Walking in Circles

By Emma Jackson

In my working life I use walking both as a method of research and as a teaching practice. I do lots of exploratory walking on my own and with others as part of this. My walking practices have changed this summer. Since having my baby, I walk in a different rhythm and on a different circuit. I walk to get the baby to sleep, to keep the baby asleep and to alleviate cabin fever.

I walk a lot in circles and I often walk slowly. It’s a kind of walking that embeds me further into place rather than always taking me off to new destinations.

It is a kind of walking that is rarely discussed in sociological circles and the new mother, encumbered with stuff and carrying or pushing another person, is far removed from the archetypal walker in the literature – the detached flaneur of Baudelaire and Benjamin, or his grandsons, the contemporary psychogeographers that continue to dominate, certainly the work on walking in London, such as Iain Sinclair and Will Self. Such writers take for granted the ability to traverse the tricky terrain of London’s back streets and more unloved corners. This is not a possibility that is always open to everyone. 

In a film from the series Examined life, where the philosopher Judith Butler and the disability activist Sunaura Taylor take a walk and a talk through San Francisco, Taylor describes how her form of walking as a wheelchair user and the way she use her body in public space challenges able-bodied norms of public space. Butler, reflecting on a murder of a young gay man who was singled out because of his gait, argues ‘To take a walk can be a dangerous thing’. These reflections challenge us to think about how power works through the landscapes that we walk through and our own bodies. They challenge the figure of the universal walker, pointing to how walking is embodied and situated.

There is a long feminist history of questioning the assumption of the white, able-bodied, upper middle-class male as the walker – and there is a long-standing debate about the possibility of the female flaneur, the flaneuse, which I won’t and can’t do justice to in this blog.  But I take inspiration from a range of women writers to use walking to ask different questions of the urban environment and of ourselves, from the descriptions in the fiction of Nelle Larson about moving through the raced and classed landscape of Manhattan in the 1920s, to the cultural theorist Elizabeth Wilson, who in Sphinx in the City describes how women have always occupied and walked through European cities– although on different terms to men – through to the Blank Noise Collective working across India to disrupt gendered norms of public space through their interventions. Drawing on the work of these writers and activists, rather than the flaneur, I want to raise a few questions and provocations to think about. Some of these are below:

  • There is already a place for individual walking and knowing but what are the uses of collective sociological walking?
  • How can we use walking to become attuned to, or challenge, how different forms of power unfold in and through public space?
  • How might we use walking to read the past, present and futures of spaces, against the grain of dominant narratives?

As Nirmal Puwar writes in her brilliant paper The Archi-texture of Parliament, ‘boundaries etched in the architectures of stone and iron grids do not go unchallenged. Even the cosiest and most constrained of public men’s dwellings can be shaken.’

Emma Jackson is an urban sociologist and ethnographer. She is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at Goldsmiths and co-editor of The Sociological Review. She tweets at @EmmaKJackson.

This blog post was adapted from Emma’s talk, given at the ‘Thinking on the Move’ Conference. It is the first of a series of blog posts in our ‘Thinking on the Move’ collection.

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