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Understanding the Air Age: Extracting a Culture of Aviation (June 2013): Home

By Guillaume de Syon


This bibliographic essay originally appeared in the June 2013 issue of Choice (volume 50 | number 10).


In 1946, William Ogburn published The Social Effects of Aviation in which he suggested a need to consider aeronautics’ impact on society.  Aside from occasional articles, few in the English-speaking realm followed through on this topic.  This essay will explore the subject further, examining numerous aspects of the field through a discussion of more than one hundred important books that will be useful for undergraduate library collections.  It begins with background information on the study of aviation history, followed by an exploration of the internal workings of the field of aviation in the section titled “The Black Box.”  Next, the essay considers aviation in specific countries, “The National Turn,” and comparative studies, “And the International One.”  Later sections include “Art, Literature, and Architecture,” “Selling Flight and Preparing for It,” “What Place for Heroes,” “Popular Culture,” “Culture and Politics,” “The Gender Divide,” “Collected Volumes,” and finally, “Space Travel.”

Aviation history, like railroad history, falls into the realm of “buff literature” found in public library collections; it tends to focus on the same themes, for example, the world wars, fighter aces, a specific aircraft, or a popular memoir.  These all have their place in the public’s perception of aviation, but any reader wishing to gain a deeper understanding of the subject finds the literature seemingly wanting.  The realm of aviation literature includes amorously compiled factual accounts of flying machines.  They often are a mixed bag, though some turn out to be a treasure trove of both secondary and primary material.  Unfortunately, only enthusiasts read them, as do followers of the second type of aviation literature, memoirs by pilots, engineers, and others closely associated with the realm.  The latter has yielded some popular classics, especially in the form of contemporary accounts of war episodes and musings about being aloft, including more recently William Langewiesche’s reflection on the fatality of flight, Inside the Sky: A Meditation on Flight.  Finally, economic and political accounts abound, which offer central illustrations of the business of aeronautics in all its forms.  In so doing, however, these accounts set the flying aside: they are but a tool in the wider context of technology and everyday life.  Each of these approaches is defensible, of course, but assumes the static existence of a central element that is never interrogated: culture.

Yet in the past three decades, first as a trickle and now far more commonly, publishers have released many works that reflect a different look at the subject, one that does not displace traditional approaches, but supplements them valuably.  As aviation historian James R. Hansen noted in a 1989 review article, “Aviation History in the Wider View”[1], enthusiasts had overlooked such elements as social motives, aims, and secondary implications of aviation’s development.

What Hansen did was reflect on a phenomenon that had occurred earlier in the discipline of history of technology, one that called for moving beyond the “Whig” version of the history.  Deterministic in nature, it assumed an automatic betterment in all human undertakings.  Unfortunately, many accounts of aviation tend toward determinism, i.e., the success of a particular machine, air campaign, or even an individual could only be the result of ineluctable progress.  Though challenging determinism in history has been accepted scholarship for decades, it has proven more difficult in technology and notably aviation.  Aside from a few accounts in the early 1980s, it has really only been in the past twenty years or so that aviation has begun extracting itself from the mold of deterministic achievement, thanks in part to the incorporation of sociocultural history.

Culture, broadly defined, however, permeates the world of aeronautics, and the way nations adopted the field went very much beyond scientific and technical discussions.  Yet analyzing such phenomena has proven more difficult because of the need to consider aeronautics in different lights.  One could adopt the prism of labor history, as did Herrick Chapman in State Capitalism and Working-Class Radicalism in the French Aircraft Industry when he studied the industry in France between the wars, or Dana L. Cloud when he investigated the 1995 strike at Boeing in Seattle in We Are the Union: Democratic Unionism and Dissent at Boeing.  In so doing, however, the authors offer highly helpful social histories wherein the culture of flight is incidental to the events analyzed.  Recent theoretical developments, notably the “social construction of technology” (SCOT), seek to solve the issue by emphasizing the existence of a wider web of connections that historians need to tease out according to their relevance.  The canvass that results is not without challenges, as many historians complain that the machine itself is now overlooked.  Still, the field of aviation history has thus experienced a definite rejuvenation in the form of more measured interpretation of aeronautics and society.  Consequently, many different approaches and themes have appeared and suggest richness to the study of aviation and culture as it enters, roughly, its third decade of existence.

[1] James R. Hansen, “Aviation History in the Wider View,” Technology and Culture 30 (July 1989): 643-656.

Guillaume de Syon ( is professor of history at Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania.