Motorcycles. What do they mean to those that ride them?
Welcome to anthromoto, an academic research project investigating British motorcycle culture. Please feel free to navigate through the site and learn more about me and my research. The project intends to combine doctoral research with visual methods of representing the human-motorcycle relationship. I write my own monthly blog, Machine Enchantment, and in time anthromoto will also include my own photographs. For now however, I’ve been the first in front of the camera and so several of the images of my bike and I on this website come courtesy of Whitelea Photography.
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Motorbikes first appeared in my life in the late 1980’s, when I would be very often found riding around on my brother’s Kawasaki KMX 125, Yamaha DT 250 or anything else with two wheels and an engine that came my way. As a kid on a bike, keeping vertical was a bit of a challenge and I have the scars to prove that motorcycles do not keep themselves upright.
Fast-forward twenty-five years and I now ride a Suzuki GSX-R 750 (and I’ve also learnt that motorcycles are far too expensive to drop). Motorcycles are my passion and the focus of my forthcoming academic research project.
In contrast, for the past 12 years of my life I’ve been working with non-human animals whilst more recently completing a Masters degree in Anthrozoology (human-animal interactions). At first glance this may seem far-removed from the study of motorcycle culture, but in both cases the focus lies in the relationship between human beings and something ‘other’, what- or whoever that ‘other’ may be. Machines are inextricably linked to many of our human cultures in some of the same ways that non-human animals are – they are subjects of servitude, are exposed to ongoing modification and refinement according to human needs and desires and we use machine and animal alike as objects of ritual and reflected social power. The motorcycle, at least in many ‘Western’ contexts has an affinity for significant symbolic interpretation and myth-making. It is this myth-making that fascinates me, and in turn, whilst reflecting on the nature of this engaging machine, the motorcycle has become a personal metaphor for overcoming myself.
I live in North Yorkshire, England, and my other academic interests are in the anthropology of religion, material culture, photography and women’s studies. I’m a fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute in London.
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I recently learnt from the autobiography of the professional motorcycle racer Guy Martin that he became a more skeptical person as a result of being exposed to some of the ideas in George Orwell’s book, 1984. Orwellian dystopia aside, I think he’s right to suggest that some books really do change you. My own life took a change in direction after reading Bernt Spiegel’s (1999) comprehensive and almost mystical text The Upper Half of the Motorcycle. I first came across the book in 2012 whilst researching background literature on Indian religions. At the time, I was immersed in post-graduate anthropology fieldwork with Jain religious communities in Manchester and whilst browsing the ‘religion and spirituality’ section of a local second-hand bookstore I noticed a tattered copy of Spiegel’s book in between the texts on Hinduism, meditation and Catholic prayer. It piqued my interest and I thumbed the pages for a short while. Although I didn’t buy it there and then, I noted the title and then, perhaps naively, replaced it back in the ‘transport’ section of the shop.
Naïve is probably the correct word to use here. Spiegel’s book doesn’t simply demonstrate how to operate a machine with a frame, two wheels and an engine to get you from place to place but it considers the intangible, metaphysical aspects of riding in relation to the science and psychology of operating a motorcycle. As serendipity would have it, it was a book in the right place at the right time because its contents have influenced my way of thinking about motorcycles, and how to do research with them, ever since. An initial glance at the studies that have been carried out within ‘Western’ bike cultures have largely portrayed motorcycle and other PTW (powered two-wheelers) users in terms of a peculiar subcultural group (such as the Mods and Rockers), or as emblematic of criminal deviance, especially in America (If academic literature is your thing then please drop me a line for further reading references). There are some notable exceptions – one example is Suzanne McDonald-Walker’s (2000) ethnography of the politics of British motorcycling advocacy (Bikers: Culture, Politics and Power) – but on the whole the lives and culture of ‘everyday’ motorcyclists and their relationships with their machines remains relatively unarticulated. An academic exploration of the human-motorcycle relationship is therefore a timely pursuit and my project, anthromoto, will be an attempt to invoke research, reflection and discussion about several aspects of this inspiring, yet precarious machine.
As an object of academic focus, the motorcycle has received very little attention up until recently when the scholarly consideration of motorcycling seems to be gaining pace - journal articles have started to blossom in academic literature (in no small part due to the significant contribution of the International Journal of Motorcycle Studies amongst others) and the motorbike-rider continuum as an embodied form of human-machine interaction is being explored. Motorbikes are technical machines through which human beings negotiate time, speed, place and metaphor and invite exploration for their transformational potential. My own particular passions are two-fold: I want to understand how the traditional boundary between what we normally consider an object (the machine) and the subject-of-a-life (the rider) becomes blurred when humans connect with motorcycles, and how this is manifested through ritual behaviour and in our material(istic) cultures. Secondly, as women are increasingly taking to the motorcycle I am keen to know why they ride and the relationship they have with both their machines and the wider motorcycling community.
My research will be incorporated into a three year study starting in 2018. Please bookmark the site and check back in regularly for updates and further news or follow me on Facebook or Twitter by clicking on the links at the top of the page.
If you feel able in any way to help the research, or would like to know more about it, please contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org