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How discourses cast airport security characters: a discourse tracing and qualitative analysis of identity and emotional performances

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Since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and subsequent creation of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), airport security has become an increasingly invasive, cumbersome, and expensive process. Fraught with tension

Since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and subsequent creation of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), airport security has become an increasingly invasive, cumbersome, and expensive process. Fraught with tension and discomfort, "airport security" is a dirty phrase in the popular imagination, synonymous with long lines, unimpressive employees, and indignity. In fact, the TSA and its employees have featured as topic and punch line of news and popular culture stories. This image complicates the TSA's mission to ensure the nation's air travel safety and the ways that its officers interact with passengers. Every day, nearly two million people fly domestically in the United States. Each passenger must interact with many of the approximately 50,000 agents in airports. How employees and travelers make sense of interactions in airport security contexts can have significant implications for individual wellbeing, personal and professional relationships, and organizational policies and practices. Furthermore, the meaning making of travelers and employees is complexly connected to broad social discourses and issues of identity. In this study, I focus on the communication implications of identity and emotional performances in airport security in light of discourses at macro, meso, and micro levels. Using discourse tracing (LeGreco & Tracy, 2009), I construct the historical and discursive landscape of airport security, and via participant observation and various types of interviews, demonstrate how officers and passengers develop and perform identity, and the resulting interactional consequences. My analysis suggests that passengers and Transportation Security Officers (TSOs) perform three main types of identities in airport security contexts--what I call Stereotypical, Ideal, and Mindful--which reflect different types and levels of discourse. Identity performances are intricately related to emotional processes and occur dynamically, in relation to the identity and emotional performances of others. Theoretical implications direct attention to the ways that identity and emotional performances structure interactions, cause burdensome emotion management, and present organizational actors with tension, contradiction, and paradox to manage. Practical implications suggest consideration of passenger and TSO emotional wellbeing, policy framing, passenger agency, and preferred identities. Methodologically, this dissertation offers insight into discourse tracing and challenges of embodied "undercover" research in public spaces.

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  • 2013