Ethnography of modern airports

While visiting Kutaisi Airport, the question came to my mind how would it be possible to study this area through ethnography lenses. Airports are somewhat new places of study, and I have not heard of academic research in this regard. Although there are few academic papers on airports, there is some research in this area. Brenda Chalfin explored a peripheric airport in Ghana (Chalfin 2008). She tried to demonstrate how control systems were based on racial characteristics. There is also an interesting study by Mithilesh Kumar on Indira Gandhi International Airport in India. It seeks to show how Delhi Airport is embedded with political history (Kumar, 2017). The studies show airports have become one of the most critical infrastructures in the background of globalization. Georgian airports also have a special relationship with the development of the country in the context of globalization. We can say that airports reflect the economic, social, and political development of the country. With its hypermodern architecture, Kutaisi International Airport is one of the most distinctive buildings in western Georgia.

დავით კუხალაშვილის ნახატი
Teaser Image Caption
Illustration by David Kukhalashvili

On the one hand, this hypermodernity is in stark contrast to the economic and social situation of the local people who use the services of this airport. On the other hand, this is a symbolic statement about the irreversibility of Georgia’s development for visitors coming from abroad. The airport represents Georgia’s neoliberal development to some extent, where the spaces created as a result of development exist as an exception. This initial impulse pushed me to study the central axes of the country’s neoliberal development to find answers to the questions of how people consume, see, and engage with this space.

After getting acquainted with the anthropological methodology, I discovered that the airport as space would be less attractive in classical anthropological ethnography since it does not reflect a stable society with borders and distinctive cultural characteristics. Moreover, airports are even a kind of antipode to the classical ethnographic space, as the French anthropologist Marc Augé puts it, an ethnographic no-placethat is constantly changing, and it is challenging to describe human existence in such a transient place (Augé 2008). Everything is volatile at airports, and it is a space used by both the winners and losers of globalization, both heroes and victims (Williamson 2005; Bauman 1996). However, the airport is not an alien phenomenon for modern anthropological ethnography. Moreover, such spaces as airports, shopping malls, ports, and modern infrastructure can be very important for the global ethnographic method (Gottdiener 2001). Various fields of social sciences study airports in many different directions: be it sociology that is interested in what airports have changed for the public (Gottdiener 2001); security and control perspective for which sovereignty and modern biopolitics are important (Chalfin 2008); anthropology that observes how we can look at the space created by modernity (super modernity) for ethnography (Chalfin 2008) (Adey 2008); or architecture that is interested in the history of airport development (Roseau 2013). Airport space is associated with mobility and crossing borders. However, it is also a space of consumption and labor. Modern airports are like micro-cities, with cafes, shopping malls, and open terraces. Modern airports also function as shopping malls. In addition to the importance of the airport as a consumer space, it is also a field of various labor relations, be it airport management, security, and cleaning, or the people employed in the services of various shops, cafes, and transportation companies. Explained in the terminology of the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, these are assemblages whose intersections demonstrate various kinds of relations and associations to each other (Deleuze 1987). Airports are heterogeneous spaces, parts of different social relations and intersections, which is a rich source for the discipline of anthropology.

Therefore, I think this space is important for researching globalization, migration, modernity, capitalist society, uneven development, control, and security systems while not losing human perspective. Today, theoretical paradigms such as actor and network theory are used to study airports, laying the foundation for a new ontology of human and non-human objects (Latour 1993). The perspective of Deleuze’s assemblage is used for studying security aspects of airport functioning (Deleuze 1987). Meantime, anthropology focuses on the theories of spatial and affective approaches (Thrift 2008), which pays greater attention to the materiality of geography and architecture. Airports can produce a variety of emotions such as fear, melancholy, hope. It all depends on who we can see as the subjects of the airport (Navaro-Yashin 2012). Airport as a phenomenon is becoming the object of study for many different paradigms of social science today, and it can absorb all this heterogeneity. This is why, it is important to use an interdisciplinary approach when exploring an airport. Such disciplines are anthropology, sociology, architecture, urban studies, and political science. By introducing these different paradigms and research methodologies, we will better understand and grasp the importance of the airport as space.

