I’m a Running Researcher: Noel Salazar

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

Who are you?

I am a professor in social and cultural anthropology at the University of Leuven in Belgium, where I teach courses on travel (broadly conceived), heritage, world anthropologies, and qualitative research methodology. In my‘free’ time, I am secretary-general of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences (IUAES), the global association of and for anthropologists. Most of my research projects and publications are related to human (im)mobilities. I live in Brussels, the capital of Europe, with my spouse, two teenage daughters, and two lazy cats.

What is your background?

My training has been rather ‘eclectic’. I studied at the University of Leuven (Belgium), the University of Essex (UK), and the University of Pennsylvania (USA). I have academic degrees in clinical psychology and developmental neuropsychology, philosophy, African studies, cultures and development studies, and anthropology. I am based at the University of Leuven since 2008, with visiting appointments at universities in Indonesia, India, China, Tanzania, Chile, Italy, Germany, France, Spain, and the UK. In other words, human mobility is not only something I study but also something I have intensely practiced myself.

How long have you been researching running?

My research on running is relatively recent. It became serious business in 2018, with the start of an interdisciplinary research project entitled ‘Transcending quests for “authentic” human experience: An empirical comparison of endurance walking and running’, which I codirect with movement scientist Jeroen Scheerder. However, I started collecting data on running and monitoring running-related news much before that date.

How did you get into researching running?

Apart from the fact that I am a runner myself, the research on running is a logical outcome of my earlier work on human (im)mobilities. I started my academic career by investigating large-scale border-crossing movements such as tourism and migration. It struck me that these mobilities are often discussed making abstraction of the moving body. To fill this gap in existing scholarship, I focused my research increasingly on how mobilities are not only emplaced but also deeply embodied. This led to a shift from macro-perspectives to micro-perspectives, inspired by phenomenological approaches. Running and walking were a particularly good place to start this type of research.

What running research have you done?

Most of my research on running is related to the project Transcending quests for “authentic” human experience: An empirical comparison of endurance walking and running’. I am particularly interested in conceptual issues, such as the contemporary meanings of ‘endurance’ or ‘pace’. I have also looked at how runners (mis)use running-related technologies and social media channels. In addition, I am exploring running (alongside walking) as a proper research method in the social sciences and the humanities.

How do you research running?

As a social and cultural anthropologist, I put the experience and meaning of running central. This not only concerns runners themselves, but every actor ‘touched’ by running and runners. I do this both through participant observation and observation participation, but also through in-depth interviews and the collection on secondary data (online as well as offline). While understanding runners and their motivations is certainly important, I am more interested in what running and the way it develops tells us about society and societal trends. This concern also explains why I keep a close eye on running trends and developments in various corners of the globe.

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

The coronavirus crisis has been a godsend for research on running. In Belgium, the number of people running has dramatically increased since the first lockdown in 2020. Many runners have a tough time explaining why they run but they do indicate that it is important in their lives. The connection between running and physical health has long been made. That running is also beneficial for one’s mental health is a more recent insight (and one that the coronavirus crisis has helped bring to the fore). In this context, I consider running to be an ‘existential mobility’, a type of physical movement humans need to feel good.

Do you run?

Unlike many of my peers, I started enjoying running in secondary school (thanks to a physical education teacher who was an enthusiastic endurance runner). I have been running ever since, although not always that intensely and certainly not competitively. I never travel without my running shoes because running is an excellent way to explore (new) places. I love trail running and regularly take part in organized trail events in the Ardennes and other ‘green’ parts of Belgium. In Brussels, I am a member of the very cosmopolitan BXL Run Crew. Why I run? If I would know the answer to that question, I would not be that deep into running research.

Where can I find out more?

To contact me: https://www.kuleuven.be/wieiswie/en/person/00059545

To consult my entire academic record: https://orcid.org/my-orcid?orcid=0000-0002-8346-2977

Publications directly related to running:

Salazar, Noel B. 2022. “The paradoxes of mobility technology usage: How GPS sports watches keep “active lifestylers” (im)mobile.” Mobility Humanities 1 (1). http://journalmobilityhumanities.com/board/list

Salazar, Noel B. 2021. “Existential vs. essential mobilities: Insights from before, during and after a crisis.” Mobilities 16 (1):20-34. https://doi.org/10.1080/17450101.2020.1866320

Salazar, Noel B. 2020. “The ambiguous role of ‘pacemakers’ in the paradoxical quest for a proper pace of life.” In Pacing mobilities: Timing, intensity, tempo and duration of human movements, edited by Vered Amit and Noel B. Salazar, 19-35. Oxford: Berghahn. https://www.berghahnbooks.com/title/AmitPacing


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