Narrative walking in the Birmingham canal-scape

Dr. Zoë K. Millman, Birmingham Institute of Art & Design, Birmingham City University

Part of my PhD research on ‘Landscape narratives and the construction of meaning in the contemporary urban canal-scape’ (awarded March 2012)


Disciplinary background(s) My influences include geography, landscape architecture, psychology, philosophy, phenomenology, ethnography and art.  My prior degree in the History of Art and MA in Museum Studies taught me a humanities approach to research. The PhD enabled a broader, creative approach encompassing multi-modalism (considering all the senses), performance and art.

When did the research take place? Spring 2010

Aims of research 

The wider research explored how individuals use and perceive the canal-scape in central Birmingham. Early on I found that participants were recalling memories triggered by sensory experiences as they walked – memories of other places, not just the canal-scape. Participants used these memories to attribute personal meanings to the landscape and support their identities. It was not the aim of this study to uncover participants’ experiences of the canal landscape, but rather to uncover the experiences they chose or were able to share. Individuals were to be left alone to experience and reflect on the landscape, talking aloud into an audio recorder. I hypothesised walking would enable relaxation through rhythmic movement and sensory experience of the landscape, allowing the mind to wander, while talking aloud enables a cathartic ‘voicing’ of their experience and understanding.

I developed this method of ‘narrative walking’ in response to the literature from various disciplines and results from previous studies, but it was untested with participants. My main concern was participants feeling uncomfortable talking to themselves, hindering their ‘flow’ and interfering with their ability to access the memories I hoped for.

Description of creative research method

I worked with 8 participants aged 23 – 63; 3 men and 5 women from diverse backgrounds including Italy, Kashmir, Iran, Pakistan and Britain. Participants were alone with a map, some instructions and an audio recorder which they spoke aloud into. I tried to mitigate any potential fears by devising a circular route rather than using Debord’s method of aimless wandering.

Before: Participants described themselves and their expectations of the canal-scape in a short questionnaire, providing useful personal information for consideration during analysis.

During: I met the group in Brindleyplace, a square by the canal in central Birmingham, to share recorders and instructions. Participants then began their walks and I remained. They walked in a loose group, within sight of one another. Around 1 hour later returned to the square. We had coffee in a nearby café to allow them to share their experiences and immediate reactions.

After: At a discussion session 3 weeks later we discussed their recollections of the activity and their recordings, which I had transcribed in the meantime.

When listening to the recordings I noted references to sensory perceptions, musings, feelings, memories and actions. This enabled me to codify the narrative and build a picture of how they perceived their surroundings.

Why did you choose to use this method? 

In previous studies I was usually present to offer guidance and move the conversation along. However, these methods result in a ‘negotiated’ narrative because they are the result of an interaction between two people, usually acquaintances, if not strangers. The ‘interference’ of the researcher is an issue in qualitative research. Of course, all human interaction is ‘negotiated’, either by the language we use or our behaviour. Plus, all of our understanding is run through our individual thought processes, so that misunderstandings are common.  Quantitative methods that yield scientific results are also problematic; in the same way that language can be manipulated and misunderstood, so are quantitative data subject to the biases and vagaries of those who design the method and analyse the data.

Knowing that bias is extremely hard to mitigate in any research, I opted for a method that still allowed participants to experience and reflect on the landscape, and record their thoughts, but without my presence. This method encourages participants to be aware of their ‘whole-body’ sensory experience, or ‘multi-modalism’, including any associations, musings or memories which they experienced during the walk in addition to sight, sound, taste, touch and smell.

What did you learn from the research process? 

  • Working with participants really is the only way of testing a participatory method.
  • Some participants were initially wary of the idea of ‘talking to themselves’ in public, but soon forgot the fact because they were in a state of ‘flow’ – a relaxed, rhythmic state brought on by steady walking that seems to support personal reflection.
  • Some found the maps confusing – perhaps due to switching focus from walking, thinking and talking, to map reading and making sense of directions? I have used this method successfully since, without maps.
  • Each participant performed the task differently; each journey was exploratory as they strayed from the route according to their unique interests and tendencies. Some focused on the senses, some solely on their musings and memories, some simply described what they saw.
  • Participants recalled other landscapes: the canals of Milan, England and Pakistan; the lakes and rivers of Kashmir and Iran; Niagara Falls in Ontario/New York; the seaside in Italy and the public water gardens of Kashmir. These recollections were elicited by bodily sensory experiences, with visual stimuli being the most common.
  • Certain places on the route were more conducive to memory recall, leading to the idea of ‘memory hotspots’.
  • All of the participants mentioned their childhood homes at least once during the walk.
  • During and after the walk participants described the process as therapeutic.

“It made me think just about me and the environment actually having to talk about it into the microphone, but it was really quite good because that was just for me and how I was reacting, rather than walking and chatting to people, it was how special it was to me and it did make me notice these extra things that I wouldn’t earlier. It was a good experience.” (Annie)

“…at the seaside when the water go against the rocks, the sea, I have that image. But now it disappeared, I’m back in Birmingham.” (Carlo)

“It made me more aware of what I was actually thinking….It was one of the best days I’ve ever walked along the canal”   (Graham)

Influences

Some of my influences include John Wylie, Sarah Pink, Divya P. Tolia-Kelly, Richard Long, and John Gray.

Further information

Coles R. and Millman  Z. (eds.) (2013). Landscape, Well-being and Environment. Routledge: Oxford.

Millman Z. (2013). ‘Photographic postcards as research tools: the ‘Postcards from the Cut’ study’. Graduate Journal of Social Sciences. Vol. 10 (2).

Coles R., Millman Z, Flannigan J (2013). ‘Urban Landscapes – Everyday environmental encounters, their meaning and importance for the individual’. Urban Ecosystems. Vol. 16 (3).

Millman Z., Coles R, and Millar G. (2008). ‘The Canal Environment Soundscape of Birmingham – A Pilot Study’, Proceedings of the Institute of Acoustics’ Spring Conference, ‘Widening Horizons in Acoustics’, Vol.30. Pt.2.

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