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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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Why is Trick or Treating in Decline?

I seem to remember most of kids in the local neighbourhood going out trick or treating when I were a lad: dressing up in naff home-made costumes and then marching up and down the houses with a tub of sloppy porridge for the hand of the occasional unfortunate who didn’t have some sweets to give us.

And then round someone’s house to sugar load and enthusiastically whinge about the idiots who gave us fruit or toothbrushes (yes, someone actually did that!)

However, I’ve had the intuitive feeling that the number of kids going out trick or treating has been declining in recent years. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any data to support my intuition about what’s occurring during the spooky season here in the UK, but there is some data from our colony in America, and the data shows that trick or treating is declining rapidly!

According to some recent polls (details here) the number of Americans giving out candy during Halloween declined from 118 to 106 million in the years 2011-15, while the number of parents taking their kids out trick or treating declined from 52 to 48 million.

 

So how do we explain this decline in trick or treating?

There’s lots of possible sociological explanations…

Paranoid Parents….?

This seems like the most obvious place to start…. Parents are more worried than ever about stranger danger and child safety, and letting your kids go out, at night, knocking on strangers’ doors probably seems risker today to most parents than it would have done in the 1970s.

This is certainly the view of Jack Porter, writing in the Utah Chronicle, who outlines how trick or treat has declined even his ‘safe, white Mormon neighbourhood’, because, according to comments on Facebook, people feel as if they can’t trust their neighbours. (Maybe their right when it comes to white U.S. Christian males?!?)

In the U.S. ‘Trunk or Treat’ events have emerged as an alternative to ‘trick or treat’  – basically vetted community events, often with activities, which children attend with their parents, and where they can go trick or treating from car to car, rather than house to house.

Maybe it’s commercialisation…?

While I’m pretty sold on the paranoid parenting/ culture of fear argument being one ‘causal factor’, I don’t think it’s the only one. Halloween has been getting more and more commercialised here in the UK for years, so I dread to think what it’s like in the U.S. Maybe trick or treating in the local community just doesn’t cut it any more… perhaps parents give their kids their Halloween fix by just buying them Halloween shit they don’t need.

It’s also probably privatisation and individualisation

We’ve become more socially fragmented over the last decades…. Local communities are less important as we go online to forge our networks, and thus each individual household in a street will spend less time engaging with other households in the same street. From this perspective, kids going around trick and treating is a bit odd, it breaks the privatised minimal local contact norm, so it’s simply less likely to happen!

Or maybe trick or treating isn’t really in decline?

The initial stats I used might not be valid indicators of the decline in trick or treating. It may be that kids are still going trick and treating, without their parents, and going to fewer houses: so perhaps the parental accompaniment ratio has gone down and the candy given per household ration has gone up per child trick or treater.

Unlikely, I know, but possible.

Final Thoughts…

I say that trick or treating has declined, but it’s not quite Halloween yet. Who knows, maybe I’ll get inundated on Wednesday. I bought some ‘candy’ just in case!

Sources

http://paragonpoll.com/halloween-data-2015/

 

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Contemporary Sociology: The Parsons Green Tube Bomber

The Tube Bomber: A “Duty” to Hate Britain?

The case of Ahmed Hassan, the 18 year old Iraqi asylum seeker who planted a homemade bomb onto a London tube train in September 2017, injuring 51 people is a good candidate for the most serious crime of 2017. Had his device worked properly (it ‘only’ created a fireball rather than actually exploding) dozens of people would have died.

Hassan was sentenced to life in March 2018, and ordered to serve a minimum of 34 years.

Hassan claimed that he never wanted to kill anyone, he said he was depressed and seeking attention and thrills, having watched Mission Impossible films and developed the fantasy of being a fugitive pursued by Interpol across Europe.

However, there was also the fact that he seemed to have harboured intense loathing of the UK, which he blamed for his death in an explosion in Iraq a decade ago. When he arrived in the UK in 2015 (illegally in the back of a lorry) he told immigration officials that he’d been seized by Islamic State and ‘trained to kill’ (although he claimed to have made this up in court); and he had previously been seen watching extremist videos and apparently sending money to Isis. He’d also told one of his teachers that he had a ‘duty to hate Britain’.

