Rhythmanalysis as a method to account for time in qualitative research

Nicole Brown and Corinne Morgan



What is this life if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare.

No time to stand beneath the boughs

And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass, Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass. No time to see, in broad daylight, Streams full of stars, like skies at night. No time to turn at beauty’s glance. And watch her feet, how they can dance. No time to wait till her mouth can Enrich that smile her eyes began.

A poor life this if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare.

William Henry Davies from Songs ofjoy and Others (1911)

Experience and perception of time are not only common themes in creative forms of expressions, such as the poem by William Henry Davies. Scientific research and scholarly publications also regularly explore time and its perception, with initial reports relating to time perception dating back to the 4th century (Poppel, 1978). The concern with time, according to Poppel, is that time itself cannot actually be experienced or perceived, only relative aspects of time can be, such as duration, order, past and present, rhythm or change (Ornstein, 1975). As a result, different theoretical and analytical frameworks are required to investigate these aspects of time. Most often one tool on its own is not suitable to research all experiences (Ornstein, 1975).

Time may be experienced at a subjective, individual, objective, and/or collective level. Like historical events remembered collectively through construction and social negotiation, collective memories are rendered inaccurate as historical and social representations (de Saint-Laurent, 2018), and time is experienced collectively. For example, “time stood still” for a globalised world during the 9/11 attacks of the Twin Towers in New York; or during morning hours when commuters emerge in waves from tube stations when there is a collective rush that makes it impossible for the individual to slow down or stop within the group of moving masses. As such, time is not neutral, but speeds up and slows down in our perception. In our increasingly globalised and connected world, time continues to speed up through the immediacy of communication technology allowing us to text and email on the go. The experience of time is also linked to emotional and psychological factors with many individuals diagnosed with affective disorders and mental health illnesses experiencing a slowing down of time (e.g., Bar-Haim, Kerem, Lamy, & Zakay, 2010; Tysk, 1984; Droit-Volet, 2013; Thones & Oberfeld, 2015).

The premise of this chapter is Picasso’s understanding of “rhythm as the perception of time” (Holloway & Holloway, 2006). In order to capture rhythm as a specific element of time, we draw on Nicole’s research into the relationship between the academic buildings and the ill/disabled academic bodies within them. In that research, Nicole uses rhythmanalysis to explore how academic staff with chronic illnesses and disabilities specifically interact with the buildings they frequent and what impact the physical environment has on their everyday experience.

Current discourses in higher education explore the relationship between chronic illness and mental health disorders and heightened pressures of increasingly marketised, consumerist academia (e.g., Tilak, 2008; Gewirtz & Cribb, 2013). Research explores which cultural and attitudinal factors impact academics’ personal experiences of health and illness (e.g., Opstrup & Phil-Thingvad, 2016; Darabi, Macaskill, & Reidy, 2017). The emphasis lies on the academic setting and working context as a culture of perfectionism, over-exertion, and the academic lifestyle not allowing for breaks or holidays (e.g., Tytherleigh, Webb, Cooper, & Ricketts, 2005). However, there is little exploration of how physical spaces in academia could exacerbate or cause health issues amongst those in academia.

Public health research evidences a very clear link between the physical spaces, places of working environments, and people’s status of health, mental health, and illness (e.g., Leaver, Bargh, Dunn, & Hwang, 2007; Kyle & Dunn, 2008). Buildings, indeed entire cityscapes and landscapes, are developed with the end users’ mental health and wellbeing in mind (cf. Ige et al., 2018). Within higher education research, university buildings are explored as sites of learning

(e.g., Beard & Dale, 2010; Latimer, 2011), as built environments (e.g., Abdul Lateef Olanrewaju, 2012), in the context of green energies and sustainability (e.g., Gul & Patidar, 2015; Soares, Dias Pereira, Ferreira, Conceifao, & Pereira da Silva, 2015), or within the scope of universal design for learning (Dolmage, 2017). University buildings, especially older universities, embody the difference between elitist knowledge communities and the general public through the symbolism of grand staircases and entrance hallways (Dolmage, 2017) with the steps up and into the university posing social and societal barriers to learning and access for those with disabilities and illnesses. However, deeper understanding of the links between buildings and disabled or chronically ill bodies is required to identify ways and means for alleviating some of the difficulties encountered, and to be able to make sense of how people “perform,” “act,” and “interact” in academia.

