Friday, July 1, 2005

Mobilities

Choice and mobility: decision making on the move (pdf) by Barry Brown

"[I]n this paper I argue that one clear confusion in the decision making literature has been over what a decision is, with decisions treated as cognitive, rather than social, objects. I argue that decisions are not made in the head, but are instead social objects which are used in relationships with others. One important use of decisions is as a device for accountability. Decisions allow us to appropriate blame or credit or, more broadly, to chain together a stream of future events with an individual or group. Decisions are an architecture for collaboration...Decisions are a key yet neglected part of mobility. Examining these movements gives us some view on how a how people make decisions about where they go. In these examples even a relatively simple decision making event is a complex negotiation and ‘working out’, where people use making a ‘decision’ as a device to share and organise the social interaction around movement...[I]n understanding mobility a valuable place to start is the interaction between choice and constraint. That is to say, how decisions are made with the constraints imposed by others, as well as the actions enabled through collaboration...Where we go is one of the most fundamental choices that we make, a decision which is frequently made with others. Uncovering how decisions are made about where we go is something that should be at the heart of research into mobility."

Interesting approach. I think it's a bit off to suggest that sociologists aren't overly concerned with individual agency - the structure/agency debate has been ongoing for decades now. Anthropologists have also suggested that a focus on individual agency is very much rooted in particular cultures and histories, and should not be applied as a universal. Furthermore, in claiming that Castells' space of flows leaves "not much room for agency", Brown is able to side-step the critique of discrete subjects and objects and return to an ethnomethodological focus on discrete actions. Although ANT's notions of interessement, translation and enrolment have their own share of problems, they can also provide a productive starting-point for understanding how we negotiate (non-discrete) relations between people, objects, ideas, actions, locations and events - including how and why we move.

The question of mobilities has perhaps been most extensively investigated by Lancaster University's Centre for Mobilities Research (see also a brief profile in TheFeature). For example, their 2004 Alternative Mobility Futures Conference brought out some really interesting work and they recently set up the Cosmobilities Network to "address social scientists, planners, engineers, and researchers interested in questions of technology, knowledge and the philosophy of science (STS)."

Laura Watts, a PhD student at Lancaster's Centre for Science Studies is also asking really interesting questions about mobile futures from an archaeological and ethnographic point-of-view: "From a record of its places, materialities and practices, what futures does a mobile telecoms industry foretell? What futures does it construct for itself? And, what other futures may be constructed from those fragments of evidence?". Her online papers on fables and myths of the mobile telecom industry are fascinating, and not least because of her creative approach to ethnographic writing. Worth a read. She also works on the CeMoRe Travel Time Use in the Information Age research project, where she investigates journeys as "translation and transition".

(Thanks to Thomas for pointing out Brown's paper and to Jorge for the Cosmobilities Network link.)

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