Dangerous Mobilities

in Transfers


The articles in this special issue show how a theoretical approach informed by the mobilities turn can reveal new facets of the history of dangerous mobility. This afterword draws together some of these lessons concerning materialities, bodily sensations, and performativity, and then considers how we might study these aspects of danger and mobility from an international, comparative, and historical methodological perspective.

It almost goes without saying that mobilities are dangerous. As soon as we members of the human species begin moving our bodies—as infants, and soon as toddlers—we must learn to navigate a world of falls, bumps, and trips. Whether we walk, crawl, roll, or pull ourselves along with our hands, whether assisted by shoes, crutches, wheelchairs, or canes, we find ourselves in a gravitational world of hard surfaces, friction-generating surfaces, obstacles, and occasional steep inclines or drops. Even seemingly solid things like buildings move, and as Gail Adams-Hutcheson brings out, entangle us in “vibrant materialities.” Humans also face other dangers, associated with our bodily needs for breathable air, clean water, and warmth, each increasingly unreliable in the Anthropocene. We generally need to move around to find these things, but often the world moves in ways that bring us polluted air, dirty water, freezing temperatures, or excessive heat—and so we need to move again.

This special issue on “Mobilities in a Dangerous World” brings out new perspectives on the close relation between mobilities, danger, risk, and disaster. It is an understudied topic, and the mobilities perspective offers advantages for grappling with these fractious fields using new kinds of theoretical handles and innovative methodologies. At first it may seem surprising that the questions addressed in this issue range from adventure sports to calamitous natural disasters such as earthquakes. Yet there are certain linkages across these realms that a theoretical approach informed by the mobilities turn can reveal. In this afterword, I want to draw together some of these lessons in materialities, sensations, mobility assemblages, and performances, and to consider their importance from a historical and methodological perspective.

First, note how capacious the concept of danger is. Danger may be something we bring upon ourselves by how we move (adventure racing, nighttime cycling, or other risky sports), or it might be something imposed by our work or lack of work (seafaring, homelessness), or it might arise out of a sudden change in our environment (an earthquake, flood, or war). This has important historical implications. It reminds us of both the curiosity and the sense of discovery that drives human mobility, as well as the cautiousness and perspicacity with which we wisely undertake movements. How might we study the emergence of various kinds of mitigation or control over dangerous mobilities in various historical times and places? Do strategies for dealing with dangerous mobilities differ across periods and cultures? Steve Matthewman suggests that we have entered a new period of generalized, global, pervasive, and massive risk, a period of mobile disasters. This suggests a historical approach based on defining various “eras” of danger and mobility. Another approach, however, might be to contrast dangerous times with more stable times. Whatever the causes of danger, it seems, there is always some relation to mobilities and some contrast with mobilities that are not considered dangerous. Danger seems to be related to mobility in some intrinsic way, because we must either move through it skillfully or fleeit immediately. Th us, the historical study of dangerous mobilities sheds contrasting light on the normal patterns and rhythms of mobilities that shape times of safety, times of peace, or dwelling without danger. There are changing temporalities of both danger and mobility that pose a fascinating topic of historical inquiry.

Second, many of the articles have a strong emphasis on the “sensing material body,” with its embodied knowledge and its spatial and nonverbal sensory experience. Whether one is hunkering down on a storm-tossed ship or fleeing a flood, the bodily experiences of dangerous mobilities are crucial. Focusing on bodily affect brings to our attention the significance of phenomena such as vibration, motion sickness, fear felt as a racing heart, or extreme sleepiness that dogs the body and closes down the mind. This imparts a new way of thinking about what the study of mobilities entails but also raises interesting methodological questions of how we might study such phenomena historically or retrospectively. How do we conduct a history of the moving body, its sensations and feelings? Even in the study of the contemporary moment, we are dependent on various mediated methods: recording experience while on the move, eliciting retrospective accounts and memories, conducting interviews. There is no reason to think we could not find historical evidence with similar mediated accounts of dangerous mobilities, as Peter Merriman has argued for the historical embodied experience of mobilities such as driving.1 Beyond that, the nonrepresentational elements of such bodily sensing also demand more attention to object-oriented ontologies. Human bodies are implicated in the material affects of the more-than-human, as Adams-Hutcheson describes, vibrating with and through them.

Third, there is a fascinating turn here to examining nighttime mobile experiences such as navigating a ship through the night. The interest in darkness relates to the foregrounding of bodily affect noted above but also brings out the ways in which the world may exercise its own agency, causing us to move differently. We live within wider biorhythms and diurnal metabolisms, among which the interplay of daytime and nighttime, light and dark, is one of the most fundamental (yet often overlooked). We perceive the world differently in light and dark, and hence, we move differently. And darkness is generally a time of greater danger, or at least a sense that bodily movement may be more dangerous. Yet it might also be a time of serenity, drifting through moonlight, or perhaps flying in an airplane above the darkened earth. This opens up an entire realm of night moves and suggests the comparative historical study of how they have been undertaken and managed in different social and cultural contexts, a topic that has been explored in recent work by Tim Edensor.2 What ways, means, techniques, and skills have various human groups developed to move through the dark, interact with the dark, or push it back with illumination? The hunter comes to mind, alongside the sailor, the streetwalker, the burglar, the night guard, or the police officer. But there may also be a history of night moves ranging from religious ceremonies in the African-Caribbean diaspora, to the trances of the nightclub or rave, to the shamanistic traveler.

