Mimi Sheller: Mobility

Mobilities image based on WikiCommons2016

Mobility Futures for John Urry (1946-2016)


Mimi Sheller

Drexel University



With the sudden and sad loss of my friend, mentor, colleague, co-author and co-editor John Urry, I have been invited to reflect on his life’s work. When I contemplate the debates and issues that have been discussed in the ISA Futures Forum, I am more certain than ever that the mobilities paradigm that John developed is central in the deciphering of current crises of the future, which are both spatial and social. John and I were just celebrating the publication of our co-written article ‘Mobilizing the New Mobilities Paradigm’ in the new journal Applied Mobilities, in which we assessed the impact of the mobilities paradigm in the social sciences over the past decade (Sheller, Urry 2016). We were also in the midst of writing an essay together for Current Sociology on the relation between the ‘mobilities turn’ and the ‘spatial turn’. It is in that context of reflecting on our work and taking stock of its impact that I want to describe the importance of John’s work for understanding and shaping social futures.

In our recent conversations, which I am so thankful we had, John traced the origins of his interest in mobilities to the spatial turn in social theory beginning with Lefebvre’s 1974 Le production de l’espace (translated into English as Lefebvre 1991), alongside British debates especially engendered by Doreen Massey’s Spatial Divisions of Labour (1984), another great thinker we have sadly recently lost. Her groundbreaking text, according to John, examined the complex and varied movements of capital into and out of place and the resulting forms of sedimentation occurring within each place (see also Massey 1991, 1994). This was quickly followed by Gregory and Urry’s Social Relations and Spatial Structures (1985), that brought together geographical and sociological contributions by Harvey, Giddens, Massey, Pred, Sayer, Soja and Thrift. This collection (which was the first of his works that I read in graduate school) partly informed John’s turn to examining what he referred to as “the leisured movements of people into and out of place” further developed in The Tourist Gaze (1990), as well as analyses of multiple mobilities and their spatial consequences in Lash and Urry’s The End of Organized Capitalism (1987) and Economies of Signs and Space (1994).

In reflecting on the origins of the new mobilities paradigm, John argued that largescale mobilities developed especially during the 1990s, which were difficult to comprehend within predominantly sedentarist and a-spatial theories of social science. Moreover, much of this new development was not so much to do with changes in transportation but involved broader shifts in digital communications, forms of pleasure and affective feeling. The scale of developments seemed to be ushering in a new global ordering: the growth and spread of fast movement around the world especially through new kinds of aeromobilities; the sheer diversity of mobility systems in play; the power and risks of the self-expanding automobility system; novel complex entanglements of physical movement and digital communications; spreading of mobility domains that by-passed national societies and the significance of multiple movements for contemporary governmentality; and the importance of mobilities for people’s social and emotional lives (e.g., as documented in Adey, Bissell, Hannam, Merriman, Sheller 2014). The new mobilities paradigm challenges the idea of space as a container for social processes, and brings the dynamic, ongoing production of space into social theory.

However, uneven (and un-just) movements of people and objects were also increasingly visible: the world was not simply more mobile than ever, at least not in the sense of there being an enhanced ‘freedom of mobility’. Mobilities are tracked, controlled, governed, under surveillance and unequal, especially because of the increasing power of big ‘mobile’ data. Mobility is relative with different historical contexts and different subjects being organized through specific constellations of uneven mobilities. These may produce relational effects of heightened intensification of mobility and speed for some relative to others, but there is also a record of coerced mobilities, involuntary displacement, and closely controlled tracking, which counters discourses of ‘mobility as freedom’. The larger scale distances and intensities of mobilities, John argued, also generate many problems for the sovereignty of states and challenges of governance and control, so mobilities and scales are interlocked and subject to many modalities of struggle.

Interestingly, the early developments in spatial sociology coincided with the founding of the journals Environment and Planning D: Society and Space and Theory, Culture and Society, and Polity Press in the early 1980s. John described these publications as seeking to develop a post-disciplinary social science and social theory in reaction to the Thatcher government’s attacks on universities and especially cuts to university social science programs (Adey, Bissell, 2010: 12). He also described his work as oppositional to both American social science and ‘British empiricism’ (ibid: 13). From my perspective in the United States, this anti-positivist edge in his work helps to explain the continuing reluctance of the American Sociological Association and many mainstream U.S. sociology departments to engage with the new mobilities paradigm to the extent that it has taken off elsewhere. Alongside these intellectual commitments, John’s personal stance was thoroughly anti-elitist and anti-neoliberal, as was materially evident in his everyday interactions and symbolically evident in his ever-present monochrome work uniform of a blue cotton shirt, blue jacket and trousers, always with an open collar and no tie. He was an egalitarian through and through, and had no time for pretensions, hierarchies, or status seeking. He welcomed students and visitors from around the world with his infectious smile, and always made a place for them at the table.

By the turn of the millennium mobility began to emerge as a keyword in social theory. Bauman argued in Liquid Modernity that: ‘Mobility climbs to the rank of the uppermost among coveted values – and the freedom to move, perpetually a scarce and unequally distributed commodity, fast becomes the main stratifying factor of our late-modern or postmodern time’ (Bauman 2000). Sociology Beyond Societies (Urry 2000b; and see 2000a) appeared in the same year and helped consolidate attention to mobilities as a key concept within an emerging spatial social science. The turn-of-the-century mobilities rush generated various events, including the Alternative Mobility Futures Conference in Lancaster in 2003; the Centre for Mobilities Research (CeMoRe) that we co-founded at Lancaster University in 2004; our creation of the journal Mobilities with its first issue published in 2006; and ‘The New Mobilities Paradigm’ that appeared in the special issue of Environment and Planning A that we co-edited on ‘materialities and mobilities’ (Sheller, Urry 2006). There was a strong emphasis in this foundational work upon thinking across spatial scales, blurring disciplinary boundaries, exploring materialities and temporalities, moving beyond ‘sedentary’ national or societal frameworks, and exploring whether ‘mobilities’ could provide a vision for a different kind of social science: more open, more wide-ranging, more attuned, more speculative.

