15 June 2016

John Urry

John Urry, who was Professor of Sociology at the University of Lancaster for more than four decades, and one of Britain’s foremost sociologists, died suddenly on March 18, 2016.. His work in many areas - for example on ‘disorganised capitalism’, on globalisation, on mobilities of different kinds, and on the theory of complexity - was extremely valuable for those seeking to understanding modern neoliberal societies. His work provided important points of connection between the field of sociology and the political thinking in which Soundings is engaged. We are here republishing our review (from Soundings 59) of his most recent and very forceful book, Offshoring. We deeply regret his passing. (MR)


Unfettered Capitalism

Offshoring, by John Urry Polity Press, Cambridge 2014.

Analysis of the nature of late capitalism come in many shapes and sizes, and not only from the contemporary critique of neoliberalism being advanced in Soundings. Another indispensable source of critique lies in the field of sociology, such as in the writings of Zygmunt Bauman and John Urry.

Urry’s new book, Offshoring, is the latest in the long series of his works, whose underlying thesis was first set out in his book (jointly authored with Scott Lash) The End of Organised Capitalism (1987). The analysis of that book paralleled that undertaken in the same period by the ‘Regulation School’ in France and those influenced by it in Britain, for example contributors to the ‘Post-Fordist’ theses which were published in Marxism Today. Those debates, coming from a Gramscian and political economy tradition, may be better known to many readers of Soundings, than arguments located in academic sociology. The End of Organised Capitalism identified the major elements of what the journal has always recognised as the major shift in social powers and value which took place at the end of the post-war class settlement and the onset of what we first called Thatcherism, and now call neoliberalism. Lash and Urry described the decline of large scale manufacturing and its relocation abroad, the weakening of working class organisation, the decline of political parties organised around social class, and the emergence of an individualised, post-modern, consumerist culture. Theirs was a comparative analysis, which also identified specific features of the ‘British model’ which are now central topics of the current Kilburn Manifesto. The End of Organised Capitalism was a remarkably prescient book.

Since then, Urry has gone on to develop the implications of its argument for a number of social spheres, with increasing polemical force. He wrote about the cultural construction of tourism, and also of nature, as prototyically post-industrial and post-modern phenomena, in The Tourist Gaze (1990) and Consuming Places (1995), describing a movement to the consumption of experiences from that of material commodities, although of course the former have a material basis too, not least in the expanding means of travel. Thus he described the Lake District as a cultural artifact, gentrified and sanctified by literary tradition such that it almost belongs to the south east rather than to the north of England, though an impoverished zone of the industrial north is close by, unseen by tourists.  Contested Natures, with Phil Macnaghten (1998) developed a rather dense analysis of the ambiguities and contradictions in the idea of nature, and people’s relation to it. He explored concerns about the environmental damage being effected by capitalism, in After the Car (with Kingsley Dennis 2009), which is concerned with the prospects and likely consequences of ‘peak oil’, and Climate Change and Society (2011). He has further developed the logic of his ‘disorganised capitalism’ thesis in ‘Sociology beyond Societies: mobilities for the twenty-first century (2000) and in Global Complexity (2003). The argument of these books, each significant contributions to sociological theory, is that mobilities of many kinds (of information, people, capital, images, waste products) have become so enhanced and so unfettered that it is no longer relevant to construct a sociology focused (as the discipline has previously been) on the social structures of national states, but that instead sociological analysis must be concerned with flows and movements of many different kinds. (This argument echoes the ‘liquid modernity’ theses of Zygmunt Bauman.) In Global Complexity (2003) Urry added a new element to his already extensive theoretical lexicon, namely the ideas of ‘complexity theory’, of self-organising systems, as a necessary element in sociological analysis, These ideas grasp not only the immense complexity of interactions across space and time that characterise the modern world, but also the potential for unpredictable changes and indeed catastrophes, if and when ‘tipping points’ of various kinds (such as in regard to the climate, or indeed a run on a bank) should occur.

Over recent decades, it has been a question of how far sociology as a discipline can any longer justify its ambitions to offer the encompassing forms of understanding to which it had previously laid claim, once even thinking of itself as the ‘queen of the social sciences.’ Neighbouring disciplines such as ‘the new geography’ (more sensitive than the sociologists were to postmodern reconfigurations of space and time; cultural studies, grasping the heightened importance of the world of signs and images; actor-network theory which rejects the antithesis of the human and the natural in favour of concepts of interaction and hybridity; environmental science; and even the political theory of the state seemed often to be more perceptive in their analyses of the changing world than sociology.

John Urry has been deeply influenced by many of these intellectual neighbours of, and competitors with, the sociological discipline to which he remains committed. In ‘Sociology as a Parasite: some Vices and Virtues’ (Urry 1995) he argued that an eclectic openness to, and borrowing from, other disciplines, including those whose insights he has drawn upon himself, is necessary for the understanding of the mobile, increasingly boundary-less and complex societies which populate the present. He points out in that essay that at some of the British Sociological Association’s Annual Conferences the dominant agendas were largely set by work originating outside the field of sociology itself, for example from feminism, the theory of the state, and the economic theory of underdevelopment. The strength he claims for sociology is that it is distinctively able to bring about a ‘beneficial critical confrontation’ between this variety of perspectives. This is the virtue of its parasitism, in fact.

