19/11/2013

Critical Mobilities

The deep transformations associated with the current phase of globalization have prompted scholars to search for new conceptual, theoretical, and methodological approaches to make sense of contemporary social (re)configurations. Most of the critical analyses of globalization within contemporary social theory share the assumption that our times are characterized by increasing mobility, so that “mobility has become a most suitable trope for our time, an era.

accelerating at what seems to be ever faster rates of speed”  The “new mobilities paradigm” , for instance, constitutes the most prominent of these sets of theoretical reflections.


It has drawn attention to a “mobility turn” in social theory. Several other influential approaches today are also built on more or less explicit assumptions about accelerating and diversifying types of mobility and their constitutive role in shaping society. This holds, for instance, for Actor-Network Theory (Latour 2005), theories of cosmopolitanization, Bauman’s (2000) account of liquid modernity, assemblage theory, and sociological (Sassen 2006) or anthropological theories of globalization (Appadurai 2006). These approaches seek to move beyond the metaphysics of presence and fixity, which they identify as characteristic of most twentieth-century social science.

Before we can delineate critical perspectives within mobility studies, we need first very briefly to summarize its main arguments. The point of departure for the new mobilities paradigm is the argument that mobility has remained under-theorized for most of the history of the social sciences. Despite a longstanding interest in “how life moves” (Cresswell 2006; Valier 2003), the question of the conceptual and theoretical content of mobility has remained at the margins of social science for much of the last century.

Although not entirely excluded, the scope and meaning of mobility have long largely been restricted to, and equated with, the movements of people and goods in migration and transportation studies. Equally, scholars of economic exchange, trade, capitalism, and imperialism from Malinowski to Marx have addressed questions of the movement of goods and people, though these were not central to the way in which they conceptualized society. With the rapid intensification of travel – whether physical (people, goods, materials), imaginative (knowledge, ideas, images), or virtual (money, information, practices, e-mails) – the fact of movement, its meanings, and its implications must be studied in their own right and as affecting the very constitution of societies (Urry 2007; Watts and Urry 2008; Cresswell and Merriman 2008).

The aims of the new mobilities research agenda are threefold.

First, it formulates a forceful critique of the “sedentarist” (Cresswell 2002) and “a-mobile” (Urry 2007) premises on which social science theorization has been traditionally based. It seeks to replace these by new epistemological foundations based on considerations of the centrality of mobility.

Second, it calls for not only an epistemological change but also for a different ontological understanding of mobility. A “mobile sociology” is predicated on the fact of movement, not the fixity, of the objects, units, institutions, etc. that it studies. Whereas within the framework of traditional social theory people, objects, and ideas moved from origins to destinations, the new mobilities approach is interested in how the process of movement constitutes the entities in circulation, be they people, objects, or ideas. Mobility is thus recognized to constitute an ontological absolute for a “sociology of the 21st century” (Urry 2000). Since “mobilities come in all shapes and sizes” (Tiessen 2008: 112), the new paradigm moves beyond a narrow conception of human and material travel to consider a vast array of crisscrossing mobilities, thereby shedding light on the complex interconnections and interdependencies between different networks and spaces. Such “new mobilities” include phenomena as varied as “the mobilities of money laundering, the drug trade, sewage and waste, infections, urban crime, asylum seeking, arms trading, people smuggling, slave trading, and urban terrorism” (Sheller and Urry 2006: 220).

Third, proponents of the new research agenda contend that new epistemological objectives and ontological conceptualizations require appropriate research methods (Sheller and Urry 2006; Watts and Urry 2008; Büscher, Urry, and Witchger 2011). Watts and Urry argue that “the analysis of mobilities as a wide-ranging category of connection, distance, and motion transforms social science and its research methods” (2008: 862). An understanding of the movements of different types of technologies, policy frameworks and institutional arrangements thus requires that the researchers themselves carry out fieldwork including participant observation at a variety of locations and scales, as Towghi and Randeria argue and illustrate in the case studies presented in their chapter here. One way to do so is to follow the objects of study (vaccines and contraceptives in their case) across sites and scales in order to map the relationships between different actors, locations, and levels through “multi-sited” ethnography (Marcus 1995). Some have advocated that researchers themselves travel in order to trace movements across space and over time. Such “mobile ethnography” – also called “itinerant ethnography” – recognizes the deterritorialized character of mobile subjects (Schein 2002). It may involve engaging with people’s worldviews by traveling with them, or closely following the itineraries of material, virtual, and imaginative entities (Spitulnik 2002; Molz 2006). More generally, it means forging methods able to deal “with the fleeting, the distributed, the multiple, the non-causal, the sensory, the emotional and the kinaesthetic” (Büscher, Urry et al. 2011: 15). A criticism leveled against the new mobilities paradigm is that if everything is mobile, then mobility as a concept loses its analytical purchase (Adey 2006).