Why it is important to research airports   

Capitalist globalization reached new heights at the turn of the XX century. The collapse of the socialist bloc and the victory of the global neoliberal political economy opened a new horizon in the direction of capital accumulation (Harvey 2006; Cooper 2001). In such a situation, the global political economy has facilitated the opening up of spaces such as labor migration and tourism, which has necessitated the development of new security technologies and networks. In such a paradigm, as Karl Marx wrote, the investment of capital shifts to productive investments (Marx 1993, 90). It does not matter anymore where we go, whether it is the center of the world systems, their semi-peripheral or peripheral areas, in most places, we will see completely modern airports, which has become a sign of the new world.

New and significant changes have taken place in the history of airport development since the second half of the XX century. If airports were available to the elite and the privileged, the new economy turned them into mass-consumption infrastructure nowadays. Today, the number of airports in the world is growing, and some cities have more than one airport, which significantly changes the scale of their usage. Many more people are moving around the world, and airports are critical nuclei to facilitate this mobility. The 2001 September 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in the United States led to new security systems. Most of the airports were closed in Europe in 2011 due to the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland, and the COVID19 pandemic that began in late 2019 completely stopped global mobility. Any global turbulence, whether caused by climate or pandemics, will primarily affect airports. Therefore, it makes evident the fact that airports are one of the main axes of contemporary globalization.

Kutaisi International Airport

While visiting the Kutaisi International Airport, one will logically ask why it was decided to build an airport in this place? Why in Kopitnari and not elsewhere? Kutaisi Airport is quite far from Tbilisi and Batumi, the major tourist attraction centers in Georgia. A large part of the Georgian population lives in Tbilisi, and Batumi is one of the most attractive cities for tourists. Moreover, Yerevan International Airport is closer to Tbilisi than Kutaisi. This question was important, which pushed me to delve deeper into the role of this airport. You will find a set of pre-election events from Kutaisi and many conspiracy theories about the airport in the archives. Mikheil Saakashvili, the President of Georgia, and Viktor Orban, the Prime Minister of Hungary, jointly opened the Kutaisi David Aghmashenebeli International Airport in September 2012 on the eve of the decisive October 2012 parliamentary elections. In his speech, President Saakashvili highlighted how the airport was bombed by Russian aircrafts in 2008 and how it recovered from the ashes as a whole of Georgia.[1] According to him, this symbolizes that no matter how much the (enemy) tries, no matter how many times Georgia falls, it will always recover and continue to move forward. In his speech, Saakashvili compared the airport to the steady development of Georgia, which repeated the development paths of Singapore and Dubai. This development discourse has always followed President Saakashvili’s rhetoric, and he has always branded opponents of this discourse as enemies. The development of Kutaisi Airport starts with a very interesting fact. According to the terms of the contract between the government of Georgia and the Turkish TAV company that operates Tbilisi and Batumi International Airports, the Georgian government did not have permission to build an airport nearby these cities. As a result, it was decided to build an airport near Kutaisi. Unlike Tbilisi and Batumi airports, there would be low-cost flights to Kutaisi, Georgians would travel abroad cheaply, and tourists would easily enter Georgia. In addition to this intention, Kutaisi Airport has also acquired a new function. It has become the central migration infrastructure to the EU, especially after Georgia gained the right to visa-free travel to EU countries under a Deep and Comprehensive Trade Agreement.

