The anthropology of dog-walking

12 Jul

The anthropology of dog-walking

I am not an anthropologist, but I want to be one when I grow up. There has been a noticeable ‘turn’ towards anthropological methods in the study of peace and conflict, and international relations more generally, over the past decade or so. It coincides with a lending and borrowing of concepts and methods from sociology and feminism too as peace and conflict scholars have moved beyond looking at institutions and combatants to take a whole-of-society approach to their subject.

While anthropologists are rightfully suspicious of those who claim to use ‘ethnography’ without training and a deep grounding in the literature, many have been generous in encouraging peace and conflict scholars to use ‘ethnographically-influenced’ methods in their research. I would like to showcase the anthropology of the dog-walk, or how walking a dog (or dogs) allows you to see sides of a community that you ordinarily would not. I have been a dog owner for about 12 years – first for Paddy a loveable but scheming chocolate Labrador and now Ted and Bess, black and chocolate Labradors. In York, then St Andrews, and now in rural southern Scotland I have walked these dogs three or four times a day around villages, along lanes and across beaches.

Walking along familiar routes, often at reasonably set times of the day, allows you to engage in and with a community in different ways. I have never used my dog-walking for research purposes (most of my research is overseas) but it has encouraged me to think about research processes and the value of ‘slow research’ – or repeated and close-level engagement with the same site. Here are four advantages of research observation by walking a dog (or dogs):

Firstly, you get to meet people and speak with them. I lived – dog-less – in York for about five years. In that time I really only knew academic colleagues. They were completely unrepresentative of the city. None of us came from York, listened to the local radio station, or read the local paper. It was a very insular life. Very often I would give the dog his lunchtime walk in a large park near my house. Other dog walkers would gather and we would spend a few minutes chatting while the dogs played and sniffed each other. This was a very different York: van drivers, care-givers, single mums. It was working class and unvarnished with a good deal of xenophobia but also an honesty and lack of sophistry that I hugely appreciated. The dog-network allowed me to see a side to York that campus life excluded. I heard about the issues that affected people and how they saw their own city. That pattern of being able to meet so-called ordinary people – through the technique of walking a dog – has been replicated everywhere else I have lived.

Secondly, you notice the small things. I usually walk the dogs at set times: first thing in the morning, lunchtime, teatime and last thing at night. Three of these walks will be 30 minutes plus (usually longer) and the bedtime one is usually 10 minutes. There are a limited number of places that one can walk nearby so I will often walk the same routes several times a week. And it is here that you notice things. In particular, you notice the small things: a car parked in an unusual position, a new garden decoration, a freshly painted fence. All of this probably is of negligible social significance, but it does allow you to piece together a picture of a community: who is well networked, who never has visitors, who is more prosperous, who is house-proud, who doesn’t give a damn? Although it is simply walking around with your eyes open, I like to think that it is the amalgamation of multiple data points that gives you a comprehensive picture of a community.

Thirdly, it gives you an excuse to go places that ordinarily you would not go. Acquire a dog and a lead and immediately you are empowered to walk up lanes, around the margins of fields, and places that it would be odd to go if you did not have a dog in tow. You can see views of the locality that you otherwise would not. Particularly in rural areas, the topography explains much of the political economy and the built environment: who had access to the good land, who had the water, why does the road take that odd turn? A dog allows you to be noisy – to walk to that hilltop to get the view and to go behind those farm buildings and find the water-source that explains why the community was built there.

Fourthly, you move (reasonably) slowly. The pace of research (or at least the expectation that we publish often and have impact) seems to be increasing. Walking a dog allows you time-out. That’s good for thinking time and our mental health. But it allows us to make ‘slow observations’ – to see something, to study it, to hazard a guess why it is like that. I often pass things that puzzle me (why has the farmer dumped that there, why are there so many cars at that house, why is that place busier than usual today?). By slowly ambling past – because the dogs have found something interesting to sniff – you can usually get the answer.

I am not suggesting that we all find and dog and bring it on ‘fieldwork’. I can think of multiple reasons why that would be inappropriate and impractical. I am, instead, celebrating the value of walking and keeping you eyes open. None of this uses Nvivo, draws on the corpus of dead French philosophers, or involves the construction of a dataset. It does involve the genius of dogs though.

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