In the following sections of this chapter, we briefly outline the research context, the research approach and process, as well as the analytical process to provide an insight into the practical application of rhythmanalysis. Our findings section highlights the three key themes we have identified: “using the right door,” “stopping and going,” and “stillness and busy-ness.” These findings provide the basis for our discussion of how the focus on rhythm helps explore elements of everyday life that would otherwise remain hidden.

Methodology and methods

Research context

Research into ableism in academia and the construction of academic identity under the influence of fibromyalgia (Brown, 2017, 2018a, 2018b; Brown & Leigh, 2018; Brown, Thompson, & Leigh, 2018) highlights that individuals with disabilities and/or chronic illnesses are required to manage their bodies within the physical space of university buildings. Stairways, heavy doors, lighting fixtures, office sharing, hot-desks, and open-plan offices all require emotional and physical labour in order to manage symptoms (see also Finesilver, Leigh, & Brown, 2020). This insight raises questions of how disabled and/or chronically ill academics engage with the buildings and how the buildings determine the rhythm of everyday academic life. Not only are research and literature limited in this field, but sociological discourses of bringing the body back into the methodological and intellectual focus of research (e.g., Bendelow & Williams, 1998; Shilling, 2012) also remain underexplored. Following sociological understandings and principles, we need to consider bodies not as removed and forgotten or invisible and inexperienced, but as part of who we are, what we do and how we engage with our environments or buildings. As the buildings are not static and constant, but fluid and changeable throughout the day, and indeed the disabled bodies, too, are in constant flux, Nicole has decided to use rhythmanalysis to capture that flux.

Research approach and process

Rhythmanalysis offers a sensory, embodied lens to explore social life and how people engage in their social worlds (Lyon, 2018; Lefebvre, 2004). The main principles of rhythmanalysis are: 1) the focus on “temporalities and their relations with wholes” (Lefebvre, 2004, pp. 23-25), and 2) that these kinds of experiences and relationships cannot be explored in a linear, disembodied fashion. Instead, the rhythmanalyst “thinks with his body, not in the abstract, but in the lived temporality” (Lefebvre, 2004, p. 21). Undertaking rhythmanalysis therefore requires of the researcher to consciously experience and become attuned to a rhythm, whilst also noticing repetitions and differences that occur in and through repetitions. The difficulty herein lies with the necessity for a researcher being entirely immersed in the experience of the moment and simultaneously being removed enough to identify divergences (Elden, 2004). The rhythmanalyst ultimately uses their body as a tool for research by listening to moods with an “attentive ear,” by tuning in to others’ movements and by developing a sensitivity to the rhythms at play (Lyon, 2018).

Drawing on this theoretical understanding, Nicole sees rhythmanalysis as an opportunity to attend to different kinds of knowledge, which are embodied, reflective, and felt subjectively, but analysed from a “critical distance” (Elden, 2004, p. 113). For her research, Nicole creates time-lapse videos of commonly used buildings across the University College London (UCL) campus and combines these with interviews with research participants. The audio-visual rhythmanalysis captures the anonymity of university buildings and bodies, which helps develop an insight into the structures and rhythms of the buildings as living spaces. Time and rhythm - the perception of time - are thus the principal frameworks for analysis. The interviews explore the lived experiences of individuals with chronic illnesses and/or disabilities and how buildings are navigated, which allows for a triangulation of the subjective, embodied researcher’s positionality within rhythmanalysis.

This chapter is based on one time-lapse video of approximately three-and-a-half minutes, which records the comings and goings from 10:05 am to 10:55 am in the lobby and entrance area of the UCL Institute of Education on a Thursday in January during the spring term of 2020. During this time, Nicole sat next to the camera observing the interactions and making notes in relation to sounds and smells that would not be observable within the film itself.

