For researchers exploring research questions to do with space, place, and people’s mobility and everyday routines, walking interviews can be a useful method. Although going along with participants during daily activities and asking them questions about activities and routines has long been part of an anthropologist’s toolkit, there has been a surge in interest and application of walking interviews in social research since the early 2000s.
This is perhaps because of increased focus on topics to do with “mobility,” the use of mobile methods (Kusenbach, 2020), and the developments of mobility studies (Cresswell & Merriman, 2011; Sheller & Urry, 2006). Scholars across disciplines, including in the health sciences, tourism studies, landscape architecture and urban planning, and higher education have been using walking interviews to explore how people navigate space and place, along with their perceptions and experiences.
In this blogpost, I review decision points in using walking interviews in a research study. First, researchers designing a qualitative study must think about the epistemological and theoretical assumptions that they take to a study. For example, what kinds of data will provide the evidence to support findings from a study? Will talking to participants while walking provide evidence to explore the research questions posed? What is the justification for using walking interviews? How will observations of interviewees’ movements and routes, and analysis of participants’ accounts of their experiences inform the research questions? Further, walking interviews involves the researcher in “being there” – a basic method involved in ethnography. How will the researcher’s own observations and experiences during the walking interview inform the study? How will a phenomenological understanding of lived experience inform the study’s questions? There is also a range of other issues that researchers need to consider. Let’s look further at these.
The use of walking interviews relies on participants’ abilities to navigate the route undertaken. For participants who use wheelchairs or other ambulatory devices (crutches, walking sticks, or walkers), are there specific reasons why a walking interview would be used? Will this be practical for participants? If so, are there safety issues that need to be considered in the design of the route taken? Are there hindrances in the route that will be obstacles for participants (e.g., navigation of steps or hills)? Further, some participants may not feel comfortable being seen in public with a researcher, so it is always a good idea to give participants opportunities to choose where they will be interviewed.
Researchers who use walking interviews have discussed how these can be used to explore interior and exterior spaces. For example, Ratzenböck (2016) used walking interviews in participants’ domestic spaces to explore their use of media devices. Madsen (2017) used walking interviews in a museum to explore visitors’ experiences of the atmosphere. Other researchers have walked with participants to discuss topics related to rivers and farm tourism (Mackay et al., 2018; Thomas et al., 2019). The routes taken by researchers and participants can be pre-planned or spontaneous. When pre-planned, who will decide on the route? How will decisions be made when the route is spontaneous?
Recording and data sources
Depending on the topics and space navigated, researchers have also taken different approaches to record what gets talked about in walking interviews. Some researchers carry audio-recording devices, while others prefer to take notes after the walk. Researchers have also explored the use of videorecorders (Pink, 2007) while walking. Scholars from the field of geography have tracked movement using Geographic Information System (GIS) devices and created maps that are accompanied by photos in research reports (Jones & Evans, 2012). Thus, “recording” can involve audio and visual recording (video, photographs), fieldnotes, and the creation of maps that are either drawn or created using Geographic Positioning Systems (GPS) and GIS technologies (Martini, 2020).
Just as one typically checks the weather prior to taking a walk in the neighborhood, researchers must consider the weather when planning to conduct walk-alongs with participants. If storms or excessive wind, heat, or cold weather are forecast, then researchers must consider contingency plans should walking interviews need to be called off. In urban areas, researchers should also think about noise that could impinge on hearing and/or recording participants’ talk (e.g. traffic, construction, etc.).
When conducting sit-down interviews, researchers typically rely on an interview guide. Interview guides provide a list of topics and/or questions that the researcher would like to cover in an interview. In a walking interview, how will the talk be organized? Does the researcher have a specific set of topics they would like to explore, or will they follow the interviewee’s lead in conversations? If the interviewee is to guide the conversation – how will the researcher explain the research topic?
In the field of sociology, O’Neill and Roberts (2020) have developed a method that they call “Walking Interview as a Biographical Method.” Their book provides lots of ideas on how to use walking interviews for biographical research. There are numerous examples of research that have used walking interviews to be found across disciplines. Finally, although this blog post has focused on “walking interviews,” a broader way to think about this particular mobile method is that of one form of “go-along” (Kusenbach, 2003, 2018). Go-alongs differ from walking interviews in that they expand how researchers and their participants move together. For example, researchers have conducted go-alongs in cars, buses, trains, ferries, and planes. And some researchers have even conducted interviews in relation to swimming along (Denton et al., 2021) and cycling along (Spinney, 2009; Spinney, 2015). Clearly, there are many forms of “go-along,” of which “walking interviews” are one approach. So next time you take a walk in the neighborhood, you might reflect on how walking with your participants could inform your exploration of research topics of interest.
Below, you’ll find an infographic that summarizes the key ideas presented here. Enjoy your next walk!
Cresswell, T., & Merriman, P. (Eds.). (2011). Geographies of mobilities: Practices, spaces, subjects. Ashgate.
Denton, H., Dannreuther, C., & Aranda, K. (2021). Researching at sea: Exploring the ‘swim-along’ interview method. Health & Place, 67. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.healthplace.2020.102466
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Mackay, M. H., Nelson, T., & Perkins, H. C. (2018). Interpretive walks: Advancing the use of mobile methods in the study of entrepreneurial farm tourism settings. Geographical Research, 56, 167-175.
Madsen, T. A. (2017). Walking and sensing at Faaborg Museum. Atmosphere and walk-along interviews at the museum. Nordisk Museologi(2), 124-141. https://doi.org/10.5617/nm.6351
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O’Neill, M., & Roberts, B. (2020). Walking methods: Research on the move. Routledge.
Pink, S. (2007). Walking with video. Visual Studies, 22(3), 240-252. https://doi.org/10.1080/14725860701657142
Ratzenböck, B. (2016). “Let’s take a look together”: Walking interviews in domestic spaces as a means to examine ICT experiences of women 60+. Romanian Journal of Communication and Public Relations, 18(1), 49. https://doi.org/10.21018/rjcpr.2016.1.201
Sheller, M., & Urry, J. (2006). The new mobilities paradigm. Environment and Planning A, 38(2), 207-226.
Spinney, J. (2009). Cycling the city: Movement, meaning and method. Geography Compass, 3(2), 817-835. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1749-8198.2008.00211.x
Spinney, J. (2015). Close encounters? Mobile methods, (post)phenomenology and affect. cultural geographies, 22(2), 231-246. https://doi.org/https://www.jstor.org/stable/26168640
Thomas, E., Riley, M., & Smith, H. (2019). A flowing conversation? Methodological issues in interviewing farmers about rivers and riparian environments. Area, 51(2), 371-379. https://doi.org/10.1111/area.12507