Mimi Sheller, April 29, 2021

In our 10th and final talk of the series, REBALANCE spoke with Mimi Sheller, Professor of Sociology, and founding Director of the Center for Mobilities Research and Policy at Drexel University in Philadelphia. She is founding co-editor of the journal Mobilities and past President of the International Association for the History of Transport, Traffic and Mobility. She is considered to be a key theorist in critical mobilities research. Clearly a perfect candidate as our final speaker, Sheller spoke about the new mobilities paradigm, justice and specifically mobility justice, expanded upon her ideas of the mobility manifesto and shared ideas for the future.

In 2006 Mimi Sheller and John Urry published a paper entitled, The new mobilities paradigm. The paper sought to unify a discourse on mobility which the authors noticed across a wide range of social science disciplines including; geography, transport studies, anthropology, sociology, tourism and cultural studies. They write:

Issues of movement, of too little movement or too much, or of the wrong sort or at the wrong time, are central to many lives and many organizations. From SARS to train crashed, from airport expansion controversies to SMS (short message service) texting on the move, from congestion charging to global terrorism, from obesity cause by ‘fast food’ to oil wars in the Middle East, issues of ‘mobility’ are center stage. And partly as an effect a ‘mobility turn’ is spreading into and transforming the social sciences, transcending the dichotomy between transport research and social research, putting social relations into travel and connecting different forms of transport with complex patterns of social experience…it seems that a new paradigm is being formed with the social sciences, the ‘new mobilities’ paradigm.

Therefore, for Sheller and Urry, the new mobilities paradigm is not stating that mobility is necessarily new, but rather that across a vast number of disciplines within the social sciences, there is an awareness of a turn or shift in recent years. Sheller explained that around the same time of their publishing of the paper the business world was also reclaiming or asserting a shift in the way in which we understand the interconnection between transportation and mobility. She explained that, for example, automobile companies such as Renault and Ford started claiming that they were a mobility company: mobility as a service, mobility as more than the automobile, mobility as more than transportation. Sheller explained that one of the main drivers of this shift was due to the mobile phone, the mobile internet.

She went on to criticize the transportation planning method of “predict and provide” by explaining that this often causes us to widen highways and add more lanes which in turn causes more traffic. For Sheller, a multi-level understanding of mobilities would provide for more sustainable policy decisions. For example, Sheller cites Tim Creswell’s concept of constellations of mobility which includes historical contexts of mobility and acknowledges that mobility includes movement, meaning and embodied practice. She reiterates a common thread in our research: mobility is not just about transportation.

She went on to explain that mobilities are, and have always been, uneven and differentiated. She explained that, “…the other problem in a lot of planning discourses is they take an unmarked, neutral, individual actor. People don’t actually work like that, we are actually embedded in social relations and different kinds of embodied relations with space marked by gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, age, disabilities…and so we all move within that kind of embodied constellation.” She refers to these embodied constellations as kinoplotical relations and believe it is impossible a) to separate the individual from their distinct embodied markers /identities/identity politics and b) these relationships create inequality. For example, how can we rightly talk about mobility if we don’t speak about the arrested mobility of black and brown people. Mobility is clearly a central theme of Black Lives Matters, as it fights for the safety and fights against discrimination of black and brown people on the move. The movement seeks to protect people’s right to move freely through space without fearing their life. This is also related to her work on the importance of recognizing the historical factors that fed into our current society. She explained, “deep historical structures that were colonial structures, imperial racial capitalism that had built the world that it is now…when you talk about the history of modern european society you can’t disconnect it from the slave societies.”

She also criticizes the idea that “we are now more mobile than ever.” First, she asked, who is the “we.” This point reminded me of Judy Wajcman’s assertion that theorists make sweeping claims about society without perhaps doing the empirical work to understand all the various sectors of society. For example, Sheller says, in the United States, for example, millions of people are unemployed, prison or on parole, thousands homeless, etc. Therefore, who are we talking about when we claim that “we” are more mobile.

Sheller went on to speak about justice – contrasting traditional views with a more inclusive understanding  – and how it feeds into what her term, mobility justice. Sheller explained that justice was traditionally assumed to be an, “Imagined ideal situation of deliberation where we will put aside our embodied differences…put aside gender and race and class and we will have this moment of ideal communication.” She said this way of viewing justice has been called the veil of ignorance, as it is impossible to do just that. She paraphrases Nancy Fraser stating that, “we are embodied, we cannot just put aside our bodies and the whole theory of justice is blind is based on the assumption of a masculine, individual, rational, white, citizen actor. The world is more complex than that.” Therefore, for Sheller, the idea of justice and specifically transportation justice needs to revise its understanding.

