Ethnography on the Move: Doing Fieldwork on a Bicycle

20 January 2021

Jonathan Shapiro Anjaria

There are few things more humiliating than slowly walking a bicycle up a hill while the person you are supposed to be cycling with waits at the top. This is what happened one morning in July, 2015 during a ride in Gorai, a neighborhood on the outer edge of Mumbai. I had been biking since 6am with Vineet[1], a 30 year old man with a strikingly manicured goatee who, clearly lying, had told me a few days earlier that his only cycling experience was the occasional weekend “bike binge.” We biked side-by-side for the first hour, enjoying the empty and cool predawn city streets while answering questions about each other’s lives. But the further north and the more distant from the city center we got, the harder it was for me to keep up. A gap emerged between us once we started riding through the country roads of Gorai. With each hill, the gap got larger and my resolve to maintain a sense of dignity diminished. Finally, I dismounted and slowly started pushing.

As I neared the top, head throbbing, sweating profusely and feeling defeated, I saw Vineet sitting on a bench clutching his water bottle with a mix of worry and boredom on his face. “This hill is tough on a single-speed,” I muttered. He replied with brutal honesty, “It’s just as hard on a bike with gears.” I knew he was right. Whatever the bicycle type— single speed, hybrid, road bike, ghoda cycle, carbon framed—if the rider isn’t in shape, the equipment is irrelevant. Thirty minutes later he told me he had a flat tire, squeezed his bike into an autorickshaw and left me to bike back home alone. So relieved that I wasn’t the one who quit, it was only later that I realized he was politely trying to ditch me.

This moment of humiliation occurred during the early days of my research in 2015 on cycling in Mumbai. I started this project because I was drawn to the city’s eclectic, fluid and vibrant cycling cultures. New events like cycle-to-work rallies, social group rides and timed endurance rides coexisted with more entrenched cycling communities: the tens of thousands of people delivering food by bicycle, or cycling to work as security guards and electricians, or the small-scale entrepreneurs who cycle out of a mixture of necessity and for the freedoms it offers. And yet, academics tend to sort all this activity into neat categories and fixed positions. People are described as either “choice” or “captive” cyclists. And the meaning of bicycling is assumed to either be purely functional (as in, it’s a tool for survival) or symbolic (as in, it is a way to assert class status). This fixed approach leaves no space for the open-endedness, contradictions, surprises and joy that are potentially a part of all embodied practices.

I wondered, as the stereotypical image of the bicycle as the vehicle of last resort slowly crumbles, is there a space for new meanings, conversations, and ways of inhabiting the city? To answer this question, I first had to understand what the city looks like from the view of a bicycle. In the spirit of “ethnographer acting as a research instrument,” as Sam Ladner puts it, I made bicycling a key part of my fieldwork.[2] I wanted to learn how traffic interacts from the perspective of a bicycle so I can understand how others learn that too. My goal was not to feel what other people feel on a bicycle, but to get as close as possible to other people’s experiences riding bicycles in Mumbai so I would know what questions to ask.

“Cycling in Andheri”. Photo by author.

But there was one problem: I had very little experience biking. Prior to that ride in Gorai, most of my biking experience consisted of rides with my eight year-old children on a road closed to cars on Sunday mornings in Cambridge, MA. My first group ride in Mumbai left me so exhausted I couldn’t get back on the saddle for a week. I fared no better after that ride to Gorai a month later. I made all the newbie rider mistakes—I wore clothes that were too warm, didn’t drink enough water, didn’t carry food with me, didn’t buy the right gear, bought too much gear, and worst of all, compared my modest accomplishments with people who consider 40 miles to be a quick training ride (such as the endurance cyclist who, after a 25 mile loop around the city, asked me, “What’s the longest ride you’ve ever done?” to which I replied, “This one.”).

