Two Paper Sessions at 2017 RGS/IBG conference

I am co-organising two paper sessions at the upcoming Annual International Conference of the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers, which will be held 29 August-1 September in London.

Everyday Mobilities and Climatic Events

Convenors: Anna Plyushteva (Vrije Universiteit Brussel), Nihan Akyelken (Oxford), & Tim Schwanen (Oxford)

Deadline: 7 February 2017

Weather and climate shape the everyday mobilities of people worldwide, in both mundane and increasingly disruptive ways. Transportation, on the other hand, is closely linked to climate in at least three ways: as a major contributor to climate change; as a sector progressively more vulnerable to its effects; and as a set of individual and institutional practices which have proven resistant to transformative change. We are interested in bringing together theoretical and empirical contributions which examine the ways in which climatic events play out in the everyday mobilities of different groups and locales.

Topics include, but are not limited to:

  • Everyday mobilities and vulnerability to climatic events;
  • The role of gender, life course and household dynamics in climate and everyday mobility;
  • Social, spatial and environmental inequalities in transport and climate change vulnerability;
  • Examples of transport policies which address the social implications of climatic events for everyday mobility.

We are especially interested in papers which take a comparative approach, and/or focus on the global South.

 

Exploring the socio-spatialities of urban goods mobility

Convenors: Debbie Hopkins (Oxford) & Tim Schwanen (Oxford)

Deadline: 6 February 2017

As centres of production and consumption, cities rely heavily on the mobility of freight for the provision of goods and services to residents, visitors, firms and organisations. Volumes of freight mobility are increasing and courier, express and parcel (CEP) services are growing rapidly with ongoing urbanisation and changes in consumption and shopping habits and delivery structures. Further change can be expected in light of the ongoing restructuring of logistics and supply chains and the rise of the smart city and vehicle automation. Yet the parcels, distribution centres, vehicles and pipelines that make up the systems of freight delivery often remain invisible in geographical studies of transport and mobilities. Similarly, policies to reduce the negative impacts of road freight transport are seldom focused at the city scale, and urban mobility is rarely prioritised in urban planning. In this session, we seek to address these gaps, through in-depth explorations of the social-spatialities of urban goods mobility.

Topics of interest include, but are not limited to:

  • Innovations in urban freight and logistics — e.g., urban consolidation centres, drone delivery, electric and autonomous vehicles, cargo-bikes;
  • Freight and logistics in the ‘smart city’;
  • The political economy of urban goods mobility;
  • Geographies of new business models for CEP services in cities; and
  • The lived experience of freight mobilities.

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.

Cities and Transition towards Low Energy Mobility

The first paper from my research on Innovations in Urban Transport has recently been published in the open access journal Sustainability. It summarises some of the analyses on the emergence and early development of low energy innovations in the everyday mobility of two UK cities, Brighton and Oxford. In many ways these cities are ahead of the curve in transitioning towards urban mobility systems characterised by lower energy consumption and greater energy efficiency compared to systems that are strongly dominated by private car use. And the empirical analysis confirms that many innovations related to cycling, bus and rail transport, shared mobility and clean cars are developing in both cities.

The paper argues that geography matters to transition processes in various ways. Innovation trajectories with regard to low energy mobility are differentiated geographically: where Oxford has a stronger orientation towards electric mobility (hybrid buses, electric vehicle charging, a car club with electric vehicles), Brighton tends to stand out in its attempts to create a cycling friendly infrastructure and the rapid expansion of car clubs. But the analysis also shows that cities should not be seen as independent and discrete spatial units in which innovation processes unfold. This is because most of the financial resources for those innovations come from elsewhere, notably the national government but also the EU. Thus, like technology and expertise do (as the literature on policy mobilities suggests), the finance of innovations in low energy mobility ties cities into wider uneven and networked constellations that encompass cities, states and EU institutions.

From this perspective, the budget cuts that local authorities across the UK will be experiencing due to changes to national level policy are not good news: they are likely to threaten the much needed continuity in support — finance, expertise, officers’ social capital, etc. — for innovations in low energy mobility in the early stages of their development. Indeed, a discourse of localism cannot prevent that significant reductions in national funding for local transport are likely to slow down of the rate change towards lower energy consumption in everyday mobility in many UK cities.