Currently, Kutaisi Airport is one of the primary and accessible international mobility spaces in Georgia. In addition, it is connected with Kutaisi (and its surroundings) and is one of the main areas of the city’s economic activity. According to one of my respondents, the majority of employees, except for the top management,  are locals at the Kutaisi Airport, be it medium and low-level management, security officers, or staff at various consumer spaces at the airport. Georgia’s transformation into a market economy dates back to the early 1990s. The transformation affected industrial cities such as Kutaisi, Rustavi, Chiatura, Tkibuli, and others most negatively. Deindustrialization and subsequent poverty, which began after the 1990s, have increased migration from Kutaisi, with more than a third of the population leaving the city. That is why the airport is of special importance for the Diaspora. Georgian citizens who perform various jobs in European countries can return from Greece, Poland, or various Western European countries with the available flights offered by the Kutaisi Airport. The Kutaisi Airport symbolizes double peripherality in the global space: first of all, because of its periphery in the Georgian context, and secondly, because of Georgia’s peripherality in a global sense. These factors make the Kutaisi Airport a particularly interesting space for research.

Research questions

In my doctoral research, I will try to answer the following questions: First of all, I will explore why Kutaisi Airport was an essential part of the country’s development and modernization. This question is vital to see the complete picture and provides an opportunity to read the history of the development of independent Georgia. The second direction of the research will try to answer how we can connect globalization and labor migration in the context of the airport. What is the role of this process in Kutaisi, and what is the perspective of the people involved in it? More precisely, what relations do tourists and migrants have with Kutaisi Airport? The third question concerns the operation of the migration control. It is important to understand the mobility / non-mobility paradigms and the obstacles the airport poses as a boundary. The last, fourth question is related to the airport and the city. How do they relate to each other, what kind of consumption and production do they promote, and what symbolic meaning does the airport have on the city’s population?

Clearer and more specific questions will appear during the ethnographic research,  which will enable me to connect the study of Kutaisi International Airport with the broad political, social, and economic issues in the country.

 

Bibliography

Adey, Peter. 2008. “Airports, Mobility and the Calculative Architecture of Affective Control.” Geoforum, Environmental Economic Geography, 39 (1): 438–51. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2007.09.001.

Augé, Marc. 2008. Non-Places. Verso.

Bauman, Zygmunt. 1996. Tourists and Vagabonds: Heroes and Victims of Postmodernity. Institut für Höhere Studien.

Chalfin, Brenda. 2008. “Sovereigns and Citizens in Close Encounter: Airport Anthropology and Customs Regimes in Neoliberal Ghana.” American Ethnologist 35 (4): 519–38.

Cooper, Frederick. 2001. “What Is the Concept of Globalization Good for? An African Historian’s Perspective.” African Affairs 100 (399): 189–213.

Deleuze, Gilles. 1987. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. University of Minnesota Press.

Gottdiener, Mark. 2001. Life in the Air: Surviving the New Culture of Air Travel. Rowman & Littlefield.

Harvey, David. 2006. Spaces of Global Capitalism. Verso.

Kumar, Mithilesh. n.d. “Infrastructure, Labor, and Government A Study of Delhi Airport,” 270.

Latour, Bruno. 1993. We Have Never Been Modern. Harvard University Press.

Marx, Karl. 1993. Grundrisse. Penguin Adult.

Navaro-Yashin, Yael. 2012. “The Make-Believe Space: Affective Geography in a Postwar Polity,” March. https://doi.org/10.1215/9780822395133.

Roseau, Nathalie. 2013. “Learning from Airports’ History.” Mobility in History 4 (January): 95–100. https://doi.org/10.3167/mih.2013.040110.

Thrift, Nigel. 2008. Non-Representational Theory: Space, Politics, Affect. Routledge.

Williamson, Jeffrey G. 2005. “Winners and Losers over Two Centuries of Globalization.” In Wider Perspectives on Global Development, edited by Anthony B. Atkinson, Kaushik Basu, Jagdish N. Bhagwati, Douglass C. North, Dani Rodrik, Frances Stewart, Joseph E. Stiglitz, and Jeffrey G. Williamson, 136–74. Studies in Development Economics and Policy. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK. https://doi.org/10.1057/9780230501850_6.

საქართველოს მთავრობა – 2017 წლის სიახლეები.” n.d. Accessed May 14, 2021. http://gov.ge/index.php?lang_id=-&sec_id=462&info_id=60318.

 

 

[1] Government of Georgia - News of 2017 http://gov.ge/index.php?lang_id=-&sec_id=462&info_id=60318