Eric D. Widmer
Viry G., Hoffmeister H., Widmer E.D. (2010). Early life course relocation: effects on motility, mobility and social integration. In: Collet B., Schneider N. Mobile living across Europe. Volume II. Causes and consequences of job-related spatial mobility in cross-national perspective. Leverkusen-Opladen: Barbara Budrich, pp. 153-171.

We know rather little about how decisions regarding becoming geographically mobile are made. And we know even less about how they differ according to the form of mobility or the social context. This chapter intends to start filling this gap in presenting various evidence about the processes leading to spatial mobility for job-related reasons in the six countries of the study. It focuses on the issues of free choice versus constraints, and positivity versus negativity in the decision to become mobile.

Becoming mobile: A rational choice or a structurally enforced process?

Empirical research on mobility (Savage 1988; Green and Canny 2003), so far has been strongly influenced by Rational Choice theories. They assume that mobility behaviors can be explained by the fact that individuals follow their own interests. Most models based on rational choice theory state that people are making conscious rational decisions regarding their mobility, which aim at maximizing the ratio of benefits and costs, espcially monetary ones. In this perspective, actors are free in their mobility decisions and fully informed about the benefits and costs of all their options. They are supposed to choose on their own the best alternative in relation with the options available.

There are reasons to believe that such a perspective on the decision to become mobile is not sufficient, especially not in explaining job-related mobility in every form. Explanations based on the assumption of “Bounded Rationality”, unlike rational choice models, assume that individual decisions about mobility are structured by constraints both internal and external to individuals (Simon, 1957, 1991). These constraints can be of multiple kinds: for example lack of physical strength, lack of resources, or lack of knowledge. For a decision whether to become occupationally mobile, constraints could be not having a driving license, living far from a train station, having weak abilities to handle travel or not knowing about an alternative job in the neighbourhood. Therefore the assumption of constraints also implies that actors may not be informed about all options they have and about the benefits and costs coming with them.

The concept of constraint, often opposed to free choice is not obvious in in the decision of becoming mobile. Indeed, the acceptance to practice mobility forms should rather be conceptualized as constrained choices. A decision to become mobile declared completely free and determined still results from an adapted choice according to a constraints system (to meet professional requirements, to escape from the family environment, to keep a dwelling, etc.). In the absence of an analysis of the ins and outs of the decision process leading to mobility practices, we will focus, later on the self-perception from the actors of this process and the influence of other people in the decision making.

The process to become mobile is moreover determined by the representations of spatial mobility and the ways of making sense of these practices (see mobility culture, chapter 12). These perceptions and meanings are notably shaped by the socialisation conditions and past mobility experiences of decision-makers and their close relatives and friends. Previous research showed that for example people, who often moved in their childhood, are likewise more mobile in their later life (Hackl, 1992; Wagner, 1989). The perceptions of network members may influence the perception of the decision-maker about becoming mobile.

The process of becoming mobile is not well known. Very few studies analyse how the structural dimensions of social life influence mobility acceptance. Yet, we have good reason to believe that there are significant variations in the ways in which individuals become mobile and that these variations to some extent depend on the resources and the positions that individuals have in social structures. Rather than postulating a general tendency of individuals to become mobile in order to maximize their monetary assets, we hypothesize that various social structures shape the process of becoming mobile in significantly tilting the balance of constraints and opportunities of individuals.

We may think about several ways in which the resources and the positions of individuals in the social structure may influence this balance of constraints and opportunities and its consequences for the process of becoming mobile. Firstly, people with low economic resources are more restrained in their residential choices than well-heeled people. In some metropolitan contexts, poor famillies are restricted to settle in peripheral areas and on the outskirts of urban centres, where rents are lower. The decision to commute is then more forced and more negatively perceived than in case of wealthy people who willingly decided to settle in a remote area (Kaufmann et al., 2001). Additionally, among households with modest economic means, both partners are more forced to work full-time. The resulting commuting forms are then more likely to be negatively perceived than in the case of a well-heeled double-earner couple who decides to work and commute more by choice (Challiol, 2002).

The process of becoming mobile may be also largely influenced by the level of educational resources. Highly educated people become mobile as the result of a social mobility trajectory which requires them to be spatially mobile in order to get a high-value job, often concentrated in metropolitan areas. Conversely, people with low educational credentials are more likely to become mobile because of precarious working situations (work contracts of limited duration, internship, etc.), which can lead to more problematic and more difficult decision processes. Additonally, we can expect that highly educated individuals and independent workers are over-represented among people practising occupations that require inherently mobility practices (business trips, consulting, flight crew, etc.). In these situations, becoming mobile makes more sense and is better perceived.

For further reading, refer to the publication.

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