What is the MoLab Inventory of Mobilities and Socioeconomic Changes?

What is the MoLab Inventory of Mobilities and Socioeconomic Changes?

Biao Xiang about the MoLab Inventory

In this short video, Biao Xiang reflects on the excitements and confusions in migration and mobility studies, and discusses why we need the MoLab Inventory.

For further information read the article below:

The MoLab Inventory aims to develop new lines of enquiry into the socioeconomic changes of our time by placing a deeper lens on human mobilities. This unfolds in two ways: first, the Inventory documents ongoing changes in mobilities; and second, it explores new research angles and questions that arise from the empirical data.

Consisting of narratives running between 500 and 3,000 words, each entry focuses on a case of changing patterns or meanings of mobilities. Examples include intensified clandestine movements during COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020; the rapid development of the “mobility business” as represented by the delivery service industry since the early 2010s; and the world-wide adoption of mobility monitoring technologies. While primarily focusing on human mobilities, we also investigate the movements of things, capital, data, and ideas.

The Inventory is intended to serve as an anchor for effective knowledge accumulation in mobility studies. Such an anchor is desperately needed — mobilities are changing rapidly, and the ever-faster circulation of information facilitates, as well as impedes, cumulative thinking. Our entries turn mudslide-like mobilities into clay doughs of manageable sizes and stable shapes. Users of the Inventory can compare, combine, or break them down, ultimately creating something new. In the Inventory, we share observations and ideas in real-time and seek collaborators to move forward together. We see the Inventory as part of the Open Science movement.[1]


Small data, big ideas

This is an inventory of “small data”. In the form of mini-ethnographic reportage, the entries tell us about actors, the circumstances they face, and their motivations as well as perceptions.

Small data is “data” because it is accumulative. The information is contextualized and explained; it is not random fragments. Small data is “small” because it develops large pictures in a multi-layered, multi-faceted manner, as opposed to the big data claim to represent totality in an unmediated way.

Small data is not only a methodological choice but, also, a political action. Big data is arguably making interpretation obsolete because “the numbers speak for themselves”.[2] With the widespread adoption of big data in research, management and policy-making, we are facing the danger that mobilities become more and more efficient, but less and less understood.[3] To paraphrase Marx, if big data is a thing of logic — a frozen slice of life — small data reveals the logic of things, or how life itself actually unfolds.



The Inventory groups entries into themes, which are in turn specified into several subthemes. The initial themes emerged from our research on mobilities and the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021. New themes, and especially new subthemes, will be added or reorganized as time goes on.

The current themes include:

Shock (Im)mobilities: dramatic incidents of mobilities and immobility caused by acute disruptions.

Securitizing Mobilities: efforts that make mobilities supposedly safe for the state, the public and migrants.

Mobility Events: events based on mobilities—e.g., political demonstrations, pilgrimage, carnivals—that reorganize our social life. 

Mobile Livelihoods: livelihoods based on mobilities as a form of labour.

Mobility Business: commercial operations that turn mobility into a commodity.


A global community of contributors and users

Your participation, as contributors and users, is the lifeline of the Inventory.

Part of our central mission is to cultivate a new generation of thinkers who will ask big questions based on detailed evidence, and who can speak across fields and disciplines. To this end, we invite and support your participation as:

  • Entry authors, who contribute individual entries;
  • Guest curators, who develop new subthemes and solicit entries;
  • Workshop organizers, who organize workshops to develop material into larger ideas, collective publications, and research projects;
  • And article authors, who draw on the Inventory to develop arguments into academic research.

For more details, please see the Invitation to Participate. In using the material from the Inventory, please follow the suggestion “To be quoted as” in each text, and the rules of Creative Commons License CC BY. All enquiries should be sent to

You can follow us on Twitter: MoLab Max Planck @MaxMolab

[2] Anderson, Chris. 2008. The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete. Wired. 23 June 2008. Available online at: https://www.wired.com/2008/06/pb-theory/. Last accessed 29 January 2020.

[3] The European Commission and the International Organization for Migration launched the programme Big Data for Migration Alliance (https://data4migration.org/) in June 2018. For critical analyses on the use of big data in research and policy making on migration, see Scheel, Stephan, Evelyn Ruppert, and Funda Ustek-Spilda. 2019. Enacting Migration through Data Practices. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space: Society and Space. 37(4): 579–588. Horvath, Kenneth. 2020. Big Data, Epidemiology, and Emerging Challenges for Migration Research. Oxford: COMPAS Coronavirus and Mobility Forum. 16 April 2020. Available online at: https://www.compas.ox.ac.uk/2020/big-data-epidemiology-new-challenges-for-migration-research/. Last accessed 29 January 2021.

Go to Editor View