Buscher, Urry, & Witchger, Mobile Methods

Büscher, Urry, Witchager. Mobile Methods (224 pages)

  1. Introduction: Mobile Methods, Minka Büscher, John Urry and katian Witchger.

The authors point to what they call the mobilities turn or an emergent transdisciplinary mobilities paradigm that draws attention to “how various kinds of ‘moves’ make social and material realities” (2). While research has begun to shift attention to mobilities, modern life—fragmented and diverse—has always and already been guided by motion. Not least, in discussing the mobilities turn, is a discussion of mobile technologies (postcards, GPS, bicycles, Cell phones, etc.) and systems (railway, postal service, etc.) which provides an argument for post-human analyses (see: Hayles). However, as the authors write, “post human” is a misnomer since it implies that we were ever focused solely on “disembodied and dematerialized cognition” (3). Rather, the book focuses on “the claim that powers of ‘humans’ are co-constituted with/by various material agencies of clothing, tools, objects, paths, footwear, buildings, machines, paper, and so on. And thus, we have never simply been ‘human, nor simply ‘social’” (3).

The authors point, rather, to systems that “serve to augment the otherwise very limited powers of individual human subjects. Those subjects are brought together and serve to develop extraordinary powers only because of the systems they build and which implicate them, and especially because of those systems that move them, or objects, ideas and information” (4). As they write, such systems—at least in the social sciences—are often observed in terms of face-to-face interactions or “patterns of more or less direct co-present social interactions” (5). A mobilities paradigm, on the other hand, looks at how networks, systems, and connections are made through the various (im)mobilities that are created through people, objects, information, and images: “social life involves continual processes of shifting between being present with others (at work at home, as part of leisure and so on) and being distant. And even when there is physical absence there may be imagined presence depending upon multiple connections” (5). The authors point to five mobilities that produce social life:

  1. Corporeal travel: of people
  2. Physical movement: of objects
  3. Imaginative travel: developed through circulation of images, talk, objects.
  4. Virtual travel: immediate communication through digital, electronic communication.
  5. Communicative travel: of messages, text, discourse, etc.

Regardless, “mobilities are embodied”: accordingly, “bodies sense and make sense of the world as they move bodily in and through it, creating discursively mediated sensescapes that signify social taste and distinction, ideology, and meaning” (6).

As the authors demonstrate, the mobilities turn and mobilities paradigm offers a host of new means of understanding how knowledge is made. Accordingly, we must draw attention to the ways in which we make knowledge through research methods/methodologies. They offer an overview of the book chapters by organizing the chapters into a set of common methods: observation of movements (of objects, of people); participation within patterns of movement; anticipation of movement through recording; keeping time-space diaries; using textual archives or repositories; looking toward place-making activities; among others.


  1. Any mermaids?: Early postcard mobilities, Julia Gillen and Nigel Hall

Gillen and Hall look toward postcards from the early Edwardian period (early twentieth century) as a moment of revolutionary change for the mobilities turn. They use, as their site of research, fairs of trading postcards. Such spaces are noteworthy for the way they bring together various collectors and dealers as well as their collections. As the authors note, much of the historical research and appreciation of postcards has been focused on the picture side rather than looking at the written message in conjuncture with the image. Accordingly, such fairs often categorize—and thus structure meaning making and search—in terms of the picture image. And even then, such collections are categorized to anticipate the way one may search through which can be a difficult task.

Gillen and Hall, in particular, are interested in vernacular literacies, “essentially… not regulated by the formal rules and procedures of dominate social institutions and… [has its origins] in everyday life” (Barton and Hamilton). The postcard, then, is an interesting material to observe for the ways that writers were given opportunity to make use of the image as well as the formatting in order to have creativity in multimodal design. Such creative use of these materials, as they write, has not been paralleled until the emergence of digital, social media content. In this light, they chart out some parallels we might glean from digital technology by studying postcards.

First, they point to how postcards were used as “micro-coordination”: using such writing to synchronize social arrangements. Such coordination is possible through post-cards’ speedy circulation.

