12/09/13 by Javier Caletrio
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.
Urry’s approach to mobility has stemmed from a lifelong concern with the relationship between space and society. ‘Social practices’, Urry has consistently argued, ‘are spatially patterned, and these patterns substantially affect these very social practices’ (1995, p. 64). This spatial sensitivity can be traced from his early work in the 1970s where he examines how variations in space engender dissent and revolution, through to his interest on the movement of capital and employment in the 1980s, and the mobility of people in the early 1990s. Since the mid 1990s, his work on the mobility of people, objects, images, information and money has been directly related to debates around the positioning of sociology in relation to epochal transformations in the evolution of human societies. In Economies of Signs and Space, co-authored with Scott Lash, he argues that globalization processes have undermined the analytical power of sociology as a discipline and that it needs to shift its unit of analysis from ‘society’ as a container of social institutions to global flows and networks. This argument was further developed and systematically presented throughout the 2000s. His books Sociology Beyond Societies (2000) and Mobilities (2007) constitute milestones in the development of the ‘mobilties turn’. Both are major works of synthesis that lay out an analytical framework for studying social relations as constituted by what Urry calls physical, virtual and imaginative mobilities. This approach, termed the ‘new mobilities paradigm’, places a special emphasis on socio-material worlds. In contemporary societies, Urry argues, causality and efficacy in social relations are increasingly decoupled from nearness due to new ways of inhabiting and interacting with technological worlds that stretch human reach. These assemblages or hybrids of people and machines are interconnected through time and space in myriad complex ways and evolve in a non-linear manner. In his latest work Urry examines the implications of climate change and energy scarcity on the evolution of such mobile hybrids and future forms of social life.
Throughout his prolific career a major intellectual influence has been The Communist Manifesto written when Marx was, as Urry has put it himself, ‘at the stunning age of 30’. Two other important influences are Liquid Modernity by Zygmunt Bauman and The Information Age by Manuel Castells. It is interesting to note that a sociologist who has devoted so much attention to the social significance of mobility has spent his working life in a single place, while other academics who are critical of the mobilities turn, such as Bryan Turner, have developed highly mobile careers.
Urry, J. (1990) The Tourist Gaze. Sage, London (now in its third edition, co-authored with Jonas Larsen).
Lash, S. and Urry, J. (1994) Economies of Signs and Space. Sage, London.
Urry, J. (2000) Sociology Beyond Societies. Routledge, London.
Sheller, M. and Urry, J. (2006) The new mobilities paradigm. Environment and Planning A, volume 38, pages 207 – 226
Urry, J. (2007) Mobilities. Polity, London.
Elliott, A. and Urry, J. (2010) Mobile Lives. Routledge, London.
Urry, J. (2011) Society and Climate Change. Routledge, London.
Urry, J. (2013) Societies Beyond Oil. Zed, London.
Broadly, the word mobility can be defined as the intention, then the realization, of moving through a geographical space, implying a social change.
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.