Moving with John Urry, by Mimi Sheller



Moving with John Urry

by Mimi Sheller, Drexel University

I write these reflections to mark our loss of the great sociologist John Urry (1946-2016), who was a teacher, colleague, mentor, and role model to so many of us. On the very week in March that John sadly and suddenly passed away we 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’, which gave me the chance to talk with John about the origins of his thinking on space and movement. It is in that context of reflecting on our work together, and taking stock of its impact across various fields, that I want to commemorate some of John’s profound contributions as a social theorist, as a network builder, as a public intellectual, and also as a colleague and friend.

Along with hundreds of other personal memorials, Peter Adey has already written for TCS a moving and comprehensive tribute to John’s work and his influence on so many minds and fields, even while noting that he remained throughout his professional life rooted in one place, Lancaster University. Indeed, it is remarkable how John maintained all of these connections with literally hundreds of people across vast distances, bridged by occasional face-to-face meetings and the exchange of writing as he was fond of pointing out while always being sure to cite his late colleague Deirdre Boden on “the compulsion to proximity.” (Strangely enough, before I even met John or went to Lancaster I had ridden in the American car that Deirdre had shipped to Lancashire, which had come into the possession of a mutual American friend in London… a strange career of an object that traced and foreshadowed an ongoing transatlantic network of connections!).

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 (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). (For an insightful deep reading of the latter text, readers should refer to a recent blog post by Rodanthi Tzanelli).

Interestingly, these developments 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) – the interview is available here. 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 mid-1990s theorizations of the spaces of ‘flow’ and ‘network’ became especially significant with Castells’ The Power of the Network Society (1996). At the same time feminist critiques developed of postmodern theories of ‘nomadism’ (Braidotti 1994, Kaplan 1996), as well as Benko and Strohmayer’s Space and Social Theory which included Cresswell’s early mobilities writing (1997; and see Cresswell 2006). Yet John’s approach had its own particular qualities of broad theoretical synthesis, omnivorous curiosity about social phenomena, and culturally fluent accessibility. Although John was a great contributor to social theory, he was also never dogmatic about his allegiances (e.g., on his self-distancing from the field of tourism studies despite his great contributions, see Keith Hollinshead’s amusing essay for Anatolia). That openness is part of why it appealed to so many readers. By the turn of the millennium the concept of ‘mobility’ emerged as a key term within various analyses of changing economies, cultures and globalization. John always held that a major contributor was Bauman who 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.

This work was not simply about describing or explaining a more mobile world (as some misinterpreted it), but also about the ways in which immobilities and infrastructural moorings deeply shaped uneven terrains, as described in Global Complexity (Urry 2003), and the implications of this for the social sciences. This critical approach to the relationality of im/mobilities generated rich debates not only within British sociology and cultural geography, but also within European social theory concerned with reflexive modernization, cosmopolitanism, and their relation to mobility regimes and ‘motility’ as a potential (e.g., Canzler et al. 2008). It was sometimes less warmly embraced in feminist and postcolonial circles, where the politics of mobility was freighted with histories of patriarchy, colonialism, and racial domination. Yet John was always open to these interpretations and the kinds of questions about power that they generated. As he put it, sometimes it is the mobile elite who move the most, yet “it’s sometimes those with more network capital who are the immobile, who can summon the mobile to wherever they are… Who is moving? Who is moving whom? Who has to move? Who can stay put?” (quoted in Adey, Bissell, 2010: 7).

John further developed the concept of mobilities through multiple collaborations, including work on automobility (see Sheller, Urry 2000; Urry 2004; Featherstone et al 2004), aeromobilities (Cwerner et al. 2009; Urry et al. 2016), mobile lives and network capital (Elliott, Urry 2010), and mobile methodologies (Büscher, Urry 2009; Büscher et al. 2011), amongst others. And his work also linked up with lines of work on affect, affordances and atmospheres, exploring the distribution of agency between people, places, and material assemblages of connectivity, especially in tourism studies (Edensor 1998), cultural geography (e.g., Adey 2010), and in design thinking (e.g., Jensen 2013, 2014). The new mobilities paradigm challenged the idea of space as a container for social processes, and thus brought the dynamic, ongoing production of space into social theory across many different domains of research. But it also challenged disciplinary containers and allowed us as social theorists to move with each other in new assemblages and assemblies.

Ultimately John’s work on mobilities led to what I might imagine as a geo-ecological turn in his thinking. John himself pointed out that in his later 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 suggested that “there will develop a ‘post-mobilities’ mobilities paradigm that will be much more resource based” (Adey & Bissell, 2010: 3). 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. Mobility struggles and contested notions of mobility justice are key concerns for the future (Sheller, forthcoming).

