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RECONSIDERING THE BICYCLE: An Anthropological Perspective on a New (Old) Thing CHAPTER TWO: What (and When) is a Bicycle? © Routledge 2013
KEY IDEAS A bicycle is a complex socio-technical object whose meanings and practices are shaped variously through its production, history, and uses. The “when” of a bicycle is important to its “what.” The bicycle’s diverse forms are tied to histories of technological innovation, industrial capitalism, political-economic dynamics, consumerism, and social change. The term “evolution” does not capture the complexity of technological change. Bicycles are multidimensional objects with “social lives.” © Routledge 2013
What is a Bicycle? The “common sense” © Routledge 2013
What is a Bicycle? Common sense is not always “common” or “sensical” Recumbent bicycle Velomobile Electric bicycle © Routledge 2013
A Brief History of Bicycles Historians recognize three general types and periods: Velocipedes and “Boneshakers,” 1817-1860s High Wheeler “Ordinaries” (AKA “Penny Farthings”), 1870s-1880s Safety Bicycles, mid-1880s onward © Routledge 2013
A Brief History of Bicycles Before the 1870s, velocipedes had very limited appeal among wealthy men (“dandies”) In the 1870s and 80s, riding high-wheelers becomes a craze in Northern Europe and the U.S.: Still an elite social and leisure activity: Wheelmen’s clubs, parades in military formation, etc. Racing becomes a popular spectator sport Highly gendered, with men as the primary participants © Routledge 2013
A Brief History of Bicycles In the 1890s, the Safety enables “the first bicycle boom:” Bicycling becomes a widely popular activity, and bicycle manufacture becomes an important and prestigious political and industrial sector. Cycling becomes a key site of social change and controversy, tied to new ideas about “auto-mobility” and effortless speed, the importance of “good roads,” the need for new traffic laws, and debates over morality and health consequences Feminists adopt the bicycle as a vehicle for emancipation of the “new woman.” The bicycle sets the institutional, social, political and industrial groundwork for the rise of the automobile. © Routledge 2013
But the Bicycle Didn’t “Evolve” Processes of “stabilization” and “closure” around the safety bicycle were tied closely to political, economic, and social dynamics and influences, not simply technical concerns. Cultural meanings also play a role in those processes. Example: The tricycle Even as they are more useful and easier to ride, a higher symbolic value was placed on riding bicycles, being viewed as “sportier” © Routledge 2013
The “Social Life” of the Bicycle Five Key Dimensions 1.The bicycle is a physical object. A bicycle’s dimensions and materials enable and shape the experience of the rider. Even as people perform on bicycles, bicycles perform on people, extending muscular action and forcing people to make subtle adjustments that may barely rise to consciousness. © Routledge 2013
The “Social Life” of the Bicycle Five Key Dimensions 2. The bicycle is a thing with a past, present, and future. These temporal dimensions can be understood through: The concept of assemblage, in which the potential of the bicycle is realized in the temporary assembly of human-machine. A “biography of a thing,” which follows the life course of an object from its origins and manufacture through its acquisition, use, and discard, revealing details about social relations and cultural meanings that influence human relations with bicycles. © Routledge 2013
The “Social Life” of the Bicycle Five Key Dimensions 3. The bicycle is a commodity that circulates through transnational political- economic relations. Bicycle production, which once operated on a national scale, is now based on globally-dispersed networks of manufacturers, suppliers, and distributors far from markets of consumption. The major concentration of factories is in China and Taiwan, drawing on suppliers from many other countries. The intensive human cooperation to make bicycles, as well as that manufacturing’s impact on laborers, are not well understood by consumers. © Routledge 2013
The “Social Life” of the Bicycle Five Key Dimensions 4. The bicycle is an object of cultivated desire. Marketing and advertising have long been critical dimensions of the bicycle industry, and it innovated numerous techniques of promotion in the late-1800s. Planned obsolescence based on minor design changes, which was one of those techniques, is still around, in the annual trade show and annual buyer’s guide. Shopping for bicycles is not simply a matter of cost-benefit, involving matters of relationship, identity, social positioning, and the creation of meaning. The ways bicycles have been sold in the U.S.—for youth and for recreation—have contributed to the marginalization of the bicycle for everyday mobility. © Routledge 2013
The “Social Life” of the Bicycle Five Key Dimensions 5. The bicycle is a useful possession. In moving its rider from A to B, bicycles are rooted in a practical social order that involves roads, streets, laws, regulations, and social institutions. Bicycles are also rooted in a symbolic expressive order in which people develop and demonstrate a sense of self and relationship with others. People express cultural meanings and status hierarchies through their consumption and use of objects like bicycles. © Routledge 2013
Discussion Questions How did our common-sense idea of a bicycle, such as the one pictured in the third slide, come to be? What are some of the reasons the bicycle became so popular in the 1890s? How did meanings and uses of the bicycle shift after that boom? Why? All objects have “social lives,” but not all objects might have the same 5 dimensions as those presented here. Can you think of another mundane object and outline the dimensions of its social life? © Routledge 2013
RECONSIDERING THE BICYCLE: An Anthropological Perspective on a New (Old) Thing CHAPTER FOUR: “Good for the Cause”: The Bike Movement as Social Action and.
RECONSIDERING THE BICYCLE: An Anthropological Perspective on a New (Old) Thing CHAPTER FIVE: On the Need for the Bicycle © Routledge 2013.
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