Materialities between security and privacy: A constructivist account of airport security scanners

G. Valkenburg*, Y.H. van der Ploeg

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


What concepts such as security' and privacy' mean in practice is not merely a matter of policy choices or value concepts, but is inherently tied up with the socio-material and technological arrangement of the practices in which they come to matter. In this article, one trajectory in the implementation of a security regime into the sociotechnical arrangement of airport security checking is reconstructed. During this trajectory, gradual modifications or translations' are performed on what are initially defined as the privacy and security problems. The notion of translation is used to capture the modifications that concepts undergo between different stages of the process: the initial security problem shifts, transforms and comes to be aligned with several other interests and values. We articulate how such translations take place in the material realm, where seemingly technical and natural-scientific givens take part in the negotiations. On the one hand, these negotiations may produce technologies that perform social inequalities. On the other hand, it is in this material realm that translations of problem definitions appear as simply technical issues, exempted from democratic governance. The forms of privacy and security that emerge in the end are thus specific versions with specific social effects, which do not follow in an obvious way from the generic, initial concepts. By focusing on problem definitions and their translations at various stages of the development, we explain how it is possible for potentially stigmatizing and privacy-encroaching effects to occur, even though the security technologies were introduced exactly to preclude those effects.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)326-344
Number of pages19
JournalSecurity Dialogue
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2015


  • Active millimetre-wave scanner
  • actor-network theory
  • airport security
  • material turn
  • security devices

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