04/16/13 by Monika Büscher
Mobile methods produce insight by moving physically, virtually, or analytically with research subjects. They involve qualitative, quantitative, visual and experimental forms of inquiry, and follow material and social phenomena.
How people, capital, objects, images and information move, are blocked from movement or become immobile is highly consequential. Multi-modal and intersecting (im)mobilities configure social and material realities. It is critical for societies to understand the everyday practices involved as well as their cumulative systemic effects. To this end, a core commitment of mobile methods is to move with subjects of inquiry, often as participant observers. Thus, mobile methods allow researchers to establish ‘some form of literal, physical presence with an explicit logic of association or connection’ (Marcus, 1998).
Different qualitative, quantitative, visual and experimental techniques are used to study mobilities (Büscher, Urry & Witchger, 2011; Fincham, McGuinness, & Murray, 2009), including arrested, blocked, or disrupted movements (Adey & Anderson, 2011; Sheller, 2012), and stillness (Bissell, 2007, Lan et al 2013). Examples of mobile methods include:
- walk alongs (Kusenbach, 2003; Pink, 2007; Ingold & Vergunst, 2008),
- ride alongs (Laurier, 2004, Ferguson 2011, Aldred & Jungnickel 2012),
- shadowing (Czarniawska, 2007; Jiron, 2011),
- tours (Kusenbach, 2012),
- travel, transport or technology diaries (Palen & Salzman, 2002; Axhausen, Zimmermann, Schönfelder, Rindsfüser, & Haupt, 2002),
- longitudinal studies with migrants (Kalir, 2012),
- home and away studies with tourists (Larsen, 2008),
- virtual ethnography (Molz, 2006),
- multi-sited and global ethnography (Marcus, 1995; Burawoy, 2000; Tsing, 2005, Kien 2009),
- Geographical Positioning Systems (GPS) or mobile positioning studies (Hein, Evans, & Jones, 2008; Ahas, 2011),
- biomapping, comobility, audiowalks (Nold, 2009, Southern, 2012; Chapman 2012)
- interventions, collaborative design, collaborative creation (Watts & Lyons 2011, Büscher 2006, Southern 2012)
Researchers may follow people, but also objects, images, ideas, information, connections. Through fostering engagement with multiple perspectives, practices and experiences, mobile methods provide novel analytical purchase on distributed, connected, fleeting phenomena; complex lived practices of mobility and (im)mobilisation at different scales and their sensory or affective dimensions.
Mobile methods are not new – insistence on studying social and material orders through movement has been part of scholarly enquiry in different disciplines, ranging from Georg Simmel’s and Walter Benjamin’s cultural phenomenology, through the dérive in art (Debord, 1959), mobile video in anthropology (Mead & Bateson, 1977), the discovery of social order from within in ethnomethodology (Macbeth 1999), to time-geography (Hägerstrand, 1985). The mobilities turn has promoted mobile analytical sensitivities and methodologies in sociology (Urry 2000, Sheller & Urry 2006), geography (Thrift 2004, Cresswell 2006, Adey 2009), transport studies (Axhausen, Zimmermann, Schönfelder, Rindsfüser, & Haupt, 2002) and other engineering disciplines, such as mobile computing (Weilenmann 2001), as well as commercial marketing research (Robbins 2011).
Mobile methods and Method Assemblage
The focus of innovation in mobile methods is often on generating qualitative insight into the fleeting, distributed, multiple, embodied and affective practices of mobile living as well as processes of immobilization and exclusion. However, mixed mobile methods that integrate quantitative and visual/experimental methods are emerging, especially around the use of databases, open data, big data, life history and longitudinal data, Geographical Information Systems, GPS, sensors, and mobile personal technologies. Actuarial datamining and ‘qualculation’ of transport, financial, marketing and security data (Thrift 2004) enable unprecedented dynamic qualitative judgments about futures. Pervasive calculation of consumer choices based on loyalty card use, for example, enables producers, logistics companies, warehouse operators and supermarkets to become ‘dynamic to sale’ (Harvey et al. 2002), that is, able to watch demand, predict trends and gear responses swiftly to change. Mixed mobile methods are needed to enable more critical understanding of the hypermobile, connected, micro-coordinated ‘just-in-time living’ that such qualculation enables. Mixing may integrate qualitative and quantitative methods, for example, in mobile positioning studies (Ahas 2011) or it may come together as method assemblage (Law 2004).
