Struggling to understand objects

One of the most exciting developments in social theory and philosophy in recent years has been the articulation of object oriented ontologies, and a range of geographers (e.g. Katharine Meehan, James Ash) have been actively involved in this development. One of the most influential thinkers in this nascent body of work is Graham Harman, one of the leading Speculative Realists who has taken the phenomenological philosophies of Heidegger and Husserl into completely new directions, along the way adding elements from Latour, Whitehead and others.

Fascinated by Harman’s writings I have over the last two years been thinking about if and how his ideas can be used to enrich our thinking about everyday mobilities in cities. The (first) results of this have now been published in EJTIR. It is fair to say that working with Harman’s philosophy proved less straightforward than I had anticipated. This was not just because of high level of abstraction that characterises his thinking about objects compared to the particularities and context-specificity of everyday mobility that one encounters in empirical research. It was especially so because his work — or at least those parts I have engaged — have often little to say about change, dynamics and process. It would appear that geographers seeking to work with his ideas need to combine them with other philosophies or perspectives if they want to study mobilities, cities, landscape, nature or whatever it is they are interested in.

Happy New Year

Happy 2014! It has been a while since my last post, which is largely because I have been in Hong Kong for most of December to work on some joint research with Prof Donggen Wang on well-being and to attend two conferences. I gave a plenary during the 18th Conference of the Hong Kong Society for Transportation Studies on the insights that can be derived from Whitehead’s philosophy for the analysis of processes of change in transport (see picture).


And on the day prior to the main conference I gave a keynote on how I believe activity analysis in transport studies should be reconfigured so that we can better understand how socio-technical innovations in urban transport (e.g. car sharing schemes or electric vehicles) change, develop and diffuse over time in particular places. I will probably discuss this work in a later post.

Apart from working and attending conferences, I have also had the opportunity to experience the fantastic city that is Hong Kong — a paradise for urban geographers interested in processes of urban expansion, growing sociospatial inequality and low carbon urban mobility. I visited Hong Kong in 1998, just after the hand-over, but the city has changed almost unrecognisably since: it has grown in terms of population size, ‘neoliberal’ urban (re)development projects are now much more common, social inequalities have increased markedly, and the city has become much more Chinese than it was in my memory. It has not, however, lost any of its positive energy. If anything, its vitality has only increased and easily surpasses that of Europe’s major cities. It is now truly a global city where East and West mingle in all kinds of innovative and inspiring ways!

Seminar on Social Theory, Transport and Energy Modelling

I will be speaking at one of the seminars organised by Rachel Aldred (University of Westminster) in the context of the ESRC-funded seminar series Modelling on the Move: Towards Transport System Transitions? on 13th September in London.

This particular event focuses on the relevance of social theory for transport and energy modelling, and my talk will offer reflections on the way transport researchers have conceptualised, understood and ‘done’ process and change over the past decades. It will problematise conventional ways in which change has been examined and argue that insights from ‘process philosophies’ can usefully inform standard practice in transport research. Process philosophies are a heterogeneous collection of philosophical thinking, including amongst others the work of authors as diverse as Henri Bergson, William James, Gilles Deleuze, Isabelle Stengers, Bruno Latour and also Alfred North Whithead. IN the presentation and accompanying paper I will be drawing on the latter and show how his philosophical ideas and metaphysics can be used to think about change in a transport research context.

More information on the seminar, including an abstract of my talk, is available here, and registration for the seminar can be done here.

Spatialities of Ageing

The last weeks have been very busy, preventing me from writing new posts. However, last week a themed issue of Geoforum that I co-edited was published on the geographies of ageing. It contains an article about independent mobility in later life that I wrote about previously, but here I want to draw attention to the introductory piece in which we — Irene Hardill, Susan Lucas and myself — argue that (a) geographers should pay more attention to ageing and old age, and (b) the body and (spatio)temporality in conjunction with ageing should be theorised more explicitly. We argue that (geographical) scholarship on old age has generally found it difficult to strike  the right balance between the social/cultural and biological/physiological of embodiment in later life and to consider the spatiotemporality of ageing in all its facets. Drawing quite strongly on the writings of Deleuze, we suggest that his understanding of the body could usefully inform geographical scholarship on old age and that ageing and space are best thought of as  ‘entwined becomings’ — processes that evolve in close reciprocity with each other and that result in different dynamics in the experience and meaning of old age in different places. Sounds abstract? In the article we illustrate thes epoints with more concrete examples, drawing among others on the papers included in the themed issue


Critical Space-Time Geographies

Today a special issue I guest edited with Mei-Po Kwan for Environment and Planning A has been published. It comprises four substantive papers, a commentary by Mike Crang  and an editorial by Mei-Po and myself — all highlight the need for critical geography to consider both space and time in its analysis of social differentiations and processes. The substantive papers focus on the marginalisation of self and others (Valentine and Sadgrove), labour migration (Rogaly and Thieme), care (Bowlby) and the night-time economy (Schwanen et al.). All papers were presented during a paper session at the 2011 AAG Conference in Seattle.

