Anthropology Mobility
Roger Norum
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0254


Broadly speaking, mobility refers to the socio-cultural processes surrounding movement. As a focus of anthropological research, mobility engages with the notion that human social worlds are in multiple states and forms of circulating spatial and temporal flux, and, as such, are variously implicated in trajectories of movement between and among human actors, physical objects and intangible information, ideas and capital. Mobility studies emerged out of the celebration of postmodernism and globalization, and their concomitant links to global flows of people and things in contexts of both migration and transnationalism. New forms of human interaction and engagement amid sea changes in the capacity for people, things, and representations to move fast and far have led to new intellectual theorizations, perspectives, approaches, and provocations, denoting mobility as a new point of departure for contemporary analyses of the social world in the 21st century. Since the early 2000s, scholars have worked to develop the theoretical underpinnings of a “new mobilities” paradigm which would, in turn, lead to a “mobility turn” in the social sciences and beyond. The paradigm challenges a number of assumptions within the social sciences including the static, bounded concepts of culture and society as a unit of analysis, the assumed center-periphery nature of movement of peoples from developing to developed areas of the world, and the close association of mobility with freedom (and immobility with oppression). Studies of mobility go far beyond researching mere movement, and now even comparatively sedentary concepts such as society and nation are being upended with interlinked, shifting, and mobile things, ideas, and individuals. Mobility research has been characteristically cross-disciplinary, finding traction early on in the fields of sociology and geography before being taken up by the theoretical considerations and ethnographic research of social and cultural anthropologists (though of course studying movement—of both humans and non-humans—was nothing new for anthropologists). Scholarship across distinct strands of mobility research has fostered dialogue among otherwise spatting social science fields, and scholars from other disciplines, such as cultural and migration studies, tourism and transport studies, media studies, and Science and Technology Studies (STS) have also made important contributions to literature on mobility that is either anthropological in focus or approach, or heavily used by anthropologists in their mobility scholarship. Because research into mobility comprises such a wide range of area specializations, theoretical interests, and methodological approaches, however, exactly what constitutes mobility research can mean different things to different scholars in different disciplines—from research on communities of people who physically move for their jobs (e.g., commuters, expatriates, or seasonal agricultural workers) to studies of societal systems, infrastructures, and regimes such as vehicular transport or border control. And, as expected, the normative categories established by a number of scholars of mobility to study the field have themselves received no small amount of critique from anthropologists for their privileging certain types of mobile movement and deprecating others. This bibliography outlines the scope of literature on mobility that is particularly anthropological in its approach, method, and object, while also considering some of the seminal works in sociology and geography that have both influenced anthropological thinking on mobility and proven foundational to the development of the “mobility turn” in the social sciences more generally. There is inherently overlap between some of the sections set up here (e.g., Migration and Labor and Work), but they have been structured via these categories more to facilitate reader accessibility than to set up any hard and fast distinctions for how the scholarship discussed in this article should be framed or understood.

General Overviews

Across a number of disciplines, there is a rich and varied literature relating to mobility of interest to anthropologists. While there has yet to be a textbook published on mobility per se, a number of works do provide a good introduction to those new to the field. Because it was a small group of sociologists and geographers who kicked off mobility studies as a subfield, many of the works mentioned here tend to be slightly less anthropological in their theorizations and points of departure (with respect to their academic literature references, that is), but they are no less important or useful to gaining a sense of where studies of mobility have been and where they are going in and through anthropology. Sheller and Urry 2006 is the formative article by two leading sociologists that preceded the onslaught of theoretical articles on mobility in the late 2000s, while Hannam, et al. 2006 contributes a geographical perspective and sets out a path for future research in the field. These were followed by comprehensive monographs by Cresswell 2006 and Urry 2007, the former of which is historical in nature, the latter being a more comprehensive survey of the field. Greenblatt 2010 is an interdisciplinary overview of mobility in history, while the more recent Adey, et al. 2014 is a relatively interdisciplinary encyclopedia of contemporary mobility studies. Salazar and Jayaram 2016 is an anthropologically focused historiographic study of specific mobility-relevant keywords, followed up by Endres, et al. 2016, a meta-volume on contemporary academic and non-academic discourses on mobility.

  • Adey, Peter, David Bissell, Kevin Hannam, Peter Merriman, and Mimi Sheller, eds. 2014. The Routledge handbook of mobilities. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

    A comprehensive compendium that provides a critical evaluation of debates, methods, and frameworks of mobility studies across the social sciences. The 601 pages include fifty-seven chapters from nearly every leading scholar working on mobility, and covers disciplinary trends, methodological innovations, and conceptual histories and developments, as well as predictions for the future of the study.

