Recalling John Urry

By Andrew Sayer, Lancaster University

I first came across John Urry's work in the mid-1970s, when our interests in critical realism, political economy, and social theory and space converged. I was one of many coming from human geography who were seeking ways of engaging with social theory, while John was coming in the opposite direction, making overtures to geography.

Although John identified as a sociologist he was not interested in pieties to the founders of the discipline, but was open to whatever ideas illuminated the particular topics that concerned him, regardless of their provenance. As a committed 'post-disciplinarian', I appreciated this. He had an eye for social developments that others more tied to mainstream agendas missed – be it tourism, time, mobility, or 'offshoring'. For him social theory was to be used adventurously, and to be improved through applying it to new topics. And what mattered hugely was that throughout his career, even as the neoliberal pressures mounted, he was always the same: not only stimulating and extraordinarily productive, but gentle, approachable, humble and constructive.

It's hard to imagine now, but in the late 1970s through to the mid-1980s, radical academia in the UK was closely associated with the Conference of Social Economists. With hundreds of members from many disciplines, it organized weekend workshops across the country on a wide range of themes, and it was at 'the CSE Regionalism group' that I first met John. It felt like we were not merely engaging with academic issues but participating in a political movement. It was a time of intellectual excitement, when universities were relatively anxiety-free places where academics could research topics for their own sake, and the world of league tables was unimaginable. It was in this context that John and others developed 'locality studies', exploring the role of places such as Lancaster in global processes of capitalist development. These empirical studies fed into overviews of how capitalism as a whole was changing. While many chose to characterise it as 'postFordist', I found John and Scott Lash's account of the period in The End of Organized Capitalism (Lash and Urry, 1988) more persuasive. However, what they – and I, and many others – missed at the time, was the fateful rise of financialization and neoliberalism.

In the years that followed our work took different paths, but they began to converge again as John began to publish a series of books which in different ways contributed to thinking about the future, and the unsustainability of existing societies: Climate Change and Society (2011), Societies Beyond Oil (2013), Offshoring (2014), and the posthumously published What is the Future? (2016). Climate change is without doubt the biggest challenge human society faces. Although many well-known social scientists still find it possible to write tomes on the future of capitalism and society with scarcely a mention of global warming, John was one of the first social scientists to recognize the importance of fossil fuels in the development of modernity, and think through the implications of climate change for everyday life. While most of us drive our research forward by looking in the rear view mirror, John also looked ahead. Other worlds – better or worse – are possible, and as he showed, social scientists can and should think through and assess them.

Don't miss Remembering John Urry: Reflections on his Contribution to Sociology with Juliet Jain, Karen Lumsden, William Outhwaite and Andrew Sayer at the Annual Conference on Tuesday, 4 April at 5.15pm.  This session is chaired by BSA Trustee Louise Ryan who organised the panel, with the support of trustees, in memory of Professor Urry’s contribution to sociology.

The following articles by John Urry are free to read until 23 April: