For us at BILD, part of doing critical sociolinguistics means questioning, challenging, and pushing the boundaries of the way we consider language in society. It can also mean pushing the boundaries of the way we conduct research about languages in society. My PhD research is about non-classroom language anxiety, and when I started planning my study, I knew that I wanted it to reflect this notion of questioning, challenging, and pushing boundaries. One of the ways that I did this was at the methodological level, using walking interviews as one of my sources of data. So, in celebration of walking interviews, I present to you six reasons to love (and maybe try!) walking interviews.
- Walking interviews are flexible.
Walking interviews (sometimes called guided walking or go-along interviews) are pretty much exactly what they sound like: the participant leads the researcher through locales of the participant’s choosing, usually those that form part of the participants’ immediate geographies. In my study, each participant approached the walking interview differently. Some of them gave me a tour of where they go on a regular basis (home, work, school, café, etc.). Others had me come along with them as they ran some errands or had me accompany them on their daily commute home. Or, we met near their home and went for a walk around their neighbourhood. One participant took me on a long drive, partly because it was raining heavily and partly because she lives in a sprawling suburban area and everywhere she wanted to take me was too far apart to walk. Most of the walking interviews took around an hour. We walked (or dove, or rode public transportation), we talked, I had some questions in case the conversation ran dry, and afterwards we went out for lunch or dinner.
- Technology makes walking interviews easy.
Thankfully, technology is a real friend to walking interviews, and I didn’t need to buy any new tech or carry around anything cumbersome. I used my the voice memo app on my iPhone and recording the interviews was as easy as clipping my ear-buds (which have a small microphone) to my participant’s collar and putting my phone in their pocket. I also used a small digital camera to take some pictures of street signs, landmarks, and other geographical features; these pictures (some of which are featured in this blog post) were useful memory prompts for my reflections in my field journal, and also helped me make a map of our route so I would have a record of where we went (I used https://mapmyrun.com).
- You don’t need association prompts because you have the world.
Traditional interviews use photos and other association props as prompts to get participants talking and sharing stories. In our walking interviews, the environment around us served as the prompt for stories and insights to be shared. There were several points in my research where, upon seeing a particular shop or place, my participant started telling me stories about how a particular experience at a particular place informed their feelings of language anxiety. This brought rich and meaningful data to my study.
- Walking interviews happen in the real world in real time.
As Ulrike Najar (2014, p. 201) articulated, “it seems somehow paradoxical to talk about intercultural learning as a social practice while sitting in an isolated place conducting the interview”. In contrast to a traditional interview, I was able to observe my participants engage in some of their everyday interactions in their normal environments because, during our walking interviews, we went into stores and cafés, got coffees, got on and off public transportation, and other everyday tasks that involve interaction with the rest of the world. In this sense, the walking interview became a kind of hybrid between an interview and an observation, providing rich in situ data that we were able to reflect on and interpret in real time.
- The power dynamic changes.
Walking interviews can be empowering for participants because of the participant is in control. For example, I met my participants on their turf and followed them at their pace on a route of their choosing. This made for a different power dynamic than our preliminary interview, which had taken place in my office. As Jones et al. (2008) argue, the power dynamics in an interview situation are important because they can inform the kind of data that is generated. In other words, walking interviews can bring to light new insights and dimensions of the puzzle that may remain unknown in a traditional interview.
- Going for a walk is a normal thing that people do.
While my office is somewhere normal and familiar for me (and my lovely office-mates), it isn’t a normal or familiar place for my participants, who may have already felt vulnerable by merit of the fact that they were talking about something as deeply personal as their
language anxiety. In this sense, walking interviews have the potential to make the experience of participating in an interview a little less intimidating because walking around is a normal thing that most people do. Walking interviews allowed me to spend time with my participants while they ran errands, commuted home, or walked around their home neighborhood; these were places and activities that were familiar and normal for them. Plus, as one of my participants pointed out, walking around (or driving around), we made less eye contact than sitting down to a formal interview, so perhaps this also made the experience less intimidating and uncomfortable.
While I’m a big fan of walking interviews, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out some of their limitations. I felt very much at the whim of the seasons and the weather; I was doing my walking interviews in October, so I had a tight interview schedule to get all the interviews done before it got too cold, and the weather was always changing. Scheduling got tricky and participants and I had to reschedule multiple times because of the weather, so a degree of flexibility was definitely necessary. In this sense, walking interviews could be really challenging to pull off in certain climates where it rains a lot (e.g. the Pacific Northwest) and much more challenging to conduct during certain seasons (e.g. winter in eastern Canada). Also, while I didn’t encounter any of these challenges, there may also be limitations in terms of accessibility to consider. For example, participants with limited mobility may feel excluded, rather than empowered, by walking interviews.
Limitations aside, walking interviews hold great potential for critical sociolinguistics research (see: Najar, 2014; Lamarre, 2013). They are an instrument for data collection that can complement or triangulate data from other sources, taking the researcher out of fixed environments and into the spaces where individuals use language in the social and world around them.
Does data collection excite you too? What do you think about walking interviews? Would you consider conducting or participating in a walking interview? Share your thoughts below; we’d love to hear from you.
Parts of this piece are adapted excerpts from my doctoral thesis. Photos are from actual walking interviews.
Kusenbach, M. (2003). Street phenomenology: The go-along as an ethnographic research tool. Ethnography, 4(3), 455–485.
Lamarre P. & Lamarre S. (2009) Montréal «on the move»: Pour une approche ethnographique non-statique des pratiques langagières des jeunes multilingues. In T. Bulot (Ed.), Formes & normes sociolinguistiques. Ségrégations et discriminations urbaines, (pp. 105-134). Paris, France: L’Harmattan.
Lamarre, P. (2013). Catching “Montreal on the move” and challenging the discourse of unilingualism in Quebec. Anthropologica, 55(1), 41–56.
Jones, P., Bunce, G., Evans, J., Gibbs, H., & Hein, J. R. (2008). Exploring space and place with walking interviews. Journal of Research Practice, 4(2), Article–D2.
Najar, U. (2014). Weaving a method: Mobility, multilocality, and the senses as foci of research on intercultural language learning. In J. Byrd Clark & F. Dervin (Eds.), Reflexivity in language and intercultural Education: Rethinking multilingualism and interculturality (pp. 193–212). New York, NY: Taylor and Francis.