Geography Automobility
Aaron Golub
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 August 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0206


Automobility is a conceptual framework developed to understand the personal, social, political, cultural, geographical, and technical systems shaping, and shaped by, the automobile. At its core, the automobility system is the hub of numerous interdependencies and relationships between the larger society and the automobile. The automobility literature synthesizes scholarship from a wide range of fields necessary to understand these diverse but interlocking systems, including history, geography, public policy, planning, behavior, psychology, anthropology, culture and communication, and economics and finance, among many others. Automobility contextualizes the role of the automobile as a powerful and central driver of complex and diverse processes, creating new materialities across space and time. Automobility describes a social arrangement where the automobile system dominates and transforms almost everything in its path—one’s personal sense of self, identity, and mobility; relationships between human beings; the boundaries of public and private; and the broader social, cultural, and political forces at larger scales. Systems affected by the automobililty system become malformed by it, each moment then favoring it even more in a vicious cycle, while rejecting or destroying those systems incompatible with it. Automobility explores a society dispersed across space and time, forcing its subjects into a particular mode of being, seemingly free, but now saddled by the various demands of the automobile. For those not able to participate, automobility excludes, as opportunities become even more inaccessible by anything other than an automobile. These forces of inclusion and exclusion exacerbate existing social processes of discrimination, such as gender, racial and class divisions, and segregation. Furthermore, automobility implicates a vast process of urbanization; land conversion for automobile-related uses; and related environmental impacts like resource consumption, pollution, and climate change across a range of scales from the local to the global, from immediate to long-term.

Core Conceptual Literature

The idea that the automobile is more than a technology, an industrial artifact, or a consumer product or commodity, but is a powerful driver of complex transformations of society, can be found in some of the early critiques of the automobile (e.g., Mumford 1964 or Freund and Martin 1993, cited under Environmental Impacts, Social Costs and Subsidies to Automobility). Sometimes, the concept of “automobile dependence” was used to define this complex system of automobility (e.g., Newman and Kenworthy 1999, also cited under Environmental Impacts, Social Costs and Subsidies to Automobility). Still, there is a core automobility literature explicitly and more deeply built from the complex system framework clarified by Urry and others as a more specific subject and subfield of the “mobility turn” in sociological research (Urry 2007, Urry 2004). See the introduction in Featherstone, et al. 2005 for a broad overview of the foundational work in the field. These complex systems, which include automobility, are “assemblages of humans, objects, technologies, and scripts that contingently produce durability and stability of mobility. Such hybrid assemblages can roam the countrysides and cities, remaking landscapes and townscapes through their movement” (Urry 2007, p. 48). Arguably this emerging automobility framework was launched in Sheller and Urry 2000 where the authors lament: “it was in the modern city that the founders of sociology first envisioned the contradiction of social space, the density of transactions and the compression of social distance that comprised modernity. Yet sociology’s view of urban life has failed to consider the overwhelming impact of the automobile in transforming the time space scale of the modern urban/suburban dweller” (p. 738). Scholars from fields beyond sociology, however, have further advanced the concept into a variety of directions through publications in the core journals Mobilities, founded by Urry, Theory, Culture & Society, and other urban studies and geography journals. For instance, Gartman 2004 focuses on the cultural and identity-formation roles played by the automobile as its impacts and structures exploded beyond its role as a transportation device. The conceptualization of automobility relies heavily on the theoretical frame of assemblages: the understanding that social phenomena result from complex self-organizing connections and dependencies among a sprawling set of actors and systems (technical, political, social). The interested reader is encouraged to explore the broader literature on assemblages (e.g., Collier and Ong 2005, McFarlane 2011) and alternatively the sociotechnical systems and “transitions” frameworks (Geels 2005) which offer alternative understandings of the automobile system (not typically counted as part of the automobility literature).

  • Collier, S. J., and Aihwa Ong. “Global Assemblages, Anthropological Problems.” In Global Assemblages: Technology, Politics, and Ethics as Anthropological Problems. Edited by S. J. Collier and Aihwa Ong, 3–21. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005.

    While this chapter focuses on examples of global-scale assemblages as incarnations of globalization, it is quite useful for its broad overview of the theoretical framework of assemblage in anthropological and sociological scholarship.

  • Featherstone, Mike, N. J. Thrift, and John Urry, eds. Automobilities. London: SAGE, 2005.

    This special issue of Theory, Culture & Society 21.4–5 (2004), released in book form, is a compilation of automobility-related articles. The introduction by Featherstone is an excellent overview of the field.

  • Gartman, David. “Three Ages of the Automobile The Cultural Logics of The Car.” Theory, Culture & Society 21.4–5 (2004): 169–195.

    DOI: 10.1177/0263276404046066

    In this seminal piece in the automobility literature, Gartman explores the automobile through three theoretical lenses to understand how the automobile has shaped individual identity and broader cultural processes. He looks at the automobile as an artifact of consumption, identity formation, broader social class differentiation, and finally as a symbol of postmodernity. Available online by subscription or purchase.

  • Geels, F. W., ed. Technological Transitions and System Innovations: A Co-Evolutionary and Socio-Technical Analysis. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2005.

    This edited volume addresses the automobile system as a sociotechnical system within the European “transitions” framework. This approach focuses on how complex systems change as innovations move between “levels” of actors and policy spaces, and as they confront more rigid regimes of actors and policies. The focus here is on how systems change, and could be transformed by deliberate action by communities or policymakers.

  • McFarlane, C. “Assemblage and Critical Urbanism.” City 15.2 (2011): 204–224.

    DOI: 10.1080/13604813.2011.568715

    This article proposes that the concepts of assemblage could be of some utility for critical urban scholarship, and in doing so reviews some of the core concepts of the assemblage literature. Available online by subscription or purchase.

  • Mumford, Lewis. The Highway and the City. Toronto: Mentor Books, 1964.

    This book is a compilation of essays about urbanism written by Mumford over years. The namesake essay, written in 1958, makes the following warning about the interstate system: “They had the faintest notion of what they were doing. Within the next 15 years they will doubtless find out; but by that time it will be too late…” (p. 238). His warnings predicted what the automobility literature now documents: vast social and ecological upheaval.

  • Sheller, Mimi, and John Urry. “The City and the Car.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 24.4 (2000):737–757.

    DOI: 10.1111/1468-2427.00276

    This seminal piece calls for placing the automobile more firmly in the center of an urban sociology, beyond its traditional role as consumption signifier or transportation device. Available online by subscription or purchase.

  • Urry, John. “The ‘System’ of Automobility.” Theory, Culture & Society 21.5 (2004): 25–39.

    DOI: 10.1177/0263276404046059

    This piece synthesizes and clarifies the various pieces of the systems transformed by the automobile, including cultural practices of consumption and mobility, the environment (inputs and outputs), technical practices of road building and management, and many others. Available online by subscription or purchase.

  • Urry, John. Mobilities. Cambridge, MA: Polity, 2007.

    Urry lays out his proposal for a new paradigm of the social sciences which centers the idea of mobility more clearly. To do so, he documents how moving and communicating play increasingly important roles in the modern world using a variety of case studies.

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