Barefoot ethnography: barefoot adventures in suburban Surrey


I just did this.

That’s my Runkeeper feed.  Pretty unimpressive as a run, but it represents a first for me:  my first research interview out running, pounding the pavements and paths of suburban surrey.

We’re doing a vanity project at the moment in which we’ve found a couple of respondents ourselves.  The idea behind the project is to get some data of our own that we can use for creds, on our website and potentially approach clients with.  We’re interested in shoes.   We’re interested that they act as cultural markers, as tropes of sub cultures and marks of tribal affiliation.  We’re fascinated by what they mean and what they symbolise; that people more fashion than me can use different shoes to convey different messages about who they are and to communicate their desired public identity, how they feel, how they identify themselves, how they conceive of the relationship they have with a planned situation.  We’re also interested in what they let people do and how sportsmen and women can do more with shoes.

With this project  we’re trying to do is find red threads, connections, overlaps, and striking paradoxes between how a barefoot runner views, uses and buys footwear and how a teen fashion fan does the same.  After a delightful evening spent in the company of two very nice 17 year old women in Peckham last week chatting about the relative merits of Vans versus DMs versus Converse versus Blazers, this morning I headed out to the Surrey Suburbs to meet a BF running enthusiast.

Insights aside, the session itself proved interesting.  The real joy of the interview was in the format: we ended up chatting for an hour or so at his house.  I got a full biog of his competitive history, from his Dad’s influence, the sport cliques at school in Zimbabwe, his moving to the UK to crack the cycling scene through to discovering mountain biking, joining Stephen Redgrave’s elite rowing training team and eventually getting injured and from that getting into running.  We talked about style and fashion and how they intersected with sport.  We talked about chains of influence and how he finds out about trends in sports and fitness, who he listens to and what he reads, how his friends influence him and how he ploughed through Scott Jurek’s biography.   After that, I rather embarrassedly asked whether he fancied going for a run.  He consented and we hit the streets.

We ended up doing an 8k loop around his local park, at a conversational pace; chatting all the way around about running, trainers, training techniques, the sensation of running, the feeling of satisfaction it gives and what life without running would be like.  It was a really interesting example of how context can change response.  When you actually conduct your research in the moment of the subject your discussing you get a much richer understanding of how someone feels about something. The hour and half chat we had before we went running was still important: I got so much factual data from it, and great insight into his attitudes and how he felt about shoes and sport and the like, but running together took us further, and let us get to another place.  He was able to talk more interestingly and directly about how running felt: better able to describe the very specific type of challenge, how it felt to try and succeed and how it felt to run.  We weren’t just talking about our opinions and stories, we were living and experiencing the powerful sensation of running together.  I found it easier to unpick how he felt as he ran and what it meant to him: the gentle attrition of the run, the self transcendence, the setting and smashing of goals on your own terms.  I understood why he loved the solitude and loneliness of running, the egotistical focus on the self that left running a million miles from the showboating of  school rugby or the jostling adrenalin of the peloton.  I was living the experience with him.

“I just wanted to run a half [marathon] in the snow. No water, no nutrition; just eating snow when I started to flag.  And I did.”

Researching a subject truly in its context normally makes sense: you should chat about transport when your respondent is using transport, talk about a night out on a night out, find out about a computer game when someone’s playing that game.  I think even more so with something as sensual and sensorial as running.  It’s difficult for most people to describe it with exactly the right emotion or timbre when they’re basing everything on recollections. There’s an added level of truth and eloquence when you let people describe it in the moment… or as close to the moment as possible.

It’s fashionable to be dismissive of focus groups.  They still have their place, but this ethnographic approach, getting in the moment with the person your researching, is still my preferred modus operandi for the majority of research questions.  Especially when it comes to trying to understand running.