I’m a Running Researcher: Michael Crawley

This post is part of the I’m a Running Researcher series. See all profiles in this series here.

Who are you?

My name is Dr Michael Crawley, I’m Assistant Professor in Social Anthropology at Durham University.  

What is your background?

I completed my PhD at the University of Edinburgh, followed by an ESRC postdoctoral fellowship that allowed me to consolidate work from my thesis. For my doctoral fieldwork I lived and trained alongside runners in Ethiopia for fifteen months. I was based primarily in Addis Ababa but also accompanied runners to training camps in Bekoji and Gondar as well as to races abroad in China, Turkey and Europe. As will become clear, my own running was quite important to my research. I’ve been a runner for over half of my life now, and I’ve competed for Scotland and Great Britain in road and cross-country running.

How long have you been researching running?

About five years.

How did you get into researching running?

Growing up in the North East of England I was interested in the culture of long-distance running at clubs like Morpeth and Gateshead Harriers long before I considered studying running culture in any focused way. It occurred to me that often when people talk about ‘East African’ running they are making generalisations about a diverse group of people who speak different languages and have quite different approaches to running. It also seemed that they were often referring primarily to Kenyan running, because Kenya is more accessible for journalists and academics. I decided to focus on Ethiopia for my PhD for this reason.  

What running research have you done?

A fifteen-month long ethnographic study in Ethiopia.

How do you research running?

For my PhD thesis I lived and trained alongside runners for over a year. Whilst I had ideas about what I wanted to explore – for instance, the links between notions of ‘athletic development’ and broader ideas about macro-economic development – as an anthropologist it was important for me to allow the main concerns of my research to emerge from the concerns of my interlocutors. This meant spending as much time as possible with runners and their friends and families both whilst they were training but also following their rhythms of socialising, eating and recuperation between training sessions as much as possible. To explore the economic aspects of the sport I also spent a lot of time going to races abroad, interviewing managers and sub-agents and accompanying athletes to visa appointments at embassies. I was keen to get a sense of the full athletic trajectory of an aspiring runner, which meant spending time at rural training camps in places like Gondar, as well as running with top professionals and going to races where athletes had the chance to win tens of thousands of dollars. The most important methodological commitment I made was to, as far as possible, submit myself to the same training regimes as the athletes I was writing about – the puzzles that animate my research emerge from many hundreds of miles of running.

What is the most significant, important, surprising, interesting, unusual, or favourite finding emerging from your research?

As mentioned in the previous answer it was important to me to write about the emic concerns of the runners I worked with, and these turned out to mainly be concerns about energy. I have described the world of running in Ethiopia as an ‘economy of limited energy’ where energy is conceived of as trans bodily, and therefore subject to sharing with others as well as the environment. This makes it a deeply relational concern, and it was very important to people that they shared their energy equally, training together as a group and dividing the responsibility to set the pace equitably. I try to explain how things like the introduction of new technologies and the uneven distribution of global racing opportunities affect this economy of energy.

Do you run?

Yes, I’ve been a competitive runner for over half my life. I’ve run internationally for Scotland and Great Britain and ran a 2.20 marathon in 2018. I try to incorporate running into my daily life by running to and from work when I can, and I hope I’m still running most days for many years to come. 

Where can I find out more?

By reading my book on Ethiopian running, Out of Thin Air (Bloomsbury, 2020), or some of the articles I’ve written for the Guardian. I’m also on Twitter (@mphcrawley).


One thought on “I’m a Running Researcher: Michael Crawley

  1. Kyle Cash says:

    Awesome post.

    Can’t imagine how insightful it would be to have that experience and observe the runners on a daily basis. Exciting stuff.

    I would be curious to know a bit more about his ideas surrounding “the links between notions of ‘athletic development’ and broader ideas about macro-economic development” as he mentioned. I’m unfamiliar with the subject area, so I’d be interested to know more.

    Thanks for the great post again.

    Kyle, The Travel Runner

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