Such a view, however, overlooks the fact that scholars of mobilities are not only aware of the limits of mobility but also explore these limits explicitly. For example, the chapter by De Genova outlines increased securitization as an attempt to limit the movement of people. The pervasiveness of movement does not exclude physical, material, or institutional fixities. Rather, they seek to identify and analyze the relations between various movements, and the ways in which these relations are channeled, facilitated or constrained by placebound, immobile “moorings” (Urry 2007) and by actors with different economic, political, or legal means to ensure, advance, direct, or prevent movements. Mobilities and moorings are thus conceived of as being in a dialectical relationship of interdependence (Adey 2006). Sheller and Urry insist that the new paradigm emphasises how all mobilities entail specific often highly embedded and immobile infrastructures. […] The complex character of such systems stems from the multiple fixities or moorings often on a substantial physical scale that enable the fluidities of liquid modernity. Thus “mobile machines,” mobile phones, cars, aircraft, trains, and computer connections, all presume overlapping and varied time space immobilities.

What constitutes the critical potential of mobility studies? Their critical purchase lies, we argue, primarily in their attempt to address explicitly the interplay of mobility and power. They do so with reference to questions of inequality, domination, and constraint.

First, the study of gradients of inequality has been central to mobility studies (Adey and Bissell 2010). Inequality has primarily been conceptualized as a differential social distribution of mobility as a resource and as capital, or as Kaufmann terms it “motility,” the capacity to move (Kaufmann 2002;Flamm and Kaufmann 2006). In other words, inequality lies in the unequal access to means of mobility and to know-how concerning technologies of mobility understood in a broad sense. Access to transportation and information and communication technologies (ICT), to passports and visas, to name but a few prerequisites, as well as different competence to travel long distances or to use complex software are part of a “mobility capital,” whose distribution does not necessarily correspond, as Nedelcu shows in her contribution to this volume, to the distribution of economic capital. Considering mobility as competence leads us also to understand subjectivity and experience as constitutive of unequal mobilities (Jensen 2011; Conradson and Mckay 2007). In sum, in a period when mobility has become a mantra in public discourse and a requirement in many jobs, mobility studies draws attention to mobility as a resource and as a right while pointing to its entanglements with (im)mobility and inequalities. As Zygmunt Bauman (1996) has powerfully argued, such a postmodern world of flexible labor has made vagrants of us all, on the move constantly by choice or force, unwilling to cast roots, unable to determine our itineraries and duration of stay.

Second, scholars working with ideas drawn from the new paradigm consider mobilities as structured by domination and predicated on the immobilities of other persons and things (Cresswell 2001). Mobility, the authors of this volume argue, is a relational phenomenon and should be understood as depending on a series of moorings, including infrastructure, regulatory frameworks,  and the social practices that enable or further it, or even contest and curb it, as illustrated in the chapters by Lahav and Cohen, as well as Towghi and Randeria. For instance, in order to provide very profitable quasi-instantaneous replies to information requests across the world, Google owns buildings filled with servers and hires large numbers of maintenance specialists, who are anything but mobile. To take another example, during the weekends the streets of central Hong Kong or Singapore are filled with migrant domestic workers – often from the Philippines – who at other times barely leave their apartment, to allow their employers to move around the globe. Many Asian businesswomen would, for instance, not be able to lead their mobile careers and be part of the “kinetic elite” without their migrant nannies being rendered quasi-immobile (Devasahayam and Yeoh 2007). Just as the notion of mobile capital does not substitute for a focus on the unequal distribution of other sorts of capital, looking at how different forms of mobility depend on fixity does not eclipse the role of other forms of domination. Instead, by focusing on the interrelation of mobilities and immobilities, it provides new insights into contemporary patterns of asymmetrical power and privilege.

Third, asymmetries of power may force individuals in the absence of alternatives to accept harsh, and even harmful conditions of life and work. At its extreme, power is being exercised to curb mobility through the deportation, involuntary displacement, or forced migration of individuals or large collectives of people. In their introduction to a special issue of the journal Mobilities on forced migration, the editors argue that the study of forced migration is an antidote to a potential romanticization of mobility (Gill et al. 2011). However, they also recognize that the mobilities literature is fruitful in highlighting the interlinkages of different mobilities, and in allowing one to connect all that is mobile with displaced populations (the movement of clothing, keepsakes, identity documents, longings, memories, etc.).

The contribution of this volume to a critical analysis of mobilities lies in such a dialogue between mobility and migration studies. It is to the relation between these two interdisciplinary research fields that we now turn.

To learn more

Extrait du titre Critical Mobilities
de Ola Söderström, Didier Ruedin, Shalini Randeria, Gianni D'Amato et Francesco Panese
Publié aux Presses Polytechniques et universitaires romandes

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