  • Cresswell, Tim. 2006. On the move: Mobility in the modern Western world. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

    Historically rich work that effectively demonstrates that human movement is nothing new, and that mobility and its regulation have been central to the experience of modernity. In particular, the two theoretical chapters show with solid interrogative heft how mobility has been present across a diverse range of thought and writing, and how movement has been given meaning through various forms and scales of mobility.

  • Endres, Marcel, Katharina Manderscheid, and Christophe Mincke, eds. 2016. Mobilities paradigm: Discourses and ideologies. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

    A meta discourse analysis that treats mobility as an epistemological object to show how ideas, ideals, and ideologies about mobility influence mobilities themselves—and vice versa. Discusses the shifting public and academic discourses, social frameworks, scientific theories, and conceptualizations of knowledge concomitant with practices, experience, and research on mobilities.

  • Greenblatt, Stephen, ed. 2010. Cultural mobility: A manifesto. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Collection of essays that aim to contest the vicious parochialisms across politics, culture, and social life that continue to compartmentalize and delimit ideas and the structures that frame them. Shows mobility to be a constituent element in human cultural representation and social imagination across many periods and encourages studies of mobility to investigate cultural production as well as culture itself. Includes contributions from a wide range of disciplines.

  • Hannam, Kevin, Mimi Sheller, and John Urry. 2006. Editorial: Mobilities, immobilities and moorings. Mobilities 1.1: 1–22.

    Introductory, founding article of the journal Mobilities that is something of a state of affairs in 2006. Discusses mobility-related themes such as the nation-state, spatial systems, power geometries, materialities, and virtual and informational mobility, while focusing in particular on airports and urban disasters (and governmental failures of response of the latter) to show the importance of studying mobility structures. The end maps out some emerging agendas within the field.

  • Marzloff, B. 2005. Mobilités, trajectoires fluides. La Tour d’Aigues, France: Editions de l’Aube.

    As one of the first French-language monographs on the topic, this author rightfully contends that seeing mobility as mere physical movement is far too limited a connotation for everything the term seems to speak to. As such, the work presents a number of insightful neologisms which have curiously yet to be taken up by English-language authors, including “altermobility,” connoting meaningful movements beyond mere displacement that evoke new relationships of humans to space and time, and “infomobility,” a product of new media technologies that individualizes our modes of travel and makes us dependent on new forms of consumption.

  • Salazar, Noel, and Kiran Jayaram. 2016. Keywords of Mobility: Critical Engagements. Oxford: Berghahn.

    This collection takes Raymond Williams’s work as a point of departure to critically analyze and contextualize a working vocabulary of eight keywords fundamental to mobility studies: capital, cosmopolitanism, freedom, gender, immobility, infrastructure, motility, and regime.

  • Sheller, Mimi, and John Urry. 2006. The new mobilities paradigm. Environment and Planning A 2.38: 207–226.

    Perhaps the single most cited article on mobilities (and the most downloaded paper on the Environment and Planning website), this formative overview of the paradigm summarizes early scholarship on mobility-related phenomena as a way of forging a consistent notion of what the paradigm is and what it is to become. Some attention to theory and method, but largely sets the general stage for the field of research that would soon follow.

  • Söderström, Ola, Didier Ruedin, Shalini Randeria, Gianni D’Amato, and Francesco Panese, eds. 2013. Critical mobilities. London: Routledge.

    While this edited volume frames itself somewhat outside the field of mobility studies, as a whole it approaches the neoliberal normativization of mobility through a number of insightful critiques. The content is structured around nine distinct chapters that each take on institutional categorizations and forms of mobility through mobility theory and method. Divided into three sections—the urban Global South; migration; and mobility and medicine—case studies range from post-9/11 US discourse on freedom and security, technology use among Romanian migrants in Switzerland and Canada, and investigations of New Reproductive Technologies (NRTs) in India and representations of surgical intervention in Bollywood films.

  • Urry, John. 2007. Mobilities. London: Polity.

    Seminal work—easily the most cited in studies of mobility—setting out the foundations, fields, and futures of the study of mobilities across the social sciences. The book outlines and analyzes the historical and contemporary systems behind forms of mobility and the effect they have on individuals, organizations, states, and global institutions.

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