Critical Automobility Studies

IHS research group Techno-Science and Societal Transformation is launching a Critical Automobility Studies Lab, inviting and engaging researchers in various areas of mobility to focus on critical automobility studies The lab kicks off with a launching event that offers presentations and discussions as well as networking opportunities for everyone interested. Robert Braun, senior researcher at TSST, is talking about the idea behind the studies lab and the need for a critical methodological approach toward automobility.

How did the Idea of a studies lab on Critical Automobility Studies come to life?

One reason for focusing on Critical Automobility Studies is our research group’s involvement in two big European projects that deal with mobility issues. In NewHoRRIzon we run a social lab on research and innovation funding in the Horizon2020 challenge Smart, Green and Integrated Transport. In the second project, RiConfigure, we are working with ÖBB on so called open innovation and quadruple helix innovation. In both projects we saw that a critical approach to automobility as a social construct is central to the conceptualization of social life in the 20th and 21th century. Our critical approach to automobility partly emerged from the findings of these projects.

Why Critical Automobility Studies?

We saw a gap in the approach towards automobility and the lack of a critical methodological approach much in the vein of the Frankfurt School of social science. As social constructivists we believe that the social system created by automobility is not only to be observed and understood, but also to be changed through our investigations and interventions. The idea to start a studies lab here at IHS was furthermore boosted by external issues. Automobility studies have only been around since the early 2000s. Obviously a lot of people have dealt with the car before that, but automobility as a separate area of social research is quite new. Most approaches stem from mobility and transport-focused approaches and deal less with the techno-social construction aspects. We argue that automobility is the (neoliberal) social order in which we live in the 21st century. The need to have a critical social constructivist focus is fostered by a lot of issues currently on the rise - like electric transition or autonomous mobility. With the new studies lab we want to establish Critical Automobility Studies as a subdiscipline within the bigger universe of society and technology studies (STS).

Where do you see the difference between mobility and automobility studies?

For me, mobility studies focus on people, artifacts and goods being on the move. Transportation studies focus on the means and modes of transport and the impacts thereof. Critical Automobility Studies focus more on the politics of and interactions in our own world-making – whether moving or not. Automobility in my estimation is a hegemonic and coercive socio-political order rather than a form of mobility. An example for Vienna is the discussion circling around electric scooters. The debate emerged, because of the lack of space to those scooters. All space is occupied and arranged by automobility, so new modes of movement or organization principles to life in general just cannot enter anymore. Another example is the uncritical public spending to have electric charging stations helping the better-off change to electric cars. By this, the ordering of life by automobility will stay as is.

Hopefully a lot of people will show up which will allow for some networking among likeminded scholars or other interested parties.

You will kick-off the new studies lab with a workshop this week, could you tell me more about that?

We will have three keynote speakers, myself included. We invited two distinguished scholars. Richard Randell from the Webster University in Geneve is an Australian automobility scholar and Carlos Lopez-Galviz from Lancaster University, which also has a strong focus on mobilities. Both of them will talk about different aspects of automobility. I´ll very briefly introduce the idea behind the new studies lab on Critical Automobility Studies at IHS and hopefully a lot of people will show up which will allow for some networking among likeminded scholars or other interested parties. We will provide the food and drinks – the audience, hopefully, will bring great ideas.

One of the presentations will also focus on urban mobility – a topic that will become more important in the future?

Yes, moving away from the automobile we are mostly focusing on the city and urban space as an ecosystem in which we dwell. This is the techno-social space we occupy and also the ‘imaginary’ that arranges our life. Automobility in that sense becomes much more than mobility. It is the ordering construct of how our lives, from work to entertainment or consumption, are organized and structured, how our body is perceived and our self is understood. It is also how we are constructed politically, as bodies to be either enhanced or degraded, in extreme cases made to live or be killed by and through automobility. With our critical approach we would like to deconstruct this and also offer alternatives. We would like to continue our dialogue within IHS with other research groups or platforms using other methods, and also facilitate joint research endeavors both in the Austrian and European research scene.

Thanks for the interview!