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Mobile Auto-Ethnography: In Search of Urban Cycling Lived Experience

Updated: Aug 18, 2022

My name is Mohammad Nazarpoor. I am a cycling activist and a Ph.D. student in urban studies at Tarbiat Modares University, Tehran. My research interests revolve around urban anthropology and sociology. In recent years, my main focus has been on “Understanding Urban Cyclists’ Lived Experience”. I am highly enthusiastic about discovering how cyclists encounter urban spaces during their cycling experience.

Given that cycling is tied up with bodily resources, or affective capacities, the researcher will get a richer understanding with auto-ethnographic participation. (Larsen, 2014).

How can we capture a holistic understanding of the cycling experience? How can we come to know and interpret a cyclist’s practice within a specific cultural experience? In this part, “Mobile Auto-Ethnography” is introduced as a method for understanding cycling lived experience. We need to look at the cycling experience from an interpretive perspective to identify the phenomenological aspects of the cycling routines in different urban contexts.

- The Mobilities Turn: A Epistemological Question

During the last decade of the twentieth century, the social sciences, specifically sociology and human geography, experienced the "Mobilities Turn" or “New Mobilities Paradigm” (Sheller & Urry, 2006). According to this epistemological perspective, contemporary cities and places, in addition to their fixed and static aspects, are also defined by their movement. A mobilities approach means that we cannot understand people, things, and ideas only as rooted in specific places; we must also pay attention to the movements, flows, and networks that connect humans to each other and to non-humans (Jaffe & Koning, 2016). Cycling from this epistemological turn Cycling is not only a physical movement from A to B, but also is a cultural, social, and political practice influenced by embodied and lived experiences.

This epistemological turn to understanding the lived experiences through the various way of movements led to the formation of a "methodological problem" in the next step, in which how to capture mobile lived experiences was introduced as a new methodological challenge. Criticism of the methodological tradition of the social sciences, which has failed to understand "moving experiences" (Law & Urry, 2004), leads to the development of various methodologies and the creation of new different methods under a new methodological perspective.

- Understanding Mobile Experiences: A Methodological Question

The methodological toolkit of transport geography has been dominated by cost-benefit analysis, stated preference surveys, and modeling that fail to unlock the more ‘unspeakable’ and ‘non-rationalized’ meanings of cycling that often reside in the sensory, embodied, and social nature of its performance (spinney, 2011). From this critical view, we need a new methodological toolkit for understanding mobile experiences; a toolbox that can capture the meaningful aspects hidden in the deep layers of the lived experience of mobile actors.

“Current methods do not resonate well with important reality enactments. They deal, for instance, poorly with the fleeting – that which is here today and gone tomorrow, only to reappear the day after tomorrow. They deal poorly with the distributed – that is to be found here and there but not in between – or that which slips and slides between one place and another. They deal poorly with the multiple – that which takes different shapes in different places. They deal poorly with the non-causal, the chaotic, and the complex. And such methods have difficulty dealing with the sensory – that which is subject to vision, sound, taste, smell; with the emotional – time-space compressed outbursts of anger, pain, rage, pleasure, desire, or the spiritual; and the kinaesthetic – the pleasures and pains” (Law & Urry, 2004: 403-404).

Instead of traditional positivist methods that are unable to address the sensory and perceptual aspects of Spatio-temporal contexts, the emergence of innovative mobile methods can recognize these particular human experiences across dynamic research settings. It means that the researcher should be able to engage in "Empathetic Learning" (Cox, 2019) through "Learning with" (Ingold, 2000) mobile actors, and as a new form of "Active Participant" (Laurier, 2010) Based on collective mobile experiences with participants, explore and understand different layers of lived experience.

- Innovative Methods: Researcher on the Move!

In recent years, innovative and creative methods for understanding "moving phenomena/experiences" have emerged, while the researcher engages in the studied moving practices and collects data by immersing in the embodied, fluid, and multi-sensory experience of movement. In addition, ethnography has moved from long-standing in a single-site location to Multisite Ethnography, boundaryless dynamic settings (Muskat et l., 2017), making it possible to understand the moving experience of different places. Video Ethnography, Mobile Ethnography, Auto Ethnography, Ride-Along Interviews, and Go-Along Interviews are examples of such methods. Mobile methods allow us to be on the move with informants and make sense of their mobility patterns and grasp their subjective moving experiences. In the cycling research, the most fundamental question is how cycling can change the urban experience and mobile methods can provide insight into the embodied, sensory aspects of cycling practice related to different contexts.

