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Keep on turning: a note from the European continent.

Cultures of transport and mobility

So the aim is fulfilled: the section 'Surveys and speculations' has seen its first good run-in. 'Cultures of transport' elicited the response 'Turn if you want to', (1) and the 'cultural turn' or, in the commentators' view, its rhetoric gave rise to the debate. Controversial or otherwise, it is interesting to read and reflect on the course of the discussion, the aspects highlighted and those forgotten or ignored. But, overall, it is important for all of us in this field to engage in such debate and to reflect on what we are doing. So let's continue the dialogue on 'cultures of transport', and let's be of a mobile (but critical) turn of mind. Only then can we get 'cultures of transport and mobility'.

The starting point ...

Last year Colin Divall and George Revill picked up 'John Armstrong's 1998 plea for an innovative, even controversial transport history'. (2) Armstrong argued that future research in transport history should 'develop, or borrow from other disciplines, novel theories, techniques and approaches to the subject'. (3) Divall and Revill emphasise the 'cultural turn' which 'has remodelled so many other areas of the humanities and the social sciences over the last decade'. (4) Their article led to the conclusion that 'culture should be central to an engagement between transport historiography and other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences'. Michael Freeman commented upon this article, and in his view Divall and Revill 'have taken a turn too far'. (5) In a critical way he highlighted his points of view and his disagreements with Divall and Revill. The overall impression of Freeman is his preoccupation with the rhetoric of the cultural turn. He points out misinterpretations and 'quite bizarre' connections which he cannot re-enact. His main critique is that Divall and Revill try to 'shift scholarly focus from the structural to the contingent', (6) which Freeman wants to study in partnership (but without suggesting how). My observations are on a more structural level and lead me to suggest the next steps on the way.

The 'community'

The first observation questions the existence of a 'knowable community of scholars' in Freeman's article--and their self-identification as members of a distinct group.

But it should not be overlooked that since the late 1990s 'culture' has also arrived in histories of transport. (7) When T2M held its inaugural conference in 2003 one of the panels was dedicated to 'mobility culture'. Two years earlier I organised the interdisciplinary series 'Railway/Culture' at the University of Vienna and it was not difficult to find lecturers from different disciplines who were interested in contributing their point of view to the debates on railways and culture. They came from all round the world. Several people in different countries were doing research in this area, not as part of a 'community' but each in their own way--a guarantee of a great variety of approaches. All the papers were 'like a snapshot of a learning process, and it aims to stimulate future research'. (8)

Three years after that, in 2004, an 'interdisciplinary conference' was held in Oxford, 'The Cultural Relations of the Railway in the Tracks of Modernity'. (9) The self-perception--that there 'has however so far never [!] been a colloquium that articulates research on this topic by academics working in different disciplines'--shows that it can sometimes seem difficult to keep track of the field. Or are there not only 'physical' boundaries but also mental (not to say 'cultural') ones?

These examples show that researchers are working in this area, and therefore a 'community' on 'cultures of transport' is knowable, and it must be recognised.

Inter-nationality? Inside/outside?

This brings me to the second observation, the absence of internationality. For example, the 'internationality' of the quoted sources is restricted to the English-speaking world, with a strong leaning towards the UK. But 'cultures of transport' are not a model of one country or certain regions of the world, but appear as a 'universal' model. Nor is there much acknowledgement that 'culture' is interwoven with 'nationality' to a very high degree--and in that sense 'culture' must also be taken as a 'source of identity' to create a difference, as Edward Said affirmed in 1993. (10) To discuss 'culture' without critical comments on its interdependence with another important term in today's world, 'nation', cuts off all its historical meanings of generating difference.

Divall and Revill declared their reservations about using 'culture' in a 'catch-all' sense: 'If culture is both the object of study and the means of explanation, it becomes impossible to step outside the loop.' (11) And they identified as a key problem the reduction of 'world as text' to 'world is text'.

But: within philosophy of science such a 'step outside' corresponds with our habits of thought. The shift towards a meta-level ('outside') refers to a regress which, strictly speaking, can be extended without ever coming to an end (the methaphorical image is the 'loop'). Such an infinite regress cannot be stopped logically or rationally, only by an authority (a person or a community). In other words, such a regress is a sign of a contradiction which cannot be resolved. (12)

The usual way to overcome that sort of contradiction is to identify different levels (or areas), declare them independent and then examine them separately (e.g. nature-culture). Divall and Revill recognise this key problem when they declare that it 'becomes impossible to step outside the loop'. (13) In the case of 'cultures of transport' the two levels can be identified as 'reality' and 'step outside', but also 'object' and 'means of explanation' or, finally, 'world' and 'text'. (14)

The philosophy of science shows that a shift from one meta-level to another is not a very elegant way to deal with it: how many meta-levels will be opened? Who cuts the regress?

