This was one of the comments we received at the Cambridge Cycling Campaign meeting this week. It was raised as something to be discussed and unfortunately there wasn’t enough time to do it justice in the context of talking about the broad and complex issues of UK cycling cultures. I thought I might do a bit more now.
Firstly, things that are obvious to some are not obvious to everyone. This is the essence of culture. We only have to travel to another town, not even to another country, to notice how cultural practices and norms change. Suddenly, we realise that the things that we think are ‘natural’, things that we take for granted are ours alone and different ways of living, different logics, exist in other places. These are the fundamentals of sociological research – attempting to understand the normative social and cultural structures that shape everyday life.
Obvious things are the first things we lose sight of. The norms and governing social rules by which we live our everyday lives tend to be mundane and boring. They become invisible. Drawing attention to these, rendering them visible, is one way of seeing them with fresh eyes and finding new ways of interrogating them – to understand where they have come from, how they are made and constantly sustained. A core tenet of ethnography, a particular qualitative research method, is to see the world through the eyes of participants. The researcher gains a nuanced understanding by immersing herself in the social, cultural and physical worlds of a particular group. It involves constantly comparing the unfamiliar with the familiar in an attempt to generate ‘a self-conscious awareness of what is learned, how it has been learned, and the social transactions that informed the production of such knowledge’ (Hammersley and Atkinson 1996:101).
Obvious things are not fixed or static. We are flexible emotional beings living in complex human and non-human networks. Our meanings and understandings of the world are made and re-made on a daily basis. We produce meaning in our actions, interactions and language in and around the things around us. These change. We change. Looking closely at these things enables us to see what operates as catalysts to facilitate these changes. I am currently doing archival cycling research and reading ‘obvious’ things from the 1890s which brings to light the extraordinary fight women had in challenging the social, political and physical constraints of Victorian society to ride safety bicycles, wear bifurcated skirts and rise up against the abuse hurled at them in the streets.
Obvious things are not boring. Susan Leigh Star, one of my favourite writers, has done much to advocate the study of ‘boring’ things. She focuses on infrastructures, arguing that they are often overlooked because they are considered ‘singularly unexciting’ (1999:377). Partially this is because they have taken the mode of pipes supplying water or sewerage or cables that channel electricity and phone data, which means they are either hidden in the landscape and architecture of the home or have become so ubiquitous they are rendered invisible. She argues that it is only through a study of the unstudied, the things we take for granted, that we can hope to see new and previously neglected connections and meanings. Although we are fully aware of how these infrastructures furnish essential services we are also content to ignore them until such times as they fail or breakdown. This approach attends to the idea that seemingly unremarkable artefacts and systems make explicit the familiar and taken-for-granted ways in which people make sense of and operate in everyday life.
Ultimately, if we are doing our job well then the people in our research should recognise themselves and see the ‘obvious’ in our results. Yet, to others outside this field of research our findings should be much less obvious, more surprising and potentially interruptive.