She explained that transportation justice tends to relate strictly to more equitable justice, which advocates that everybody should have fair access and distribution to transit. While this is obviously an important part of the equation, for Sheller, mobility justice must encompass procedural and deliberative justice as well. Procedural and deliberative justice focus on: “whose included in the decision making about transportation, who’s at the table, who are the deciders?” Sheller explains that to have true deliberative justice, we need, “an opening of decision making to more people, black, indigenous, people of color, women, people with disabilities, whose views they felt were not represented in the transportation planning circles.” This is a similar point Judy Wajcman made about technology when she argued that technological innovations should be created and assessed by groups of people that are more representative of the population at large. In California, a non-profit, People for Mobility Justice, seeks to do just that. On their website they write, “PMJ acknowledges the intersections between transportation and the other parts of people’s lives and we strive toward radical safety for all through multiracial organizing, self-determination, and economic empowerment.” [1][1]

The third component of justice is called epistemological justice. For Sheller, we must consider and respect different epistemological frameworks if we are to achieve true justice. This includes visions of the world from indigenous people, women, and anyone who may operate from a different epistemological lens. For Sheller, justice must be embodied, embedded in the space, time and history, and understood as a “mobile institutional practice” and one that requires “various kinds of assembly…the right to assemble.”

Sheller was then asked to speak about what she calls the triple mobility crises. Seen through the street, country and planetary level. She demonstrated that the activity that happens at each one of these levels is interconnected and affects the other and the whole. “The way we use too much energy and use too much fossil fuel, is causing a de-stabilization of the climate. The destabilization of the climate is driving refugees and migration processes in many parts of the world. There is a loop of connection between all of these mobility crises.” This crisis, therefore, cannot only be tackled by focusing on different points along the chain, the system as a whole needs to be considered.

Sheller went on to dispute the economic theory, the tragedy of the commons, and introduced her concept of the commoning of mobility. The tragedy of the commons states that individuals will drain or excessively consume shared or common resources, such as parks, forests and oceans, in a way that ends up only benefitting the individual. Based on the economic belief of rational actors, that everybody will behave in a way that reflects their best interest, (behave selfishly), the tragedy of the commons states that due to this selfishness, individuals gobble up common resources when they are free and open to the public. In contrast to the economic assertion of the tragedy of the commons, Sheller explained that scholars have rejected this assertion arguing that we actually come up with a way of sharing. This alternative view of the commons is called common pool resources. Mobile commoning, for Sheller, takes the perspective that we can “move through the world and do it in a way that is not just as mobility as a service business, as not public transport, and as not private automobiles, but we think of these shared spaces of movement and how we can preserve them for others and share them, to be more careful, to move more carefully…make room not just for other human beings to move but non-human beings, animals, natural entities, natural places themselves, resources, to be more careful with all of those things through mobile commoning would be this kind of limitation on ourselves…frames it differently than current debates.” While the green new deal may seem like a step in the right direction, Sheller believes that it is often posed within an economic framework whereby we will build all this new infrastructure and create jobs, etc. however, she noted that often the mining of lithium and building batteries overlooks and ignores important aspects of details like, how will we preserve the earth and share space?

As one of the leaders and experts in mobility, Sheller wrote a Mobilities Manifesto. Within the manifesto she outlined important concepts that should be included in when considering mobility. First she spoke about the scale of the body whereby, kino political struggles are embedded within the bodies we inhabit and cannot be ignored as we move forwards with mobility policy. She said, the first aspect of mobility justice asks us to work towards a less racist, sexist, world of being able to move. It also asks us to reflect on “who has the right to pause, rest, put up a tent, be a vendor in a market stall.” She went on to speak about the struggles for the right to the city and movements that disrupt the flow of traffic. She spoke about Occupy Wall Street, Reclaim the Streets and Black Lives Matter as political interventions in line with mobility justice. She stated, “mobility is part of social movements that we must protect.” She went on to speak about global mobilities and criticized the modern day militarization of borders and the idea of a nation state as a fortress. Europe has also been criticized for the “creation of Shengen space which united Europe but built a wall around Europe.” So exclusionary and leave others to die. Lastly, she spoke about the planet and what she called anthropocene mobility. She said, “We need to better understand: where things come from, how are they moved, what are the labor forces, human rights violations and nature; how are mountains and earth and oceans being exploited through the current extractive economies even in some of the green economy scenarios.”

To finish the talk Sheller was asked to reflect on her visions of the future and what she has gleaned from the pandemic. She explained that looking at protest movements overtime show that “people overcame slavery and changed entire world economy of forced labor, new forms of coerced labor.” She went on to that that women too fought against systemic and cultural oppression. She ended by saying “It’s a constant struggle…We need to keep fighting the good fight, and keep supporting the causes that are more just and ethical.”In terms of her feelings about the pandemic, Sheller quoted the Indian writer, Arundhati Roy, saying that, “the pandemic is a portal that we are moving through, do we want to bring with us the baggage of the past and all the problems of the past or do we want to try to let go of some things and try to build a new world and leave behind some of the baggage?” She said, “Individual mobilities, urban mobilities, tourism, business, migration: everything has been disrupted. Can we learn from that?”

[1]  https://www.peopleformobilityjustice.org/mission

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Mimi Sheller, Ph.D., is Professor of Sociology, Head of the Sociology Department, and founding Director of the Center for Mobilities Research and Policy at Drexel University in Philadelphia. She is founding co-editor of the journal Mobilities and past President of the International Association for the History of Transport, Traffic and Mobility. She is considered to be a key theorist in critical mobilities research and in Caribbean studies.

Learn more about Mimi Sheller

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