Fieldwork Fridays - 'Walking Interviews' by Karin Gerhardt

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Walking interviews are a really cool research method that lets you move and interact with people as they go about their daily lives (or in my case – particular activities).  The method literally involves you walking around with people – going to relevant places or doing specific activities – and discussing where you are or what you are doing. 

In 2015, I set up a collaborative project with the Yuku Baja Muliku Traditional Owners from Archer Point in north Queensland.  The project was to document/record the Indigenous knowledge that the Traditional Owners had about sharks and stingrays. 

Until I started my PhD I hadn’t used the walking interview method at all – usually opting for semi-structured or open interview methods where people sit together and discuss topics or  ‘chat’. However early on in this project, people in the group were struggling to recall information while they were just sitting inside with me (at the ranger base or at a kitchen table).  What they wanted to do was SHOW ME what they were talking about and get me to understand better by seeing and doing things.  So, we switched up the research methods and turned the semi-structured interviews into walking interviews. 

By walking on-country with Traditional Owners, going to places where they hunt and fish and ‘picnic’, people were able to recount very detailed information for the project.  Funny stories, solemn accounts, joyful family times were shared as I was taken through areas of cultural significance.  Rock formations on the beach prompted a memory, fishing on the banks of the river let stories flow, there were marks on trees that people talked about and setting up a fire on the beach to cook the ‘catch’ brought about many ‘cooking’ stories and information. 

Being ‘present’ and listening/watching carefully to what is going on around you is an important part of walking interviews.  It’s no good trying to take detailed field notes as you go along.  If you are busy looking down at your notepad – you might miss important interactions.  So, get organised with some key pieces of equipment.  I purchased a small hand-held recorder that could store over 180 hours of voice recordings and had a sensitive voice pick- up microphone.  Also look for a recorder that lets you ‘remove’ or decrease the messy background noises that happen when you are walking outside (wind, background conversations etc).  It’s handy to be able to focus in on the nearest conversation when you are trying to transcribe. 

I didn’t have the funds to go really high tech for my equipment – so in order to be hands free during the walking interviews I attached my recorder to the strap of my cross-body messenger bag with a zip tie!  It worked great.  Having it in a fixed position up high on my chest also meant I could quietly talk into the recorder if I wanted to make observations for my field notes later on.  My other handy tip for walking interviews is to carry Ziploc bags.  Working in north Queensland I found myself in the middle of the wet season walking along beaches or creeks getting completely saturated.  Pop your camera and your recorder into small bags and keep on moving.  Other equipment that you may want to include in your walking interview arsenal are a GPS (you can pin a location and read the way- point into the recorder for use later) and/or a mobile phone (which works as recorder, gps, notebook etc if you forget to pack something or have two conversations going on at the same time (group work).

Overall, walking interviews were a great research method for this project and the detail and depth of the cultural knowledge that was able to be shared was improved considerably from other interview styles.