My limited biking experience wasn’t always a problem. I quickly learned that simply showing up on a bicycle was often enough to break the ice. For instance, I doubt I would have connected with Firoza, one of Mumbai’s most well-known bicycle advocates, if I hadn’t had my bicycle with me the first time I joined her and her colleagues for a conversation about public bicycle share systems at a Dadar café. It didn’t matter that that the ride from my home in Chembur to Dadar included multiple rest breaks and took so long I’m embarrassed to type the time here. What mattered was that my simple, black, single-speed bike designed for city commuting (as I had vainly tried to explain to Vineet a few weeks earlier) was locked to the fence opposite our table. After the meeting we walked over to my bike, I unlocked it and we talked about each other’s rides that day. Sharing our embodied experiences of the city transformed me from a cold information-gatherer into a social person. And it was in that moment, next to my bike—not in the formal meeting that preceded it—when Firoza started sharing her vision for cycling in Mumbai, a vision that continues to shape this project to this day. 

A bicycle was an essential tool for my research on utility-oriented cycling as well. Some of the most fruitful interactions I had on the road were ride-alongs with people such as Salim, a young man who delivers food for an app-based company called Swiggy. We met one morning after I biked past him, saw that he was waiting for an order to come in, pulled over and started chatting. He told me he was happy to talk about his work but we’d have to do it on the move.  Over the next five hours, we wheeled through the city together as he shuttled food between busy commercial areas and quiet residential streets in one neighborhood. Bicycling as fieldwork was practical — there would have been no other way to keep up with him — and it also gave new insights into the logistics of movement. Riding a bicycle enabled me to follow behind him as he weaved through lines of stopped cars, jumped on to the sidewalk to avoid clusters of motorcycles, squeezed around gates, rolled through narrow lanes and parked his bicycle inside apartment compounds. I saw what parts of the street Salim biked on to stay safe, what routes he took, how he turned, maneuvered through traffic, where he took breaks and washed up.

“Shadowing a food-delivery cyclist”. Photo by author.

I also witnessed how he lived his life on a bicycle. With one hand on the handlebar, he answered calls from friends and family, put a headphone in his ear and chatted loudly, smiling and laughing as he zipped around traffic. Bicycling is how he makes a living, but I saw that its meaning often exceeds practical consideration — it can mean a good night’s sleep because of all the exercise, freedom from police surveillance (as opposed to his colleagues riding motorized vehicles who are often fined) and most importantly, the luxury of not having a boss like the one at his previous job as a clerk in mall. At the end of one day, while we waited for a customer’s iced coffees to be prepared, I told him that his work seemed quite physically demanding. But he would have none of it. “There isn’t much tension on a bicycle. It is comfortable enough. I just need to pedal,” he said. 

Bicycling is how he makes a living, but I saw that its meaning often exceeds practical consideration — it can mean a good night’s sleep because of all the exercise, freedom from police surveillance (as opposed to his colleagues riding motorized vehicles who are often fined) and most importantly, the luxury of not having a boss like the one at his previous job as a clerk in mall.


I became a somewhat competent cyclist after my second month of regularly riding in Mumbai. The early morning rides no longer devastated the rest of my day. I was able to go longer distances with relative ease, or at least without wanting to toss my bike on the roof of a taxi midway through it and call it a day. I stopped questioning my life decision to do a project on something I wasn’t very good at. And then, on group rides with people in my neighborhood, I noticed that others experienced similar transformations since they were as new to riding as I was. My companions enjoyed reaching new parts of the city that they hadn’t thought possible. The group rides got longer and longer as people discovered new things about their abilities, as well as about the city. On our way back to Chembur with four others after one morning ride, one of the leaders said, “Remember when 20km seemed like such a big deal? That would leave us all exhausted. Now that is just the start.” As the rides became longer, they occupied greater prominence in people’s lives. I heard talk of feeling withdrawal symptoms on days they don’t ride, feeling an addict’s sense of relief on days they do and, especially among endurance cyclists, talk of flirting with obsession.

Like my riding companions, I was drawn to the sense of openness to the surrounding environment that cycling enabled. While riding side-by-side with people on group rides, people told me that cycling makes you pay attention to the small details, features and idiosyncrasies of the road and surrounding environment. I remember one morning while riding to Sewri, on the east coast of Mumbai, Amit called out to the group, “It’s going to get cold.” A few seconds later, the temperature dropped as we cycled into a cool breeze coming in off the bay. A small bend in the road was all that it took. But I was also drawn to cycling because people saw in it a sense of open-endedness and fluidity that our social science analysis doesn’t always allow. Cycling allows you to “see people in different frames,” said Maya, middle-aged woman with multiple long distance cycling accomplishments. It’s what makes it “raw,” or visceral, she said. Cycling can transform transportation into a social encounter. From a car, a man riding a heavy steel bicycle carrying sacks of rice is an anonymous feature of the streetscape, but while biking behind him, he becomes someone to admire because of his speed, an competitor in a race that only exists in your head, or, as a young man once told me while pointing to his expensive road bike, a reminder that “all this fancy equipment is bullshit.”

