even more the case when we suspect, as I do, that more than one sociologist already practices such methods without considering them problematically.
Anderson, J. 2004 ‘Talking whilst walking: a geographical archaeology of knowledge’, Area 36(3): p.254–261.
Beaud, S. 1996 ‘L’usage de l’entretien en sciences sociales. Plaidoyer pour l’«entretien ethnographique»’, Politix 9(35): p.226–257.
Carpiano, R.M. 2009 ‘Come take a walk with me: The “Go-Along” interview as a novel method for studying the implications of place for health and well-being’, Health & Place 15(1): p.263–272.
Clark, A. and Emmel, N. 2010 ‘Using walking interviews’, Available at: http://eprints.ncrm.ac.uk/1323/ [Accessed May 23, 2016].
Dauvin, P. and Siméant, J. 2001 ‘Travailler sur l’humanitaire par entretiens — Retour sur une « méthode »’, Mots 65(1): p.117–133.
De Leon, J.P. 2005 ‘Object and Walking Probes in Ethnographic Interviewing’, Field Methods 17(2): p.200–204.
Evans, J. and Jones, P. 2011 ‘The walking interview: Methodology, mobility and place’, Applied Geography 31(2): p.849–858.
Jones, P., Bunce, G., Evans, J., Gibbs, H. and Hein, J.R. 2008 ‘Exploring space and place with walking interviews’, Journal of Research Practice 4(2): p.2.
Kusenbach, M. 2003 ‘Street phenomenology the go-along as ethnographic research tool’, Ethnography 4(3): p.455–485.
Nayel, M.A. 2013 ‘Palestinian refugees are not at your service’, The Electronic Intifada. Available at: https://electronicintifada.net/content/palestinian-refugees-are-not-your-service/12464 [Accessed May 26, 2017].
Reed, A. 2002 ‘City of details: interpreting the personality of London’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 8(1): p.127–141.