Second, they point to the use of postcards—and the images attached to them—as a way to involve their social network in their travels. Postcards contributed “new technologies of the gaze” as postcards were used to define landscapes that tourists have travelled: “we have a sense of how, sometimes, with this new tourist sensitivity, transient holiday pictures are not transient at all but ‘have an enduring after-life…a vital part of life-stories and spaces of everyday life” (Bærenholdt et al). Such tourist messages “were part of a constantly maintained dialogue—similar to how the mobile phone operates” (28). And more, the often instructive information circulated on these postcards contributed to a cultural sense of a national imaged presence (see: Urry).

Lastly, the postcards revolutionized the structure of social habits—such revolutions are not always welcome, similar to mobile technologies. Some thought postcards would vulgar, rude, and too public for an epistolary tradition. However, it is this re-structuring of social networks that the authors seem to value the most in studying these materials. As they write, “as interpersonal communications, postcards can be seen as both carriers and instantiations of social and cultural change—globalization in current terms” (34).


  1. On Becoming ‘la sombra/the shadow”, Paola Jirón

            Jirón proposes a “hybrid and interdisciplinary methodology to understand the experience of mobility” for individuals within, in her case, Santiago, Chile: shadowing. Shadowing involves following an individual—among a selection of individuals—as they move within a given time frame. The researcher, while immersing his or herself “deep in the observation of a practice by being there,” also must contend with the fact that “the totality of experience can never be fully apprehended by the researcher, and she will never fully understand how the experience of being in mobility takes place, as this will always be partial, incomplete, in process” (36). Such research allows researchers to examine the experiences of mobile/mobility practices: “the way people enact, experience and give meaning to mobilities in the way they prepare, embody, and construct them on a daily basis” (37).

Walking in the city is a form of experiencing it (see, for example, the flâneur who strolls in an aloof manner observing from afar). While we might create visual representations of such movements in maps and diagrams or maintain diaries of daily activity, such methods can often be a lot of work for the participant and regardless, cannot be fully stand alone without other ethnographic methods including interviews, focus groups, etc. Even so, ethnography itself may only focus on a single site of research. Shadowing, on the other hand, is a multi-sited ethnography involving multiple connected sites where research unravels the relationship among and between these sites.

Jirón notes that shadowing often involves a high degree of research participation often by incident but also as a means of building trust with the participant. During the shadowing, movement between sites with the participant, the researcher can record certain important moments or sites through photography or video recording. Such recordings can then be used in follow-up interviews. “I would present the photos that would lead them to talk about experiences, motivations, practicalities, thoughts, and emotions. This was particularly useful to identify processes of place-making” (44).


  1. Choreographies of leisure mobilities, Machael Haldrup

Haldrup proposes time-space diaries as a way to understand “the particular choreographies or ‘modes’ of movement involved in performing tourism” (54).

His use of dance metaphors here is intention. There is in fact a history of using dance metaphors to discuss place-making activities. Namely, he points to Seamon’s use of “place ballet” which refers to “how places were constituted by routinized temporal and spatial habits in time and space (driving to work, picking up children and so forth)” (55). Dance/ballet allows us, then, to direct our attention to the ways that our bodies are, in a way, disciplined: “the example of dancing serves to show how mobile practices are policed, codified and choreographed at the same time as they can be mobilized as means of expression, improvisation and creativity; and how particular acts of dancing may be typified as either appropriate and correct or degenerate, potentially transgressive and threatening” (55-6). In other words, dancing highlights the tension between regulation and creative expression while also pointing to tropes of performance that people can assemble, remix, and embody in new/unfamiliar environments.

The time-space diaries offer accounts of families’ sense-making efforts: the ways that families work to establish realities (61). Often these efforts are “inscribed with particular social and cultural codes” (61); in other words, the traveller(s) has/have been socialized—and disciplined—within historical constructions and stylistic constraints. Haldrup claims that tourists’ movements are not incidental, but “ways of encountering landscapes and places through the deployment of various styles of movement. Tourists do not just move through space; they navigate to find their way to” various sites (61). Place is constructed through wayfinding or within paths: “it is only as people ‘feel their way’ through the world that it comes into being” (61). But reciprocally, such wayfinding often falls into tropes.

