I’m a Running Researcher: Rob Smith

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

Who are you?

I’m Dr Robin Smith. I teach sociology in the School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University.

What is your background?

I’m an ethnographer by training which means I’m fascinated by the everyday practices of people in a whole range of settings. I study how people accomplish their activities by paying close attention to the things they actually do. I’m particularly interested in everyday mobility practices, and I’ve studied all sort of things including outreach work with the homeless, cycling, pedestrian practices such as crossing the road (yes, really) and, of course, running.   

How long have you been researching running?

I’ve only conducted two relatively small-scale studies of running, but running, for me, is a means of studying more general practices such as navigation, the organisation of perception, and the accomplishment of place. Those are things I’ve been interested in since my PhD. 

How did you get into researching running?

As above, I decided to do a small project on running as I’m a regular runner myself and I was interested in what it means to see the city as a runner. This was inspired by a return to a research paper that I’ve always been fascinated by Stephen Hester and Dave Francis called “Analysing visually available mundane order: a walk to the supermarket”. The idea I was following up on is that, put simply, you see the world in and through the activity you’re engaged in. Running, instead of walking, seemed like a good way to test out that idea. 

What running research have you done?

The running perception project was the first. Like most of my projects it was fairly contained, unfunded, and a bit of fun! It was published in Visual Studies. After that I was lucky enough to be invited to work on some great data that two colleagues (also keen runners!) Thomas Smith and Samu Pehkonen had gathered of people setting out, testing, and competing on an orienteering course. We’ve recently had a paper accepted in Mobilities that describes this work and, again, picks up on themes of the organisation of perception and people’s methods for doing navigation. In that paper we also deal with something of the organisation of ‘perspective’ in terms of route setters adopting the perspective of the competitors in order to place the orienteering controls appropriately.

How do you research running?

Through observation. This means different things but, primarily, means trying to access the practice in terms of how it gets done by the people doing it. This is inspired by Harold Garfinkel’s ethnomethodology, and I draw a lot on Harvey Sacks’ observations of categorisation practices. I work a lot with video, not because it is definitive of what happened, but because it does allow you see some of the ways in which social practices are detailed. For the running through the city centre project, I adopted a novel, and somewhat embarrassing method, borrowed from the “Walking to the Supermarket” paper of producing a commentary of what I saw whilst running that was recorded on a chest mounted GoPro. I got some odd looks on the run home that day.

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

The finding that cuts across both running studies, and indeed my other work, is that idea that the world is viewed in relation to the activity being done at the time. The more radical version of that is that, whilst running, the world is assembled as a world for running through. That’s an idea that’s out there in phenomenology and ethnomethodology, but my contribution is that perception gets organised categorially. That’s a little tricky to explain here, so you’ll have to read the paper!  

Do you run?

Yes! I’m a keen runner and am particularly keen on mountain ultramarathons. I’ve completed a number of 100 milers, finishing second place in the GB Ultras Snowdon 100, and recently finished the extreme Ultra Trail Snowdonia (just over 30% of those who started got round!). I also hold the Fastest Known Time for running Offa’s Dyke (180 miles or so) solo and unsupported.

I don’t always love running – sometimes the training is a grind, and sometimes it stresses me out! But the training miles are always worth it for those rare moments when it all comes together: you’re somewhere amazing with epic views, and it feels effortless, like you could run forever. There’s nothing like it.

Where can I find out more?

If you want copies of the papers I’ve mentioned, contact me at my university email address: smithrj3[at]cardiff.ac.uk

My other publications are listed here; https://www.cardiff.ac.uk/people/view/38088-smith-robin

I post about my various running exploits on Instagram @doc_rob_smith


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