Another way is to reject the assumption to make a 'step outside'. What will be the consequence? Nothing other than that the writing of history cannot be separated from all our surroundings. Writing history was and always is in interaction with the age in which it is written. And it is also a work on a (collective) memory, with all its advantages--and disadvantages. So we have to ask not only which research topics are worked on (or not), but also which nuances are addressed and which not, which interpretations are thinkable and which not. This frame is restricted by the potentialities of each age. But--and let the reader of these lines decide whether such a framework is an advantage or not--all this can be shifted and/or enlarged and/or moulded when we discuss and write histories. Nevertheless, this is a feature which we cannot explain away--or solve with a distinction between inside and outside.

What is culture, especially in combination with transport?

Everyone uses the word 'culture' but no one defines it in any detail. Therefore it is common to hear it deployed in a 'catch-all' sense. This is understandable because 'culture' has a very ambivalent character: in 1952 Alfred L. Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn published a list of 160 (!) different connotations of 'culture'. (15) Beyond this, Norbert Elias pointed out the relations between 'culture' and 'civilisation' and the different meanings of each term--and also their national significance. (16)

On a conceptual level, 'culture' contains three elements which have to be located in their historical context: (1) what human beings think in the sense of outlook, belief, knowledge, values, etc.; (2) what they are doing in the sense of actions, and (3) the material artefacts which they create. (17)

This structure of three elements will provide a rough matrix to analyse a part of or a whole transport system. Sure, the handicap is that it quickly gets very complex when we make a breakdown of these three elements: numerous approaches came up, these became more or less well known in other areas in which they emerged, and at best these were transferred to other disciplines in which they were invented. As a consequence, the literature of academic positions on 'culture' became enormous. (18) But this handicap is also a challenge--the challenge not to shift to numerical methods like the trendy 'social network analysis' (SNA) (19) but to look for solutions to handle complexity on a qualitative level.

What I also find lacking is a comprehensive view of 'cultures of transport'. One suggestion by Divall and Revill, actor network theory, takes no account of the other approaches of STS (science and technology studies), (20) while Gijs Mom remarked their absence from the pages of JTH even in 2003. (21) These approaches should also be applied to 'cultures of transport and mobility' to show and demonstrate their advantages and/or limitations. In research emanating from my doctoral studies I utilised different approaches, e.g. 'cultural transfer' in addition to (railway) technology transfer; Foucault's 'techniques of discipline' was used to decipher instructions for railway employees and passengers of the 1840s. (22)


Recently I was in touch with the management of the Framework Programme of the EC. I was surprised how highly organised and purposeful the aeronautical industry was, and surely still is. In 2001 they had formulated a paper with a vision of their position in 2020, including the way to implement this vision, its successive stages and, step by step, the research necessary to get there. It was named the 'Strategic Research Agenda' (SRA). (23) So why not adopt the idea of drawing up such a step-by-step action plan, including an overall vision, in transport history?

Gijs Mom has tried to do this in the in the fiftieth anniversary issue of Journal of Transport History. He started with the question 'What ... did we get?' and identified areas which are missing or underdeveloped; he identified the problems of scholars in different countries and in different groups (like COST 340, the ESF Mobility History Group, etc.). (24) This phenomenological view shows gaps and difficulties but a clear strategic research agenda has still not been formulated. What will be main topics and which ways (plural!) could get us there? One topic might be 'cultures of transport and mobility' and one way might be the one which Divall and Revill proposed; other ways will come from STS approaches besides actor network theory. Another topic might be 'integrated transport history'--or 'mobility history', as Mom has suggested. (25) A strategic research agenda might help to shape the field of [T.sup.2]M. Such an 'SRA' must go beyond the simple addition of histories presented at a conference or in a journal or at an exhibition: it is like a 'screenplay', like a 'central thread'.


Transport (history) was always an element of cultural histories in the latter half of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth (26)--but, surprisingly, not at the end of the twentieth. This kind of cultural history has appeared elsewhere: the last ten years have been marked by the incorporation of 'culture' into contemporary investigations of transport history and the actual perspective is from transport (history) towards culture (history) but not from culture (history) towards transport (history). Such a perspective must acknowledge the particular meaning and understanding of 'culture'. Precision, including critical faculties, and a mind alert to all the common phrases of the age is also essential to further this debate. This is important in cases where, at first sight, 'new' approaches are complex and difficult to understand: plurality of approaches represents an opportunity, not an obstacle.

In recent decades we have had the social turn, the pictorial, the iconic, the linguistic, the spatial and the cultural turn. Some of them have not reached transport history, or were not announced as such in a prominent way. But they all had an influence on what kind of transport history we got--and also on which one we will get. So don't be afraid of turning around. This discursive process is one of the conditions for an innovative transport history. Keep the wheel turning--we're living in the age of mobility!

