Road bodies, culture and citizenship: anthropological reflections1

    Reception: October 23, 2019

    Acceptance: December 16, 2019


    This work analyzes, from the perspective of road anthropology, the way in which our individual bodies, historically and culturally, are shaped as road bodies. The conceptual framework draws mainly from various currents of the sociology of Goffman and Bourdieu, of the anthropology of performance, proxemics, phenomenology, and the political economy of culture. I analyze the various origins of road anthropology from my own biography as an anthropologist, and how the ethnographic experience gave rise to a new conceptualization of road cultures and their links to actual bodily practices on streets and sidewalks. I include comparative ethnographic cases from England, the United States, Uruguay, and Argentina, experienced and observed, that illustrate how culture, society, and the state can shape our road bodies.

    Keywords: , , , , ,

    Road-bodies, Culture and Citizenship: Anthropological Reflections

    The present work uses a “road-anthropology” perspective to analyze the way in which our individual bodies are historically and culturally conformed as road-bodies. The conceptual framework largely draws on various sociological trends in Goffman and Bourdieu, as well as performance-anthropology, proxemics, phenomenology and the political economy of culture. I analyze street-anthropology's various origins based on my own biography as an anthropologist as well as how ethnographic experience gave rise to a new conceptualization of street-cultures and their connections to real corporeal practices on streets and paths. I include experienced and observed comparative ethnographic cases from England, the United States, Uruguay and Argentina that illustrate how culture, society and the state lend form to our street-bodies.

    Keywords: street-anthropology, culture, citizenship, street-bodies, habitus, performance.


    WThis work reviews some ideas and analyzes developed in the field of road anthropology, which consists of the anthropological study of the senses and the history of how we socially and existentially settle in public space, how we move, how we interpret written norms or the road signs in streets, routes, sidewalks or pedestrian movements or in means of transport.2 But this existential installation occurs in defined socio-historical and national frameworks, hence the state-citizen relations and the history of public policies in this field are key in the complex modeling –always in process and dynamic– of our road bodies. Without being a sharp and closed definition, I consider the road bodies as the inscription in these various bodies of the aforementioned processes, in which those pre-reflective ways of being / thinking / doing that Pierre Bourdieu called habitus (1972), continuing the pioneering reflections of Marcel Mauss and Max Weber on the relations between body and society. The habitus is connected, in the observable, with the Goffmanian notion of presentation of the self and of performance (Goffman, 1959). In synthesis, the road bodies are the manifestation of our being-in-the-street, and among them we can include the pedestrian bodies and the metal bodies.3 The first are our carnal bodies in-situation, in their performance vial, while metallic bodies are those integration structures human mechanics where we existentially condense the body scheme and social identity. The metallic bodies will then be all those emerging hybrid entities that relate us to a vehicle (bicycles, motorcycles, cars, etc.), which, from that encounter, merge their separate natures into a single body that can now move through the road spaces. We propose to observe the interaction system of the road bodies using the Bourdieu notions of game and field (Bourdieu, 1972). The social game de la calle follows rules more or less known to the actors involved in it, and implies implicit and explicit knowledge that must be put into practice in order to "play the game" acceptably. Within this game, the road bodies perform choreographies which are those stereotyped maneuvers / trajectories within the road field, which is made up of the set of individual and institutional actors that generate its dynamics.

    In this way, here we will present reflections and ethnographic examples about road bodies from field experiences that enable an anthropological view of the road world. The work synthetically illustrates, in the first place, how this field of study was shaped, which, like all anthropological companies, supposes and confronts otherness, culture, power, the State and meaning in concrete socio-cultural contexts. mainly. And, in this specific case, how all of this contingently appeared as foreign road bodies to an ethnocentrism of origin, from trips to other countries not motivated by a research agenda per se. Later, the road as a field is deepened, making explicit the conceptual construction of road anthropology and its gaze, which combines influences from various philosophical, sociological and anthropological traditions. This perspective allows us to define ethnography and the anthropological field in a relational and existential way, to finally establish the kind of field or ethnographic places in which we develop our research. Third, the road bodies are analyzed in two ethnographic scenes, one from Argentina and the other that compares the Argentine and Uruguayan road cultures, identifying differential characteristics of the road bodies and their socio-historical contexts. From there, we explore some characteristics of the kinesic matrices that model road bodies in these national contexts.

