Tag Archives: International Relations

High-flying research: Geographies of air transportation

Kate Whiston, University of Nottingham

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wikimedia Commons

This weekend marked the fifty-eighth anniversary of the Munich Air Disaster, so what better time than to take a look at some of the work being done by human geographers into the social and cultural dimensions of air space and air transportation. February 6th 1958 was the darkest day in Manchester United F.C.’s history. Following their European Cup quarter final win in Belgrade, the ‘Busby Babes’ – so-called after their illustrious manager Matt Busby – were involved in one of the most documented plane crashes in history, in which twenty-three of the forty-four passengers were killed, including eight of the players, when their plane crashed after trying to take-off amidst a devastating snow storm in Munich. Memories of the victims are still today as poignant as ever, in an age when air transportation has been completely transformed, and has come to signify the complex networks of social, political, and economic relationships in our contemporary mobile world.

‘Aeromobilities’, as Adey (2008) calls it, started to become the subject of geographical enquiry in the twenty-first century, with geographers looking to trace the economic and political links that air transport creates between places. Adey’s (2008) paper provides a useful summary of some of the work within geography about air transportation, research which has drawn on the ‘mobile turn’, a shift towards investigating how spaces are travelled through.

‘Identity’ being a key theme in geography due to the influence of feminism, the airport and the airplane have themselves been unravelled as sites of identity creation and performance. Adey (2008) explains how both airports and airplanes have become important geographical sites for the formation and suppression of identities. For some, airports are sites of alienation and inequality, whilst for others they are happy, homely places, a stepping stone between important places in their lives. Nowhere better is this evidenced than the film ‘Terminal’, in which Tom Hanks plays an eastern immigrant whose country suffers from the collapse of its government whilst he is in the air, leaving his papers no longer valid when he lands in America. Forced to stay in the airport for weeks, he feels the brunt of the airport’s hostility and exclusive power, but starts to enjoy and embrace his time there, making many friends, as well as enemies. Today, Adey (2008) argues, borders are shifting even further, spatially and temporally, with your entry into a country being variously permitted or denied from a distance, before you have left your airport of departure. Thus, the ways in which we imagine our place in relation to the rest of the world have changed, air transportation building notions of national identity and citizenship, and variously connecting and disconnecting people and places.

Modern spaces of air travel, as spaces for international border-crossing as well as state and terrorist violence, have triggered increasing regulation of societies. As Adey (2008) states, air-travel has become one of the most closely-monitored and highly-segregated spaces in modern society. Security screening in airports today has reached very intense levels, which redefine both bodies and belongings as ‘threats’. Full-body searches and X-ray machines mean that it is not only international boundaries that are crossed at airports, but also, as Adey (2008) claims, our personal boundaries. All this is part of a new culture of ‘anticipation’, in which our vision has become so accelerated that it has overtaken time (Adey, 2008). The threat of terrorism is, today, pre-empted, an imaginative geography of disaster created before it has even happened, evoking fear and panic.

Air transportation has also had more fatal effects on societies, playing a major part in wars since the turn of the twentieth century. Aerial warfare has come a long way since the air raids of World War Two, with new unmanned aircraft causing terror and destruction to contemporary society. The aerial view – or as Adey (2008) calls it the ‘cosmic view’ – has, since the early days of landscape surveys and the invention of aerial photography, been associated with a powerful total gaze of the world, with limitless capacity for knowledge and control. This total observation is seen, for example, in Israeli-occupied Palestine, where Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are used for aerial surveillance of military and civilian targets (Adey, 2008).

