'Key figures' are often used as conceptual tropes in theorizing mobility. This panel disentangles the use of words and images associated with mobile people that act as epistemological metaphors for their ontological counterparts.
Concept-metaphors of mobility, from fluids to nomads, function as buzzwords in contemporary social theory. While metaphors of fluidity have been critiqued recently, the image of various types of mobile people has attracted less attention. And yet, metaphors of mobile people have been used to describe both self and other in the social sciences and humanities for a long time. This repeated usage highlights how these metaphors have become 'keywords', in the sense of Raymond Williams (1976), which through careful analysis allow us to access ideological formations and their contestations. Following Barker and Lindquist's (2009) extension of Williams' approach to 'key figures', we scrutinize both the concepts and 'figures' that make human mobility thinkable. This includes figures such as Walter Benjamin's 'flâneur', Michel de Certeau's 'pedestrian', Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari's 'nomad', Edward Said's '(forced) migrant', Zygmunt Bauman's 'pilgrim', Dean MacCannell's 'tourist' and the literary figure of the 'gypsy'. In a double analytical move, each paper discusses how the use of a particular key figure has contributed to anthropological (and social) theory and how the theorization of these social types (epistemology) compares to the contemporary ethnographic study of mobile people (ontology). Drawing on the methodology of 'key figures' we explore ways of grasping both the generality and the specificity of mobilities around the globe, and interrogate the mobile ontologies created through ethnographic research and theorization.