    First alterities

    The first experience of road otherness where both people and vehicles developed movements that expressed a habitus different from mine I had it in London in the mid-1980s at a conference. It was my first visit to the homeland of my paternal ancestry, although, in this case, ancestry did not guarantee me similarities - or embodied cultural continuities - but rather an affective bond fed by stories of immigration as well as family tourist trips to those islands. . Despite having English as the concrete code of that apparent “continuity”, my own body, modeled by the habitus Argentine, intimately manifested, through a sense of disorientation, strangeness and bad timing, what he saw and felt on the streets and sidewalks of the city. Traffic on the left, which became a nightmare when crossing the streets because I did not know where the traffic would come from, despite the signs painted on the floor that kindly suggested “look left"Or"look right"; the movement of pedestrians also to the left on the sidewalks and escalators of the metro; the strict adherence of the vehicles to the lanes painted in the streets, the frantic trajectories, but always within the legal regulations, of the taxis that I took during that time; or the incredible practice of cars parking in the wrong direction legally, among other things, caused me a state of shock from the habitus vial. Upon returning to Buenos Aires, I was for a time out of place with the local traffic, especially when driving cars, since I experienced that "sickly" attachment to the rules that prompted me to go at the permitted speed and no more, point out my maneuvers of changing lanes or passing neatly with the turn signal, in a way that seemed obsessive to me and much more to my eventual teammates in the road game. That mutation did not last long, but while it did it exercised a power of internal coercion that I could only recognize again when I changed countries, but for a longer time, in Philadelphia (USA). That is, just as it came, it left, dissolving in the face of the power of customs that a majority game played, while my choreographies were timid extrapolations of a foreign road game.

    The three-year stay in that American city for study purposes introduced me to a long daily life that, close to the archetypal prolonged fieldwork of classical anthropology, re-socialized me habitus vial after several fines and failure in the first attempt to obtain a local driving license. Likewise, the issue of citizenship in general appeared, due to the experience of “being in another country” and having to carry out countless procedures to legitimize my presence and that of my family as foreigners there. What became apparent was what the process of socializing children was like in the general values and norms of American society through my children's attendance in kindergarten and the early years of public school. In those establishments, it became clear to us how the rules of conduct and care were made explicit, as well as the idea of responsibility for the consequences of one's own actions. Faithful to the myth-historical universe of Protestantism, the civic education that we observed was powerful, since the regulations corresponded to small social sanctions in infants and the elderly in adults. And that culture of normative attachment and writing of "instructions" everywhere, to be read and obeyed by the "responsible" individuals, was seen to our foreign gaze in the choreographies of pedestrian bodies and metal bodies on streets and sidewalks. . Vehicle movements were kept at the permitted speed, lanes on streets and routes appeared as limits only crossed with prior notice and slowing down, and at times they became almost exasperating and boring. To make matters worse, pedestrians and cyclists patiently waited for their turns at traffic lights, which for me was a real waste of time!

    Thinking the road bodies

    Little by little, anthropological reflection gave a hermeneutical framework to make sense of the differences we saw between our road bodies and those of Americans. The framework of difference of our enabled foreign experience created the ethnographic conditions for the gradual emergence of an objectified domain of reality: that of the road. Thus, the road, as a concept from an anthropological perspective, made possible the constitution of a “domain of objectivity” (Ricoeur, 1960: 330 in Corona, 1990: 16), which became evident given my condition of external observer not molded by the habitus local, a fact that allowed me to take it “as an object of knowledge” (Jackson, 2010: 74). Furthermore, and honoring the long tradition of our discipline in the sociology of knowledge (Durkheim and Mauss) and in the relationships between language, thought and reality (Boas, Sapir and Whorf), the term itself vial It is possible to think of it within the linguistic universe of Spanish, and its semantic reaches are greater and more abstract than the English term of road,4 which allows a conceptual work to identify patterns that connect Bateson's saying, socioculturally developed ways of being in the street, and that can be connected with kinesic matrices (Wright, Moreira and Soich, 2019: 204-205, 209) historically modeled on concrete road bodies. In this sense, the term vial enables a semantic space to think analytically about a totality, the road, and link it with the history of society as a concrete historical process, and the cultural ways in which it is objectified in the form of imaginaries, habitus and bodily practices.

