Today I want to touch upon an issue that many social scientists are struggling with. Namely how to research and write on topics that are personally interesting and committing, at the same time as to keep the proper ‘distance’ and not fall into a trap of idiosyncratic and subjective philosophy. Personally I have always liked to think about research ideas related to my own experiences with various modes of moving, particular technologies, systems and infrastructures, and real places. I feel that this sort of ethnographic pulse keep the research themes and issues alive, as well as they motivate me to engage with them. Needless to say, I also conduct research into themes that do not have this component of shall we call it ‘personal experience’. However, on a more general note I do think there is a point in trying to connect the research questions that one experience both as a researcher and an ‘ordinary’ person. Now, one of the key prompts for handling this relationship I have always found to be the seminal text by C. Wright Mills. In his much acclaimed book The Sociological Imagination from 1959 (Oxford: Oxford University Press) Mills argue that the ‘sociological imagination’ precisely is about the ability to connect personal ‘troubles’ with public ‘issues. I think the attraction of this argument for me in the first place was about how to connect to a level of experiential themes that carried a high level of personal motivation with what was of relevance to the wider research community. Later in my career I realized that the wider implications that made this research approach attractive also had to do with the pragmatic and everyday-life oriented perspectives unfolding as one start to ponder on the relationship between ‘issues’ and ‘troubles’. Obviously I would recommend any mobilities scholar to read Mills’ book and see how that might influence one’s own analysis and thinking. To stay with the pragmatic lesion of this simple conceptualisation let me illustrate with an example from my own writings. As you may recall the eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano in April 2010 set off a number of environmental, economic and cultural effects obstructing thousands of people in the midst of their global mobility flows. As well it halted the exchange of goods and commodities and exposed the vulnerability of the global aeromobility system. I happened to be attending two conferences in the US at the time and suddenly this global event became a very personal thing. After the eruption there was a call for papers from the journal Mobilities on the theme of the volcanic eruption. As a matter of fact I had ‘written’ the paper in my mind during the conferences and on my journey back home. So I found it rather easy to sit down and try to recapitulate the observations, experiences, and not at least emotions related to being a first-hand witness to this global mega event. The result was the paper Emotional Eruptions, Volcanic Activity and Global Mobilities – a Field Account from a European in the US During the Eruption of Eyjafjallajökull published in the Mobilities Journal Vol. 6, No. 1, February 2011. You may of course consult the paper in it full length at the Journal web site but here is a small sample hopefully illustrating my reflections over being caught in the middle of this event that laid bare all sorts of mobilities interdependencies and systems vulnerabilities:
‘I was in the lobby of the Omni Shoreham in Washington DC as one out of more or less 6000 participants in the annual American Association of Geographers conference (AAG). Actually, I had been attending a conference in Victoria BC and was now in DC for the AAG before my final academic event: a launch of a new research centre in Philadelphia. I made it to DC on the beautiful and sunny afternoon of Monday 12 April 2010. I split a cab from the airport with another AAG participant whom I did not know and did not meet again. The event was as always huge. This time around I was organising streams and presenting papers and I felt that the mobility research group was well integrated. In the hotel lobby I had just been made aware of the volcanic eruption; I had never heard of a disruption of this scale before. Supposedly the eruption was sealing off global and international airspace. Next to the rumour spreading around the hotel lobby one of my first sources of information was an e-mail from my wife in Europe. To try to get more information I explored CNN, but found nothing. As I received the first messages from home, which referred to an ‘ash cloud’, my imagination started working wildly. When reassured that my family back home were fine (and had not even witnessed the phenomenon first-hand) I met two colleagues from another university in my home country. As I broke the news about the volcano, the ash cloud, and the closing of the international airspace all they had to offer was disbelief—it took me a couple of minutes to assure them that my story was authentic. And it was about this time that the mood in the lobby slowly started changing. Without hearing all of what the people present were saying it was clear from their gestures, body language, and the seriousness of the discussion that we were experiencing the same emotions, albeit across various languages and cultures. The situation was very dynamic. We all went through stages of surprise, disbelief, and worry. Nowhere, it seems, was better to observe this collective and emotional rollercoaster than in the lobby of the big hotel. By its nature the lobby was the only ‘public space’ in the building and a site where the latest news and rumours could be exchanged. The space became a command and control centre for making sense of the event. Adding to this the Omni lobby was the only zone where wireless access was free so it became the central nervous system for the duration of the event. Sitting in the lobby of a four star hotel amongst other stranded academics it struck me that this was not exactly the Titanic. In particular the relative severity of the event was made clear from initial reports of the global economic impacts of the eruption. On day three, or thereabouts, I followed a CNN feature on the first layoffs in the African agriculture sector. The closing of the international airspace made the transport of cheap agricultural goods from Africa to Europe impossible. The frustration and desperation in the faces of these unemployed farm workers stood in contrast to my personal ‘troubles’ in finding another hotel if the event turned out to be on-going. The volcanic eruption thus also exposed to me the power-geometries of global connectivity that have at their base uneven regional levels of development. During the days the event unfolded the hotel lobby became a central point of reference. People met here, talked, accessed wireless and exchanged the latest news. It struck me how information collected from sources like national television, CNN and global media, personal cell phone communications, and e-mails were pooled into more or less reliable statements on the state of affairs. The hotel lobby and the communicative practices developing around this important node became a window into how the collective agenda morphed and shifted, at times very much resembling a ‘rollercoaster’ of emotions. At other times there were rational exchanges of knowledge, ideas and tips for re-routing; alternative trajectories and transportation modes; and simply other things to do whilst stuck in the US. The hotel lobby became the public sphere for exchanging and developing different interpretations of how to make sense of this giant phenomenon, the magnitude of which only slowly dawned upon us. Most were prepared only for a week of academic isolation otherwise occupied by theories, papers, endless presentations, talks and key-note speeches; not the painful reality of mobility impairment, loss of control, and vulnerability’.
Now, as I said the full paper may be read at the Journal web site. Here I simply wanted to use it as an illustration of the attempt to write on the personal experiences without letting these obstruct the academic goal of contributing to the general state-of-the-art within mobilities research and thus move beyond a subjective traveller’s tale. Hopefully I have spurred the interest amongst some of the readers of this blog to explore the potential of Mills’ thoughts and ideas. As may come across quite evidently my second ‘helper’ for writing this paper was a twist of Goffman’s observational techniques as I sat in the lobby of the conference hotel. Being on the road with Goffman and Mills is, I think, most productive as this actually resulted in a publication I in no way had been able to foresee or plan as I took off for these conferences. So next to the encouragement to read Mills and become inspired by the connection of ‘issues’ and ‘troubles’ I hope this blog post also has illustrated that mobilities researchers (or at least some of us) never lay down our guards, and that we always are very close to what we study – this I consider to be the main privilege and motivation factor of them all.
So, look out … the next paper topic of yours may be just under your nose!
/Ole B. Jensen