Rethinking behaviour change with Dewey

The annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers ended two weeks ago but I have not been able to write about my experiences during the conference so far. This post will address the presentation I gave at the conference, where I was part of a very interesting panel on what pragmatism — the philosophical movement that emerged from the work of RW Emerson, CS Peirce, W James and J Dewey around the turn of the 20th century in the USA — has to contribute to contemporary human geography. I gave a paper on how the work of Dewey (and James) on habits can be used to rethinking existing conceptualisations of behaviour change in academia and policy with regard to mobility, energy consumption and in other domains.

The thrust of my argument was that Dewey in Human Nature and Conduct (1922) offers a useful perspective on behaviour change that can function as a corrective for prevailing conceptualisations in behavioural economics, social and behavioural psychology, and thinking on habits in sociology and geography. This is because Dewey strikes, perhaps more successfully than other thinkers, a genuine balance between body and mind: he refrains from privileging one over the other and avoids the risk of making too much (economics, psychology) or too little (non-representational thinking in geography) of reflective thought.

More specifically, Human Nature and Conduct understands habits as forceful predispositions to act and interact with one’s environment, and not as actual behaviour. As such habits are socially constructed, ecological (they are not attributes of an individual but distributed across individual and environment) and generative. For Dewey repetition is not the essence of habits; what is important is that they propel individuals into action. The key distinction is not between habit and (reflective) thought, but between routine habits and intelligent habits. Both entail mechanism but in quite different ways. Routine habits reflect the often inert and maladapted mechanism of the ‘mere technician’; it amounts to ‘enslavement to old ruts’. In contrast, intelligent habits  amount to the mechanisms of the artist which are infused with thought and feeling and which afford mastery of emergent conditions; the archetypal example would be the piano virtuoso. The implications of this way of thinking are that  habit and reflective thought are non-exclusive of each other, and that thought itself is habitual.

Dewey also offers an interesting perspective on how habits and thought emerge. Discussing this is beyond the scope of this post but suffice to say that, on a Deweyian view, an always changing configuration of habits allow people to move through the situations of everyday life in a more or less unthinking manner. However, the working of those configurations can be disrupted by problems thrown up by the ‘on-flow’ of situations of which individuals as bundles of habit become part. Habits of movement , for instance, are impeded when suddenly confronted with a forked road. It is at such moments that, triggered by ‘impulse’ or instinctive and biologically driven action, emotions surge and reflective thought (as a function of mental habits) emerges in a person. So, as in recent perspectives in the life sciences, the philosophies of AN Whitehead and M Merleau-Ponty and contemporary social theories of affect, reflective thought is not primordial to action but a consequence of how individuals interact with their environment.

The point of reflective thought, for Dewey, is to transform (disrupted) action, impulse and emotions into a new course of action and so create a new meta-stable equilibrium between individual and his/her environment. This may imply that previously created habits need to be updated or revised. And for Dewey the role of reflective thought in habit change is crucial as it alone makes durable change possible. Impulse and emotion are crucially important to behaviour change but their surge wears off over time in ways that does not (always) happen with reflective thought. At the same time, Dewey was adamant that emotion and thought are continuous. They are not to be thought of in dualistic terms, but as mutually reinforcing: thought powered by feeling is likely to be more effective in bringing about change.

What does all of this mean for thinking about behaviour change with regard to mobility and energy consumption? I believe there are two key lessons here. One pertains to education — a topic on which Dewey has written extensively throughout his academic career and for which he is arguably most well known; the other to change of the environment which gets incorporated in habits.

Dewey was clear that changes to the ‘objective environment’ were the only way to influence habit formation through policy and governance. On the face of it, this reasoning appears to support such initiatives as New Urbanism or road pricing policies to trigger behaviour change in everyday mobility. However, a Deweyian perspective moves us beyond  this. It is not enough to increase densities, walkability and public transport accessibility in general; the challenge is to start from the situations of ongoing activity: what were people doing before taking a trip? where do they want to go? what/whom do they need to travel with? etcetera. This means that the lessons from activity-based approaches to passenger transport and time-geography need to be taken serious and to the extreme. The focus should really be on how each individual trip is embedded in the lived experience of everyday life and on all the problematisations (where problem is defined in the Deweyian sense outlined above) one may encounter along the way.

