By Paul van Kaldenkerken
The study of Parkour is a microcosm of the scientific community at large. It suffers similar problems: the research that comes from the universities is often irrelevant for practitioners, even those that have more than a passing interest in the discipline. Professional science watches from its ivory tower. As a professional scientist you are less interested in being understood by the public but advancing the knowledge of a particular field. We live in such complex times that even similar scientific disciplines often can’t understand each other, let alone be connected to the public. Professional science has its own language, socialization, tradition and filter bubble. While there are exceptions in the natural sciences professional social science and the humanities suffer a lack of connection to practitioners.
The field of Parkour studies features a great contrary example: the work of Julie Angel. She did her PhD research on Parkour, which combines videos, dense theoretical discussions and a very involved presence from her. Thanks to her videos I got introduced to Parkour 10 years ago. Her research manages to stay relevant for the broader Parkour community while also contributing to the theoretical advancement and professional scientific knowledge on Parkour.
She also created the Parkour Research Facebook group, which turned into the most interesting aspect of Parkour studies. This group is a prime example of what author Peter Finke called citizen science. Science in it’s most basic form is the process of solving problems, of observing phenomena and coming up with questions and hypothetical answers that concern these phenomena. The Parkour research group does exactly that. It brings together practitioners, trainers and academics to discuss all things that have to do with Parkour. The discussions are usually very applicable and oriented towards pragmatic issues.
The individuals in the group are driven by a thirst for knowledge about Parkour and the issues and problems that surround it. We follow Immanuel Kant’s call to dare to think for ourselves. Because conventional science is a) not (yet) very interested in Parkour and b) because professional science will probably fail in giving us the practical knowledge that we seek. In the pursuit for knowledge we transcend disciplinary boundaries that limit professional scientists. At its best it’s not only interdisciplinary but transdisciplinary because it takes concerns and input from practitioners into account and regards institutional boundaries within the academic field as unnecessary burdens.
What strikes me about the group is the respect that exists between the professional scientists, that discuss and publish their master and doctoral thesis there and the citizen scientists. I think this stems from the shared love and passion for the subject. The Parkour Research group shows the good qualities of professional and citizen science. We are a mix of professionals and ‘amateurs’, but we value each others expertise. We know that everyone is an expert on something, at least on their own subjective experience. To respect these qualities of knowledge forms an extraordinarily active and positive group dynamic. The precision, accuracy, theoretical depth and abstraction of professional science meets the practical, the interest for connection, breadth and creativity of citizen science.
Parkour is an unconventional and potentially subversive cultural practice. Its forms of generating, collecting and distributing knowledge can be an interesting field of experimentation for finding new, less exclusionary forms of science.
What is happening in Parkour comes close to what philosopher Paul Feyerabend envisioned as ‘science in a free society’. A science that works hand in hand with practitioners and teachers to solve relevant problems, advance rationality, collect and systematize disparate information and that takes seriously the efforts of so called amateurs. Citizen science democratizes knowledge and the Parkour community is doing a great job at practicing it.