Haldrup points to two (seemingly contradictory) aspects of modern tourism:

  1. “energetic and curious travellers who depart with the ambition to learn something, to widen their horizons”
  2. Or travellers who want “to create a utopian alternative to the humdrum of everyday life” (59).

However, as Haldrup indicates, such searching for new or alternative experiences is still beholden to tourists’ need to inscribe themselves into their landscapes: “tourist places are valued not for their immanent qualities, but for their ability to serve as landscapes in which the family can inscribe itself and its social roles. Such tourist practices construct hybrid landscapes of home and away” (63). When the environment limits the project of inhabiting, then meaning for tourists is likewise lost/limited.

Likewise, navigating is another means of creating meaning through classifying the sites to be encountered. Places to be visited are planned in advance and are aided by various materials including maps, clocks, guidebooks, etc. Such work anticipates and creates a basis for creating meaning. When navigation dissolves (either through getting lost, etc), there becomes a breakdown of meaning; however, new routs and modalities of movement can be improvised and performed.

The third “mode of movement” is vision: “the pleasure of movement itself; the please of drifting” (67). Vision is an embodied experience that also involves sounds, odors, and tactility of places—all are employed to create a sense of place. Tourists encounter these spaces with visual technologies that represent the places as well as stage practices for travellers.


  1. Mobilities of welfare: The case of social work, Harry Ferguson

Ferguson looks at what the mobilities turn would contribute to research in social work. Historically, social work has neglected mobility as integral to the work of child welfare; however, Ferguson notes that the very nature of social work “in inconceivable without the culture of the car and other socio-technological developments, which have transformed capacities to reach vulnerable people and provide services” (74). While the car is one technology, he also looks at how social workers are made mobile and immobile in observing home conditions.

Looking at the car and how its mobility functions for social work practices, Ferguson writes, “The car was experienced both as a source of freedom and security for workers (both physically in separating them from danger and economically in terms of mileage allowances) and as a place of danger because of how it places worker and client so close together in an enclosed space” (77).

He also looks toward instances where a child has died while social workers were aware ahead of time of their hostile, abusive living environment. Ferguson points to how such instances can often be understood in the framework of mobility: familes avoid social work services by going on the move or social workers missed opportunities for protection when they are rendered immobile in the child’s home: “parents have manipulated the placement of their bodies within rooms or on doorsteps to prevent them from properly seeing, touching, listening to or talking with injured children. Professionals have effectively been rendered immobile, stopped from moving” (79). There are many factors involved in preventing motion, not least is affective: social works feeling they are in danger or having anxiety. Regardless, Ferguson writes that mobilities research of social work would help “develop a theory of practice based on understanding the contingencies that arise from the interconnections between flows of bodies, information, organizational life and practices” (80). Like Jirón, Ferguson also points to shadowing and mobile ethnographies as a means of researching the work of social workers.


  1. Connectivity, collaboration, search, Jennie Germann Molz

Germann Molz looks at the ways mobile technologies are employed by tourists to create knowledge and negotiate “on-the-road ‘know-how’” (88). Mobile technologies allow travelers to connect with their social network by sharing advice, record moments, publish their experiences in public internet forums. Such networking further facilities face-to-face encounters among travellers as well as environments. Germann Molz’s travellers find themselves at the intersection of virtual and corporeal movement: “these travellers are not only physically on the move, but are constantly moving among overlapping virtual, imaginative, communicative, and corporeal spaces of social interaction” (89).

Germann Molz continues by offering different approaches to how knowledge and mobility are aligned. She points to the modern rise of sightseeing as a way of knowing and mastering the world: travellers sought out “wise interlocutors and engage in scholarly discourse as a way of knowing the world and cultivating a worldly self” (90). There, thus, became an emphasis on seeing rather than speaking and listening as means of apprehending the world. Such tourist efforts marked an time of epistemological individualism which refers to the ways the individual witness created a word view through “direct, unmediated, and personally verified experience” (90). Visuality, itself, became redefined: “the traveller’s eye was cultivated as an instrument of aesthetic discernment rather than scientific reporting” (91). Succinctly, “as travelling, seeing, and knowing were becoming increasingly conflated projects, so too were they becoming increasingly solitary experiences” (91).