    The process of conceptual construction of road anthropology materialized after returning to Argentina, especially due to the differences that I now observed between my experience with the culture and society of the northern country and that of my place of origin. The contrast between the road bodies was so great that after several adventures dangerous to my own life in the streets of Buenos Aires - it was evident that some of the habitus American had joined me - and moved by the evidence of the high rate of accidents in Argentina, I decided to deepen in the anthropological vision of road cultures, and the understanding of what kind of processes are those that shape them. In this conceptualization, the horizon of the nation, the State and citizenship appeared as key factors in the proposal of this ontology of road worlds that was being developed, always within a broader approach of a political economy of culture (Rigby, 1985; Comaroff and Comaroff, 1992; Roseberry, 1994).

    As I pointed out before, the origin of this anthropological reflection on road worlds is found in international experience, since what I was able to detect both in England and in the USA, and in short stays in Uruguay, is that the way in which road bodies inhabit and move through road spaces is different, and it can be felt when one changes country or when detecting foreign tourists with the disoriented road compass (Korstanje , 2008). According to our perspective, this has a correlation with historical public policies on this field in particular, but also with the national modeling of citizenship in general. That is, the ways in which the pedestrian and the motoring –And also increasingly the biking and the motorcycling-5 They occur in empirical practice and can be seen as the historical, complex and multifaceted product of citizen-State relations, especially regarding the distance between legal norms and concrete practices.6 The greater distance or closeness of both will be a function of the characteristics of the State and the socio-political system that that society as a modern nation will have, and also with the kind of equality-inequality structure that characterizes its political economy. The road space by definition, in a modern state, is a regulated space, even when there is an apparent total freedom of movement according to the will of the social actors. Although this seems to be true from a superficial glance, we consider that, within the displacements in the field, the road bodies show empirical regularities, especially although not exclusively in relation to what we can call “interaction regions”, inspired by the terms by Reguillo (2000: 87
    in Grimaldo 2018b: 45), whose order, rhythm and direction come from state signs, in this case the well-known traffic signs or signals. In this way, we will be able to observe areas of concentration of stereotyped behaviors in front of road signs conceived as ordering signs of the State, locatable both within the poles of almost automatic obedience and of the most individualistic and creative interpretation. In these regions of interaction between the actors and the road signs, we can find a different gradient between semiotic obedience / rebellion, the latter present when the actors transform these state signs into symbols, that is, as something that is not transparent and needs to be interpreted. according to individual convenience (Grimaldo, 2018a: 195; Wright, Moreira and Soich, 2019: 181, 190). According to this conceptual perspective, the history and structure of society seem to be condensed fractally and holographically in these interactive road regions that express, more or less dramatically depending on the case, abstract legality or legality. ad hoc of social relations in the road field and its possible intermediate versions. And these relationships can be seen as a "partial" moment of the broader social field of a society. Specifically, as road ethnographers we could see in these ethnographic places of the road field such as traffic lights, pedestrian crossings, stop signs, yield and / or roundabout, no parking, maximum speed or double line on streets or routes, the way the road citizenship it is put into practice, it is performed.7 Likewise, road ethnographic places are not only static around road signs, but, depending on the case, may be located in mobile spaces, following here the suggestions of a mobile and multi-sited ethnography by George Marcus (1995), that is, “ within ”the trajectories of road actors, whether in vehicles of all kinds, as passengers within them, or in the different pedestrian movements. In short, we would apply here the possibilities of a kinetic ethnography,8 an ethnography in / of movement.

    The conceptual tools deployed to analyze the choreographies of road bodies, whether as gestures towards stop, forward, backward, doubt or challenge traffic signs, together with those developed by metal bodies on streets, routes or sidewalks, mainly, come from traditions mentioned above, as well as linguistic anthropology, especially proxemics (Hall, 1966), the anthropology of performance (Turner and Bruner, 1986; Schechner, 2006) and the studies of culture, symbols and practices (Sahlins, 1985; Geertz, 1973; Turner, 1985; Jackson, 1989). An important part of course is tributary of the phenomenology of corporeality of Merleau-Ponty (1962), and his developments in the anthropology of the body (Le Breton, 1990; Citro, 2009). However, the interpellation or incantation of these conceptual tools occurred through the ethnographic experiences reported. In relation to this, it is important to note that the dialectical and emergent connection between experience and conceptualization was made possible by the very nature of ethnography. Indeed, since the ethnographer is his own instrument for observation / data collection, whose existential structure is twofold, as a historical subject and a methodological device (Lévi-Strauss, 1955; Nash and Wintrob, 1972; Wright, 1994), of this As an ethnographer, I was able to transform unplanned life experiences into anthropological data through a thematic proposal little developed in the anthropological literature. Furthermore, the idea that the field is not restricted only to a discrete spatial dimension, but is above all something that is activated by the anthropological gaze that transforms the apparently everyday into a field of ethnographic inquiry (Clifford, 1997; Gupta and Ferguson, 1997; Scholte, 1980, 1981; Rigby, 1992; Wright, 1994),9 created the conceptual-methodological space for the emergence of this analysis on road bodies, whose initial alterity triggered its activation. In this way, the ethnographic field, as Clifford (1997: 186) points out, in line with the thought of Henri Lefebvre and Michel de Certeau, is not ontologically given, and can emerge from eventual circumstances where, as in our case, the body reacted first, and then the rest of the being woke up to the conceptualization of that field that "appeared" in front of us.10