Perhaps an underlying question for sociology is whether it can survive, as a coherent discipline, the dissolution of its second major historical object of study, namely the organised capitalism which persisted until the last decades of the last century, with its structured inequalities, conflicts, and forms of cohesion. Its first historical object of study, embodied in the work of its classical authors, Weber, Durkheim, Simmel et al, had been the transition from agrarian to industrial society itself, to ‘modernity’. Marxism always constituted the rival theoretical explanation of both of those transitions, and what might come of them.  

Some years ago, in a lecture hall where John Urry was addressing a large audience of sociologists, I asked him if I had just observed the ghost of Karl Marx walking behind him on the stage. In reply I received a wry but perhaps slightly reproachful smile, as if to say that while this indeed might be true, it was perhaps tactless to say so.  But there is no doubt that Urry is a sociologist who has always had in mind the continuing power and relevance of Marx’s writing, which he often refers to and quotes. From the start (Urry 1981) he has been writing about the changing forms of capitalism, and the consequences of its modern transformations. Early major writings were on the philosophy and methods of social science (Keat and Urry 1982) where he argued for a ‘transcendental realist’ approach to the objects of scientific study, developed in the work of Roy Bhaskar and his school. This was an argument for the recognition of the causal power of deep structures (such as those posited in the Marxist social sciences. Indeed ‘philosophical realism’ was a defence of Marxism at a meta-theoretical level.) In his encounter with post-modern geographical perspectives, this position enabled him to argue (Urry 1985) that causal agency was exercised by natural and human entities within locations of space and time, and that space and time were not causal entities in their own right.

Soundings has recently, in its neo-Gramscian writings on conjunctures and in the Kilburn Manifesto, been in effect attempting to develop a unifying theory of contemporary capitalism. This has been primarily in terms of the hegemony of the ideology of neoliberalism, although of course giving attention to the social structures and agencies which have organised, and are organised by, this ideological apparatus. A question which has perhaps not yet been sufficiently addressed in these debates is the adequacy of the conceptual frames being used to understand this complex entity. Urry’s investigations of disparate but connected social phenomena, encompassing many disciplinary perspectives but nevertheless seeking to grasp the coherence of this entire system, are both a challenge and a potential resource in assessing the adequacy of neoliberalism as a category.

This brings us to John Urry’s most recent book, Offshoring, the latest of several which have been addressed to readers outside as well as within the academy, and his angriest work to date. ‘Offshoring’, most widely understood as the resort to tax havens by both corporations and rich individuals, is understood by Urry to refer to a more extensive set of phenomena, encompassing, for example, the spheres of tourism, financial capital, security, energy, sexual exploitation, waste-products and the trafficking of people. It refers to the means by which all manner of activities, both legal and illegal, have now become able to escape from public scrutiny and democratic control. The use of drone strikes in the Middle East (operated from bases in the United States, and of the mass surveillance of internet traffic, are equally part of this new world scene. This is not so much the ‘disorganised’ capitalism of Urry’s earlier work, as the emergence of the capacity of capital to impose its own order, beyond the reach of nation states or of any other social or political agencies. Like all of Urry’s books Offshoring is well-documented. It is an urgent appeal for these threatening developments to be recognised and challenged.

For the most part, Urry’s writing has represented a more ‘scientific’ and ‘academic’ engagement with the ills of modern society than those of more directly ‘political traditions’ such as those represented by Soundings. His tacit belief may have been that it is possible for research and writing in the social sciences, as a recognised although under-valued voice in the guiding apparatus of society, to influence the definition of social problems and the political response to them. Anthony Giddens’ writing and public position, though different from Urry’s, perhaps embodied similar beliefs about agency – Giddens in fact had considerable influence on the thinking of New Labour. Urry’s recent more polemical books suggests a wish to connect more directly with radical publics and debates, than can be achieved through more ‘scholarly’ genres of writing alone. It is hard to assess the comparative influence of these different forms of intellectual engagement.

What is certain, however, is that although John Urry’s interventions have for the most part taken place in a different location to those occupied by more directly ‘political’ activists and intellectuals, his evolving body of work is an essential intellectual resource for those who wish to understand the complexity of the contemporary capitalist world, and to resist its direction of travel.  This is certainly the case for Offshoring, which leaves no room for doubt about the dangers which unfettered mobile capital now constitutes for everyone.


Rustin, M.J. (2010) ‘Nouns and Verbs: old and new strategies for sociology’.in J. Burnett, S. Jeffers and G. Thomas (eds) New Social Connections, Palgrave, Basingstoke.

Urry, J. (1981) The Anatomy of Capitalist Societies. London: Macmillan.

Urry, J. (1985) ‘Social Relations, Space and Time’. in D. Gregory and J. Urry (eds) Social Relations and Spatial Structures, Macmillan, Basingstoke.

Urry, J. (1995) ‘Sociology as a Parasite: Some Vices and Virtues’ in J. Urry Consuming Places. London, Routledge.