Welcome aboard KLM Air Land! Reflections on the mobilities turn

Nauja Kleist  Cover image by Nauja Kleist


Tuesday morning in a rural district capital in the western part of Ghana. It’s market day and the streets are buzzing with people, goods of all sorts, cars, taxis and trotros – the ubiquitous minibuses that serve as a low-cost means of transport many places in Ghana. A battered blue one with the words ‘KLM Air Land’ written on the back catches my eye. Parked next to the Atomic Lotto kiosk, the scene almost explodes with invocations of different mobilities, imagined journeys, and futures-in-the-making. Is the trotro owned by a Ghanaian working for KLM or living in the Netherlands – or somebody dreaming about flying around the world?  Is it a humoristic – or disapproving – commentary to the many Ghanaians living in this part of the country, who have travelled overland to Libya under harsh circumstances or dream of traveling further afield? Is the reasoning that if you cannot fly KLM Airlines, you can at least ride the KLM Air Land minibus? The intriguing slogan shines the spotlight on different mobilities and modes of travel, the regimes of mobility they are embedded in, and the inequalities they reflect. 

In this blogpost, I take departure in the KLM Air Land illustration to reflect upon the mobilities approach, based on a keynote at the inaugural AMMODI workshop in September 2018. An extended version of this post has been published as a keyword  article in the ten-year anniversary issue of African Diaspora. Here I present some of the key features of the mobilities approach and consider the perspectives it inspires and calls for, with emphasis on regimes, politics and trajectories of mobility. I start with an introduction to the so-called mobilities turn and end with some reflections on its advantages and challenges. So welcome aboard!

The new mobilities paradigm

The introduction of mobilities as a theoretical and empirical research field emerged around the turn of the millennium, advocated by sociologists John Urry and Mimi Sheller as a new analytical framework to study how societies move. The proponents declared a ‘new mobilities paradigm’, with the aim of examining and highlighting the role of various kinds of mobility for societal development – hence the plural form mobilities. They also challenged sedentary notions of society in the social sciences where society is seen as defined by the territory of the nation state. In this so-called ‘container model’ of society, as Giddens and Beck termed it, (certain) cross-border phenomena are seen as a deviation, a problem to be solved or simply ignored. The mobilities paradigm thus shares epistemological ambitions with diaspora and transnationalism studies that emerged in the 1990s as well as with Andreas Wimmer and Nina Glick Schiller’s critique of methodological nationalism. In contrast to migration studies, however, a mobilities approach employs an analytical framework with attention to all kinds of mobile phenomena and mobile subjects – from runners and commuters to diplomats and asylum-seekers. Likewise it focuses on the underpinning infrastructures and moorings that make these mobilities possible, such as highways, dirt roads or airports. 

Villagio, Accra, April 2019. Photo by Nauja Kleist

The new mobilities paradigm – or less pompously, the mobilities turn – thus includes attention to migration as one kind of mobility practice amongst others. If our minibus passengers rode KLM Air Land to start an overland journey towards North Africa, or drove to Kotoka Airport in Accra to catch a KLM flight, they might be considered topics for a migration analysis; usually not so if they took the trotro to visit the market and returned in the afternoon. Yet, in a mobilities approach, the (perceived) intentions of their mobility does not define our analytical interest. Their everyday and livelihood-related mobility, the trajectory of used minibuses from Europe to West Africa and the overall trotrotransportation system in Ghana might all be considered interesting and worthwhile areas of study. Indeed, a mobilities approach embraces both human and non-human actors as equal objects of study. I mainly consider human mobility in this blogpost, however, in line with AMMODI’s overall focus. 

Regimes and politics of mobility 

An important feature of a mobilities approach is the analytical attention to regimes of mobility and the dynamics and interdependencies between mobility and immobility. This points to questions about how different mobilities are constrained or facilitated and the unequal access to safe and legal international migration, at both local and global levels. Citizenship and class background circumscribe mobility practices, making visa and intercontinental flights more accessible for persons with high-mobility passports from say Singapore or Sweden, than for most African nationals. At the local level, a Ghanaian university professor is more likely to catch an intercontinental KLM flight from Accra to Schiphol and drive her own car, while a rural petty trader more likely catches the trotro

Photo by Etienne Jong on Unsplash

A mobilities perspective may thus inspire us to pay attention to the various modes and dimensions of mobility at several scales and the inequalities they entail. Here I find Tim Creswell’s politics of mobility useful as an analytical perspective. Creswell suggests six constitutive mobility elements when analyzing movement from one place to another: motive force, velocity, rhythm, routes, experience and friction. This calls for attention to the meanings, contestations, symbols and rights connected to mobility, and the embodied practices of moving, raising a range of questions: How do you move? How does it feel? What is the pace? Who and what facilitates, constrains or governs your mobility? And so on. The embodied experience of catching the KLM Air Land on a hot and dusty day, traversing bumpy roads, is quite different from driving an SUV with air conditioning, not to mention the difference between sitting in a business seat in an intercontinental KLM flight versus crossing the Mediterranean in a rickety boat. The moving subjects may both head for the same final destinations, but the speed, experience, rhythm and friction encountered are highly different as are the chances of reaching this destination.

