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Sociological perspectives on drones over airports

Hundreds of flights were cancelled from Gatwick airport between the 19th-21st of December 2018 after reports of drone sightings nearby. This resulted in around 140 000 people’s flights being disrupted.

More recently, a drone was also sighted flying over Heathrow airport on Tuesday 8th Jan 2019 which led to flights being cancelled for an hour.

Despite ongoing police investigations and the military being involved in the Heathrow incident, we still don’t know who the drone pilots are!

This post simply provides some sociological analysis of drones over airports, applying various sociological perspectives – this is clearly most relevant to the crime and deviance module within A-level sociology, but also relevant to the media, given that these are media events!

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News Values

Firstly, it’s obvious why these events are newsworthy…. They tick lots of ‘news values’ boxes – Major drone disruption is very unusual, given that it’s never happened before, and it affected two of Britain’s best-known landmarks – Gatwick and Heathrow. This is also something most people can relate to, given that most people have used airports, the even at Gatwick at least had emotional appeal, because families were potentially being prevented from getting back together at Christmas.

The media and social reaction suggests support for aspects of Durkheim’s functionalist theory of crime – there was widespread condemnation of whoever the drone pilots in the media and one effect of their deviant act seems to have been an increase in social integration as the nation has come together in solidarity against them, even though no one knows who they are!

Interactionism – labelling and moral panic theory

An interactionist approach to these ‘drones over airports’ is, however, much more interesting…. One might ask why we’re making such a fuss over a few thousand people’s flight’s being delayed by drones, which is really no big deal, when the media fails to cover the use of drones by nation states to kill ‘suspected terrorists’ (and many innocent people) in foreign countries.

One might say this is a ‘moral panic’ over the general public’s use of drones to do ‘minor harms’, while the media ignores the use of powerful state actors to use drones to do ‘major harms’.

You can also apply interactionism to the police reaction…. As they arrested a working-class couple in a relatively poor part of the South East, only later to release them. I can just imagine the conversation…

  • ‘There’s a drone over Gatwick’
  • ‘Quick, go arrest someone’
  • ‘Who’?
  • ‘It’s probably poor people piloting it’
  • ‘But there are no poor people in Surrey?’
  • ‘What about Crawley, that’s nearby?’
  • ‘All units to Crawly, go arrest some poor people who own a drone, we need to be seen to be doing something about this.’

Or in other words, this just seems to be a straightforward example of the police labelling the marginalised.

Subcultural theory versus neo-Marxism

It’s tempting to think this is a group of lads doing this for status (come on, admit that’s the image in your head, it probably is!) However, this could be a political act…. Maybe climate change activists? IMO leisure flights are the perfect target for the environmentally conscious. Or it could (actually) be one of the bottom 30% by income, one of those people that will probably never be able to afford to fly anywhere, protesting about being marginalised by grounding flights!?!

Post and late modernism

Whether this crime was politically motivated or not, it’s unlikely that the drone pilots wanted to kill anyone…. They’re probably aware of the high levels of risk consciousness that surrounds airports… they were probably well aware of the likely impact of their drone flights… which was the grounding of all flights for a period.

It’s also the perfect postmodern crime in that this is preventing many people from engaging in their leisure pursuits (I imagine most flights are for leisure), it’s targeted at consumers.

Then of course there’s the uncertainty factor…. We still don’t know who did it, or when the next drone is going to appear…

Crime Control….

Given that international airports are so large, and thus the boundaries so big, it’s impossible to have on the ground security along all of the perimeter, and it’s difficult enough to get surveillance in place… especially when you have to go beyond the perimeter to cover the total area in which a drone could be operated from. In other words, it’s difficult to apply target hardening (preferred by right realists), and this goes to shows the difficulties of crime control in a postmodern age!

Gatwick aiport
Gatwick airport – a lot ground to police!

Globalisation

Finally, this could be used as an example of how easy it is to put ‘physical globalisation’ in the form of holiday migration into reverse… all it takes is one person in a car with a drone, and you can ground flights for days!

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