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Last modified: 15.04.2013

Today I want to reflect upon one of the descriptors used when thinking about mobilities research. Often we find the research field described as a ‘turn’ or a ‘paradigm’. I suppose one take on this is simply to ignore the difference, or more pragmatically use the terms interchangeable. This, however, is not the kind of academic rigor I prefer. I often wonder about the difference and find myself attracted to using only one of the terms. Now, I might as well come frank and state that I subscribe to the ‘turn’ label. Later I shall try to argue my case, but before that I would like to stress that this discussion is a reflection of a debate I have had over some years now with my good colleague Claus Lassen in C-MUS. At various moments Claus and I have used ‘paradigm’ and ‘turn’ respectively, and this now has resulted in us setting up a C-MUS research seminar for this discussion. I will return to where and when related to this seminar but as a starter let me quote our description of the issue from the seminar invitation (that you might find elsewhere at the C-MUS blog):

‘Mobilities – paradigm or turn?

Much of the research within the new mobilities research is labeled as taking place either within a ‘paradigm’ or a ‘turn.’ But very often without much accompanying reflection. This workshop will put focus on what it might mean to term the research as either within one or the other. The workshop asks; what does it mean, and does it matter? The process towards this discussion is not by offering any final answers, but rather by reflecting upon the organizers research within mobilities for more than a decade. As an outcome the aim is not so much a verdict as to which label is the better, but more as an opportunity to pause and reflect upon one’s own research. The workshop aims at using this discussion to get closer to the meaning of the very key notion of mobilities offering perspectives on what this term mean, and how we theorize and research under it as a common label for C-MUS’.

Settling an issue like this one might think would be possible by consulting some of the founding voices behind the new mobilities research. However, if we glance at the seminal paper by Sheller and Urry from 2006 titled ‘The New Mobilities Paradigm’ (Environment and Planning A, 2006, volume 38, pages 207-226) we may think the case is closed since the paradigm notion is in the headline. However on page 208 within the very same sentence you find this quote:

‘In this paper we draw out some characteristics, properties, and implications of this emergent paradigm, to reflect on how far we have come and to extend and develop the `mobility turn‘ within the social sciences. Social science as static Social science has largely ignored or trivialised the importance of the systematic movements of people for work and family life, for leisure and pleasure, and for politics and protest. The paradigm challenges the ways in which much social science research has been `a-mobile’ (Sheller & Urry 2006:208, my underlining).

So based on this one may interpret that the terms are synonymous or interchangeable. Here I would like to offer another point stressing that there is in fact a difference in the level of depth as we utilize the notion of ‘paradigm’ rather than ‘turn’. If we consult Wikipedia (which I do not recommend as a scholarly reference in general!) we find that the search for ‘mobilities turn’ and ‘mobilities paradigm’ in fact leads to the very same entry for the web dictionary which is this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mobilities

This also suggests they are interchangeable and synonymous. But as said, I don’t believe in settling academic disputes by Wikipedia as middleman. Rather, I’d reflect upon what I think is a key feature behind this discussion. As most readers will know the real public breakthrough in using the notion of ‘paradigm’ was done by Thomas Kuhn in his now seminal work ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ from 1962. In my copy there is a 1969 post-script written by Kuhn in which he deals with some of the criticism of the book. Amongst other things he notes that one critic had detected (at least) 22 different ways of using the concept of paradigm! (page 181). However, the key insights from Kuhn’s coining of the notion were that scientific ventures are organized by social actors within social institutions. Obviously research does have a large element in common with other such activities. Moreover, the notion of ‘paradigm’ with its historical legacy in old Greek as referring to ‘patterns and examples’ pointed at paradigm as a social convention within a scientific community bound by exemplar problems, methods and concepts/theories. A paradigm in (one of) Kuhn’s terms is thus a profound joint recognition of the nature of a scientific task, as well as a consensual level to the methods and theories relevant to solving these issues (often in a way where the ‘good example’ with all its underlying notions of tacit knowledge and unspoken assumptions is key to identifying a paradigm.) However, what is most important for my interpretation, and thus why I don’t use the term about the mobilities research, is its profoundness and its deep penetration into the ontologies and epistemologies in question. I am well aware that later uses of the notion of paradigm seem to make it synonymous with ‘frame’ or ‘school of thought’. However Kuhn’s key example of paradigms and their durability leads me toward a more ‘strong’ interpretation of the concept. Kuhn mentions the shift from mechanical physics towards quantum mechanics. Now I shall not pretend to be an expert on these matters, but one thing I do understand, and that is the profoundness of this distinction. So my reasoning thus far has let me to think of paradigms as something almost rock-solid and not easily changing. The ‘light version’ of the concept where it seems to mean a framing or a pair of glasses that is easily substituted with another framing or set of glasses I find to indicate something less committing than a ‘paradigm’. So would I advocate that we use the term ‘turn’ for describing the new mobilities research since it does not uphold all the solid and coherent properties of what I believe to the a ‘paradigm’ in Kuhn’s sense. The notion of ‘turn’ has equally a history and my points of reference here are the examples of the ‘linguistic turn’ within philosophy and the ‘spatial turn’ within the humanities. Taken this way, and with an eye to its metaphorical properties, a ‘turn’ may be seen as the direction of attention and a way we chose to orient ourselves within a given context. So I think the ‘turn’ signifies that we are looking at the world and one of its may fascinating phenomena (in this context mobilities) in a certain fashion or a particular way – and that we could have looked at it in many different ways. This would for example be what happens when a scholar within transport research looks as a commute from A to B. Now compare this to a mobilities scholar and you will see that there is more than movement to a commute from A to B (e.g. the production of place, notions of identity, communities of practices etc.). Now these are surely different perspectives, but I don’t think they are different ‘paradigms’ in the strong sense. I’d like to reserve the notion of ‘paradigm’ to very profound and ontological differences. Moreover, I think you may choose to look at the world in a particular way when subscribing to a ‘turn’. Perhaps this really is a key distinction; choice. So you may choose to study movement of people through the perspective of transport or mobilities. Different outcomes are bound to be for sure as well as you may discuss ontological differences. However, the ‘paradigm’ lies beyond choice – it is a way of understanding reality with profound repercussions for everything besides what is studied. This I think is a ‘strong’ interpretation of ‘paradigm’ that prompts me to lean towards the notion of ‘turn’ as a reasonable descriptor for the new mobilities research. Alas, I might grow wiser and revise my understanding. The current position has however been one I have advocated since my very early years within mobilities research starting out more than a decade ago. But it is never too late to get wiser, so who knows … for now I have just not seen any compelling arguments in favor of the ‘paradigm’ notion that has let me to abolish the notion of ‘turn’.

To help organizing some of this theoretical Babble and figure out if one or the other concept may be most accurate – or simply to reflect upon the nature of mobilities research – I hope to see you at the C-MUS research workshop ‘Mobilities research – paradigm or turn?’ on May 24 from 10-12 at Department of Architecture, Design and Media Technology in Bispensgade, room B-304.

See you there!

/Ole B. Jensen