Cumulative, Collaborative, Innovative: Studying Mobilities after COVID

Biao Xiang

The Coronavirus and Mobility Forum at COMPAS started in March 2020 – when the COVID-19 epidemic in China was quickly becoming a global pandemic. In February and March, medical scientists were struggling to predict how the virus would spread, while commentators were busy debating about China’s influence over WHO in declaring the crisis a pandemic (WHO eventually did, on 11 March). As an anthropologist, I was most intrigued by how mainstream understandings about the outbreak were constantly challenged by rapid changes on the ground. What had been assumed to be specific to China – such as the coverup, and then the draconian lockdown – turned out to be widespread across countries, regardless of political system. The belief that democracy and transparency would avoid disastrous outbreaks was seriously questioned. At the same time, however, no convincing alternative account was offered. Opinions were deeply divided in China and other parts of the world, and those painful divides will most likely persist into the foreseeable future. It would be valuable, I thought, to document these fast-changing realities in different parts of the world to provide a basis for more meaningful dialogue.

The Forum was, first and foremost, a space for this exercise. It paid close attention to empirical details because, as became clear during the pandemic, what we had thought to be insignificant parts of life could actually matter a great deal. How urban neighbourhoods are organized, or how quickly goods can be delivered to a particular site, could cost or save lives. Our habitual scholarly thinking—explaining and predicting events through institutional and structural factors—appeared trivial. The devil is in the details—the material, technical procedures of operations. This is a world that is engulfed in a gigantic storm, but one that must be apprehended through fine details.

I also set up the Forum as a response to the overflow of information. The first pandemic to be monitored moment by moment on a global scale, COVID-19 is especially emotionally taxing. We are flooded by big numbers. But big data without social interpretation can be more bewildering than revealing. We know so much about our world, but understand little. C.P. Scott famously reminded us that “comment is free, but facts are sacred”; in the 21st century, facts represented by data seem in oversupply, while fact-based analysis is a scarcity. Posts in the Forum aimed to provide evidence-based interpretations.

Why mobility?

Mobility became a particularly salient issue during the pandemic. First, countries experimented with different means of regulating the mobilities of people, goods and information, with vastly varied outcomes. The world was turned into a mobility laboratory. Second, as one of the most mundane, routine, and pragmatic aspects of life, mobility offers us a sharp lens into detailed processes of how societies function. While mobilities are shaped by institutional and structural factors, the patterns and consequences of mobilities cannot be reduced into incidental realizations of abstract larger forces.

This understanding about the analytical value of mobilities differentiated our Forum from usual blogs. Instead of providing a space for exchanging opinions, this Forum strove to collect empirical evidence to generate new research questions. The outcomes were gratifying: over the last twelve months we published 122 posts, which attracted at least 7,000 visits from readers in nearly 120 countries, and produced scores of retweets. One of the most popular blogs, From Chain Reaction to Grid Reaction was visited over 1700 times.

A number of posts were developed into formal publications (e.g. “Gyroscope-Like Economy, “Concentrated Mobility” in Chinese and in English, “Hostages Of Mobility”) Nearly twenty posts were translated into Chinese and published by The Paper, a portal dedicated to serious news and commentary in China with more than 10 million active daily readers (e.g. this post by Kazue Takamura on migrant workers in Tokyo).

None of these would be possible without support from colleagues and friends. Our communications manager, Rosaleen Cunningham encouraged me enthusiastically when I was unsure whether the Forum was a good idea. She helped to revise, edit, and format every single post. Nathan Grassi’s final touch brought the posts live online. John Surico magically improved some of my writings through his meticulous editing. Magda Rodríguez Dehli organized co-publishing between the Forum and the Routed magazine, which attracted a synergy of outstanding contributions. Maurice Kirschbaum and Tamoi Fujii initiated the Flash Talks webinar series on seven topics from the Forum to deepen the discussion. And Tu Jiaoying helped with documentary research and English-Chinese translation. I felt enormously blessed to end my 22 years at Oxford with such an endeavour.

From now on, the Forum will no longer accept new submissions. But all the past posts will remain here—and the Forum will live on somewhere else.

A New Life: The MoLab Inventory of Mobilities and Socioeconomic Changes

Our Forum expanded the uncharted territory of the studies of mobility and disruption. The challenge for the next step is to turn the frontier into a fertile field, where empirical observations can be accumulated and lead to new conceptualizations, while focus can shift from dramatic events to daily routines without losing the analytical sharpness.

Partly to address these challenges, I am starting the MoLab Inventory of Mobilities and Socioeconomic Changes. MoLab stands for the Mobility, Technology and Wellbeing Lab. This is the first major project that I am embarking after I joined the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Germany on a part-time basis in April 2020 (followed by a full-time appointment from September 2021). The MoLab Inventory is a continuation of the Forum at Oxford as it takes mobilities as the entry point to examine global changes. The Inventory expands the Forum by broadening key insights that we learned during the pandemic into general themes. The Inventory will be organized by defined categories, and, as compared to Forum posts, each entry in the Inventory will be tighter in structure and more rigorous with evidence. This will hopefully make our learning more cumulative. Finally, the Inventory will consciously support collaborative initiatives to turn material in the Inventory into high-impact research. The Inventory has no value unless it effectively facilitates cumulative, collaborative, and innovative research. We thus warmly invite you to join us as:

  • Entry authors who contribute individual entries under one of the themes (500-3,000 words, focusing on a case of changing patterns or meanings of mobilities);
  • Guest curators who develop new themes and solicit entries;
  • Workshop organizers, who develop materials in the Inventory into larger ideas,collective publications, and research projects;
  • Article authors who develop materials in the Inventory into systematic arguments.

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