Draft: Lecture 3 (spring semester). Trans/national im/mobilities



“New Mobilities”?

According to some globalization theorists: we are living in an age of increasing mobilities, and increasing connectedness and complexity

  • conveying material goods by sea, rail and air
  • individuals crossing borders as tourists, businesspeople, students or migrants
  • various political, business or scholarly elites between global cities

We might add Social mobilities; movements or stasis within the social hierarchy

New Mobility Vs. Structure

  • The new mobilities paradigm privileges systems of human transportation, migration and boundary transcendence as the defining feature of late modernity (Cresswell, 2006; Cresswell and Merriman, 2011; Hannam et al. 2006; Urry, 2004).
  • The flow of people across time and space; the identities, cultures and politics of migration; Diaspora; and transnationalism have become core concerns for sociologists working in this space (Blagg, 2016).
  • John Urry (2000) proposed ‘new rules of sociological method’ based on mobility. Urry (2007) argues that the twenty-first century be regarded as an era of
    fluidity and openness, in which changes in transportation, technology and culture are normalising people’s experience of thinking beyond borders along with crossing them frequently. Diverse forms of people mobility  including movements for purposes of study, professional advancement, marriage,
    retirement or lifestyle were assuming greater significance; correspondingly, older ideas migration were becoming less relevant.
  • Urry (2000:18) argued that Sociology needed to ‘develop through appropriate metaphors a sociology which focuses upon movement, mobility and contingent ordering, rather than upon stasis, structure and social order’ .
  •  Urry’s new mobility paradigm is deterritorial, based on the idea that we now live in a “post-societal” culture in which mobility is the determining feature that frames social relations, not structures or positions.He  suggested that ‘networks’, ‘fluids’, ‘flows’ and ‘mobilities’ were more useful than “‘society’, ‘structures’ and ‘institutions’, which conjure up images of territorial fixity…” (Urry; 2000, 2003; Cohen and Kennedy: 41).
  • It is also (relatively) free of stratification. Urry argued that mobility can be understood best in a horizontal rather than a vertical sense, thereby flattening out the differences (Skeggs,. 48).

Social Transformationalists

Stephen Castles critiques the idea of a shift from structures to flows, and correspondingly, from academic discourse centre on migration to the new discourse of mobilities. He argued that

The postmodern utopia of a borderless world of mobility has not yet dawned, so that it still seems appropriate to focus on migration as a process based on inequality and discrimination, and controlled and limited by states (2011:1567).

Mobility, Castles (2011: 1567) suggested, invoked movements of the highly
skilled professional mobility, celebrated because they represented the badge of a modern open society, whilewhile those of the lower-skilled were condemned as unwanted migration that ‘re-awakened archaic memories of invasion and displacement’. Castles followed Bauman (1998) in arguing that “the right to be mobile is more class-specific and selective than ever”. Rather than a world of unhindered flows, structure and agency remained crucially important, partially determining the contemporary stratifications enabled free mobility amongst elite groups while restricting the mobility of the poor.

 Im/mobility, agency, stratification

The ultimate issue is not who moves or is fixed, but who has control – not only over their mobility and connectivity, but also over their capacity to withdraw and disconnect. The point is that the poor have to put up with that from which others can move. (Skeggs,  50; Graham and Morley, 1998)

Bauman (1998:86) described the stratifications of postmodern consumer society in terms of freedom, or lack of freedom of mobility. The de-bordered (de-territorialised) freedom of mobility belongs to the realms of the world’s ‘tourists’, while the world’s vagabonds suffer stasis and forced or ‘unfree’ mobilities. He later differentiated between individualized and deracinated Western consumers and the ‘wasted lives’ of the rest who suffer forms of stasis (Bauman, 2004). Agency over mobility is dichotomised betweenthose who ‘cannot at will leave their place’ are the ‘ruled’, and those ‘rulers’ able to ‘be elsewhere’ (Bauman 2001: 120).

Aihwa Ong (1999) and Leslie Sklair (2001) examined the practices of elite business people controlling capital across national boundaries. Ong’s (1999) ‘flexible citizenship’ describes a resourcing process in which travelling or displaced subjects to respond fluidly and opportunistically to changing political-economic conditions within the  cultural logic of capitalist accumulation. For Ong, it is access to resources and resourcefulness rather than mobility that is the issue (Skeggs, 51).

Duval and Jordan similar describe a class of elite migrant able to transgress national boundaries. Such actors are grounded in national ties and state practices, yet able to mobilize (capital, labour, selves) across national boundaries. Within the neo-liberal paradigm the right to free movement and the punishment of stasis depends upon the individual’s ability to ‘make the required contribution’, and those migrants that represent a cost to the members of the (Northern) political communities ‘surrender their moral autonomy as well as their democratic sovereignty’ (Duvell and Jordan, 2005:97).Duvell and Jordan, similarly, write of the new channels of mobility that globalization demands for the ‘global nomads’ consisting of ‘financial, managerial and technical elites, and a range of highly skilled workers’ (Duvell and Jordan, 2005:60).

Morley (2000) argues immobility increasingly acquires the connotation of defeat, of failure and of being left behind, of being fixed in place. Yet for some people, fixed places may also be symbolic habitats, a performative way of life and of doing things, in which one makes the most of the cultural resources to hand.

Precarity and the loss of positive stasis  (immobility)



Indigeneity and the loss of positive stasis (immobility)








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Urry, J. (2000) Sociology Beyond Societies: Mobilities for the Twenty-first Century, London: Routledge.

Urry, J. (2003) Global Complexity, Cambridge: Polity.

Urry, J. (2007) Mobilities. Cambridge: Polity

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Author: shabbycheek

Lecturer and researcher in intersectional cultural studies, historical sociology, American and migration studies. Working in China on America, British, Australian and Chinese social justice issues using Feminist materialist, post-Marxist (Gramscian), Critical Race Studies and post-colonial perspectives.

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