What’s interesting about this case, is how all of the ‘standard’ preventive measures just failed to work….he had been given a foster couple who ‘showered him with love’ and was getting on well with his education – in fact, he seemed to be flourishing, having been made student of the year in 2017 in his college in Surrey: although he actually used his £20 Amazon voucher prize to buy chemicals for his bomb, which he then packed with knives, screwdrivers and nails.

Hassan had also been referred to the ‘Prevent’ deradicalisation programme, but this clearly didn’t work, and social services didn’t even warn his foster parents about his extremist leanings.

Relevance to A-level sociology…

At first glance, this seems to be a good case study which illustrates the necessity the take a stronger line on illegal immigration…if someone can commit a crime of this magnitude with all of the Preventative measure we already have in place, surely it’s impossible to prevent something like this happening again? Maybe a tougher line on immigration would have prevented this?

However, what we’re not seeing with just one dramatic case study is the bigger picture – all of the other cases that the authorities are preventing with their various crime control techniques… and let’s not forget that in complex risk society it is practically impossible to eradicate all ‘bad things’ from happening, so perhaps we just have to need to learn to live with this without panicking unduly.

This could also possibly show us the failings of ‘categorical suspicion’ as a means of crime control – possibly the fact that Hassan had ‘good foster parents’ and he was doing well at college were enough for the authorities to disregard all the other warning signs?

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Contemporary Sociology: The poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal by the Russian State

The recent poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, allegedly by the Russian State, is relevant to many areas of the A-level sociology specification.

Details of the poisoning 

On 4th March 2018 Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33 were poisoned by a nerve agent called Novichok. The pair were found collapsed on a bench in Salisbury in the late afternoon, following what seems to have been a pretty ordinary ‘afternoon of leisure’ involving a trip to a pub and lunch in Zizzi’s. Four weeks later, they remain in a critical condition. 

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Sergie and Yulia Skripal

Much of the news has focused on just how deadly the nerve agent ‘Novichok’ is – basically a tiny, practically invisible amount was sufficient to render two people seriously ill, and even the police officer who first attended Sergei and Yulia Skripal was taken seriously ill just from secondary contact with what must have been trace elements of the nerve agent.

Pretty much everywhere the pair had visited that afternoon was shut down, and any vehicles that they had been in contact with were quarantined while they were cleared of any trace of the nerve agent and total of 250 counter-terrorism officers are at work investigating the case.

Theresa May has accused the Russian State as being complicit in this attempted murder, which seems plausible as Colonel Sergie Skripal is a retired Russian military intelligence officer who was convicted of passing the identities of Russian intelligence agents working undercover in Europe to the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service, MI6. He was jailed for 13 years by Russia in 2006. In July 2010, he was one of four prisoners released by Moscow in exchange for 10 Russian spies arrested by the FBI. He was later flown to the UK. It seems that the poisoning is the Russian State passing its ‘final sentence’ on this poor guy.

HOWEVER, Russia strongly denies these allegations, so this might just be a hypothetical state-crime!

The international reaction to the poisoning has also been dramatic: to date 26 countries have expelled Russian diplomats, and Russia, which of course denies any involvement in the poisoning, has done the same as a counter-response.

Links to the A-level sociology specification

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Probably the most obvious link to the A-level sociology specification is that this is a primary example of a state crime – it seems extremely likely that the poisoning was carried out by an agent of the Russian state – The UK condemned Russia at the United Nations Human Rights Council as being in breach of international law and the UK’s national sovereignty.

Secondly, this case study reminds of us that nation states are still among the most powerful actors in the world – nation states are the only institutions which can ‘legitimately’ manufacture chemical weapons such as Novichock.

Thirdly, you could use this as an example of how ‘consensus’ and ‘conflict’ exist side by side. he existence of global values allows various nations to show ‘solidarity’ against Russia and express ‘value consensus’ but it also reminds us that there are conflicting interests in the world.

Fourthly, media coverage aside, it’s hardly a post-modern event is it! Having said that, we don’t know for certain who did the poisoning, so all of this could be a good example of ‘hypperreality’.

There’s lots of other links you could make across various modules – for example, the way the media has dealt with the event (it’s very news worthy!) and the ‘panic’ surrounding it, it fits with our ‘risk conscious society’ very nicely!

Sources 

Spy poisoning: Highest amount of nerve agent was on door (BBC News)

UK slam Russia over spy poisoning (Washington Post)