The Anthropology of Aviation and Flight Safety

By Batteau, Allen W. | Human Organization, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

The Anthropology of Aviation and Flight Safety


Batteau, Allen W., Human Organization


This article examines the anthropological issues posed by commercial aviation, an industry that in less than a lifetime has changed the meanings of space and place, and altered fundamental perceptions of global civilization. The article begins with a critical examination of the concept of "human factors" as the standard industry approach to the human role. It notes that the representation of flight, as a mass transportation mode, has not kept pace with the global deployment of this technology across multiple cultural regions. The article notes that commercial aviation, as a large-scale technological system, has been deployed on a global scale yet is only weakly governed by United Nations bodies and multilateral arrangements among air carriers. The article concludes with the observation of a process of technological peripheralization, arguing that technologies that promise an escape from economic marginalization can often promote technological marginalization.

Key words: aviation, large-scale technological systems, safety

Commercial air travel, along with automobiles, computers, and electronic communications, has reshaped the contours of contemporary civilizations, touching the lives of villagers and elites alike. Assumptions about time and distance, about space and place, about community and communication, have all been upended by these four technologies.

In this article I wish to examine the anthropological issues raised by the industrialization of one of these technologies, commercial air travel. The commodification of longdistance travel, along with telecommunications, has altered the personal and societal radii that once defined human scale and hence the frontiers of anthropological understanding. The border phenomena of anthropology today are found not in New Guinea, but in the large-scale social representations implicated in large-scale technological systems: these systems include power generation and distribution, biotechnology, and civil aviation. Among these concepts and images are "human factors," a humanity decomposed and redesigned for improved adaptation to the technological system. Like other colonial projects, "human factors" redefines space and place, creating new opportunities for adaptation and new forms of peripheralization.

I will first characterize human flight using conventional anthropological views (The Culture of Flight) and present an alternative view from a group of French anthropologists (Face a 1' Automate). Circling closer, I will then place the industry's view of humanity (Design and Decomposition) within the context of the fin de siecle problematic of commercial aviation (The Regulation of Large-Scale Technological Systems). I propose a new anthropology for these new phenomena (Toward an Anthropology of Large-Scale Representations), and close with a consideration of the alternative: a world in which technological progress creates new forms of dependence and insecurity (Postimperial Peripheries).

The Culture of Flight

Commercial aviation is one of the youngest industries, roughly the same age as consumer electronics and broadcast communications. Commercial aviation in the United States evolved out of the 1920s airmail service of the Army Air Corps. Until it was rationalized at the behest of the postmaster general, commercial aviation was a hodgepodge of small, inefficient carriers, and unconnected routes.

A large-scale technological system, such as transport organized on a continental scale, presents a delicate balancing act among central sources of supply, regional demands, and network integration. Electric power transmission, mechanized transportation, and industrialized agriculture are all largescale networked technical systems. Their balance of supply, demand, and network performance is maintained only through government or monopolistic sponsorship and regulation. From an organizational point of view these systems represent an adjustment between distributed (network) and hierarchic (bureaucratic) control. …

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