The performance of gender relations within the space of the plane has also, Adey (2008) claims, captured the imaginations of geographers; cockpit and cabin gender roles being fascinating examples of gender relations. A recent paper by Lin (2015) has explored this in relation to air hostesses on a Singapore airline. Feminisation and sexualisation of air hostesses’ bodies on planes has been long been practised by most airlines. In Lin’s (2015) example in Singapore, the design of air hostesses’ uniforms was evocative yet graceful and traditional, whilst interview candidates were carefully screened for flaws or disfigurement, their body shape, beauty, and complexion being important. Even successful candidates underwent various aesthetic ‘corrections’, such as speech therapy, and were prescribed precise shades of make-up to make them appear uniformly ‘beautiful’. Lin (2015) frames the cabin – a ‘mobile atmosphere’, as she calls it – as an important social space, in which geographers have explored the multi-sensorial interactions between passengers and their environment. The plane and its crew provide a ‘service’, passengers’ bodies forming active consumers during their flight. Air hostesses create a comfortable and professional environment for passengers. These women perform a version of femininity whereby they are a friendly, affectionate, reassuring, approachable, helpful, polite, and glamorous aid to passengers’ journeys.

A lot has changed, therefore, in the fifty-eight years since the Munich Air Disaster. There is a vast range of research being done by geographers into the spaces of air travel, research which can help us better understand the social, cultural, and political experiences of airports and air transportation. The looming threat of terrorism means that geographers have a lot to contribute to understanding ways in which different nations engage with air space. However, it is a testament to the continual improvements to passenger safety being made that today geographers are talking about passenger ‘comfort’ rather threats to their ‘safety’.

 

books_icon Adey, P. (2008). “Aeromobilities: Geographies, Subjects and Vision”, Geography Compass, 2(5):1318-1336.

books_iconLin, W. (2015). “’Cabin pressure’: designing affective atmospheres in airline travel”, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 40:287-299.

60-world2http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/football/teams/manchester-united/11394795/Manchester-United-Munich-Air-Disaster-anniversary-emphasises-the-magnitude-of-footballs-loss.html

60-world2http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/sport/football/football-news/manchester-united-players-fans-remember-10826494

Energy security

I-Hsien Porter

Our dependence on energy is increasingly fragile. In the US, oil companies are drilling deeper and taking more risks in response to the demand for cheap oil. In April, a Transocean/BP oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded and sank, resulting in a massive oil spill. Regardless of how the situation has been managed, it was the demand for oil that meant that the oil rig, with all its associated risks, was there in the first place. Energy supplied by fossil fuel is becoming more risky to obtain.

Meanwhile, on the Isle of Eigg, off the west coast of Scotland, residents have been urged to use household appliances less as a lack of rain has reduced the amount of electricity generated through hydro-power schemes. Energy supplies are becoming more difficult to sustain.

In Belarus recently, piped gas supplies from Russia were reduced in response to a disagreement over payment for gas and the use of transit pipelines. Energy security is therefore not just a case of the geographical distribution of supply and demand, but is also dependant on complex social processes and international relations.

Michael Bradshaw deals with these themes in an article in Geography Compass, published in 2009. Bradshaw illustrates the multidimensional nature of energy security. For example, climate change policy is driving a reduction in reliance on carbon-based fossil fuels. At the same time, China and India’s rapidly developing economies are increasing their demand for energy, reshaping the challenges of energy security as they add their voices to the debate.

Geographers are well placed to understand the interface of the physical and political drivers of changing energy supply and demand. A key challenge remains in translating this into an understanding of energy security and the policies needed to sustain affordable and sufficient energy supplies.

Bradshaw, M. J. (2009) “The Geopolitics of Global Energy Security.” Geography Compass 3 (5): 1920-1937

US Oil Spill coverage (BBC News, 30th June)

No rain puts Eigg on toast watch (BBC News, 29th June)

Russia ‘to restart’ full gas supplies after Belarus row (BBC News, 24th June)

The Gap in British Defence Geography

British Defence Deployments (2010)

By Benjamin Sacks

The definition of relative power in international relations has always been a contentious issue. The term “superpower”, in particular, is far overused by Western media and governments. Generally speaking, at present the United States is the sole superpower, and the United Kingdom, the French Republic, the Russian Federation, and the People’s Republic of China are “Great Powers”, with significant international influence in defence, socio-economic, and cultural spheres. From an initial glance, topographical geography certainly does not favour Britain; the British Isles comprise a negligible four percent of the world’s total landmass. In political terms, nonetheless, British influence is still vital for international security. It is a point often ignored by British politicians and practitioners.