In our recent collaborations, John argued that the mobilities paradigm is central in the deciphering of current crises of the future, which are both spatial and social. He pointed out that in his most recent series of work on climate change (2011), peak oil (2013), and offshoring (2014) he was thinking about these in terms of the “political economy of mobilities” and even suggested that “there will develop a ‘post-mobilities’ mobilities paradigm that will be much more resource based” (Adey, Bissell, 2010: 3). Ultimately John’s thinking about mobilities led to what I would call a geo-ecological turn in his political economy thinking. He described the entanglement of our dependence on fossil fuels, the global climate crisis, the related urban crisis, and the effects of all of these on existing forms of governance. The larger scale ‘distances’ traveled today generate many problems for the sovereignty of states and challenges of governance and control, he argued, so mobilities and scales are interlocked and subject to many modalities of struggle. He argued that ‘business as usual’ is impossible and there has to be the reversal of fossil fuel based energy systems around the world. This necessitates a most unusual economic, social and political programme, of developing ‘global low carbonness’, for the extensive reduction in mobility and other uses of fossil fuel energy.

Thus mobility struggles and contested notions of mobility justice (Sheller, forthcoming) are key concerns for the planetary human and non-human future. This would involve campaigning for reduced abundance, John argued, to ensure reasonable abundance in the longer term and for the rest of the globe. Global warming and the need for CO2 emissions reduction drives a search for new lower carbon ways of moving. Older modes of transportation are no longer viable and many now advocate new low-carbon practices: post-car, walking, biking, off grid living, slow mobility, renewable energy, sharing economy. Mobilities theory plays a crucial part in not just gathering ‘facts’ on these transition questions, but also in generating mobile methods and tools for research engaging with the wicked problem of climate change.

Yet John also related this to a key political economic problem of offshoring, which has been in the spotlight lately with the leaking of the so-called Panama Papers. Offshoring entails sustained attacks on governance by national states and international organizations, and especially upon those efforts to regulate and legislate on the basis of democratic control including of present and future energy and emissions. Most offshoring practices are engineered to avoid regulations, to keep secret and to ‘escape’ offshore, helping to form an ‘irresponsible’ offshore world. This ‘irresponsibility,’ he argued, makes it hard to ensure that energy, taxes, economies and societies are locatable and accountable within each nation-state, this being necessary for a transparent low carbon world to be set in train (Urry 2014).

Too much mobility of the wrong sort and at the wrong time would seem to be generating a major series of crises in the new century, crises that the new mobilities paradigm needs to grasp with extreme urgency. That is the legacy that he leaves to a future-oriented interdisciplinary sociology that many of us will continue to carry forward.



Adey, P. and Bissell, D. 2010. ‘Mobilities, Meetings, and Futures: An Interview with John Urry,’ Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 28, 1-16.
Adey, P., Bissell, D., Hannam, K., Merriman, P., Sheller, M. (2014) The Routledge Handbook of Mobilities. London: Routledge.
Bauman, Z. 2000. Liquid Modernity. Cambridge: Polity.
Sheller, M. forthcoming, Mobility Justice: The Ethics of Transport, Travel and Migration. (book manuscript in progress).
Sheller, M. and Urry, J. (2006) The New Mobilities Paradigm, Environment and Planning A, 38 (2): 207-226.
Sheller, M. and Urry, J. (2016) Mobilizing the New Mobilities Paradigm, Applied Mobilities 1 (1).
Urry, J. (2000a) Mobile sociology, The British Journal of Sociology, 51: 185–203.
Urry, J. (2000b) Sociology Beyond Societies. London: Routledge.
Urry, J. (2003) Global Complexity. Cambridge: Polity.
Urry, J. (2004) ‘The System of Automobility’, Theory, Culture and Society 21 (4/5): 25-39.
Urry, J. (2007) Mobilities. Cambridge: Polity.
Urry, J. (2011) Climate Change and Society. Cambridge: Polity.
Urry, J. (2013) Societies beyond Oil. London: Zed.
Urry, J. (2014) Offshoring. Cambridge: Polity.


sheller_mimiMimi Sheller is Professor of Sociology and founding Director of the Center for Mobilities Research and Policy at Drexel University. She is founding co-editor of the journal Mobilities; Associate Editor of the journal Transfers: Interdisciplinary Journal of Mobility Studies; and serves on the Scientific Board of the Mobile Lives Forum, SNCF, France. She is the author of several books and numerous articles, including Democracy After Slavery (Macmillan, 2000); Consuming the Caribbean (Routledge, 2003); and Citizenship from Below (Duke University Press, 2012); Aluminum Dreams: Lightness, Speed and Modernity (MIT Press, 2014). Among her co-edited volumes are Mobile Technologies of the City (Routledge, 2006), Tourism Mobilities (Routledge, 2004), the Environment and Planning special journal issues on ‘Materialities and Mobilities’, and the Handbook of Mobilities (Routledge, 2013).


Banner Image: Mobilities, stylized image based on traffic photo courtesy of Wiki Commons.



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