Figurations and Aviation Disasters:
Illustrations from the 1996 Crash of a Birgenair Charter Flight*

Using as an exemplar the crash of a charter flight carrying mostly German vacationers, I argue that the causal chains leading to airline disasters are made up of the characteristics of social organizations—what Norbert Elias called "figurations."  Three types of figurations related to the safety of air travel are illustrated with materials from this tragedy: the flight crew with its power and status differences; the interorganizational network providing civilian air transportation; and the international aviation network.  However, the complex, elongated nature of interdependencies within these figurations make uncertain any "objective" identification of the correlates of safety. Two strategies for "subjectively" identifying the "causes" of aviation disasters and "solutions" for making future air travel safer involve the interests of participants and a philosophy of cause and effect.

*Revised version of a paper presented at the Annual Meetings of the American Sociological Association, Toronto, August 1997.