The Sociology of Ryan Air, or, when normativity fails to reproduce itself

Last night I was sitting in the front row of a plane from Germany to the UK. The couple next to me opened a half bottle of wine, immediately attracting the attention of the cabin crew. The flight attendant came over and turned to them, observing somewhat apologetically that “you should know that it’s against the rules to bring your own alcohol on to a plane and drink it”. There was an awkward silence. Filling the void, he went on to say that “obviously, it’s fine in this case but don’t be surprised if someone stops you in future”. He smiled and walked away, as they continued to pour their drinks without having spoken a word.

I found this encounter interesting because it represents an example of normativity failing to reproduce itself. There is an expectation inscribed in the role of the passenger (not to consume alcohol that was purchased outside the plane) and an expectation inscribed in the role of the flight attendant (to ensure passengers meet the expectations they are subject to) which entails a relationship between them. However this relationship between social roles is played out in interaction between people and this is where the problem for normativity arises. Normativity relies on human concern for its reproduction. The parties to a normatively relevant interaction have to recognise the norm in question, see it as worth reproducing for whatever reason and be inclined to take action to do so. For avoidance of doubt, I obviously recognise that the reasons why a norm might be enforced or not, in relation to particular others within a specific context are hugely variable, with different contributions to the reproduction of existing inequalities.

This is why I always found the language of endorsement and enforcement used by Dave Elder-Vass problematic. In his account these things run together whereas, it seems to me, they are often separate. Furthermore, it is easy to find countless instances of norms being identified, while neither being endorsed nor enforced. This is why I found the interaction I witnessed so interesting. It was also charming, affable and human. The flight attendant didn’t care, clearly recognising the couple would create no problems and, it seemed, feeling there would be no legitimacy in his enforcing the expectation under these conditions. Likewise the couple would presumably have felt irritated if the expectation had been enforced, in the absence of any harm they were causing with their actions.

But what happens at the macro-social level when these micro-social failures of normativity become pervasive? Are they a constant possibility inherent in human interaction? Or might they become more likely under certain social conditions? Do they tend to spiral? Does a failure to enforce expectations make you less likely to do so in future? How do organisations respond to this if they become cognisant that these norms aren’t enforced? Do they fall back on sanctions to try and correct this? If so, what effect do these punishments have on the perceived legitimacy of the norm in question and whether the parties tasked with enforcing it actually endorse it?

On the outbound leg of the same trip, I saw another interaction which relates to this discussion. The airline in question recently instituted a new baggage policy which has proved controversial with passengers. Again sitting in the front row (it turns out to be a brilliant spot for people watching) I watched person after person board the plane, holding a bag which had been labelled to be put in the hold, explaining to the flight attendant why they needed and/or were entitled to store it on the plane. I had no way to assess the reasons that were cited but we can assume that at least some of them were fabricated. The flight attendant argued in some cases and gave up in others, clearly finding the mechanics of the new policy utterly wearying. When the boarding had finished, one of the baggage handlers came up to confer with her about the number of bags in the hold. A tense interaction ended with him saying “it’s your choice whether you enforce the rules”. I couldn’t have phrased the problem of normativity better myself.

7 responses to “The Sociology of Ryan Air, or, when normativity fails to reproduce itself”

  1. Hmmm in terms of the features of the situation you’ve chosen to highlight the analysis that seems to cover this is Talcott Parsons’ pattern variable dealing with public private alternatives in expressing those roles. Social action here requires the steward to sanction or pedagogize where necessary and so discharge the responsibility of the role etc. What fascinates you here seems to require quite a different language than that of social roles?

  2. Is this a bit like the argument James C. Scott makes, that there are a lot of systems that manage to function only because the people tasked with implementing the rules are able to bend or break them when necessary?

    This can also happen when a system just malfunctions. The other day I was on a train from Paris to Zurich, and saw a British woman try to buy lunch in the restaurant carriage. It didn’t work because the credit card reader refused to accept her card. The train worker said it might be because it was a UK credit card, but in my experience the card readers on trains often don’t work anyway. She didn’t have any cash, and said in consternation, in English, “I can’t go for four hours without eating just because your machine doesn’t work.” That was too difficult for the train worker’s English, so I translated. He said he understood, but he couldn’t give her lunch for free. Then he gave it another moment’s thought, and silently handed her the sandwich anyway (keeping the dessert).

    Often a system seems to be designed for a certain category of people — a social class, speakers of a certain language or of a certain nationality — but the actual users of the system don’t necessarily fit into that category. For example, everything on those Paris-Zurich trains is designed for people who speak either French, German, or English, but there are always a lot of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean tourists. I often see train guards struggling to communicate with them, and I suspect this may lead to rule-bending as well.

  3. It’s in Seeing like a State:

    “the formal order encoded in social-engineering designs inevitably leaves out elements that are essential to their actual functioning. If the factory were forced to operate within the confines of the roles and functions specified in the simplified design, it would grind to a halt…. Stated somewhat differently, all socially engineered systems of formal order are in fact subsystems of a larger system on which they are ultimately dependent, not to say parasitic. The subsystem relies on a variety of processes–frequently informal or antecedent–which alone it cannot create or maintain…. It is, I think, a characteristic of large, formal systems of coordination that they are accompanied by what appear to be anomalies but on closer inspection turn out to be integral to the formal order…. Many modern cities, and not just those in the Third World, function and survive by virtue of slums and squatter settlements whose residents provide essential services. A formal command economy, as we have seen, is contingent on petty trade, bartering, and deals that are typically illegal…. In each case, the nonconforming practice is an indispensable condition for formal order.”

    The book explores lots of fascinating examples.

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