The researcher’s positionality and positioning in and through filming in a public space were central topics in the application for ethical approval through the institutional ethics committee. Approval was granted on the basis that the research would comply with and meticulously apply the ground rules of not

A still image taken from the time-lapse video depicting the entrance area of the UCL Institute of Education

FIGURE 6.1 A still image taken from the time-lapse video depicting the entrance area of the UCL Institute of Education

Annotated still image depicting the entrance area of the UCL Institute of Education doing harm, of process-informed consent and of compassion and care

FIGURE 6.2 Annotated still image depicting the entrance area of the UCL Institute of Education doing harm, of process-informed consent and of compassion and care. As a consequence, individuals who were filmed had the opportunity to approach Nicole to ask about the purpose of the film at any time during the filming. In the end, the data consists of the time-lapse video and the field notes made during the 50 minutes in January 2020.

The space that was filmed is a large lobby entrance consisting of both a revolving and an automatic door to an academic building. The lobby is open-plan and contains a seated area along the left side of a walking path, a small cafe across from the entrance, a back entrance to the library when one turns left after entering the building, and a set of stairs to the right of the walking path that goes down to the next level. This next level is the actual main entrance to the building and has its own small square path. Across from the cafe there is also a reception desk that was not visible, and there is another entrance to the main lobby past the cafe and reception desk.

Data analysis

Data analysis is a subjective process requiring transparency, reflexivity, and criticality in order to ensure good quality and rigour (Brown, 2019, p. 497). With this basic foundation in mind, Nicole undertook a first preliminary analysis of the time-lapse video and identified some analytical “hot spots” (MacLure, 2011). The five key areas Nicole identified from watching and re-watching the time-lapse video, and reading and rereading her field notes related to the role and function of the lobby, the impact and influence of the entrance doors to the lobby, individuals’ behaviours, the rhythm within one hour of one day, and the relevance of the wider sensorium to account for sounds and smells.

Nicole shared these initial thoughts with Corinne, who then undertook a more detailed analysis of the time-lapse video. To this end, Corinne quite intuitively drew on the interpretative method of qualitative research (Willis, Jost, & Nilakanta, 2007) and naturally applied hermeneutics by letting the “text” speak to her (Gadamer, 1990). Corinne watched the time-lapse video several times with the aim of observing different aspects of the recording each time, which would allow her to improve her insights by ever-deepening her understanding in an iterative spiral. Corinne started out with a more holistic observation watching for general patterns that emerged within the use of the space as a whole, such as times of greater or lesser movement through the space at certain times, areas of stillness, areas of congregation, or habits of those who used the space that affected others’ uses of the space. Corinne also noted any breaks from these usual rhythms, which could be due to unusual aspects of the environment, differences in certain individuals’ abilities or other factors. After this holistic analysis, Corinne continued to watch and re-watch the video to focus on each of the observed breaks in rhythm, such as how use of the space changed when a wet sign was or was not present or how those unfamiliar with the space utilised reception to obtain directions.

Corinne also tracked individuals through the entire length of the recording or observed certain areas in closer detail. In spirit with the “embodiedness” of rhythmanalysis, Corinne sketched these trackings:

Representation of the levels of use of particular areas and pathways in the observed space

FIGURE 6.3 Representation of the levels of use of particular areas and pathways in the observed space

Figure 6.3 represents both the space itself and patterns of usage of the space. Dots represent areas of stillness within the seated area and by the coffee preparation station. These are places where individuals tended to sit or stand for long periods of time within the space. Larger dots indicate larger amounts of people and longer periods of stillness in these areas. The lines represent pathways through the space and a greater number of lines along a pathway represent a higher level of usage.

These observations, in conjunction with the holistic observations, were combined to create an understanding of the rhythm and flow of the use of the space throughout a 50-minute period, which resulted in the identification of three first-level themes: “using the right door,” “stopping and going,” and “stillness and busy-ness.” In line with the analytical iterative spiral, we further identified three second-level themes: “space,” “time,” and “being on your own in a mass.”

Presentation of findings

Using the right door

Given the focus of Nicole’s research, on “bodies and buildings,” we paid particular attention to individuals who would have differing physical needs. We recognise that not every disability and chronic condition is visible, and indeed most actually are not. However, as part of the rhythmanalysis we would only be able to focus on visible differing needs. During the 50 minutes of the filming, Nicole observed two individuals, of whom one was blind and relying on a helper and the other used a wheelchair.