Gunter Dinhobl

Osterreichische Bundesbahn, OBB-Infrastruktur Bau AG


(1) C. Divall and G. Revill, 'Cultures of transport', Journal of Transport History 26, 1 (2005), 99-111; M. Freeman, 'Turn if you want to', Journal of Transport History 27, 1 (2006), 138-43.

(2) Divall and Revill, 'Cultures of transport', p. 99.

(3) J. Armstrong, 'Transport history, 1945-1995: the rise of a topic to maturity', Journal of Transport History 19, 2 (1998), 117.

(4) Divall and Revill, 'Cultures of transport', p. 99.

(5) Freeman, 'Turn if you want to', p. 141, also p. 138.

(6) All quotes: Freeman, 'Turn if you want to', p. 141.

(7) E.g. for railways: M. Freeman, 'The railway as cultural methaphor', Journal of Transport History 2 (1999), 160; M. Freeman: Railways and the Victorian Imagination (New Haven CT and London, 1999); I. Carter: Railways and Culture in Britain (Manchester, 2001); G. Dinhobl, 'Culturpflug und Zauberberg. Gedanken zu Naturbeherrschung und Verkehrstechnologien', in K. Stocker, O. Hwaletz and S. Rollig (eds), Verkehr. Katalog zur Steirischen Landesausstellung in Knittelfeld 1999 (Leoben, 1999), pp. 238- 52.

(8) G. Dinhobl, 'Prologue for "Railway/Culture" ' , in G. Dinhobl (ed.), Eisenbahn/Kultur-- Railway/Culture (Innsbruck, 2004), p. 18.

(9) Announcement of the conference, held on 8 July 2004, sent via e-mail (railway-studies-mailing list) by James Pullen ( in May 2004.

(10) E. Said, Culture and Imperialism (London, 1993).

(11) Divall and Revill, 'Cultures of transport', p. 101.

(12) H. Pietschmann, Das Ende des naturwissenschaftlichen Zeitalters (Frankfurt am Main and Berlin, 1983).

(13) Divall and Revill, 'Cultures of transport', p. 101.

(14) The first railway networks came into existence as texts, sometimes long before railways came into existence in the 'real world'; for Germany e.g. F. List, Uber ein sachsisches Eisenbahn-System als Grundlage eines allgemeinen deutschen Eisenbahn-Systems (Leipzig, 1833).

(15) A. Kroeber and C. Kluckhohn, Culture: a Critical Re-view of Concepts and Definitions (Cambridge MA, 1952).

(16) N. Elias, Uber den Prozess der Zivilisation (Amsterdam, 1997), pp. 89 ff.

(17) G. Dinhobl, 'Eisenbahn/Kultur. Fur eine Kulturwissenschaft der Technik', in Dinhobl, Eisenbahn/Kultur--Railway/Culture, p. 37; see also list of twelve aspects identified within the concepts of culture at http: // (12 December 2006).

(18) To quote a few: Bundesministerium fur Wissenschaft und Verkehr Internationales Forschungszentrum Kulturwissenschaften (eds), The Contemporary Study of Culture (Vienna, 1999), M. Bal, The Practise of Cultural Analysis (Stanford CA, 1999).

(19) For SNA see e.g. W. Neurath, 'Innovation und Soziale Netzwerkanalyse', in R. Pichler (ed.), Innovationsmuster in der osterreichischen Wirtschaftsgeschichte (Innsbruck, 2003), pp. 73-90; see also FASresearch, About Network Analysis: Measurements--a Close- up Look at Social Relations, http: // (14 December 2006).

(20) S. Jasanoff (ed.), Handbook of Science and Technologie Studies (Thousand Oaks CA, 1995).

(21) G. Mom, 'What kind of transport history did we get?' Journal of Transport History 24, 2 (2003), 132.

(22) G. Dinhobl, ' "Das allgemeine Bedurfnis nach schnellen Communicationen" (Ghega, 1844). Kulturwissenschaftliche Zugangsweisen zur Eisenbahngeschichte', thesis, Vienna, 2006, publication expected in 2008.

(23) European Commission, European Aeronautics: a Vision for 2020 (Luxembourg, 2001), http: // (12 December 2006); other SRA see athttp: // (12 December 2006).

(24) Mom, 'What kind of ...', p. 132.

(25) Ibid., p. 132.

(26) See, e.g., Egon Fridell, Kulturgeschichte der Neuzeit (Berlin, 1974; originally 3 vols, Munich, 1927-31), in particular pp. 1027 ff.; remarks see also in R. Perkmann, Geschichte der Cultur in Oesterreich (Vienna, 1864), http: // ALO-BOOK_V01?objid=11282&zoom=6.

Address for correspondence

OBB-Infrastruktur Bau AG, Departement Research&Development, Zieglergasse 6, 1070 Vienna, Austria. E-mail or
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Author:Dinhobl, Gunter
Publication:The Journal of Transport History
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:4E
Date:Mar 1, 2008
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