A mobilities perspective may thus inspire us to pay attention to the various modes and dimensions of mobility at several scales and the inequalities they entail

Concern with the political and regulatory dimensions of mobility in terms of border control and restrictive regimes of mobility has gained traction in migration and mobilities studies alike.  A mobility approach encompasses embodied as well as regulatory dimensions of mobility, however, highlighting the connections between these dimensions and their political nature. 

Trajectories of mobility 

As the reflections above suggest, a mobilities perspective also calls for attention to studying trajectories: how people and things move and the locations they move between. This invites us to consider the various ways of moving, from circulating between one’s hometown and nearby markets, as in the case of our imagined trotro passengers, to journeys across continents, perhaps even between them, while considering the possible setbacks, detours, or multiple departures and returns. There is growing research on the step-wise intra- and extracontinental African mobilities that analyzes how mobile subjects move, stay, linger, wait, are detained, grasp opportunities and change ideas about destinations as they move – rather than moving directly from A to B. Here a focus on scale and spatial reach is important as well, pointing to how and where different mobilities are enacted, translocally or transnationally: moving within a town or rural area, taking busses, moving for work or studies, or engaging in longer overland or airborne journeys. 

Literature on trajectories and the role of mobility in society is well-established, sometimes using the term ‘migration’, sometimes ‘mobilities’ as a key analytical concept. Tekalign Ayalew Mengiste’s doctoral dissertation on the struggles for mobility between Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sweden is one example, based on multi-sited fieldwork in both East Africa and Europe, while Isaie Dougnon has analyzed the role of Songhay migrants at Kumasi Central Market, Ghana, in a historical perspective. A third example is an edited volume on the role of migrations and mobilities for structural processes of change in Ghana, edited by Mariama AwumbilaDelali Badasu and Joseph Teye.

In my own work, I have analyzed the social and migratory trajectories amongst Ghanaian migrants, analyzing multiple precarious journeys from Ghana and forced relocation processes, such as deportation by air; overland deportation and evacuation; or self-organized flight from civil war. Likewise, I have examined post-return life, identifying how precarious mobilities and livelihoods were key features for many of the returnees – within and outside Ghana. In another article, I followed used computers donated from Denmark to Ghana, exploring their changing social life from discarded IT equipment to development contributions to poor village schools. Here emphasis was on the trajectory of the physical movement of computers and how this movement was entangled with the (im)mobility and positionings of Ghanaian migrants, returnees and local headmasters, and the different regimes of mobility they were situated in. While I use the terms of mobility, migrants, and migration in both articles, I have become increasingly curious about multi-directional and disrupted mobile trajectories, the linkages between social and physical (im)mobility, and the inequalities that (im)mobility is embedded in.  

By way of conclusion

A focus on mobilities may turn our attention to the normal, everyday and unspectacular modes of moving as well as their human dramas – for minibus passengers and international migrants alike. It may de-naturalize human mobility as something exceptional or a problem to be solved. It may thereby help us stay clear of what Allison Hui has called ‘migration exceptionalism’: the belief that migrants constitute a particular kind of beings, ‘naturally different’ from other subjects.

A focus on mobilities may turn our attention to the normal, everyday and unspectacular modes of moving as well as their human dramas

As Janine Dahinden has stated, there is a need for de-migranticization of migration research and extension of the range of experiences and subjects included in our analyses, going beyond a ‘migrants-only’ approach. Hence a mobilities approach may push us to rethink concepts and approaches so that we don’t reproduce stereotypical notions of mobile subjects, inviting us to consider a wide range of mobilities, their links with immobility, their embeddedness in regimes of mobility and the underpinning infrastructures. It may, in other words, expand our analytical imagination and attention – whether we explore the mobilities of KLM Air Land or KLM Airlines passengers.  

About the author

Nauja Kleist is a Senior Researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies and holds a PhD in Sociology from the University of Copenhagen. Her research focuses on linkages between (im)mobility, belonging and social order, with emphasis on how migration and mobility is perceived, practiced and governed by different actors as well as the role of mobility in society and in imaginaries of the good life and the future. Another research strand concerns the transnational engagement of diaspora groups with a focus on gender, affect, belonging and underpinning infrastructures. She is the PI of the research project Diaspora Humanitarianism in Complex Crises and an editor of the journal African Diaspora. She thanks Jesper Bjarnesen and Franzisca Zanker for the keynote invitation and for the useful comments to the blogpost.  

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