In the time-lapse we could observe the blind individual and helper move along the busy path between the seated area and the set of stairs. The pair moved easily through this path, but then had to wait a considerable amount of time at the automatic door to be able to exit. The automatic doors are intended for those with differing abilities, but during the time of filming a large number of people entered and exited the lobby via this door. The main door to this side entrance is supposed to be the revolving door. However, where there were pairs or groups of people engaged in a conversation, they used the automatic door so that they would not need to interrupt their interactions mid-flow. As a consequence, however, the automatic door was not free for the blind individual and their helper until only after several minutes, the door cleared, and the pair was able to exit the building. Similarly, the wheelchair user also needed to use the automatic door to enter the building.

Stopping and going

Once inside the building, there were individuals who seemed confused as to where to go. People stopped at the information desk to ask for directions, which involved the person at the desk coming out from behind the desk to point in the direction the person should go. However, this was often not enough as several people had to return to the desk to receive further directions. Surprisingly, people who were unsure of where to go did not move any slower than other individuals in the space, they just took longer to exit the space than the average user.

Unlike human obstacles or lack of knowledge of the space, which would cause individuals to change their rhythm of speed and trajectory whilst moving through the space, environmental obstacles seemed to have little effect on individuals’ behaviours. A wet-floor sign that was present in front of the entrance and the library for the first half of the time-lapse video was removed by a member of the cleaning staff for the second half of the video. Interestingly, the presence or lack of the sign caused no significant difference in the behaviours of individuals passing through the space.

Stillness and busy-ness

Represented by the dots in Figure 6.3, there was a stark contrast between people who were seated or still within the space and those who moved through the area quickly without stopping. The areas of stillness were the seating area by the windows, which is intended to provide a communal gathering space, and the coffee preparation area near the library. Individuals in the seated area often stayed for long periods of time, with some staying in place for the entire length of the video. Others who joined this seated area sat in a way to provide an even distance between themselves and others, so that they would not interact with others in that area. Those who waited at the coffee-making station waited at a short distance from the person currently preparing their coffee and rarely interacted with others around them.

Individuals who moved through the space most commonly used the path through the lobby by entering through the doors, turning right and walking down the path between the seating area and the set of stairs (see Figure 6.3). The path to and from the library was also heavily used. Individuals entering the building tended to head to the library, whilst individuals who were already in the building tended to move toward the exits (see Figure 6.3). The loop at the righthand side of the sketch (see Figure 6.3) is a lower level of the space that contains a conference space and coat check. There was little usage of this lower space, and increased use corresponded with the same time when the rest of the space saw an increase of movement and users also.

As people used these paths, they walked quickly and with purpose, often on their own or in small groups of two to three people whilst avoiding others. However, several people along these paths were looking at mobile phones and/or tablets, which disrupted the normal walking pattern. These people were much more likely to move slower through the space without actively avoiding others, which caused others in the space to have to work to avoid them. One notable example of this was a man who paused to look at his phone at the top of the steps, blocking the entrance/exit of one side of the stairs. This caused those using the stairs to have to move around him. At one point he was asked to move by what looked like a member of staff, but the man still did not move and continued to block the entrance to the stairs.


The UCL Institute of Education lobby is an open-plan space, so there are hardly any areas of privacy. People who use the space are aware of its public function and choose to maintain a form of separation from others. Individuals physically distance themselves from others, by sitting on the couches equidistant from one another or sitting in a way that avoids interaction with others, such as sitting at an angle to others that would make conversation difficult. Ironically, many of those who avoid interactions with others in the area are actually speaking to family and friends via Facetime or other communication tools. It is not the communication individuals avoid, but the interactions and interaction partners are purposely chosen. Even individuals who move through the space create distance between themselves and others and avoid eye contact with those they are walking towards. These behaviours are individuals’ attempts to create a sense of privacy in a shared space that offers none. Despite this search for privacy in a shared space, however, the space also does not encourage people to congregate. This lack of areas to gather in is designed to force people through the lobby and onto their destination. It is awkward to stop or gather in the busy pathways, and those who do pause in their journey cause issues for others who are trying to move along these pathways.


