Rethinking habits of everyday mobility

This is just a quick note at a very busy time to say that the paper on rethinking behaviour change and habits with regard to everyday mobility that I co-authored with David Banister and Jillian Anable is now available online. In this paper we critique the — at least in transport studies — prevailing cognitive-psychological conception of habits as the automatically cued, repetitive behaviour of individuals acquired through positive reinforcement over time. We elaborate an alternative perspective that is based on the thinking of Aristotle and especially the philosophies of Félix Ravaisson and John Dewey. Here habit is understood as a generative and propulsive capacity or force that does not simply belong to the individual but to assemblages of body, mind and world. Habit is thus more embodied than psychological thinking tends to recognise; it is very much about bodily techniques, skills and competencies. But one should not simply privilege body over mind and instead try to keep both in balance — hence the explicit inclusion of both in Couze Venn’s (2010) notion of body-mind-world assemblage. Habit is also distributed across body/mind and all kinds of elements, or actants in the language of actor-network theory, and in a way non-individual.

In the paper we also explore what this conceptualisation means for transport policy and governance in light of the need to make this sector more sustainable. We emphasise the importance of embedding the behaviour change agenda in transport in attempts at more systemic transitions in transport systems, of not understanding habit change simply in terms of displacing unreflective behaviour by reasoned action, and of developing/instilling habits deemed desirable in people from a young age onwards — a life-course perspective on habit formation and change is critical, we argue, to the behaviour change agenda. Finally, we stress the importance of working with, and capitalising on, the potential for subtle and gradual change that is immanent to existing habits in certain circumstance — in particular in situations where there is no realistic alternative for carbon-intensive modes of transport.

At the moment I am working on a follow-up to this paper, which will be submitted for a special issue on ‘energy and transport’ edited by John Urry and David Tyfield. I will write more on this new paper with evolving thoughts on the subject of habit change shortly. In the meantime readers interested in social theory perspectives in habit may also want to read  the work on ‘practice theory’ as elaborated by Elizabeth Shove and colleagues and the recent writings of David Bissell.