This brings us, fourth, to the question of performance and performativity. Dangerous mobilities entail various kinds of skilled performances, such as Holly Th orpe’s study of skateboarding in Afghanistan or parkour in Gaza or Maria Borovnik’s sailors. And dangerous mobilities have a kind of “performativity” insofar as they cause other things to happen: invasive species spread around the world, affecting entire ecosystems; human-made risks reverberate into cascading catastrophes; diseases spread across mobile vectors. But we also see another kind of performativity in the incredible use of participatory methods by Alison Lloyd Williams and colleagues, involving children who have experienced flooding in England. Here the method itself becomes performative, “folding empirical analysis into social and material change.” And, as they note, “the very use of mobile methods is inherently open and unpredictable: doing things always leads to the possibility of doing different things or doing things differently.” In this sense, several of the articles open up connections to policy, public health, and well-being, asking how we might do things differently, such as Christopher McLeod and colleagues’ investigation of policies that move the poor and homeless away from city centers. In this regard, the study of danger, disaster, and risky mobilities presents ethical challenges to the relationship between research and action: Are we not just representing some reality but also intervening in and changing it? If we are to study how youth in Gaza, Afghanistan, England, or New Zealand are all responding to danger and disaster, should we not also mobilize our own methods in response to them?

Finally, then, I would like to note how this special issue advances the call for more international perspectives. It calls on us to pay attention to a wide range of places within a common framework, and to investigate moving people, objects, bodies, and ideas across borders. This international commitment also brings into view what might be seen as “minor” actors, whether youth in Gaza, Afghanistan, and England; the poor and homeless in Tallahassee; or the often unseen sailors on the cargo ships that keep goods circulating around the world. While there has been exciting research on subaltern mobilities as possible sites of subversive movement and resistance against dominant mobility regimes, such as Jacob Shell’s innovative history Transportation and Revolt,3 there is far more work to be done on minor mobilities, subaltern mobilities, animal mobilities, gendered mobilities, racialized mobilities, and the uneven risks and dangers that different kinds of movers face. There are many directions for future research to investigate in what I would widely call the field of mobility justice.

In my forthcoming book on Mobility Justice, I seek to trace the fields of power that produce injustices in mobility from the scale of the body, through the street and highway, the city and its extended infrastructure space, the transnational movement across borders, and the planetary geoecologies of circulation of energy and resources.4 All of these scales entail various kinds of dangerous mobilities and bodily entanglements with vibrant materialities, and we need to better understand their uneven effects on different populations, and in performing differential embodiments and bodily experiences of (dangerous) space and (risky) movement. As I write this, I am acutely aware of the tragedy that occurred this week, in the Grenfell Tower fire in London, in which dozens of people were trapped in a burning building. Some escaped, some jumped from windows, some were helped out by neighbors and fire services, but so many others were trapped in their flats, or went up to the roof and could not get down. While quite different from the Christchurch earthquake experience, or the flooding in England, or the war in Gaza, it is another reminder of how the experience of dangerous mobilities lives on not just in those directly affected but also in all who witness this, reverberating fear and loss across an entire city, and perhaps an entire country.

I hope others will take inspiration from this special issue to continue the study of dangerous mobilities, to expand the study of embodied sensory experiences of mobility, to examine the implications of darkness and nighttime mobilities, to open up the problematic of performance and performativity of various mobilities, and to do so with attention to transnational locations and to minor and subaltern mobile subjects, to human and nonhuman ontologies, to the growing risks of the Anthropocene, and to the vibrant materialities of darkness, “geopower,” and trauma.


Peter Merriman, Driving Spaces: A Cultural-Historical Geography of England’s M1 Motorway (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2007).


Tim Edensor, From Light to Dark: Daylight, Illumination, and Gloom (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2017).


Jacob Shell, Transportation and Revolt: Pigeons, Mules, Canals, and the Vanishing Geographies of Subversive Mobilities (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015).


Mimi Sheller, Mobility Justice (London: Verso, 2018).

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Contributor Notes

Mimi Sheller is Professor of sociology and founding Director of the Center for Mobilities Research and Policy at Drexel University, Philadelphia. She is President of the International Association for the History of Transport, Traffic and Mobility and founding coeditor of the journal Mobilities. Her books include Aluminum Dreams: The Making of Light Modernity (2014), The Routledge Handbook of Mobilities (2013), Mobility and Locative Media: Mobile Communication in Hybrid Spaces (2014), Consuming the Caribbean: From Arawaks to Zombies (2003), Tourism Mobilities: Places to Play, Places in Play (2004), and Citizenship from Below: Erotic Agency and Caribbean Freedom (2012). E-mail:


Interdisciplinary Journal of Mobility Studies