The time-lapse shows how individuals get swept up in the crowd, especially during busier times, and are pushed to continue moving. After all, even those who need to ask for directions move through the lobby with the same swiftness as those who know where they are going. We would expect those who are unfamiliar with the space to move slower, attempting to understand the space and how to reach their destination. However, the rush of others makes these individuals feel as though they need to match the rhythm of the space, which seems to be clear and purposeful movement along specific pathways in order to reach a certain destination. During busier times, for example, periods when classes are changing over, the speed at which people move through the space increases because people experience a shorter timeframe in which to reach their destinations. People rush through the major pathways, wait in the seated area and then quickly move off, attempt to get coffee in a short period of time, and still request directions to other parts of the building. The frequency of groups of people increases, but their size does not, and individuals still attempt to space themselves out evenly from one another and avoid engaging with one another. However, during these busier times, when individuals need to stop to do something, such as putting on a coat, they step out of this pathway and remove themselves from the rush of people to complete this task, before re-joining and continuing quickly on to their destination.

Being on your own in a mass

In contrast to this seeming hyper-awareness of others causing individuals to both rush through the space and equidistance themselves from others, there are also several individuals who are completely immersed in their own tasks. These ranged from those on the couch, to those walking along the busy pathways to the man mentioned previously blocking the entrance to the stairway. Those who were immersed broke the natural rhythm of the space, causing others to have to work around these discrepancies in the existing ebb and flow. However, this pattern of unaware immersion lessens in frequency the more people are in the space, which may be due to people spending less time in the space as they transition through or that it is more difficult to distance from others so users need to pay more acute attention to their surroundings. During these busier times, users who needed to perform a task that they felt would interfere with the natural movement of the space either moved to one of the gathering areas or briefly stepped to the side of the pathways in order to complete their task. This seemed to show deference to other users by trying to reduce any negative effects of performing the task on other users within the space. This pattern of awareness seemed to only go so far as their personal needs when they strayed from the norm within a larger group setting. There was a distinct lack of awareness of others’ needs that might differ from the typical user, such as the blind person who attempts to leave the building. At no point did any of the individuals using the automatic door stop to allow the person for whom the door was intended to pass through. If someone had pointed out that this person needed to use the door, everyone would have paused, stood to the side and let the user and their helper through the doorway. However, this would have required some sort of trigger that would cause these groups of people to break the natural rushed rhythm that occurs during periods of busier usage. The crowd itself would have had to stop for a single individual, something that is unlikely to happen during the normal course of daily events. Due to this inertia sweeping the crowd forward, what was a quick moment for many became a lengthy wait for two individuals who actually had the right of way in this interchange.

Rhythmanalysis to unhide the invisible

In this section we explore considerations of using rhythmanalysis as a research method. By doing so, we demonstrate how the focus on rhythm helps explore elements of everyday life that would otherwise remain hidden.

Rhythmanalysis is a particular way of looking and, by drawing on the researcher’s embodied and visceral knowledge, offers insights into social life and interactions (Lyon, 2018; Lefebvre, 2004). These insights differ from the information and analysis gleaned from interview data. For example, the practicalities of using specific doors for entering the building or individuals’ attempts to recreate a sense of privacy by physically distancing themselves from others. In this sense, rhythmanalysis affords an insight into individuals’ behaviours, which enable a second, broader layer of analysis. We observe the different kinds of personas individuals take on (Goffman, 1990a, 1990b), when they try to avoid communicating with others in the physical communal spaces, but then engage in detailed and prolonged interactions with friends and family via their smartphones and tablets. The fact that individuals who do not know their way continue at the same pace and speed as those who do is an explicit example of individuals trying to fit in with specific groups they identify with and want to belong to (Tajfel, 2010). The rhythmanalysis also brings to light the narrow fields of vision of individuals within their everyday routine, which is best exemplified by the fact that some people are oblivious to the consequences of their actions of blocking staircases or using the “wrong” doors.

