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Mobilities and the production of social relations in walking groups: an interview with Warwick Staff Walkers.

Written by Glory Chan.

In recent years, a ‘mobility turn’ has emerged in the social sciences due to increased awareness among scholars of the issues of movement in contemporary life. Leading mobility scholars John Urry and Mimi Sheller have emphasised how diverse intersecting networks of mobilities, ranging from the movement of people and transport vehicles to the digital travel of objects and information, are central to the development of social relations.[1] As a form of physical movement, walking, especially in group settings in the countryside, is generally regarded in health studies and public health campaigns as conducive for socialising.[2] However, attempts have yet to be made to situate group walking within broader networks of movement in order to understand how social bonds developed through these walks presuppose the existence of various other mobilities. As such, this blog will address this deficiency by examining the different mobilities involved in facilitating relations between members of the walking group Warwick Staff Walkers.[3] This blog will first focus on the logistical planning that occurs before the walks to demonstrate how the physical gathering of members is made possible through the transportation of people alongside the movement of information across digital networks. This will be followed by analysing how social relations between members develop during the walks through members’ physical and affective engagement with each other and the rural landscape. Finally, this blog will elucidate how existing social bonds are maintained and new bonds are created after the walks via the movement of information and digital media over personal and online networks. Altogether, it will be argued that social relationships in Warwick Staff Walkers are formed not only through the physical act of walking, but also through other intersecting networks of mobility that enable these group walks to transpire.

Prior to the walks, the movement of people and information, facilitated by transportation and digital networks, are prerequisites to the development of social relationships within Warwick Staff Walkers. Various forms of transport provide the corporeal mobility required for members to gather for walks. On a global level, planes enable people worldwide to travel to Warwick University for work and study, creating the opportunity for individuals across 30 different countries to come into contact through Warwick Staff Walkers.[4] Regular meetups for walking are supported on a local level by cars and public transportation. “The availability of car spaces”, the leader explained, “gives you much greater options” for walking routes and helps “take people to the start of the walk”.[5] Likewise, “walks using public transport […] enables you to do a linear walk [so] you don't have to do a circuit”.[6] The ability to meet up for walks, however, relies not only upon transport technologies for the movement of people, but also upon digital networks for the travel of information. To allow those without their own transport to participate in walks, the leader explained that it was important to “ask people to reply [via email] if they’re coming […] [so we can] coordinate transport […] [and] make sure that there will be enough car space” for everyone.[7] Details about the walks, including the time and place of meeting, and advice on suitable footwear and clothing, are also relayed through email, providing members with crucial information necessary for group walks to transpire.[8] Therefore, a focus on the logistics and planning that occur before the walks demonstrate how social relations within Warwick Staff Walkers are built upon the complex and overlapping mobilities of people and information.

During the walks themselves, opportunities for social interactions among Warwick Staff Walkers are generated through the collective bodily movement of members in relation to each other and the physical terrain. As the leader observed, “if you are walking along a narrow path […] you can only go in single file or maybe two abreast, then you can only really have a conversation with somebody right next to you”, whereas “other times, you’re in more open country, so there’s more chance [for conversations] to circulate”.[9] The topography of the land thus influences how members move and dialogue with each other, encouraging both smaller and larger group conversations suited for people with “varying degrees of ‘chatability’” and sociability.[10] As Tim Ingold and Jo Lee Vergust affirmed, ‘social relations […] are not enacted in situ but are paced out along the ground’.[11] The development of social relationships within Warwick Staff Walkers is further impacted by the length and difficulty of walking routes. With longer walking trips, the leader noted how “you get to know the people better […] because you’re with them through the weekend”.[12] For regular walks, routes that are comfortable for most people facilitate social interactions by creating a relaxing atmosphere that makes it “very easy […] to exchange at least a few words with everybody else”.[13] Such conviviality is enhanced through having stops for food and drink along the way, which provide members with the chance to gather and engage in “more general conversation[s]”.[14] This demonstrates how pauses in movement are an essential aspect of walking and are equally important in promoting social interactions during group walks. As such, through the physical act of walking, the various ways in which members engage with each other and the natural landscape create ample opportunities for socialising and dialogue.

Aside from conversations, walking in a group encourages social bonding between members through shared affective experiences. The leader explained that group walks, as opposed to walking alone or as a leader, eases the pressure and need for members to “pay attention to navigation […] and so you can just enjoy your surroundings with people you’re with”.[15] For some, this means that they could focus more on the physical embodied experience of walking across the countryside, sharing in their enjoyment of “good exercise and […] fresh air”.[16] Others are able to focus on the pleasure of discovering and connecting to people with mutual interests. For example, the leader noted how “three people […] found that they had a shared interest in music-making and so they developed that” through the walks, and “a few of us have got into a bit of running as well”.[17] Hence, by relieving members from the need to worry about navigational issues, group walking creates more opportunities for people to enjoy and bond over their shared experiences of walking together. Affective ties within Warwick Staff Walkers are also strengthened through the experience of facing challenges together. On one occasion when a member forgot to bring food to the walk, the leader recalled how “[it] was a bit sad, so we all had to give them a bit of our own lunch, keep them going”.[18] This highlights how difficult situations during group walks provide opportunities for emotional bonding as they allow members to support and commiserate with each other.

