I started off my (Sociology of Jobs and Work) class today by talking about the TSA. It had little or nothing to with the day's reading, but it did relate to a couple of other issues we had discussed.
To my surprise, very few of the students had heard about the backscatter x-ray machines OR the enhanced pat-downs. One woman had been through the backscatter and had (surprise, surprise) never been informed of their function or purpose. She was horrified to find out that they had, essentially, negative images of her naked. In general, the class was shocked that they would be either exposed to x-ray radiation or asked to submit to a search that involved having TSA agents touch their genitals.
First, I asked them to consider this phenomenon in terms of rationalization and the irrationality of rationality. Max Weber was the first theorist to put a name to the attempts to make human social organization and interaction more predictable, regulated, and controlled. He called this phenomenon rationalization, referring to it as an "Iron Cage." My students read a piece by Weber on bureaucracy and follow it up with an excerpt from George Ritzer's The McDonaldization of Society. In this book, Ritzer applies and extends Weber's analysis to modern day phenomena - suggesting that whereas Weber thought of bureaucracy as the iconic example of rationalization, it has become the fast food restaurant - or the Starbuck's Coffee. Ritzer also nicely condenses Weber's observations (and fears) that rationalization could have deleterious effects - often the opposite of those intended - into the phrase "the irrationality of rationality."
In this instance, I asked my students to consider how procedures meant to make the public safe made them feel violated and exposed them to potentially harmful radiation. (This is, of course, contested by the FDA and Janet Napolitano, but four UC San Fransisco professors personally wrote to President Obama about their health concerns.)
Second, I asked my students to consider the increased security procedures as a form of impression management. They recently read an excerpt from Robert Jackall's Moral Mazes. Jackall's fieldwork in several large corporations led him to conclude that, rather than talent and qualifications, the ability to adeptly manage impressions was the main determinant of both individual and group success in the corporate world. Rather than worrying purely about the profitability of their plants, managers would spend thousands of dollars creating full color booklets about the plant and ensure the facilities were newly painted before the CEO came to visit.
I explained that Israeli airport security procedures rely primarily on asking questions (not to present this as a security method totally without problems, but as an effective alternative to invasive scans and physical searches). Given that, I asked them to consider - and read further themselves - whether the backscatter x-ray machines and "enhanced pat-downs" were truly measures that would make the flying public safer - or just performances to create the impression of greater safety and security.
I'll check back in with them on Monday, but it was a lively discussion.