A Mobile Life: John Urry, 1946-2016 by Peter Adey

A Mobile Life: John Urry, 1946-2016logo95x95

Peter Adey



mobile lives

John Urry was an extraordinary, generous and compelling force.  As is evident in the hundreds of tributes and testimonials to his memory gathered already, his work influenced so many people through his talks at conferences, his published words in the pages of journals and his many books, and in conversations across viva examination tables, PhD juries and supervisory meetings, as well as the offices, corridors, cars, gardens and bars of in-between. These spaces and spacings (some more formal than others) are important because they mark John’s informality; he was just so approachable and always ready to subvert authority. To some extent, they also reflect the curiosity with which he understood society’s need to connect, to yearn for proximity, to desire what he called ‘meetingness’ in such a great deal of his writing.

Deleuze once described Foucault as a kind of atmosphere or a presence, how he filled a room. I don’t believe many of us thought about John quite like that as much as we respected his stature, physical (he was very tall) and intellectual. He was supportive, kindly, inclusive and yet challenging; somehow ferociously inquisitive and unassuming at the same time.

John’s work is well signalled by its incredible accessibility, rarely burdened by the weighty jargon and obfuscating sentences of others. John’s work set agendas and often mapped out the potential for complex fields through long lists of qualities, attributes and facets of a potential area of study.  His work was certainly synthetic, doing what few others do in seeing across vast terrains and fields of research, but it was highly analytical too, mapping out the internal structures, coherences and dissonances of these potential areas, whether in global complexities, post-oil futures, mobilities, tourism or the complex financial-corporate-geopolitical arrangements that undergird financial systems and commodity flows.

In this tribute I’d like to touch upon John’s importance to what he came to call, with Mimi Sheller and Kevin Hannam, the ‘new mobilities paradigm’ or ‘turn’.

John was born in Hendon, a north London suburb in 1946. Later we would reflect on Hendon as the centre for early flight spectacles in the form of air force pageants, derbys and tests for the burgeoning technologies and cultures of aviation. Certainly John would develop his interests in what, with Sven Kesselring and Saulo Cwerner, they would call Aeromobilities (2010), but there are other correlates between the mobilities of John’s life and the field of mobility studies he would go on to define.  I first met him in 2005 for my PhD examination in Aberystwyth in west Wales. I was extremely nervous but he quickly put me at ease, even if his first question demanded why I had not deployed Henri Lefebvre’s thinking in his The Production of Space as a key conceptual frame for my PhD, and as developed further by Rob Shields and the also late Ed Soja. Quite a first question to be asked, but it reflected his broad interests and expertise in social and spatial theory.

John’s book Sociology Beyond Societies: Mobilities for the 21st Century (1999) was the first book my supervisor Tim Cresswell put in my hands, and it greatly influenced my doctoral research and thinking on mobilities. It was also wildly influential in Geography. Within that context Tim would also lead the first mobility debates focusing more on culture, place and representation culminating in his book On the Move (2006). I should say that Urry’s influence on spatial as well as social theory did not begin with this contribution. My Royal Holloway colleague Felix Driver (indeed, several staff and students from my department were examined by John over the years, including Phil Crang and Andre Novoa) reminds me that Urry’s (1981) Anatomy of Capitalist Societies was reviewed in the first edition of Environment and Planning D: Society and Space in March 1983, alongside a review of Anthony Gidden’s A Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism (1981) and papers from Manuel Castells, Nigel Thrift, Linda McDowell and others. Along with the inauguration of Theory, Culture and Society, and the launch of Polity Press in the early 1980’s, John was clearly part of a wave of interdisciplinary research interests exploring social and spatial thought. With Derek Gregory they would co-edit the book Social Relations and Spatial Structures in 1985 (Derek has written a tribute to John here). Indeed John was also a key partner within the Lancaster Regionalism Group, which focused on the effects of industrial restructuring on different localities, particularly northern Britain. At the same time, and there was a strong relationship between Urry’s role in the Lancaster group and his membership of the Conference of Socialist Economists (CSE) Regional Working Group. This saw many feminist social scientists exploring the gendered divisions of labour these changes reconstituted. Of course a leading member of the CSE working group was the late Doreen Massey.

mobilitiesWith Mimi Sheller, John launched the Centre for Mobilities Research in Lancaster (CeMoRe) in 2004 at the Alternative Mobility Futures conference, which timed well with announcement of a new journal that would publish its first issue in 2006 Mobilities, which John and Mimi co-edited with Kevin Hannam. Many would acknowledge that mobilities was not a blip of interest in John’s career. There are strong signs of earlier energies and already existing lines of enquiry within John’s previous work that were brought to bear on how he approached mobilities. In the Economies and Signs and Space (1994) (with Scott Lash), and The Tourist Gaze (1990) (now in its 3rd edition with Jonas Larsen), John brought together concerns for the cultural and the economic as far more than expressions or products of economic relations, even if the patterns of mobility he explored through the Victorian leisure industry, railways and Thomas Cook, could not be relinquished from shifting industrial and social relations and the leisure time of the working classes. Rather John argued for the ever-closer examination of these topics in their own right. Indeed, while his work would make wide steps across large and diverse academic terrains, he was never afraid to put in the careful historical footwork and build theory from considered contextual research.