Given this historical understanding of mobility and knowledge, Germann Molz offers her chapter as a counter point to this understanding: rather, her study of travellers—who use mobile technologies—often indicate a more interactive model of travel rather than a solitary experience. Travellers frequently “engage in mobile information and communication technologies in order to stay in touch and remain embedded in social networks while on the move” (92). In “this emerging logic of mobility, knowledge revolves not around a solitary traveller, but around mobilizing a social network and knowledge community” (92). She elaborates on this merging logic of mobility through three modes of knowledge production:

Connectivity: “instant access and constant contact become the vey basis of producing knowledge…[travellers] evoke connectivity as a way of making sense of their online presence,” (92) and as she continues, travellers create “incipient knowledge communities” (93) where users exchange information and advice. Some platforms (she points to bootsnall.com and couchsurfing.org) offer means for travellers to connect by offering comments on various kinds of travel-related content. “In these contexts, digital connections underpin not a solidary travel experience, but instead a highly networked and social encounter with people and places. These discourses suggest that digital technologies shape, but certainty do not determine, the kind of knowledge produced through electronic connectivity” (94).

Collaboration: knowledge production is also distributed among travllers: knowledge about travel and places, landscapes, cultures, etc. is collaboratively produced, consumed, contested. Each traveller contributes a piece of their travels to the wider body of knowledge.

Search: given the vast amounts of content produced collaboratively among travellers, Germann Molz also discusses the mechanisms used to access relevant knowledge and make sense of all the information. Some have offered algorithms as a means of a-social knowledge creation; however, as Germann Molz points out, such understanding of algorithms neglects/overlooks the extent to which data itself is socially produced. She points to three ways this occurs:

  1. A search engine does not often only offer the key terms inputted into a search; rather, it also delivers text that other users have tagged, bookmarked, ranked in relation to those terms. The scope of relevance is expanded beyond the key terms to also include how other users have situated the terms into a wider networked context.
  2. Further, search engines also attempt to offer personalized search results that are attuned to your interests (example, if you just searched for information about the solar system, then when you search for ‘star’ you’ll get information about the sun rather than celebrities). However, such personalization often incorporates the individual’s social network into the search process: “relevance is determined less by search terms and more by what ‘other people like you’ have already bought…Personalized search is, perhaps, ironically, an increasingly social practice that locate and identifies people within broader social networks” (99).
  3. She also points to the ways that places always “blended geographies” composed of various materials from different people. The blended world—of the virtual and the physical world—allows the logic of search to be intergral to how we understand space. Travellers may look toward spaces to finds socially constructed means of searching/tagging/etc.

She concludes: “knowledge is intricately connected to the mobile and technological practices that create it” (101).


  1. Travel Remedy Kit: Interventions into train lines and passenger times, Laura Watts & Glenn Lyons

Watts & Lyons come from the field of travel appraisal. A common understanding of travel is that it is unproductive time: a means to an end. Thus, ideally, travel time would shrink to nothing if possible—i.e. teleportation. Thus, travellers are relatively disengaged with the world during transit. However, Watts & Lyons have found that travel is a productive (often economically) and useful time for many commuters, and they hope to maximize the productivity of many commuters travel.

Their research project involved six passengers who participated in a unique research method. The researchers provided a pre-set deck of cards that had prompts and questions that allowed the passenger to uncover and reflect upon the productivity of their travel time: “We asked the participant to place that card on the table in relation to all the other cards in order to build a visual representation and story of the journey. Card by card we began to articulate the mundane and everyday aspects of ravel which were deemed initially to be unimportant but became otherwise. Through this process we worked with participants to conceptualize the journey, moving from an articulation of specific problems to a discussion of what would be ideal—and the potential remedies necessary to create that ideal.

The authors went through some responses by the passengers. For example, many passengers would not want to teleport to their destination: “travel was important planning and ‘sorting things out in your head’ time” (109). Such transition time is described by the authors as an ambiguous, liminal space that can be achieved through constant movement. Such liminality was an important creative time for many.