With regard to education, a Deweyian perspective foregrounds the importance of helping the younger generations — society’s future — to learn mental habits and habits of overt action that differ from ours. They, first of all, need to develop the skills to low-carbon mobility. So cycling training where children learn-by-doing how to navigate complex traffic situations should be a key part of primary education across the Global North: today’s practical skills are tomorrow’s mental habits. All generations — but especially the younger for whom mental habits are easier to change — should also be stimulated to develop new mental habits. Educating them about the ‘unfreedoms’ and socio-environmental costs of automobiles would be one part of this; another would be to learn them to resist to think in silo’s about energy use. This would hopefully prevent the pattern of what behavioural economists call mental accounting and that can be observed in many users of transport systems (myself included) who walk and cycle extensively to access everyday activities and hence consider themselves to be environmentally conscious but who also treat themselves to one or more long-distance trips by airplane for holiday or leisure purposes and so increase their emissions of greenhouse gases far beyond those of people who use the car much more often and only make short-distance holiday and leisure trips by surface modes of transport. Clearly, then, the forms of education that can be derived from a Deweyian perspective on habit and behaviour change are quite different from the social marketing and attitude oriented approaches that would result from a behavioural psychology account.

Exploring all details of Dewey’s account of habits is beyond this post, and the same applies to all the lessons for policy and governance. However, I hope to have made clear that a Deweyian vision can usually complement existing thinking on behaviour change. I am sure I will be writing more on this theme in the future.

Peak car travel?

A topic that is currently attracting considerable attention in transport studies is the slowing down or even decline in the growth of car use across the Global North. The car evidently remains the the dominant mode of transport for everyday activities, but among young adults – and especially young men – holding a driver’s license, car ownership and the per capita distance by car have been decreasing since 1990 or thereabout. This trend has been attributed to a range of factors (see, for instance, Newman and Kenworthy 2012):

  • a revival of public transport in urban areas
  • a slowing down of the pace of urban sprawl
  • (re)emerging cultures of urbanism, implying among others that more younger adults than before remain in the city rather than relocate to the suburbs
  • population ageing
  • the rise in fuel prices since 2000
  • the economic crisis followng the 2007/07 credit crunch
  • the waning influence of the car industry and lobby on public attitudes towards transport
  • possibility that growing number of car users now spend so much time in their cars  that they are unwilling to drive even more

It is beyond doubt that automobility — the practices, institutions and landscapes centred on the private car — is changing in countries like the UK, Germany, Japan and even the USA. But it is far too early to read the end of the car’s dominance into these developments. For one, a stabilising of the growth in car use and ownership is just that: it does not mean that as yet there are fewer people who are actually using or owning a car. And it remains to be seen what the future brings: it is not unlikely that the growth of car use and car ownership picks up again in the near future, for instance when the capitalist economies of the Global North enter a new growth cycle.

More significant, however, is that automobility has gone global over the past decades. At the global scale automobility continues to expand rapidly — think of the rapid growth in China, India, Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia, Ghana, Nigeria, etc. We could therefore say that the global system of automobility is in great ‘health’, however undesirable that is from the point of view of environmental degradation, CO2 emissions and social justice. Peak car travel in the Global North is a significant development at the national level but it is also dwarfed at the global level by the developments in the Global South. A narrow focus on the developments in car use in the Global North is therefore a variant of western-centric thinking.

One might argue that the developments in the Global North are still significant as they are countries like Japan or Germany are the front runners and that the patters observed there will eventually be replicated in places that now experience rapid growth in car use. This argument, however, is developmentalist: it assumes that there is a more or less universal development trajectory that all countries will ultimately follow — a form of thinking that is not only Western-centric (as it positions Europe, the USA and Japan as leading by example) but also sidelines the role of spatial multiplicity (see Doreen Massey’s book For Space for further elaboration of this argument).

Peak car travel is a significant development but it must be placed in perspective: it is ultimately a local phenomenon that hardly dampens the global growth of car use. This means that transport’s contribution to global warming remains enormous and that there is no time for complacency: it remains absolutely critical that transport planners and professionals think more seriously and creatively about how step changes away from automobility can be realised. Conventional policies (investment in new public transport infrastructure, urban compaction, mobility management, road pricing) may have facilitated peak car travel in the Global North — though their effects should not be exaggerated as these policies’ public acceptability is partly a result of the same cultural, social and demographic changes that made peak car travel possible — but they appear quite inadequate at fundamentally reducing the growth of automobility across the Global South.

Foucault and Mobilities Workshop

After a hectic December and a break over the festive season I am at last able to write a new and long overdue post. At this moment I am in Lucerne and the workshop on Foucault and Mobilities that I co-organised with Katharina Manderscheid and David Tyfield has just finished. It has been a wonderful experience: great people, great papers, great discussions, great atmosphere.