Cycling allows you to “see people in different frames,” said Maya, middle-aged woman with multiple long distance cycling accomplishments. It’s what makes it “raw,” or visceral, she said. Cycling can transform transportation into a social encounter.

By the third month of fieldwork, I too needed a regular fix of group riding. These were slow rolls of about 12-15 miles. I loved the sleepy camaraderie as we waited under a dark underpass before the ride started. I loved the feeling of rolling through the city before sunrise, and how the silent pedaling in the first hour gives way to lively chatter animated by a sense of accomplishment at the end. I even learned to appreciate the feeling of waking up before my alarm clock rang because of nervousness and excitement. I loved reading the Whatsapp messages of encouragement at 5:30am while sipping coffee— “Who’s up?” “Good morning” “Where do we meet?” “I’m here.” Little nods of encouragement, and recognition, that pushed us out the door on the saddle. I loved the new bicycle routines too. I figured out how to slip out of my apartment without waking my family and unlocking the bike quietly without waking the building’s security guard. At night I found myself lying in bed, scrolling through the Whatsapp group discussion planning the next ride, unable to fight the urge to type “I’m in” despite the negative effects so little sleep would have on the rest of my day.

“Poha for breakfast after a long early-morning ride.Photo by author.

And then I had my first bicycle dream. It is before dawn and I am walking to the fence adjacent to my building’s parking lot where I keep my bicycle locked. I see the black frame of my bicycle leaning against the fence, still locked but missing its stem and saddle, as if decapitated. I felt like a piece of myself was missing. I woke up and realized this wasn’t my dream. I was dreaming the dreams of my interlocutors — or at least, dreaming what they told me they dreamed about. A few days earlier, a woman I had biked and talked with frequently told me that she often has dreams about her bicycle being stolen, broken or, in a great act of betrayal, being ridden by someone else. I felt the same anxiety, the same sense of loss over an object that most people consider just a simple mobility device. I recalled the talk of cycling addiction and even obsession. I wondered, had I crossed some line? Had I become obsessed too?

I felt the same anxiety, the same sense of loss over an object that most people consider just a simple mobility device. I recalled the talk of cycling addiction and even obsession. I wondered, had I crossed some line? Had I become obsessed too?

One of the most honest accounts of fieldwork is Susan Harding’s description of researching the evangelical conversion process in Virginia. After a long session with a Baptist minister one evening, Harding nearly got into a car crash. “I slammed the brakes, sat stunned for a split second, and asked myself,  ‘What is god trying to tell me?’”[3]. Harding continues, “It was my voice but not my language. I had been inhabited by the fundamental Baptist tongue I was investigating.” She had not become a believer but had “enter[ed]” a “space between belief and disbelief” [4] that she says is essential for ethnography. My bicycle enabled me to inhabit that space as well—not  to literally experience what others experience or enter into people’s minds, but to encounter overlaps that, as Harding says, are essential to ethnography. These exceed the distinctions academics often draw between the dispassionate analyst and a person who feels things. My bicycle made this happen. It was a tool to get around the city and to learn, it was an ice-breaker and, as I discovered, an empathy machine.


[1] To maintain anonymity I use pseudonyms to refer to most people in this essay.

[2] This quote is from Practical Ethnography: A guide to doing ethnography in the private sector, p. 117.

[3] This quote is from The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics, p. 33.

[4] This quote is from The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics, p. 58.


Jonathan Shapiro Anjaria is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Brandeis University. His research and writing focuses on mobility and the social life of streets. He has published a book on street vending in Mumbai titled The Slow Boil: Street Food, Public Space and Rights in Mumbai. He is currently writing a book on bicycling and mobility in Mumbai.

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