  1. Mobile, experimental, public, Monika Büscher, Paul Coulton, Drew Hemment, and Preben Holst Mogensen

The authors advocate mobile technology developers to embrace experimentation of users: “experimentation inevitably breeds lively mix of interactions where uncertainty is not residual but immanent. Against this backdrop we argue that it may be advantageous to accept this unruly element of experimentation, its uncertainties and the potential for creative improvisation and work with it rather than against it” (121). As they write, experimentation accepts the way that everyday life and practice is affected by the knitting together of material, technical, social, temporal, and spatial factors: users experiment to see where mobile technologies fit into this interplay. Developers can release their mobile technologies “into the wild” to stimulate user experiences and behaviors—accordingly, the look to serendipitous discovery possible through collective experimentation.


  1. Reassembling fragmented geographies, Lorenza Mondada

Mondada focuses her attention on coordination, “central to the organization of persons moving in different places. It is generally recognized as a pervasive need of contemporary mobile life” (138). Communication with mobile technologies often involves coordination in some way. “Unacquainted participants,” as Mondad calls, “negotiate their respective locations in unfamiliar places, discovering and then resolving multiple contradictions arising from discrepant place formulations” (138). Such negotiation—of place making—among strangers is the focus of Mondad’s piece: she looks to roadside assistance services and the ways that callers and call-takers coordinate assistance. This often requires the help-seeker to offer descriptions of unfamiliar terrain that the call-taker must interpret to provide assistance.

Mondada’s study challenges hardwired understanding of geography as stable and uniquely describable locations. Rather, she writes, “geographies are mobile, mutable and multi-layered. Partial, occasioned geographies are locally achieved for the practical purposes at hand” (139). Geographies are assembled by the participant’s rhetorical formulation of them; thus, such space-making activities/practices often “produce multiple incompatible geographies, which change in the course of the ongoing negotiations” (139). Such negotiations take place in order to resolve “reality disjunctures.” Participants employ various “practices and resources mobilized by different participants to discover and resolve critical disjunctures, actively assembling a shared geography, a world seen in common” (139). As she discovers, remotely separated individuals often assume a shared common understanding of a location, yet it often becomes clear that “they have created distinct, fragmented, divergent geographies” (140) that they must then negotiate and resolve in order to move forward.

Looking at the transcript of one call between a Spanish tourist seeking help from a French roadside service. The French call-taker is also attempting to coordinate and translate geographies with the mechanic who is trying to locate the Spanish tourist. She alludes to some ways people attempt to negotiate fragmented geographic realities:

  • “questions can concern a very local detail or can come back to a greater level of generality, showing the instability of what can be taken for granted and the search for common ground” (144).
  • “Although proper names [of locations] are supposed to offer secure and unique grounds for reference, their use in interaction can generate intense negotiations. Here, the mention of the place name does not produce a unicity of the place reference but contributes to the opacity of the spatial information proffered by the participants” (146). It is latter found out that the town of “Cadillac de Fronsadais,” where the tourist believed to be, shares the name with a similar town of simply “Cadillac”—both of which were equidistant from the major city of Bordeaux, yet in different directions.
  • “The transition towards multi-activity exhibits the search for an alternative solution, mobilizing resources other than talk” (148). The call-taker then employs the mapping technology on her computer and partake in search procedures.

Mondada concludes, “ At the end of the call, a unique geography, recognized and accepted by all the participants, is reassembled, confirming the impossible reconjunction of Jordi and the mechanic. This shows that geography is actively achieved by the participants, being space (‘geo’) ‘written’ (‘graphy’) by their practices, being on the move as they constantly modify its coordinates, landmarks, and relevancies” (159).


  1. Studying mobile video telephony, Julien Morel & Christian Licoppe

The authors look at the “videophony” or mobile video calls and offer two methods of researching this emergent phenomenon: video-glasses (“which give access to part of the visual context but do not always allow a good visual access to mobile phone screen” 165) and direct audio & video capture (“which gives very good access to mobile-phone screens but leaves out the context of the user on the move” 165). As their descriptions suggest, the authors hope to create methods of observing mobile video calls while simultaneously preserving or managing the visual context of the moving communications.


  1. Mobile positioning, Rein Ahas

Ahas looks to the contribution mobile positioning based research methods, or “the determining of a mobile phone’s location” can be used in mobilities research. He offers some pretty technical ways this can be employed.


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