I have learnt a lot about how others work with and along Foucault in studying im/mobilities in a great variety of contexts: water management in Singapore, fire in County Durham, madness in Scotland, prisons in Belgium and electric transportation in China are only some of the topics that have been discussed. And I have also learnt a great detail about how others understand (and sometimes struggle with) such concepts as the dispositif/apparatus and discursive practice, as well as Foucault’s methods.

There was a strong sentiment that our discussions about Foucault and mobilities should be taken forward, and we will be setting up some sort of internet platform or resource, where publications on Foucault and mobilities will be brought together and where discussions can be conducted. The powerpoint presentations from the workshop may be made available there as well. More on this will follow shortly.

 

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.

 

Foucault and Mobilities II

This is just a short note to announce that we — Katharina Manderscheid, David Tyfield and myself — have received an overwhelming response to the call for papers on Foucauldian mobilities research, which I posted in my previous message. Many more abstracts than we can accommodate have been submitted, and we have selected a number of submissions for the planned two-day symposium on the basis of fit with other presentations and the parts of Foucault’s oeuvre that the papers sought to engage with. We are very sorry for not being able to accommodate all the submitted abstracts and everybody for their interest in participating. It is clear that Foucauldian mobilities research is a rapidly expanding and vibrant constituent of both the wider mobilities paradigm in the social sciences and Foucauldian scholarship in human geography, sociology and beyond.

At the moment I am working on a paper for the upcoming RGS/IBG conference in which I explore the usefulness of Thomas Schatzki’s recent book The Timespace of Human Activity. But I will write more on this in one of my next posts.

Call for Papers: Foucault and Mobilities

Together with Katharina Manderscheid and David Tyfield I am organising a two-day symposium on Foucauldian thought and mobilities research and we are currently solliciting abstracts (until 10th June). Here’s the call for papers — Do get in touch if you would like to participate!

Call for Papers : Foucault and Mobilities Research

A Two-Day Symposium, 6th and 7th of January 2013, Lucerne, Switzerland

The publication in English and in German of Michel Foucault’s lectures at the Collège de France in the years 1970-1984 has been a key driver of the recent renaissance of research inspired by his work across the social sciences. As part of this, sociologists, geographers and others in the academic world have begun to draw on and work with a wider range of Foucauldian concepts than in earlier studies. Foucault’s thinking on power/knowledge, panopticism, discourse, the role of the sciences, and so on still resonates strongly across the social sciences but it is the topics that he lectured on at the Collège that arguably attract the bulk of attention: a surge of interest has occurred among social scientists in his writings on apparatuses/dispositifs, governmentality, self-government and ethics to name but a few concepts. The translation of the lectures into German and English has also brought to the fore a greater focus on the liveliness of the world, the non-discursive realm, materiality and resistance than Foucault is usually credited for. In fact, and as Philo (2012) has noted, the lectures show more than his published books that Foucault was closer to Deleuze than is often assumed.

Foucault’s work has been employed and embraced enthusiastically by ‘mobilities’ scholars (e.g. Adey, 2009; A. Jensen, 2011; Merriman, 2007; Paterson, 2008, Richardson and Jensen, 2008; Schwanen et al, 2011; Manderscheid, 2012). It can nonetheless be argued that mobilities researchers have not yet fully explored or exhausted the potential of Foucault’s philosophy for understanding mobilities. Against this background we seek to bring together scholars from across the social sciences with a shared interest in both mobilities and Foucauldian thinking. Mobilities are here understood broadly as the flows (or lack thereof) of people, artefacts, money, ideas, practices, and so on across a wide variety of spatial and temporal scales, both in contemporary societies or in the past. More specifically, we are soliciting conceptual and/or empirical papers that address one or several of the following topics or a related theme:

• The governmentalities that shape mobilities

• The government of im/mobile others and selves

• Mobility dispositifs

• Mobile subjectivities

• Formation and contestation of material landscapes of mobilities

• Ethics of mobility and mobile ethics

• Discourses surrounding and underpinning mobilities

• Mobilities as an object of knowledge

• The ‘disciplining’ of mobilities

• Techniques of im/mobility and im/mobile techniques

• Conceptualisation of mobilities in regards to biopolitics and territory

The two-day symposium aims at connecting scholars from different disciplines with an interest in this range of topics. If you are interested in participating in this event with a paper, we ask that you prepare an abstract of no more than 250 words and send this to one of the organisers no later than 10th June 2012.

Katharina Manderscheid, Lucerne University, Tim Schwanen, University of Oxford, and David Tyfield, Lancaster University.