Skip to main content
SearchLoginLogin or Signup

Book Review | Drift: Illicit Mobility and Uncertain Knowledge

This is the online version of the book review. To access a print version with page numbers, select "Download" to the right and then choose "Formatted PDF."

Published onApr 01, 2019
Book Review | Drift: Illicit Mobility and Uncertain Knowledge

Jeff Ferrell. Drift: Illicit Mobility and Uncertain Knowledge. University of California Press, 2018; 280 pp.; ISBN: 9780520295551.

Today, one does not have to look hard for examples of populations in flux. From war refugees abandoning familiar lands for safety to migratory workers in search of economic opportunities, drift is not only a defining feature of the contemporary world, but it is indeed a global phenomenon. In Jeff Ferrell’s Drift: Illicit Mobility and Uncertain Knowledge, we see drift in action in North America and experience the history of hoboing through a cultural, social, and political narrative. While there are many readily accessible examples of the phenomenon of drift in the world, this book shows that drift is here, there, and everywhere—and is often where we are not looking.

Ferrell describes drift as a consequence, the result of contemporary political and economic arrangements in late modernity. The specific catalysts of drift vary but include the destruction of low-cost housing, the gig economy and low-wage, part-time work, governmental oppression, and war, among others. Whatever its source, drift “has come to pervade everyday experiences, incorporating both normative and spatial dislocation, resulting from both economic development and economic collapse, and flourishing precisely in those situations meant to contain it” (Ferrell, 2018, p. 6). The idea of drift is meted out in terms of its contradictions, described early in the work, and then displayed through contemporary and historical examples.

In many ways, this work fits neatly in the backdrop of Ferrell’s previous work. From overlapping topics such as graffiti art (Ferrell 1996; 2001) and dumpster diving (2006), the substance of the book also has a familiar air through the use of ethnography and an appetite for the visual. Drift, in this way, is an intertwining of threads from Ferrell’s body of work while presenting a theoretically rich consideration of dislocation in late modernity and providing a substantive commentary on how one might investigate such a transitory phenomenon. This theorizing of drift is accomplished by tying together many sources of knowledge—academics, musicians, literary figures, photo documentarians, and collective organizers.

The book is organized into three major sections: (I) Illicit Mobility; (II) American Drift; and (III) Uncertain Knowledge. In Part I, Ferrell orients—or disorients—the idea of drift by contextualizing it not just within the criminological and sociological traditions, but also through analyzing the culture and collective politics of drift where resistance, disengagement, and imaginative alternatives reside. To assist in thinking about a world cast adrift, described as a complex situation which “invokes a tangle of switchback and uncertainties, a sort of sideways skittering across the surfaces of social life” (Ferrell, 2018, p. 10), he establishes four dialectics of drift which help provide an understanding of it. Beyond describing the nature of drift, his framework also flips the script on dislocation. For instance, Ferrell describes how drift may come from failures or successes of the drifter and explains that despair is not necessarily a defining feature of being cast adrift; drift may actually be a sort of freedom or an ends all on its own.

Part II examines drift through an American lens, presenting dislocation through the contours of labor strife and criminalization, but also as a solution to this dislocation. Ferrell details a hobo history, characterized by autonomy and self-sufficiency, but surely rooted in larger social and economic forces. The rich description and contextualization of American drift through the analysis of the train-hopping hobos of yore, and more modern iterations of the hobo paints a remarkable literary picture of resilience and ingenuity in the face of contested space and social death. Here we are introduced to Zeke, a gutter punk facing legal challenges in Ft. Worth, with whom the author embarks on a train-hopping voyage westward through the desert landscapes of Texas.

In Part III, Ferrell inspects how one might attune themselves to those caught adrift, evaluating channels by which to do so along the way. This final section, about “orienting oneself to disorientation” (Ferrell, 2018, p. 154), engages with “proper” social science and its limitations, then proposes suggestions for how researchers might reorient their approaches to capture drift and its ghostly aura where much, and likely more, is to be gleaned from studying absence. One major strength of this work is this consideration of methods of discovery and analysis of drift and drifters. The final chapters articulate the challenges of this sort of work and advocates for “ghost method”—or investigating the presence of absence, examining the residue of what is no longer present, anticipating that which will soon be gone, and, importantly, having the ability to look between social spaces. This sort of “method” is demonstrated in the unfolding of his train-hopping experience with Zeke presented earlier in the book, grounded in a commitment to verstehen. The method as described, and animated, in the pages of Drift serves as a useful reference point for those studying dislocated groups and sources of dislocation.

This is a masterful work that has appeal for those interested in the groups set adrift, whether by force or choice, and the processes that result in such dislocation. Given the attention to epistemology and the insights for examining the interstitial spaces that are elemental to drift and drifters, the methodological implications provided are useful for qualitative researchers from many disciplines to include criminology, geography, sociology, and anthropology, among others. Through the reflexivity that has characterized his ethnographic work, Ferrell, perhaps intentionally, inspires the reader to look inward, too, and explore drift in their own life.


Ferrell, J. (1996). Crimes of style: Urban graffiti and the politics of criminality. Boston: Northeastern University Press.

Ferrell, J. (2001). Tearing down the streets. New York: Palgrave/Macmillan.

Ferrell, J. (2006). Empire of Scrounge. New York: New York University Press.

No comments here
Why not start the discussion?