Geography Historical Mobilities
Phillip Gordon Mackintosh
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 June 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0261


Humans move. Movement is the primary indicator of human vitality, from beating heart to subsistence. Scholars of the human experience striving to represent its condition accurately account not only for Thomas Hobbes’ 17th-century observation that “life is but a motion of limbs,” in Hobbes 1968 (cited under General Overview on Historical Mobilities); they also document our general practice of mediating this “motion” with technologies, while analyzing the social and cultural consequences of both. Mobilities and historical mobilities apprehend that heterogeneous movement and its mediation occupy a central place in earthly life, whether cell mitosis or container ships. This means mobilities studies also adopt, if implicitly, a post-humanist worldview: nonhuman life as intrinsic to, and a determinant of, the human. In this, mobilities studies likely insinuate that sentience itself demands movement (sentience also including the botanical ability to perceive stimuli and forms of consciousness in the zoological realms). Subsistence and security, and competitive and mutual survival among all life forms—micro-scale to macro-scale—require persistent mobility: a blizzard of movement from the slow motion of photosynthesizing plants to the GPS-guided motion of combine harvesters. Thus, mobilities theoretically assume that all life—but primarily humans, human societies, social networks, technologies, and even the profusion, interrelatedness, and processual nature of human spaces and places—possesses essential motives for, and forms of, mobilizing. This entails accounting for how mobilities change and stay the same, for there is a curious stability and constancy to mobilities, as Pooley 2017 (cited under General Overview on Historical Mobilities) maintains and Hobbes’ dictum implies. Importantly, mobilities and historical mobilities studies epitomize Foucault’s democratic championing of the insurrection of disqualified and subordinated knowledges—causing a methodological revolution of diverse and radically inclusive theoretical postures. Subsequent historical mobilities research, then, balances on a plurality of methods investigating, explaining—and complicating—a traditionally elementary issue: historical human movement, ultimately the basic definition of the term. However, historical mobilities researchers complicate even this foundational idea, apprehending that, like the variegated historical “publics” mobilities have depicted, served, and been associated with, mobilities exist as multiplicities and demand differentiated methodological and empirical positions—to investigate a miscellany of possible historical mobilities, London omnibuses or Middle Passage slave ships among them. Accordingly, the literature of historical mobilities not only reveals a panoply of historical experiences and explanations; it also exceeds describing and prescribing the fact of mobilities and their technologies, respecting the usually unsubtle presence of gender, “race,” class, ability, power, and political economy in the deployment and use of mobilities and mobilities technologies.

General Overview on Historical Mobilities

Admittedly, historical mobilities is a 21st-century research idiom, yet historical inquiry into human mobilities, from migration to transportation, steeps in a long and respected tradition. Taking railway transportation as an example, The Bulletin, of America’s National Railway Historical Society (founded in 1935), spending the better part of a century keenly attending all things railway, has routinely published and reprinted histories of American railway expansion, technological development, and conservation. Schivelbusch 1979, a now-canonical history of industrial-era railways, illustrates the purchase of historical transportation on researchers’ historical imaginaries. And Speirs 1897, Warner 1962, and Hall 1977 remain, inter alia, pre–historical mobilities treasures in the history of street railways. Meanwhile a few minutes spent perusing will reveal numerous books and pamphlets from the turn of the twentieth century that explicate the history of railroads and railways. A second example is transatlantic migration. We know, for instance, that immigrants to North America between the 1840s and 1910s virtually created the immigrant-heritage populations and diasporas so closely associated the United States and Canada—hardly forgetting the coerced migration of millions of Africans during the slave-trade years, or the forced marches and relocation of the continent’s First Nations and indigenous peoples. Regarding historical human migration, both cultural geographer Wilbur Zelinsky and urban geographer David Ward made pre–historical mobilities inroads. Zelinsky 1971 elucidates the fusion of migration with time and space in the production of modernity; Ward 1971 explains immigration and its role in the modern city problematic. Historical geographer and early proponent of historical mobilities Colin Pooley intuited the convergence of migration and mobilities well before adopting the new idiom (with historical geographer Ian Whyte) in Pooley and Whyte 1991, with Pooley becoming a dominating figure in the field; cf. Pooley 2017. So, too, mobilities pioneer John Urry. While not historical mobilities per se, Urry 1990 early demonstrates that the past is a tourism mobilities mechanism across time. Finally, historical transportation geographer James Vance needs mentioning: Vance 1986 was an attempt to fathom transportation mobilities, although not by name, from the beginning of the modern era. Thus, despite its relative nascence, historical mobilities obtains family ties to traditional studies in human movement and migration, and these ties establish its provenance.

  • Hall, Millicent. “The Park at the End of the Trolley.” Landscape 22.1 (1977): 11–18.

    The influence of trolleys and street railways in the development of amusement parks.

  • Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan, or the Matter, Forme and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiasticall and Civill. Edited with an introduction by C. B. Macpherson. London: Penguin Books, 1968.

    A long-celebrated treatise on the requisite structure of society and government, and the one of the first to imagine a social contract. The quote “life is but a motion of limbs” comes from the Introduction. First published 1651.

  • Pooley, Colin G. Mobility, Migration and Transport: Historical Perspectives. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-51883-1

    Examines the continuities and changes in mobilities history.

  • Pooley, Colin G., and Ian D. Whyte. Migrants, Emigrants and Immigrants: A Social History of Migration. London: Routledge, 1991.

    Impact of regional migration, transcontinental and transglobal immigration, and emigration on historical Britain.

  • Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the 19th Century. New York: Urizen Books, 1979.

    The first cultural history of the railway as a modernist project.

  • Speirs, Frederic W. The Street Railway System of Philadelphia: Its History and Present Condition. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1897.

    Early study of a street railway system in America.

  • Urry, John. The Tourist Gaze: Leisure and Travel in Contemporary Societies. London: SAGE, 1990.

    Explores the tourist gaze, in part as type of mobilities expression, in different societies over time.

  • Vance, James. Capturing the Horizon: The Historical Geography of Transportation since the Transportation Revolution of the Sixteenth Century. New York: Harper and Row, 1986.

    Noted for its elaboration of a six-stage historical cycle underlying innovation in transportation: experimentation, initiation, amplification and extension, generalization, universalization, and retrenchment.

  • Ward, David. Cities and Immigrants: A Geography of Change in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.

    A landmark publication in the historical social geography of urban in-migration.

  • Warner, Sam Bass. Streetcar Suburbs: The Process of Growth in Boston, 1870–1900. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1962.

    The role of streetcars in the development of suburbs and the creation of the city/suburb dichotomy.

  • Zelinsky, Wilbur. “The Hypothesis of the Mobility Transition.” Geographical Review 61.2 (1971): 219–249.

    DOI: 10.2307/213996

    Connects migration to the modern impulse to defeat time and space.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.