    Scenes and senses

    Two examples will illustrate how we can conduct ethnographic field research, focusing on road bodies. The first arises from a spontaneous situation of my own when I was once walking through the town of Victoria, in the San Fernando district on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, and I observed an event that awakened my ethnographic alert. A mother with her five-year-old daughter carrying a baby carriage was crossing a street that ended in an avenue. On that same street a car was coming at a certain speed, but when he saw the woman, he slowed down a bit, although it was not known if he was going to stop completely, to let her pass, or to continue and that she was the one to stop. The woman, who at first seemed determined to cross, walked a few steps, but when she saw the vehicle coming very close, she stopped and retraced her steps towards the sidewalk. The driver, seeing this movement, then continued his course and entered the avenue. What caught my attention was that the woman seemed not to have a unified set of premises that would guide her in such a situation: her body displayed an ambiguous corporality, of resolution first, and of doubt later, which generated a half-spasmodic movement of her arms. and legs, both hers and her girl. It is as if for a moment it had been guided by one code and then by another, as if it did not have a set of standardized motor instructions for traveling through public road spaces.11 This scene, and other similar ones seen near my house, and also starring myself, as in other cities in Argentina, led me to reflect on the effect of public policies, or their lack, in relation to the standardization of behaviors in front of the signs. Whether the road signs are present in the materiality of the vertical or horizontal signs, as in the abstract signs of the written rules –which should be internalized in some part of the being–, Argentine road bodies are ambiguous in relation to their “instructions”, putting in practice, a highly visible variable corporality in the face of situations such as the pedestrian just described, ignoring that "the pedestrian is always first". However, it seems unavoidable, at least for now, that here road signs become symbols.

    The second example comes from field experiences in Argentina and Uruguay with a colleague from that country, with whom we did reciprocal road investigations.12 The general idea was based on the fact that, although both countries share a common history both politically and culturally, there are important identifiable differences in road culture, which are based on the respective histories of construction of the nation-state and of the legal and citizenship architecture.13 The specific reason that led us to carry out this ongoing investigation is that during the summer season many Argentines visit Uruguay carrying - and what is worse, without realizing it - their habitus vial, which is observed in, as we saw, an ambiguous attitude towards the rules and road signs. This "invasion", as it is called by the Uruguayan natives, translates into multiple traffic accidents and all kinds of problems of bad parking, high speed in cities and towns and almost total ignorance of traffic signs and inability to perceive pedestrians and their rights of way. To understand this complex situation, we identified those ethnographic places where problems arose and made an inquiry in situ. What became evident is that in the construction of Uruguayan road citizenship there are certain “sacred places” that are almost religiously respected and that can be identified as significant regions of interaction: the zebras or crosswalks, traffic lights, roundabouts, yield and stop signs.

