Book Review: Driving with Strangers: What Hitchhiking Tells Us About Humanity by Jonathan Purkis

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In Driving with strangers: what hitchhiking teaches us about humanity, Jonathan Purkis argues that the nature of hitchhiking and its place in the world has important things to tell us about both who we are and who we could be. This hopeful book suggests that if we could harness the mutuality and generosity brought to the fore during the COVID-19 pandemic into a political movement, we might find ourselves hitchhiking again, writes Tim Newburn.

Driving with strangers: what hitchhiking teaches us about humanity. Jonathan Purkis. Manchester University Press. 2021.

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Cover of the book Driving with strangersAlthough I’m probably a few years older than Jonathan Purkis, like him, I started hitchhiking as a teenager. Along British roads in the mid to late 1970s, such activity was far from uncommon. It was cheap, of course, easy enough to do, as long as you were patient, and it was a mix of exhilarating and deeply tedious. However, aside from being a tremendous source of stories of people met, conversations held, and near-disasters, it wasn’t something I gave much thought to at the time.

This is not the case for Purkis. He is made of different fabrics and his relationship with hitchhiking, maintained for much longer than mine, is a considerable source of reflection and questioning. As a subtitle of Driving with strangers indicates, this is a book in which the author wants to suggest that the nature of hitchhiking and its place in the world has important things to tell us about both who we are and who we are. could be.

Although we don’t hear about it until late in the book, Purkis’s story – quite consistent with C. Wright Mill’s prescription that the task of the sociologist is to link private issues to public issues – finds its originated in a time of particular vulnerability for him and his recognition that he needed to make changes in his life. From this period of reflection, he began to draw a series of lessons about the power of community, conversation between strangers, and the importance of trust and generosity. He ties it all to the nature of hitchhiking and the character of those who take it seriously.

Person in hoodie and backpack holding thumbs up by the side of a road

Image Credit: Photo by Atlas Green on Unsplash

His approach he describes as “wandering sociology”, although it’s not entirely clear what it really is. If all it means is a sociologist wandering from place to place, then the concept is of little use. If, as I think is implied but never fully explained, it means that the wandering practitioner brings something different to the craft of sociology, that is of far greater interest – and Walter Benjamin scholars to Georg Simmel and beyond could usefully have made an appearance in this volume as a result.

What we have here is partly a form of participant observation, but one that also places significant emphasis on personal biography – although in both cases reflection on method is kept to a minimum. In many respects, greater sociological reflection would have been welcome. Echoes of many long-established sociological lessons are found throughout the book. Different readers will see different things. For my part, and by way of example, I kept coming back to the works of Erving Goffman, and more particularly to those on “self-presentation” and on “interaction rituals”, and what they could offer to help frame and analyze much of what is reported. in Driving with strangers.

At the heart of the book, Purkis uses his own history and memories, as well as those he has collected from around the world, to reflect on mobility, on the ephemeral and on the values ​​of the modern world. In some ways, the rise and fall of hitchhiking is a modern-day story. It is a product of the automobile era, which appeared at the beginning of the 20th century. The Great Depression of the 1930s left large numbers of people impoverished; for those seeking a better life, like the Joads in John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath, the only answer was to hit the road. A more romantic version of such mobility emerged from Jack Kerouac On the road and the idealism of the Hippy Trail. Indeed, it was arguably amid the anti-establishment vibe of the 1960s that hitchhiking reached its peak in the West. Simpler times perhaps. Certainly less cynical times.

The period since then seems to have been marked by a fairly rapid and sustained decline in hitchhiking. Why have people with cardboard signs at freeway ramps become much less common? The answer outlined here involves a variety of factors, from the growing ubiquity of the automobile – so many people now have access to them – to the growing selfishness and individualism characteristic of neoliberalism. Basically, Purkis attributes it to changes in “trust” in late modern times and to fears related to both our personal and ontological security.

As the presentation text indicates, Driving with strangers is in a way also a manifesto. The decline of hitchhiking leads to long questions not only about how forms of trust might be restored, but also about the role that hitchhiking might play in creating and maintaining a set of positive social values. If that sounds idealistic to you, then you’re not mistaken. This reflects Purkis’ general outlook – he’s an anarchist at heart – and he clearly shares a broad view with many who seem to be at the forefront of hitchhiking culture. That those who are heavily invested in such activity (what he describes as “hitchhiking type people”) are also avid environmentalists and tend to avoid or criticize many aspects of modern capitalism, should not surprise.

The hope expressed in Driving with strangers is that the continued presence of young hitchhikers – long before middle age when most of us, including Purkis himself, seem to give it up – and others who share their general outlook means that a future alternative remains possible. Although the capacity building and political reimagining that Purkis would like to see emerge seems almost unachievable in these conflicted and alienating times, we must not forget the mutuality and generosity that have been brought to the forefront of daily life during the coronavirus pandemic. COVID-19. If this could be harnessed into a political movement, we might even find ourselves hitchhiking again.

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Note: This article gives the point of view of the author, and not the position of the USAPP – American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the Examiner

Tim NewburnLSE social policy
Tim Newburn is Professor of Criminology and Social Policy at LSE. His latest book, Orderly Britain: How Britain has Resolved its Everyday Problems from Dog Fouling to Double-Parking, was published by Robinson on August 4, 2022.

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