- Auto-Ethnography: Describing the Researcher’s Personal Narrative

Among emerging mobile methods, auto ethnography seems to have more potential for understanding moving experiences. Auto-ethnography is a qualitative interpretive ethnographic approach to research that seeks to describe personal experience to understand cultural experience. Auto-ethnography is a research method that uses personal experience (“auto”) to describe and interpret (“graphy”) cultural texts, experiences, beliefs, and practices (“ethno”) (Chang, 2008). In the other words, we study and understand the culture from the perspective of self. It balances intellectual and methodological rigor, emotion, and creativity (Bochner & Ellis, 1999).

Overview of Auto-Ethnography

Personal stories are the main core and storytelling is the best way to understand the subjective experiences of the researcher that provide a useful way of knowing about the collective experiences by creating a specific meaningful relationship between the researcher and participants in which knowledge is co-created by them. Auto-ethnography has close ties to phenomenology and the mobilities paradigm and provides an insider view of the lifeworld of mobilities practices.

- Mobile Auto-Ethnography: Understanding Cycling Lived Experience

When it comes to cycling experience, Autoethnography can explore cycling meaningful experience by describing our personal/collective experience. It provides an insider perspective (emic view) on cycling lived experiences within urban fabrics. Given that cycling is tied up with bodily resources, or affective capacities, the researcher will get a richer understanding with auto-ethnographic participation. (Larsen, 2014).

I consider Mobile Autoethnography among some interdisciplinary turns that seek to understand the mobile lived experience of movement practices (mobilities turn) in the cultural context of everyday life (cultural turn) by describing the researcher’s narratives (narrative turn) regarding the subjectivity of the researcher (reflexive turn) and focusing on the idea that space is socially produced (spatial turn).

The cultural turn means the special attention to cultural aspects of places in urban studies. The reflexive turn in anthropology is related to the idea that researchers cannot separate themselves from the research experience. It was the result of the “crisis of Representation”, during the 1980s, which led to emerging some innovative research methodologies that focused on the role of “self” and “other” in research, such as Auto-ethnography. The narrative turn in the humanities means the special attention to stories of everyday life and storytelling for understanding the meanings among human practices. The spatial turn implies a rethinking of the concept of "space" in the social sciences that considered space as social production in which space is no longer seen as an empty vessel and an independent material reality filled by objects.

Mobile Auto-Ethnography and Interdisciplinary Turns

Mobile Autoethnography is efficient for understanding lived experience of cycling for several main reasons. Firstly, it is closely tied to phenomenology and the mobilities paradigm. Lived space (spatiality), lived body (corporeality), lived time (temporality), and lived human relations (relationally) are the components of the cycling lifeworld that the powerful narratives of mobile autoethnography can explore. According to the methodological consideration, researchers write about their personal experiences that explore the depth layers of the subjective and inter-subjectivity lived experience related to the specific cycling culture from an emic perspective. Secondly, due to its links with ethnography, it uses multiple data sources to collect field data and, therefore, can conduct in-depth ride-along interviews, and use photos, videos, documents, etc., as data triangulation in the cycling research. Finally, because of the emphasis this methodology places on cultural understanding, it is valuable for understanding cycling cultures in different urban contexts. The auto ethnographer is an active participant who has been involved in the cultural context and practice that have been explored.

Mobile Autoethnography Process

For reading my autoethnographic essays of cycling lived experience in Tehran, look at the related posts below.


Bochner. p and Ellis, c. (1999). “Which Way to Turn?” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 28, no. 5: 485–99; Carolyn Ellis, “Sociological Introspection and Emotional Experience,” Symbolic Interaction 14, no. 1 (1991): 23–50.

Chang, H. (2008) Autoethnography as Method. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast.

Cox, P. (2019). Cycling: A Sociology of Vélomobility. The Mobilization Series on Social Movements, Protest, and Culture. London and New York: Routledge.

Ingold, T. (2000), The Perception of the Environment: Essays in livelihood, dwelling and enskillment (London: Routledge).

Jaffe, R., & Koning, A. (2016). Introducing urban anthropology.

Larsen, J. 2014. (Auto) Ethnography and cycling. International journal of social research methodology, 17(1): 59-71.

Laurier, E. (2010) Being there/seeing there: Recording and analysing life in the car, in: B. Fincham, M. McGuinness & L. Murray (Eds) Mobile Methodologies, pp. 103–117 (Aldershot: Ashgate).

Law, J & Urry, J. (2004) Enacting the social, Economy and Society, 33:3, 390-410.

Muskat, B & Muskat, M & Zehrer, A. (2017). Qualitative interpretive mobile ethnography, Anatolia.

Sheller, M., & Urry, J. (2006). The New Mobilities Paradigm. Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space, 38(2), 207–226.

Spinney, J. 2011. “A Chance to Catch a Breath: Using Mobile Video Ethnography in Cycling Research.” Mobilities 6 (2): 161–182.




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