    Video: Pablo Wright
    Video: Pablo Wright

    There, unlike the Argentine case, the locals maintain the road signs as signs, without necessarily interpreting them. ad hoc depending on the situation. It is noteworthy in relation to our corporeality and habitus nationals that, when I tried to cross the zebra crossings like the locals of Montevideo, who do it carefree and with citizen confidence, my body, accustomed to the Argentine street game, hesitated, afraid that the driver would not stop and ram me. My Uruguayan companion told me: "go ahead, cross over, nothing is wrong, he is going to brake", which calmed me a bit, although when I got to the other side my whole body was still tense, prepared for danger. Me habitus vial refused there to modify itself and to change the thresholds and forms of potential risks, and even less to assume a trust in abstract norms that my daily practice denied or creatively adapted. In addition to zebras, another key ethnographic site in the eastern country14 are the roundabouts, where a very important obedience to the right of way is observed: whoever is already in it has precedence over whoever enters, a site that normally has a sign of yield or from stop, and also stop lines painted on the floor. I was able to verify this as well as by observation, when carrying out kinetic ethnography with my colleague's car: while she was driving like a “good Uruguayan”, I could see the dynamics of vehicular and pedestrian traffic adjusting almost without exception to the message of the signs. and to regulated flows in these interaction regions. In this way, when we did kinetic ethnography in Buenos Aires, it was her road body that suffered the situation when circulating through several roundabouts. Using my car, we entered them in the “Argentine way”, that is, negotiating the right of way without paying attention to the sign that urged us to stop and give place to those who were already going through the roundabout. While I was relaxed and calm, in my “natural” world as another semiotic rebel, my colleague had a dizzy face and was holding on as best he could to avoid suffering the imminent –for her– collision. As expected, none of that happened, the traffic flow did not suffer any interruption, and every time we entered the roundabouts her body twitched, because that kinetics not very similar to the Uruguayan street game exceeded what was expected for her. The same thing happened to him in the pedestrian crossings when he tried to cross as in his land, the reality of Buenos Aires road prevented him from doing it again and again, to the detriment of his road body that was increasing his muscle contractures! We consider that these differences are based on the particular historical construction of the State on each bank of the Río de la Plata, and on the concomitant citizenship that emerges from it. That is, the road bodies, in their dimension micro, express a way of being in the street that anchors its logic and its modes of manifestation on the horizon macro of the respective society and culture.15

    Video: Anthropological explorations of road culture. Comparative analysis of Argintina and Uruguay. Pablo Wright and Leticia D'Ambrosio.

    Final words

    We suggest here, as we will express it elsewhere (Wright, Moreira & Soich, 2019: 204-205), that in the road bodies the historical experience is sedimented in the different forms of corporeality that we identify in this work: pedestrian bodies and metallic bodies. We now also add that bodily practices, as the historian Paul Connerton (1989) pointed out, act as acts of transfer of collective memory in embodied memories (embodied memories). In this way, in the road gestures, whether carnal or metallic, the creative experiences performed in the past road scenes resonate that make up true kinesic memories embodied, which make up the set of provisions of the habitus. For this reason, in a sensory history of streets and sidewalks we find layers of historical experience updated in concrete road situations, both in regions of interaction with road signs and far from them. The habitus The road is the product of these historical sedimentations of the embodied memories within a broader matrix of possible movements and choreographies, it marks the horizon of possibilities for conceivable and feasible movements in road scenes. That is, we consider that analytically the notion of kinesic matrix It can be operationally useful as a totality of habitual choreographies that are observed in concrete practices, and that are not completely free or random movements,16 even though there may be a significant margin of them. And that the normative framework and that of active public policies on road discipline seems to be a significant horizon for understanding the different ways of being-on-the-street that we observe in our ethnographic experiences. Although these aspects that connect the road bodies, culture and citizenship were emphasized here, where the ethnographic comparison between Argentina and Uruguay yielded observations and interpretations about the role of the State in the sociocultural construction of road bodies, road anthropology, together With other convergent developments in transport, transit and mobility studies, they will be able to broaden this multifaceted horizon of kinetic phenomena that challenge our concepts and commitments for a better quality of life in contemporary society.


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    Wright, Pablo y Leticia D’Ambrosio (2019). “Exploraciones antropológicas de la cultura vial: análisis comparativo de Uruguay y Argentina” en 12º Congreso de la Vialidad Uruguaya. Montevideo: Asociación Uruguaya de Caminos.


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    EncartesVol. 7, No. 13, March 2024-September 2024, is an open access digital academic journal published biannually by the Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social, Calle Juárez, No. 87, Col. Tlalpan, C. P. 14000, México, D. F., Apdo. Postal 22-048, Tel. 54 87 35 70, Fax 56 55 55 76, El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, A. C.., Carretera Escénica Tijuana-Ensenada km 18.5, San Antonio del Mar, No. 22560, Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico, Tel. +52 (664) 631 6344, Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Occidente, A.C., Periférico Sur Manuel Gómez Morin, No. 8585, Tlaquepaque, Jalisco, Tel. (33) 3669 3434, and El Colegio de San Luis, A. C., Parque de Macul, No. 155, Fracc. Colinas del Parque, San Luis Potosi, Mexico, Tel. (444) 811 01 01. Contact: Director of the journal: Ángela Renée de la Torre Castellanos. Hosted at Responsible for the last update of this issue: Arthur Temporal Ventura. Date last modified: March 25, 2024.