In the social sciences, the airport is usually analyzed as a Non-Place, a space of transience where large numbers of people pass through anonymously.

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Tags: airport design, experience,
social contract, surveillance

In his 1995 book Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity, French anthropologist Marc Augé deploys the term ‘non-place’ to describe generic spaces such as airports, train stations, highways, hospitals, and malls, which, however elaborate and grandiose, do not confer a feeling of place [1]. This analysis set the foundation for all following analysis of the airport in the social sciences, a testament to the significance of it as a framework to understand the social and spatial dynamics at work at the airport.

What is a non-place? Non-places are spaces of transience where large numbers of people pass through as anonymous individuals, but do not relate to or identify with the space in any intimate sense. These are defined in opposition to ‘places’, such as homes, cafes, and vibrant parks, which are “relational, historical, and concerned with identity” [2]. Places are sites of organic social relations that contribute to the nurturing of one’s identity. Non-places are sites where social action does not take place, and poetics of dwelling do not thrive. Residues from human practices do not accumulate as they are continuously wiped out of existence [3]. Instead of creating a sense of community through shared experiences, non-places inadvertently hold people apart from each other, creating a feeling of “solitary individuality” among the masses [4].

“What is a place for some may be a non-place for others, and vice versa. An airport, for example, does not have the same status in the eyes of the passenger who hastily crosses through it and an employee who works there everyday.”

The airport is an especially potent example of a non-place, conforming to all of the following key attributes of non-places:

  1. Non-places are spaces of transience where large numbers of people pass through anonymously. They tend to be large-scale public institutions, with constant flows of a large and diverse mix of people. Here, markers of one’s identity serve to prove one’s instrumental identity, not social identity. At the entrance of the airport, one’s identity is checked, passport stamped, and boarding passes printed. These documents may include detailed identifying features, but these markers affirm only an instrumental identity - one required to keep on moving or to keep on shopping [5].

  2.  Non-places enforce continual movement and directionality. In non-places, one is only allowed to follow certain paths; one’s movement, gestures and bodily acts are being guided. The design of these architectural spaces must mediate and control the human interactions taking place, in order to help usher the sheer numbers of people through with minimal friction. 

  3.  Operations behind-the-scenes are very opaque to the average public. And by extension, the average user or passenger is expected to forfeit a large degree of one’s autonomy in exchange for access to the flight technologies in the most expedient manner. One must trust that the monitoring and cleaning of airplane parts, safety features of the plane, baggage retrieval system, surveillance monitors, gate assignment system, and so much more are all in order without being able to confirm for oneself, and without having the know-how to judge correctly. This trust in anonymous and technological complex systems is a general feature of modernity as observed in social analysis literature, but is made extreme in the case of air travel because the consequences of failure are so high [6].

  4. Surveillance and sorting techniques are fundamental to the operation of most non-places. Whereas most users of non-places are expected to place a significant amount of trust in airport operations, the same cannot be said for the reverse. “Non-places are replete with the most up to date surveillance technologies to ‘find’ and sort the population into various categories: consumer, citizen, terrorist, and frequent flyer to name a few” [5]. Many surveillance techniques are deployed in service of preventing potential terrorist attacks, while many sorting techniques are deployed in service of improving efficiency. The line between the two is often blurred, provoking privacy advocates to lament the increasing ways personal information is captured and processed.

  5. Non-places tend to look homogeneous, regardless of true geographical context. Most people agree that a layover at a city’s airport does not permit one to claim that they’ve visited the city. Airports often feel remarkably similar to one another, and indeed, function most efficiently when the passengers need not confront the challenge of otherness—unique places, politics, and personalities. Even “momentary explosions of difference”, such as when an inbound plane unloads hundreds of passengers from a particular country, quickly becomes homogenized as the passengers mix with the hundreds of others in the passageways of the airport [7].

There are practical reasons that spaces in the airport must be repetitive and modular; as airlines emerge, merge, and collapse, gates and terminals must be adaptable to change. However, that alone does not explain the generic feeling inherent to non-places. Because they are not places of organic social interaction, where local referents and human practices accumulate, non-places have a difficulty becoming imbued with social meaning. “Sterile is a word often used to describe non-places, in contrast to thick contexts of ordinary life” [6].

Lastly, it is important to note that non-places do not exist in pure form; places may reconstitute themselves in it, and meaningful social relations can take place here and there. An airport, for example, may be non-place for most passengers, but a place for an employee who works there everyday; shopping malls may be non-place for a shopper conducting anonymous transactions with store clerks, but a place for teenagers to gather and strengthen social connections. 

“Place and non-place are rather like opposed polarities: the first is never completely erased, the second never totally completed; they are like palimpsests on which the scrambled game of identity and relationships is ceaselessly rewritten” [2].

  1. Buchanan, Ian. “Non-Place - A Dictionary of Critical Theory.” In A Dictionary of Critical Theory. Oxford University Press, 2010. 
  2. Augé, Marc. 2008. Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. 2nd English language ed. London ; New York ; Verso.
  3. Harmansah, Ömür. 2009. “Places, non-places and supermodernity: on the issues of rooting and uprooting” Discussion in Archaeologies of Place, Brown University. 
  4. Hainge, Greg. 2014. “Three Non-Places of Supermodernity in the History of French Cinema: 1967, 1985, 2000. Playtime, Subway and Stand-By.” Australian Journal of French Studies 51 (2/3): 234–49.
  5. Sharma, Sarah. “Baring Life and Lifestyle in the Non-place.” Cultural Studies, vol. 23, no. 1, Jan. 2009, pp. 129–48.  
  6. Eriksen, Thomas, and Runar Døving. 1992. “In Limbo: Notes on the Culture of Airports.” In The Consequences of Globalization for Anthropology. Prague, Copenhagen.
  7. Wood, Andrew. 2003. “A Rhetoric of Ubiquity: Terminal Space as Omnitopia.” Communication Theory 13 (3): 324–44.