Passports: identity and airports
Passports: identity and airports

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Passports: identity and airports

4 Airports: the social, the material and the hybrid

Figure 5 Speed bumps ahead

We have seen how the airport can be analysed using the concepts of security, conduct and attachment. But the airport can also be used to explore the sociology of matter.

The sociology of matter investigates the relationship between the social and the material, natural world. Are material objects primarily shaped by their social uses? Or does their material form in fact shape the social uses that spring up around them? The sociology of matter approaches these questions and the case study of the airport will explore them.

In a moment you will watch an extract from ‘Materiality and the airport’ that explores the sociology of matter by looking at the airport from two different perspectives:

  • the social
  • the material.

The meaning of these will be clarified in the video by looking at examples from the airport.

Also during the video, look out for the following two sociological concepts and how they are used in the analysis:

  • delegation
  • scripting.

Now watch the video below.

Download this video clip.Video player: Materiality and the airport
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Transcript: Materiality and the airport

The course themes of security, conduct, and attachment have emerged from this analysis of an airport. But it's also a fruitful area for exploring the sociological concern of matter. This involves looking at the airport from three different perspectives. The social, the material, and the hybrid.
The meaning of these terms will be clarified by looking at examples. First, the social.
A conventional sociological analysis might start by saying that society is made up of social relations. So it would consider the social groups that inhabit the airport. For example, passengers are often sorted into rudimentary classes such as first, business, or economy class.
There are other social groups in the airport who inhabit slightly different worlds. Commercial entities, like airlines or retailers, professional groups such as airline pilots, state agencies, like police, customs, and immigration. A sociological analysis of any of these groups could reveal different pictures of an airport.
But something is missing from this purely social view. There's a second perspective to consider. Many of these groups are only really effective because of the material artefacts or objects that surround them. For example, could a security guard really do his job without some kind of uniform? Could airport staff check your luggage quickly without a scanner? The ability to carry out a job is actually distributed between the person and the material artefact.
This ordinary traveller is leaving home to fly to Milan on business. His journey to and through the airport illustrates the role of objects in our lives. Almost immediately, our traveller Mr. T, is making a decision about whether to obey a socially-enacted law. Is he going to put on his seat belt?
But a material artefact is also involved in this decision. What Mr. T experiences was described by a sociologist, Bruno Latour. Here's what he said.
Early this morning, I was in a bad mood and decided to break a law and start my car without buckling my seat belt. My car usually does not want to start before I buckle the belt.
It first flashes a red light. Fasten your seat belt. Then an alarm sounds. It is so high pitched, so relentless, so repetitive that I cannot stand it.
After 10 seconds, I swear and put on the belt. This time, I stood the alarm for 20 seconds and then gave in.
My mood had worsened quite a bit, but I was at peace with the law, at least with that law. I wished to break it, but I could not. Where is the morality? In me, a human driver dominated by the mindless power of an artefact or in the artefact forcing me, a mindless human, to obey the law that I freely accepted when I got my driver's licence?
Of course, I could have put on my seat belt before the light flashed and the alarm sounded, incorporating in my own self the good behaviour that everyone-- the car, the law, the police – expected of me. Or else some devious engineer could have linked the engine ignition to an electric sensor in the seat belt so that I could not even have started the car before having put it on.
Where would the morality be in those two extreme cases? In both cases, the result would be the same for an outside observer, say, a watchful policeman. This assembly of a driver and a car obeys the law in such a way that it is impossible for a car to be at the same time moving and to have the driver without the belt. A law of the excluded middle has been built, rendering logically inconceivable, as well as morally unbearable, a driver without a seat belt.
It has become logically – no, it has become sociologically impossible to drive without wearing the belt. I cannot be bad anymore. I, plus the car, plus the dozens of patented engineers, plus the police are making me be moral.
In this small example from everyday life, social links are not enough to make us follow our socially-enacted laws. Some would argue that social links are not even enough for us to behave morally. To give a full account of how social worlds are made we have to include material artefacts and their relationships with humans.
