Carys Coleman - Escaping Visibilisation, Atmospheres of Fear Cramped Space and Rethinking the Harms of Biometric Bordering

  • Carys Coleman

Student thesis: Phd


In 2020, 18 police forces across England and Wales acquired mobile devices equipped with the capacity to remotely carry out real-time checks of a person's fingerprints against immigration and law enforcement databases. Someone may be "stopped and scanned" in any public space, such as a street corner or park, and face immediate detention if a match is found. For four years advocacy groups such as the Racial Justice Network have protested mobile fingerprinting for widening the scope of hostile environment measures that increasingly cut off migrant individuals and communities from public resources and spaces. Faced with such accounts of contemporary migrant struggles within biometric landscapes, this thesis investigates the impact of such technologies in the policing and management of migration in Europe and seeks to address how they create new forms of harm. This thesis thus contributes to debates in critical migration and border studies that examine the relation between the body and its rendering in data, particularly insofar as this supports a growing literature on electronic borders. In this regard, an important body of work has considered how the rendering of life as data as security practice works, how the border is evolving, and the philosophical, gendered and racialised dimensions. However, there has been a lack of research investigating what this biometric data subjectivity and border work does in the world, why it matters and how it profoundly impacts lives. This thesis fills this gap by developing a distinct understanding of harm through an engagement with the concept of ‘cramped space’ (Thoburn 2016), which names the experience of the social and political world one inhabits as marked with blockages, impediments, and constraints to how one can move through that world. This thesis argues that harm is created in two ways. Firstly, through a form of biometric individuation that makes people visible in ways that would expose them to isolation, confinement, and violence. Secondly, through the creation of atmospheric conditions of fear in which people must attempt to escape this visibilisation by, for example, burning fingerprints or avoiding spaces where they may be fingerprinted. Under such conditions, the 'impossibility of activity' characteristic of cramped space is matched with 'the impossibility of doing nothing if life is to be lived' (2016: 370). This thesis therefore seeks to rethink harm in terms of strategies to survive impossible conditions marked by the mutual imbrication of material, affective and spatial impacts of biometric technologies.
Date of Award1 Aug 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorMartin Coward (Supervisor) & Andreja Zevnik (Supervisor)


  • Affect
  • Struggle
  • Atmospheres
  • Bordering
  • Biometric technologies
  • Harm

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