Politics of method: Ethics and Inventiveness
Finally, mobile methods reflect an ontological and epistemological, but also ethical and practical shift in research methodology. They raise new ethical challenges for researchers, research participants and research users, particularly around informed consent, privacy and personal data security, and researcher-researchee-user relationships. But at the same time, recognition of the constitutive nature of (im)mobilities for material and social realities fosters integration between mobilities research, social innovation, design, management and policy and can enable ‘carefully radical’ and ‘radically careful’ innovation (Latour 2008); a new politics of method. This centres on mobile methodologies’ tendency to foster nuanced understanding of complex socially organised phenomena and the rise of ‘mode2’, participatory forms of knowledge production and utilization, such as living laboratories and collective experimentation (Wynne and Felt 2007, Nowotny et al 2001, Bærenholdt et al 2010). Mobile methods often move research teams to act on new understanding, and in that sense they are inventive methods (Lury & Wakeford 2012) that can play an important part in the configuration of futures.
Mobilities research is a fast growing field. A brief review of a selection of examples can provide a glimpse into the diversity of insights and inventive momentum produced. From a physical ride along with a sales representative on the motorway, Eric Laurier (2004) shows how mobile office work is part of emergent social and moral orders that produce careers in slow and fast lanes. As he observes ‘Ally’ respond to emails (sometime literally reading them on the steering wheel while moving at speed), the artfulness of fitting into the embodied, augmented sociality of motorway traffic becomes available for analysis. Building on this work, Harry Ferguson (2011) follows social work as it is done in the office, on the move, in parked cars as well as inside the homes of service users. Ferguson is able to illuminate the affective dimension of social work, as he enters with his research subjects into diverse, sometimes fearful atmospheres of service-users’ homes, documenting power struggles over how much access is demanded, granted, and resisted. Following other, more multiple, distributed and fleeting phenomena requires more vicarious methods. By equipping research subjects with diaries, sensors, or GPS trackers, researchers are able to reveal situated experience and negotiation of intersecting mobilities. Artist Christian Nold, for example, asks people to carry galvanic skin sensors as they move through their cities. Experiences of low and high arousal are monitored, mapped, annotated and visualized as a form of ‘emotional cartography’ (Nold, 2009). In a more experimental approach, artist-sociologist Jen Southern picks up on emergent new practices of ‘comobility’ – a form of connection with distant others experienced in motion through locative media. By building speculative ‘apps’ that visualize networks of people (and animals) on the move simultaneously, downloaded onto personal iphones, she and her colleagues allow people to experiment with surveillance as well as connected sociality (Southern, 2012). Such engagement with research subjects reflects how an analytical orientation towards (im)mobilities shifts research from being focused ‘merely’ on investigation towards engaging with, and accompanying socio-technical change with research. Mobile methods as ‘inventive methods’ seek to grapple with, shape and inform socio-technical change concretely. Examples include the ‘travel remedy kit’ devised by Watts and Lyons to create railway journeys that are more beneficial to passengers (Watts and Lyons, 2011) and method assemblages designed to ‘follow the information’ across interoperable databases in disaster response (Büscher et al. 2013).
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Movement is the crossing of space by people, objects, capital, ideas and other information. It is either oriented, and therefore occurs between a place of origin and one or more destinations, or it is closer to the idea of simply wandering, where there is no real origin or destination.
John Urry is Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Director of the Centre for Mobilities Research at Lancaster University. Since the mid 1990s he has advocated a shift in the focus of sociology from the study of a-spatial social structures to the study of mobilities.
Broadly, the word mobility can be defined as the intention, then the realization, of moving through a geographical space, implying a social change.