As with any research approach, rhythmanalysis also has its downsides. The role of the rhythmanalyst’s experience of embodiment and the body as primary tools for research render rhythmanalysis subjective and dependent on positionality in ways that other forms of research do not. Although transparency, criticality, and reflexivity (Brown, 2019, p. 497) provide mitigation of the subjectivity during the analytical process, the criticism against Lefebvre’s (2004) inventive, new approach to doing science is that it conflates the public and the private, the social and the biological, and the self and the other (see Merrifield, 2006).

Whether or not we simply consider rhythmanalysis as a sensorial, corporeal (Potts, 2015) version of participant observation (Merrifield, 2006), the approach does help us understand life rhythms and patterns. Through creating several time-lapse videos from different days of the week and various weeks throughout the academic year, it is possible to determine more details of the rhythm of a building by quantifying how many people access or leave the building at specific times. We may assume that there are busier, noisier times at say 11 am than at 5 pm and smellier times around noon when people eat lunches, but more bright lights being used at 10 am than say at noon.

However, rhythmanalysis used on its own may not be sufficient to truly understand interactions and social life, as temporal practices, changing perceptions of time and rhythms cannot be explored. As highlighted earlier, we may well be able to observe patterns and rhythms, but the motivations behind particular behaviour patterns would require additional exploration. For example, the physical distancing and speedy walk-throughs happening in and around the lobby may for some individuals be due to circumstances that the observation would not allow us to verify (i.e., increased anxiety due to closer proximity to others in the space). Those who feel an increased level of anxiety in large crowds of people could be motivated to make their journey through the space quickly and efficiently. Those who feel anxious in the space during these busier periods may work to find ways through the building that allow them to avoid using the space altogether. These are theories that we would need to explore further using interviews with individuals who use the academic building as a whole in different ways to support their physical and mental health needs.

Understanding the rhythm of the building will provide analytical entry points for interviews with individuals who will have worked out the best way for them to negotiate their working spaces, which they may do unknowingly rather than consciously. As such, the rhythmanalysis can even shed light on individuals’ behaviours and unhide what may otherwise be invisible.


A poor life this if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare.

William Henry Davies from Songs

ofjoy and Others (1911)

As a group of individuals within a shared space, we see a certain rhythm and understanding form about how the space is to be used. Those who want to experience a sense of calm or stillness can sit on the couches whilst the rest rush by in their need to reach their destinations. Those on the couches seem to have all of the time in the world, moving from one task to the next. Those traversing the pathways navigate around other people and physical obstacles with speed, although they can be jolted out of this rhythm by unexpected actions of others that immediately interfere with their pathway. However, both groups seem highly unaware of things that do not immediately and obviously impact on their own actions and are focused on their own experiences within the group whilst also working hard to avoid interaction with others, therefore showing an acute awareness of others.

This rhythm is also influenced by the changing needs of those in the space, which is influenced by the time of day. At times between classes we see a tendency towards lounging in the space. A sense of calm and focus that allows those present to be productive in their endeavours. As we move towards a time when classes are ending and beginning, we see an almost exponential increase in both the speed and volume of people in the space. This makes it feel as though time itself has speeded up, with the urgency of users influencing others to move quicker and leave the space faster. This ebb and flow between a calm focus and forced rush can be observed as a repetitive cycle throughout the day. These interactions between users, space, and time are what create the spatial and temporal rhythms of this academic building, a juxtaposition between fast and slow, loud and soft, inward focus and outward awareness that exist at the same time, both in contrast to and in harmony with one another.

In this final paragraph, we would like to return specifically to the notion of time within qualitative research. As we outlined in the opening section, time is not objective or constant, but is experienced and perceived as fluid and different depending on the given circumstances. There is, therefore, huge scope within qualitative research more broadly and widely to identify time. Using rhythmanalysis as a research approach allows us to identify patterns within the context of objectively measured timeframes but does not enable us to understand all subjective intricacies and perceptions of time. Someone hurriedly rushing along a corridor may, at a subjective level, experience time as rushing or as having stood still - we will not know. What we can tell, however, is that the perception of time becomes a rhythm in itself, as, in Picasso’s words (Charles, 2011), there is rhythm even in a tired hand trying to draw.


Nicole Brown’s research “Bodies and buildings: How the chronically ill or disabled experience buildings in academia” was supported by the Society of Research into Higher Education [Brown NR1903).


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