While John was perhaps not as cognisant of it within his own writings, the field of mobility studies he has helped auger, drew directly on important conceptual resources within feminist theory, queer theory and post-colonial thought, especially in the work of Caren Kaplan, Rosi Braidotti, Sara Ahmed and others. Caren was one of the keynote speakers at CeMoRe’s launch conference back in 2004.  Mobility has spoken clearly to the dangers of occupying fixed and colonial subject positions, but equally the romanticisation of free floating, and universal access to mobility. The relationship between the concerns of mobilities with race, the body, citizenship and rights, are probably most clear within Mimi Sheller’s work on the Caribbean in Citizenship from Below (2012), and Consuming the Caribbean (2003). And so as the field of mobility studies has grown it has looked at itself rather critically too as can be seen in recent special issues and monographs. So we see new debates on settler-colonial mobilities in Australia and the Pacific, or on mobilities and race in the journal Transfers, the exploration of indigenous mobility traditions in Zimbabwe in the writings of Clapperton Mavhunga, to tourist-militaristic mobilities and colonialism in Hawaii in V. Vernadette Gonzalez’s recent book Securing Paradise: Tourism and Militarism in Hawai’i and the Philippines (2013). In this sense the field has sought to refigure mobilities as a concept, and its particular loading within Western cultural, economic and technological values and meanings.

It is of note then that mobilities as a concept has travelled and some serious distance at that. Mobilities has become a key organising concept within fields such as Human Geography, and penetrated the keywords and abstracts of many a conference paper, but also Communication Studies; English literature, Transport History; Medieval studies; Archaeology and elsewhere in thousands of articles, books and several book series. Elsewhere John noted in an interview that David Bissell and I conducted with him in 2008 (available here) that institutionally, he had not been all that mobile, having moved from Cambridge to Lancaster in 1970, where he would remain after serving in different administrative positions, lastly serving as co-director of the new centre for Social Futures, and Distinguished Professor of Sociology. Important writers and thinkers would circulate through Lancaster at this time and its important Sociology Department, through colleagues such as Andrew Sayer, Bob Jessop, Mimi Sheller, John Law, Sara Ahmed, Monika Buscher, Bronislaw Szerszynski, as well as the Institute of Advanced Studies John helped found.

But this probably belies an awful amount of shuttling about John must have done. He was not an armchair theorist, nor unwilling to make his own moves. Testimony from established academics in Latin America, China and South Asia, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe pays tribute to the travel he would undergo to establish research networks, research projects, and examination duties. At the time of his death John was completing a several year project on Chinese energy transitions with David Tyfield and colleagues Tsinghua University, and had begun a project on mobilities, robotics and employment with David Bissell and Anthony Elliott at ANU and University of South Australia. From the simple act of taking the time to sit and chat to a PhD student at a busy conference, to the geographical and intellectual moves he would himself make, John’s own mobilities were remarkably sympathetic and accommodating.

Of course John deepened and departed his mobilities research. I remember him saying how important it was to move away from the places where one was comfortable, in some respects acknowledging the value of breaking what he called path dependencies. He saw these especially in the heavy carbon intensive forms of mobility and production that require transforming if we are to address climatic change. His work with Kingsley Dennis began a deep interest in the economic, industrial, logistical and social structures of our car and oil based mobile societies, seeing the 20th century as very much an oil or liquid century to the extent that our mobile days might be numbered in After the Car (2009). With Nigel Thrift and Mike Featherstone, John edited a special issue of Theory, Culture and Society on Automobilities in 2004. This was a landmark publication, with many articles from Sheller, Peter Merriman, Eric Laurier, Tim Dant, Tim Edensor and others heavily cited today.

More recently, John’s astonishing book Offshoring (2014) examined the complicity of states, businesses and third parties in the shady and illicit mobilities of capital, finance, excess and waste. Here we see deep continuities with John’s earlier writings on the periodization of capitalism. And in his co-edited Cargomobilities (2014), John, Satya Savitzky and Thomas Birtchnell showed just how much of our world is mediated by complex circuits of mobile cargo. To some extent these projects would emphasise what elsewhere John called ‘resource capitalism’ in Societies Beyond Oil (2013), and the heavily burdened relationship between mobilities and the oil and energy resources they consume.

In Philadelphia 2010, John was invited by Mimi Sheller to launch the Mobilities Centre for Research and Policy at Drexel University. I was there too, taking part in the opening roundtable with John, Ole Jensen, Sven Kesselring and Mimi. At that moment we were caught in the quagmire of the 2010 Icelandic volcanic ash cloud which was severely disrupting international flights across to Europe. While most of us were worrying about the implications on our travel plans back home – several of us would eventually write about it in the context of interests in mobile disruption – John appeared calm, rather enjoying the logistical turmoil we found ourselves in. Of course John too has written about the forms and systems of coordination and connection he was being asked to navigate; there was a levity to John, he seemed able to reflect calmly upon events as they were happening. Knowing that our own airline were asking us to remain in the US for further weeks, my wife asked John what his airline was doing. He gingerly mentioned that they were offering him a flight back to London within the next few days. My wife sniped, “Well I really hope they don’t!” John quipped back, “But we’ve only just met!!”

I’m really glad we got to know John for a little while in his too-short but remarkably productive and absolutely effervescent mobile life.

Peter Adey, April 2016.