Travis Sharp, a research associate with the Centre for a New American Security, recently argued that Britain remained the United States’ most important strategic partner, adding that, “The UK also must recognize the influence it wields as an international regulator”. Her Majesty’s Armed Forces maintain significant foreign interests, with large operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and Sierra Leone, and military bases in Kenya, Belize, Brunei, Canada, Cyprus, Germany, Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands, and the British West Indies. Geographically then, HM Forces are globally distributed.

The geopolitical relationship between British overseas deployments and Parliamentary policy is, at best, strained. At worst, the relationship is nearly non-existent. Contemporary, strategic international knowledge has often been a weak point among British politicians. The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, signalled last week that, “The world has changed and if we do not change with it Britain’s role is set to decline with all that means for our influence in world affairs.” Acknowledging the need for a new, energized understanding of British foreign policy, Mr Hague added that, “We will deliver a distinctive British Foreign policy that extends our global reach and influence.” Hopefully that will be more than an empty promise.

The disconnect between geopolitical affairs and government reaction is by no means a new issue. In a 2003 Transactions of the British Institute of Geographers article, Felix Driver (Royal Holloway, University of London) attacked Western governments’ apparent ignorance of global strategic knowledge. In invading Iraq, Mr Driver argued,London and Washington  had entirely forgotten the importance of geographical and cultural information in the conduct of foreign policy and the execution of defence operations.

For further information regarding great power alliances, refer to Sonali Singh and Christopher R. Way, “The Correlates of Nuclear Proliferation: A Quantitative Test,” The Journal of Conflict Resolution 48 no. 6 (Dec., 2004): pp. 859—885.

Travis Sharp, “An International Regulator: A US View on Future UK Defence Plans,” Royal United Services Institute, http://www.rusi.org/analysis/commentary/ref:C4BD7D5F88D18A/, accessed 30 June 2010.

“Overseas Deployments,” The British Army, http://www.army.mod.uk/operations-deployments/overseas-deployments/default.aspx, accessed 30 June 2010.

William Hague, “Britain’s Foreign Policy in a Networked World,” The Foreign & Commonwealth Office, 1 July 2010,  http://www.fco.gov.uk/en/news/latest-news/?view=Speech&id=22462590, accessed 4 July 2010.

Felix Driver, “Editorial: the Geopolitics of Knowledge and Ignorance,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 28 no. 2 (Jun., 2004): 131—132.

Popular geopolitics and film

By Matthew Rech

With the recent success of Kathryn Bigalow’s The Hurt Locker at this year’s BAFTAs, we are reminded of the enduring popularity of dramatised accounts of war. Awarded with no less than six BAFTAs, The Hurt Locker accounts for the “long and painful endgame in Iraq” (Bradshaw), with a specific focus on the hearts and minds of US combatants. All told, as Bradshaw continues, The Hurt Locker, with unpretentious clarity and freshness, provides an alternative account of the ‘war on terror’.

Pausing to consider the relevance of war films in western culture, and particularly accounts such as The Hurt Locker, necessarily prompts us to consider also their political salience. Writing in Geography Compass, Klaus Dodds provides a good overview of work in critical geopolitics, international relations and security studies that posit film as component in framing the structures of global politics.

Focusing on one of Dodds’ key arguments for a more progressive study of film in geopolitics  (that of prioritising genre and sub-genre as complicit in the construction of identity politics), we find a way of contextualising films like The Hurt Locker more productively.

For example, as Dodds suggests, genre matters because it “permit[s] the audience to potentially anticipate character development…[and]…also to…anticipate and predict the denouncement of specific films” (480). So, whilst The Hurt Locker might be considered subversive in terms of plot, focus and dominance over it’s larger grossing contemporaries, siting this film correctly in the economic, cultural and ’emotional landscapes’ of film (see Maltby in Dodds) might enable us to more readily interpret it’s significance in the framing of real-world geopolitical narratives.

Read Peter Bradshaw’s review of The Hurt Locker at Guardian online

Read Dodds, K (2008) ‘Have you seen any good films lately?’ Geopolitics, International Relations and Film. Geography Compass. 2. 2, 476-94

For a critical review of this year’s Oscar nominated films, see John Pilger’s analysis at the New Statesman