These are the new sociological questions that John Urry and his many interlocutors asked, and that generatively continue to move social theory into new public realms. His work enabled myriad interdisciplinary crossings at the creative margins that he so valued (e.g., Adey et al. 2014 ; Sheller 2014). The new mobilities paradigm continues to stand in contrast to the quantified empiricist traditions in American and British social sciences, the hierarchies of academic departments, and their disciplinary closure. It also stands against the market-driven discipline of the neoliberal university. Having built a vibrant international network of mobility scholars spanning dozens of universities and many countries, having created new journals and new book series, having inspired new research centres and career trajectories, we can say that John Urry created a new kind of mobile scholarship: one that reaches beyond disciplines, enables new kinds of intellectual formations, and allows for sociology to renew its relevance in the world at large as it addresses crucial public issues including dark economies, resource extraction, climate disasters, sustainable urbanism, migration conflicts and mobility justice. Moving with each other we are moving on with John Urry’s moves.

Mimi Sheller, Ph.D., is Professor of Sociology and founding Director of the Center for Mobilities Research and Policy at Drexel University in Philadelphia. She serves on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Mobile Lives Forum and is President of the International Association for the History of Transport, Traffic and Mobility. Her recent books include Citizenship from Below (Duke University Press, 2012); The Routledge Handbook of Mobilities (2013); Aluminum Dreams: The Making of Light Modernity (MIT Press, 2014); Mobility and Locative Media (2015); and L.A. Re.Play: Mobile Network Culture in Place-making (2016). As founding co-editor of the journal Mobilities, Associate Editor of Transfers: Interdisciplinary Journal of Mobility Studies, and co-author with John Urry of several influential articles, she helped to establish the new interdisciplinary field of mobilities research.


Adey, P. (2010b) Aerial Life: Spaces, Mobilities, Affects. London: Wiley.

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.

Benko, G. and Strohmayer, U. (eds) 1997. Space and Social Theory: Interpreting Modernity and Postmodernity. Oxford: Blackwell

Braidotti, R. (1994) Nomadic Subjects; Embodied and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory. New York: Columbia University Press.

Büscher, M. and Urry, J. (2009) ‘Mobile Methods and the Empirical’, European Journal of Social Theory 12(1): 99–116.

Büscher, M., Urry, J., Witchger, K. (Eds.) (2011) Mobile Methods. London: Routledge.

Castells, M. (1996) The Power of the Network Society. Oxford Blackwell.

Canzler W, Kaufmann V. and Kesselring S  (eds)  (2008) Tracing Mobilities: Towards a Cosmopolitan Perspective. Farnham and Burlington: Ashgate.

Cresswell, T. (1997) ‘Imagining the nomad: Mobility and the postmodern primitive.’ In: Benko, G. and Strohmayer, U. (Eds.) (1997) Space and Social Theory: Interpreting Modernity. Oxford: Blackwell.

Cresswell, T. (2006) On the Move. London: Routledge.

Cwerner, S. Kesselring, S. and Urry, J. (eds) (2009). Aeromobilities: Theory and Methods. London and New York: Routledge.

Edensor T (1998) Tourists at the Taj: Performance and Meaning at a Symbolic Site. Routledge, London.

Elliott, A. and Urry, J. (2010) Mobile Lives. London: Routledge.

Featherstone, M., Thrift, N. and Urry, J. (eds) (2004) Automobilities, London: Sage.

Gregory, D., Urry, J. (Eds.) (1985) Social Relations and Spatial Structures. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Hollinshead, K. (2016) ‘A portrait of John Urry – harbinger of the death of distance’, Anatolia, 27 (2): 309-316

Jensen, O.B. (2013) Staging Mobilities, London: Routledge.

Jensen. O. B. (2014) Designing Mobilities. Aalborg: Aalborg University Press.

Kaplan, C. (1996) Questions of Travel. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Lash, S. and Urry, J. (1987) The End of Organized Capitalism. Cambridge: Polity.

Lash, S. and Urry, J. (1994) Economies of Signs and Space. London: Sage.

Lefebvre, H (1991 [1974]) The Production of Space [Le production de l’espace]. Oxford and Cambridge: Blackwell.

Massey, D. (1984) Spatial Divisions of Labour. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Massey, D. (1991) A Global Sense of Place, Marxism Today, 35 (6): 24–29.

Massey, D. (1994) Space, Place and Gender. Cambridge: Polity.

Sheller, M. (2014) The new mobilities paradigm for a live sociology. Current Sociology Review 62 (6): 789-811.

Sheller, M. (forthcoming) Mobility Justice: The Ethics of Transport, Travel and Migration (unpublished book manuscript).

Sheller, M. and Urry, J. (2000) The city and the car, The International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 24: 737-57.

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).

Tzanelli, R. (2016) ‘Reading from Leeds 2016 of Lash and Urry (1994) Economies of Signs and Space’. Accessed at

Urry, J. (1990) The Tourist Gaze. London: Sage.

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.

Urry, J., Elliott, A., Radford, D., Pitt, N. 2016 ‘Globalisation’s Utopia? On airport atmospherics,’ Emotion, Space and Society 19 (May 2016): 13–20.


Among his many publications with TCS, John Urry also co-wrote or co-edited the following TCS books and special issues:

Urry, J. (1990) The Tourist Gaze. London: Sage


Urry, J. (2005) TCS Special Issue on Complexty (22.5)


Szerszynski, B. and John Urry (2010) TCS Special Issue on Changing Climates (27.2-3)


Tyfield, D. and John Urry (2014) TCS Special Issue on Energy & Society (31.5)