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Finding Our Way: A Socio-Cultural Exploration of Wayfinding as an Embodied Experience

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posted on 20.06.2022, 16:57 authored by Paul A. Symonds


The focus of this study is 'Wayfinding', a practice that is concerned with how we find our way between places. To date, the majority of research on wayfinding has used a psychological lens, placing a significant focus on wayfinding as a cognitive practice and using quantitative data and a realist approach. At the time of writing, no study has focused on researching wayfinding from a sociological perspective1 that places the body at the centre of wayfinding practice. This study moves beyond the psychological approaches to provide a more holistic understanding of wayfinding.

Twenty-three in-depth qualitative interviews took place in order to investigate and to try and better understand wayfinding from a socio-cultural perspective with consideration for wayfinding as an embodied experience. Volunteers were purposefully chosen in order to represent a diverse range of wayfinding situations including commuting, holiday purposes, as part of a job or for everyday needs such as to go shopping. The data are represented thematically, using Weber’s (1964) concept of ideal types and the discussion of the data is shaped using a range of concepts from the work of Tim Ingold, Erving Goffman and Pierre Bourdieu.

A number of unique themes emerge from the data, showing wayfinding to be an embodied socio-cultural experience that is heterogeneous and heuristic in nature and that is rarely a linear activity, as suggested by authors such as Haque, Kulik and Klippel (2007), Hölscher, Tenbrink and Wiener (2011) and Tam (2011), who all describe wayfinding as being about getting from A to B via the quickest or shortest possible route.

From the data, it becomes clear that wayfinding is rarely, if ever, an individual practice or one that is simply based on cognitive processes. The larger implications of this study are that, by better understanding wayfinding as a fully embodied and socio-cultural practice, new ways of planning and conceptualising the design of wayfinding systems and practices should be considered.

1 Except for the article by Symonds, et al (2017) that evolved directly from this study.





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