The whole point of the special issue is to highlight the need for geographers to think and examine whether they are interested in in terms of spatiotemporality rather than spatiality. This point has of course been made oftentimes, among others by Torsten Hägerstrand, Henri Lefebvre, Nigel Thrift, Doreen Massey, and numerous others (including Mei-Po and myself) but there is no harm in repeating the message and in showing what considering space and time is capable of bringing to light in theoretically informed empirical research.

Mike Crang’s commentary and the editorial by Mei-Po and myself are available as open access documents and can be downloaded here and here.

Approaches to Time in Transport Studies

This week I have been to the wonderful Forge Network summer school in York organised by Greg Marsden and Elizabeth Shove on ‘Time, Travel and Everyday Life‘ and attended by young researchers in a range of disciplines (transport, geography, sociology, etc.) from the UK and a number of European countries.

I gave one of the talks, and mine was on different theoretical understandings of time in transport and mobilities research and how understandings of time can be used to change current transport research and planning practice. I used the works of Barbara Adam, David Harvey and Henry Lefebvre to highlight how time (a) is a multi-faceted construct intimately tied to space and matter, and (b) understood in very partial ways in mainstream transport research and practice.

With regard to the first point, I discussed Harvey’s distinction between absolute time (a Newtonian, linear and immovable grid), relative space-time (dependent on the frame of the observer as proposed by Einstein) and relational spacetime (emergent from the relations between entities as suggested by Leibniz, quantum mechanism and complexity theory, among others) and criticised Harvey’s idea that time is all three, arguing that (space)time is ultimately relational. I also discussed Lefebvre’s distinction between linear and cycles rhythms and times, whereby the former pertain to a man-made pure repitition as epitomised in clock-time and the latter to nature and the cosmos where each re-occurence differs from a previous manifestion. And I drew on Adam’s timescapes framework to argue that mainstream transport research and practice are deeply commited to her five ‘C’s. That is, in transport research, planning and practice time is commonly and continually:

a) constructed, through the privileging of clock time to the exclusion of almost any other form of time;

b) commodified and monetarised, among others through the widespread use of values of time;

c) compressed, primarily through the valorisation of acceleration (i.e. the assumption that travel time is a waste and disutility) in transport appraisal (cost-benefit analysis) and basically all micro-economic theory inflected thinking about transport;

d) colonising the future, among others because of the failure to reduce transport’s extreme dependence on oil and its contribution to anthropogenic climate change; and

e) considered something that must be controlled in that the different features of time (such as the duration, timing, etc. of travel time) must be shaped and steered in some way or another, and this perhaps best exemplified with the preoccupation in some circles of research and planning with the reliability and travel times and transport networks.

I do believe, however, that the deep commitment to Adam’s five ‘C’s and the privileging of absolute and linear understandings of time in mainstream transport research and planning are ultimately a barrier to making transport more environmentally sustainable and socially just and to more effective transport policies. As the privileging of these understandings is one of the factors that got us where we are at the present (i.e. transport as a major contributor to both carbon consumption and social inequalities), we — researchers and practitioners in transport, urban planning and cognate fields — need to reconsider how we ‘think’ time (and space) in relation to transport and travel behaviour. So, in the end my talk was a plea for (a) more sophistated understandings of time (and space) in transport research and planning, and (b) greater attention being paid to relational and cyclical understandings of time in connection to transport as these allow us to better understand how the users of transport systems act and respond to the situations they face whilst travelling. I sought to illustrate the latter point by contrasting mainstream transport studies of how travellers respond to travel time variability and my own research on this topic and on what arriving late at a destination is and means (as summarised here and here).

I do realise of course that talk about the nature of time (and space) and how it relates to transport & mobility is rather abstract and philosophical, and in many ways challenges common-sense understandings of how the world is. But those common-sense understandings are partly responsible for the non-sustainable nature of contemporary transport systems, and bringing the typically taken-for-granted understandings of time (and space) into focus and challenging them is one way in which social scientists can make a major contribution to transport policy and practice.

I would be very happy to share the slides of my talk with anyone who is interested. Just drop me an e-mail.