What is Velography?

Velography is an neo-anthropological term for writing about cycling culture. The term velo from “wheel” in French, and graphy from “writing” in Greek is taken from the main method of anthropological studies – ethnography. The practice of ethnography as a method has ancient origins; however, as a humanities and social science discipline, originated in the early 20th century with cross cultural fieldwork by “participant-observation. Typically ethnography is defined by “field-work” by an anthropologist in a non-familiar location and culture for a period of 13-30 months, where data is/are collected, and later presented in a rich material (textual, visual, or oral) portrait. One of the founders and pioneers in ethnography was Bronislaw Malinowski. Malinowski argued that by conducting intensive cross-cultural fieldwork, anthropologists could unravel “peculiar” beliefs and behaviors as functional to the society of observation. He also theorized that the study of less complex cultures, allowed for preliminary theories (many of which were biological) for cultural representations, as a mode of communication by humans. Objects or categories (language, morals, tools, rituals, symbols) of cultural systems were never studied as objects themselves, rather they were viewed dialectically as tools for cultural and cognitive communications between agents/actors in a society.

Velography is the intense, participant observation of cycling culture. It’s focus is to use the symbol or material object of a bike to tease out the systems of meaning, belief, and behavior of a culture(s) within “mainstream” society, to better understand how humans use technology (a bike represents several historical leaps cognitively in the human past i.e., wheel, fire to make steel, a tool to make another tool etc.) in the creation of bike cultures.

Although the object that connects humans here is the bicycle, it is not the principle focus of velography. In fact, like a totem of a small group, sometimes called a clan, most anthropologists argue that the object itself represents the clan as a collective symbol of meaning about the society, or what Emile Durkheim referred to as “The Totemic Principle” (i.e., “the god of the clan is the clan itself).

This blog is concerned with the people that connect and communicate using bikes and biking culture, not the bike(s) itself. Like the anthropological study of language (linguistic anthropology) or music (ethnomusicology), I am interested in the cognitive processes and cultural constraints and transmission of human culture by the using the object of study – bicycles – to potentially interpret and explain potential implicit and explicit structures and functions that might exist. According to recent studies in the cognitive science of culture, local participants may be experts in their day to day use of language (emic), but unaware of etic (external) rules of grammar that they use. Creating velography entails teasing out these potential external rules and capacities.