Tag Archives: terrorism

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eastern immigrant whose country suffers from the collapse of its government whilst he is in the air, leaving his papers no longer valid when he lands in America.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.




by Fiona Ferbrache

In poignant ceremonies over the weekend, the US marked the tenth anniversary of, what have come to be known as, the 9/11 attacks (see Dalby, 2011:199 for a discussion of this numerical specification, rather than spatial context, of events) (McFadden, 2011).

The current issue of Geographical Journal (2011) is a themed edition entitled Ten years after: September 11th and its aftermath.  It contains papers from an array of perspectives, designed to encourage reflection on changing geographies (geopolitics in particular) of the last decade, and contemporary reflections on the significance of the 9/11 event.  This work is focused on the legacies of September 11th, in terms of how things have changed in the world, and how we conduct scholarly investigations around these changes.

Contributions to this special issue include commentaries on oil, border security, India-US relations, immigration enforcement, as well as contemporary artistic productions that have re-imagined processes of militarization and governmentalization.  In the final paper of this set, Gregory critically discusses the geographical dimensions of wars that have played out in the shadow of September 11th.  He focuses on three (what he terms as ambiguous) “global borderlands”; (i) Afghanistan – Pakistan, (ii) US – Mexico, and (iii) cyberspace.  He suggests that together they comprise “a distinctly if not uniquely American way of war” (Gregory, 2011:240).

In a similar way to the weekend’s commemorations and media attention around the tenth anniversary, these papers offer a meaningful commentary of some of the ways in which the world that we know, has changed.

  Dalby, S. (2011) Ten years after: September 11th and

its aftermath,  Geographical Journal. Vol.177, No.3 pp.198-202

  Gregory, D. (2011) The everywhere war, Geographical Journal. Vol.177 no.3 pp.238-250

McFadden, R. (2011) On 9/11 Vows of Remembrance. The New York Times. [online]

Locating ‘The Everywhere War’

US and French special forces train in Djibouti. (c) 2011 Wikimedia Commons.

Benjamin Sacks

The tenth anniversary of the 11 September attacks provides an opportunity to reflect on how the geopolitical landscape has changed since the fateful events that sparked an American-led ‘War on Terror’. Some flash-points of this conflict are easily identifiable in the on-going Afghan and Iraq wars. However, like the Cold War, the War on Terror is much more nuanced than media outlets might suggest. On their own, reports concerning clandestine detentions, intelligence operations, communications monitoring or assets-freezing may seem isolated from one another, lost in a maze of daily stories, gossip and local events. But such operations are so-called ‘peacock marks’ – distinguishing marks of a truly global terrorism- and counterterrorism conflict geography where national borders matter less than cultural differences, and local laws take a backseat to transnational alliances. The War on Terror has not fundamentally redrawn the standard world map, but it has certainly added a new and complex layer.

Derek Gregory, in the September 2011 issue of The Geographical Journal, explores this geography’s characteristics and growth. At first, Gregory highlights the War on Terror geography within the domestic sphere, playing off Tom Engelhardt’s 2010 assertion that Washington is ‘a war capital, that the United States is a war state’. Turning his attention to the international sphere, Gregory highlights a list – incomplete, he admits – of nations and cities physically and culturally disparate from each other: Iran, Somalia, Chechnya, the Philippines, Casablanca, London, Moscow and Mumbai. All have become conflict zones in the War on Terror. Where are the borders in this geographical space? What are the localised effects? Gregory seeks to identify these points through defined shadowlands, ‘Spaces that enter European and American imaginaries in phantasmatic [sic] form, barely known but vividly imagined’. Further, he argues, these spaces are present at the very edges of traditional geographical logic (pp. 238—40).

Gregory, Derek, ‘The Everywhere War’, The Geographical Journal 177.3 (September, 2011): 238—50.

Further Reading:

Bono, Giovanna, ed., The Impact of 9/11 on European Foreign and Security Policy (Brussels: Brussels University Press for the Institute for European Studies, 2008).

Engelhardt, Tom, The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars became Obama’s (New York: Haymarket Books, 2010).

Gardner, Hall, American Global Strategy and the “War on Terrorism” (Aldershot, Great Britain: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2005).

Women and Education – Yemen

By Michelle Brooks
Yemeni women hold up a poster portraying a child bride during a sit-in, to show support for a child marriage ban, outside the parliament in Sanaa,  the capital, on Tuesday (Abdullah/Reuters).

On the 11th October 2010 a UNICEF press release highlighted concerns over education of children in Yemen. In many regions the majority of school-age children are not in education due to the continuing conflict between  the government and rebel forces.  A joint campaign between UNICEF and the government aims to achieve Millenium Development Goals that have a target of bringing all children into education by 2015. Needless to say progress has fallen drastically behind schedule and UNICEF is calling for all development partners to accelerate their efforts towards education and immunisation for women and children in Yemen. The problems faced by women and children overlap in Yemen for many reasons including that of early marriages which are a major obstacle to providing education for young girls (see article by Rachel Cooke for the Guardian). This in turn leads to loss of opportunities for work and autonomy,  hence it is a significant cause of poverty and distress among women. However, despite growing conservatism and difficulties in the public sphere localised women’s NGOs continue to work hard to support education for women and children (read about the work of Rising Voices /video interview  with Ghadia Al Absi) .

In the wake of today’s revelations of a package bomb orgininating in Yemen and bound for the U.S. it is perhaps useful to remember the linkages between poverty and terrorism and indeed poverty and religiosity in attempting to understand the trajectory of this event.  The linkages between poverty, civil discontent and terrorism have been discussed frequently in the academy (Barros et al 2008). Yemen is in this light a textbook case. Ranking 151st out of 177 countries in the Human Development Index of the UN, an index measuring such things as infant mortality and life expectancy:  it can be seen that Yemen has one of the lowest HDIs in the world and indeed is the poorest of all the Arab nations. This is only exacerbated by dwindling natural energy resources, an internal war and an education system that has all but collapsed.

Writing in the UNICEF press release above, Geert Cappelaere, UNICEF Representative in Yemen highlights the crucial role of education in any peace-building initiative.  With this in mind today is perhaps a timely opportunity to notice and discuss equilaterally, any attempts to show women of Yemen who have chosen to be in education as aligned with those against peace.  However, it may be crude and mechanistic of me to view recent revelations in the news-media as only damaging to Yemeni women in education. In fact this may be about diffusing a western discourse of commenting on oppression of women in  countries such as Yemen. An agenda seeking to damage and undermine support for them from the west. In time, much time, no doubt the course and origins of this cruel attempt on the lives of innocents will be revealed. However, in the meantime the war goes on and though it is a process through which poverty touches all, it is important to note that in Yemen, the face of poverty is undoubtedly female.

worldRead article by Lloyd-Evans for Geography Compass http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1749-8198.2008.00157.x/abstract

worldWatch video interview with Ghadia Al Absi http://rising.globalvoicesonline.org/blog/2009/04/08/video-interview-with-ghaidaa-al-absi/

worldRead UNICEF press release http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/media_56431.html

worldRead article by Rachel Cooke (2008) http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2008/may/11/women.humanrights

worldRead Barros et al (2008) http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6V82-4P940HP-7&_user=10&_coverDate=02/29/2008&_rdoc=1&_fmt=full&_orig=search&_origin=search&_cdi=5858&_sort=d&_docanchor=&view=c&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=a8f19e9b565b17457c544e928510abe9&searchtype=a