After the walks, these social bonds are enhanced while new ones are developed through the movement of digital media and information across personal and online networks. Photographs taken during the walks, for example, are disseminated to the public as musical slideshows on the website of Warwick Staff Walkers.[19] These presentations of images encourage affective connections because of the sentiments they communicate. As the leader articulated, “it's trying to get across the fact that we think it's good fun, […] [and] we hope that it encourages people when they see that to think, yeah, well that that looks a laugh. I think I'd like to find out a bit more about it”.[20] This demonstrates how the digital travel of images and sounds can facilitate the transmission of emotions, strengthening a sense of affinity to the group as members recall the ‘good fun’ they shared and non-members experience a desire to participate. As Sara Ahmed contended, ‘emotions can move through the movement or circulation of objects. Such objects become sticky, or saturated with affect, […] [and] attachment takes place through movement’.[21] During the time in between gatherings, emails are sent to convey information about future walks, which allow members to remain virtually connected to Warwick Staff Walkers.[22] Additionally, information about the walks is relayed across personal networks outside of the group, enabling new social bonds to develop as new people join the group. This is evidenced by the leader’s observation that “quite a few people” have joined “through knowing somebody, whether it be a colleague or a friend or relation […] who's enjoyed themselves on one or more of the walks, and they've decided to come along themselves”.[23] The development of new and existing social bonds after the walks, therefore, is made possible by the travel of information and digital media via systems of personal and online connections.

In sum, by examining the social relations within Warwick Staff Walkers through the lens of the ‘mobility turn’, this blog has demonstrated how the development of these connections require intricate and intersecting forms of mobility across various network systems. The travel of people and information, aided by transportation and digital networks, is required for members to physically gather for the walks. During the walks, the collective physical movement of members in relation to each other and the rural landscape provides opportunities for dialogue, while the shared affective experiences of group walking encourage emotional bonding. After the walks, the transmission of digital media and information across personal and online networks strengthens existing bonds and facilitate the development of new ones. Social relations within Warwick Staff walkers, therefore, are built not just upon the activity of group walking, but also the overlapping movements of people, information, and digital media using various transportation, personal, and online networks.

[1] Mimi Sheller and John Urry, ‘The New Mobilities Paradigm’, Environment and Planning A, 38.2, (2006), 207-226; Mimi Sheller, ‘From spatial turn to mobilities turn’, Current Sociology, 65.4, (2017), 1-7.

[2] Anthony C. Gatrell, ‘Therapeutic mobilities: walking and “steps” to wellbeing and health’, Health & Place, 22, (2013), 98-106; Karolina Doughty, ‘Walking together: The embodied and mobile production of a therapeutic landscape’, Health & Place, 24, (2013), 140-146; ‘An evaluation of the Walking for Wellness project and the befriender role’, Natural England Commissioned Report NECR118, 16 July 2013.

[3] For more about Warwick Staff Walkers, see their website:

[4] ‘Warwick Staff Walkers’, The University of Warwick, 2 April 2020 <> [accessed 19 June 2021]

[5] Interview, 2 March 2021.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Tim Ingold and Jo Lee Vergunst, ‘Introduction’, in Ways of Walking: Ethnography and Practice on Foot, ed. by Tim Ingold and Jo Lee Vergunst (England: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2008), p. 1.

[12] Interview, 2 March 2021.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] ‘Warwick Staff Walkers’, The University of Warwick, 2 April 2020.

[20] Interview, 2 March 2021.

[21] Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotions (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014), p. 11.

[22] Interview, 2 March 2021.

[23] Ibid.

Methodological reflection

This blog post is written based on an online interview with the leader of the walking group Warwick Staff Walkers. As a leader, the interviewee’s responsibilities in planning and coordinating walks and maintaining internal and external communications of the group contributed valuable insight into the complexities of group walking. The interviewee is also the longest standing member of Warwick Staff Walkers, which meant that they are able to provide a better understanding of the group’s history, membership, and social dynamics.

In conducting the interview, it was important to provide the interviewee with ample opportunity to express themselves. This involved explaining the purpose of the project, outlining their rights as interviewees, and answering any queries they have before the interview to ensure they felt comfortable enough to talk. During the interview, attempts are made to build a good rapport with the interviewee by responding to their answers, minimising interruptions, and exchanging relevant information at times to encourage conversation.

The interview, however, was not without its challenges. Sometimes, it was difficult to phrase questions in order to elicit relevant responses without being overly suggestive. It was also a challenge to demonstrate enough flexibility when responding to unexpected answers and allow the interview to take a slightly different direction. To improve, more interviews should be conducted with other members of Warwick Staff Walkers to examine relations within the group from different points of view. Aside from interviews, ethnographic research should also be incorporated by having researchers participate in the group walks to observe and interact with members. This would give more information on aspects, such as non-verbal communications and the affective atmosphere of the walks, that are perhaps less apparent through interviews. Still, the interview was highly beneficial to this blog post’s examination of mobilities and the production of social relations in walking groups.