Some things we like to think of as human attributes, such as morality and agency, may actually reside in artefacts that surround us. We can also see how material objects are made to stand in for the work that humans would otherwise have to do. At some point in the past, human legislators decided that car passengers must wear seat belts, but that didn't in itself change behaviour.
Police officers could stand beside roads stopping people and fining those not wearing belts, but this is neither easy nor an efficient use of police time. It's far easier to get a small device to stand in for the work of police enforcement. Getting material artefacts to stand in for the work of humans is sometimes called delegation. It means being able to find an agent to act at a distance. If you look at the material artefacts all around you it becomes clear that many human competencies, actions, and agencies, are distributed, that they reside, at least partially, in things we use every day.
Mr. T has parked his car and put his bags on a trolley. To get into the terminal, he has to go up a level. There are escalators for this, itself an example of delegation as is the trolley. The airport management, are keen to prevent luggage trolleys being taken on the escalator. They might obstruct travellers rushing for their flights or could topple over and fall on people.
So there are several possible choices to prevent this. The simplest would be to put a sign saying no trolleys on escalator or no trolleys beyond this point or even trolleys on escalators lead to injury. Each appeals to some aspect of the traveller's moral identity or self-interest to trust the good intentions of the airport management or to prevent others from being injured.
But such moral appeals alone prove to be relatively weak. Some travellers don't notice the signs. Others don't speak English. And some distrust the intentions of airport management.
Another option would be to employ a security guard to stand at the base of the escalator, warning people that taking trolleys beyond this point is forbidden. This might be effective, but it's hardly an efficient use of staff time as you'd have to stand there all day. And it could lead to confrontation with stressed travellers either not understanding him or refusing to accept his authority, the kind of thing airport managements want to avoid.
But there's another solution that doesn't depend on the use of signs or security guards. As Mr. T has discovered, there is a set of stainless steel posts by the base of the escalator. They're spaced evenly apart to prevent people taking trolleys up. Now, he has little choice but to obey. He can't do otherwise.
These attempts to control humans via the use of material artefacts are sometimes referred to as prescription or more simply scripting. Scripting refers to the use of material artefacts in order to configure users. Whether intentionally or not, the design of a material technology embeds particular expectations of purpose, context, practise, and use.
Scripts can be intentional on the part of the designer or not. They can be material or semiotic. And they can be relatively open and flexible or closed and prescriptive.
In the case of the escalator, the use of signs is a relatively open semiotic script. Nothing in particular happens if one ignores them. The security guard is a relatively closed semiotic script. Users either have to accept his authority and their new configuration as a traveller who does not take trolleys on escalators, or risk being ejected from the airport and maybe missing their flight.
On the other hand, the steel posts are a relatively closed material script. Take a few seconds to think of another common example of scripting from everyday life.
What about speed bumps? People can't drive over these too fast or they'll damage their cars. So this solution to speeding is a material one rather than one which relies on drivers' good moral sense to obey traffic regulations. In all these examples, there's an implied continuum from a person choosing freely to behave morally and obey laws to material objects unavoidably forcing people to behave this way.
For the sociologist analysing social worlds, the important point is to take account of the interaction between the human and the material, not just the two extremes. We rarely encounter one in isolation. It's rather that material artefacts and humans are interwoven in such a way that they both become an integral part of the relations that compose social worlds.
A second point to consider is that these material artefacts contain idealised versions of human identities. For example, the signs warning travellers not to put trolleys on the escalators contain an assumption, however unrealistic, that they can be addressed as rational individuals who will respond to reasonable information. A final point is that users can and do institute their own anti-programs to resist the attempts to discipline them into certain behaviours by a delegation or scripting. People can disconnect seat belt warnings, lift trolleys over the post, or drive fast over speed bumps.
End transcript: Materiality and the airport
Materiality and the airport
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Within the context of the sociology of matter, delegation refers the idea of getting material artefacts to stand in for the work of humans – it means being able to find a material agent or device to ‘act at a distance’. Scripting or prescription refers to the use of material artefacts in order to configure users – to attempt to control humans via the use of material artefacts. Whether intentionally or not, the design of a material technology embeds particular expectations of purpose, context, practice and use.


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