Surveillance Studies

Surveillance studies is new. That is to say, until very recently something called surveillance studies did not exist. People studied surveillance, but in isolated, piecemeal and unsystematic ways. Over the past 20 years or so, surveillance has become an increasingly important topic within both academic and public debate. Interest in surveillance studies has mushroomed, generating considerable excitement about the potential for new ways to understand human behavior.

WhatsApp Image 2018-10-10 at 9.43.02 AMSurveillance is an ancient social process. It has always been a component of institutional routines and human sociality (Locke 2010), but over perhaps the past 40 years it has emerged as the dominant organizing practice of late modernity. This is the starting point for any critical understanding of surveillance. Developments in material, corporate and governmental infrastructures alongside technologies, data-handling and data manipulation have overcome historical limitations to vision (and the other senses). This has produced downstream social changes in the dynamics of power, identity, institutional practice and interpersonal relations on a scale comparable to the changes brought by industrialization, globalization or the historical rise of urbanization.

Wherever one looks, one sees surveillance embedded within distinctive projects. In many workplaces employee performance is now scrutinized at a level of detail that would delight the early advocates of scientific management (Ball 2010). Warfare is undergoing a visibility “arms race,” with combatants incorporating new ways to visualise, track and target the enemy, while struggling to remaining unseen themselves. Police officers now spend a good amount of their time simply collecting and processing information (Ericson and Haggerty 1997) and seeking out ways to incorporate the data collected by other institutions into police practice. The same is true in the world of international security, where the “war on terror” has embraced dataveillance, biometrics and surveillance cameras (Whitaker 1999). Commercial organizations have helped to monetize information and in the process developed a voracious appetite for fine-grained consumer data (Turow 2006). The nation state, long a significant actor in collecting data on citizens (Agar 2003; Higgs 2004), is radicalizing the scope of governmental surveillance through assorted “e-government” initiatives. Students from kindergarten through university are marked, measured and monitored and increasingly subjected to surveillance justified as a way to enhance school safety (Monahan and Torres 2009).

How are we to understand the growth of surveillance as a general social phenomena, one that is apparent globally—although with distinctive local inflections in different countries and contexts (Murakami Wood 2009)? A primary candidate in trying to understand this growth of surveillance has been the new information technologies which can relatively inexpensively and easily monitor more people in more detail than was previously possible. Computers with the power to handle huge datasets, or “big data” (Manyika et al. 2011), detailed satellite imaging and biometrics are just some of the technologies that now allow us to watch others in greater depth, breadth and immediacy. This is not to say that the technology is determinative in any way but also does not shy away from the fact that such artifacts are a vital precondition for many of the changes that we are witnessing.

Technology, however, is not a sufficient reason to account for this change. Instead, it is better to think of a process of causal over-determination, where a confluence of factors make surveillance often appear as the most appealing way to advance any number of institutional agendas. Some of these factors include changing governmental rationalities, the rise of managerialism, new risks (or perceived dangers), political expediency and public opinion.

Although all of this monitoring is highly variable in terms of the projects being advanced and the practices and technologies involved, some general trends can be identified. The first entails a process of blurring boundaries, something that operates at several different levels. In the criminal justice system, for example, the boundary between the police and the public is blurred as officials seek to position citizens as the “eyes and ears” of the authorities. This is expected to operate in routine day-to-day encounters with citizens reporting on suspicious situations and informing on other citizens (Natapoff 2009). It also extends to forms of wikiveillance, where the public is encouraged to monitor internet feeds from distant surveillance cameras and inform the authorities if they see crime occurring or immigrants covertly crossing into another country (Koskela 2011).


Surveillance has become simultaneously more visible and invisible. On the one hand, as we go about our daily lives it is hard to miss the proliferating cameras, demands for official documents and public discussions about internet dataveillance. At the same time, there is a curious invisibility surrounding these practices. The actual operation of surveillance, the precise nature and depth of its penetration, along with the protocols for how one is singled out for suspicion or reward are opaque to all but a select few insiders. Also contributing to invisibility are the hidden video and audio recorders and embedded sensors which silently gather and remotely transmit data.

The democratization of surveillance, such that even groups that historically were largely unscrutinized are now monitored by major institutions and sometimes by other citizens (Mathiesen 1997; Goldsmith 2010). As surveillance becomes a generalized response to any number of social issues, it is hard for anyone to remain free from scrutiny. This is not to say that the democratization of surveillance has itself translated into anything approaching a leveling of social hierarchies. In fact, new asymmetries have emerged, such that the surveillance of more powerful groups is often used to further their privileged access to resources, while for more marginalized groups surveillance can reinforce and exacerbate existing inequalities.

Much of this is contingent on forms of social sorting (Lyon 2003), where data about populations are subject to institutional processing which is itself related to vastly different life chances. At the level of the individual, such social sorting is not inherently bad, as it can ideally be used to better distribute resources to a society’s most vulnerable or needy. This sensibility to both the positive and negative implications of surveillance reinforces the general normative orientation of surveillance studies that surveillance is capable of being used for both desirable and detestable things. Much of the critical literature focuses on the inappropriate and often hidden uses of surveillance, with scholars often consciously positioning themselves opposite the more optimistic and often self-serving and even naïve pronouncements about the exclusively beneficial consequences of surveillance technology.

Given that many surveillance studies scholars are alarmed by some of the more disquieting instances of surveillance, a major question concerns how citizens should respond to these developments, either individually or collectively. In surveillance studies this issue of praxis often revolves around debates about the continued relevance of official privacy regimes or data protection provisions. Although there is a wide spectrum of opinion on this topic, one can crudely break these down into those who have some faith in the existing privacy structures versus those who are more suspicious or critical.

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In legal terms, privacy—along with that of “data protection” in Europe especially—often seems the obvious category to wield in wars against rampant data-gathering (Reagan 1995; Bennett 1992). Advocates for a privacy approach tend to acknowledge that these regimes are limited by virtue of underfunding, scant powers of investigation and enforcement, broad exemptions and outdated assumptions about the nature of privacy. At the same time, they stress that privacy discourses and structures remain the most promising avenue for restricting surveillance and point to instances where such measures have helped thwart egregious privacy violations (Bennett 2011, 2008). At the other end of the continuum are those who tend to accentuate the limitations of privacy as both a concept and a regime. For them, proof of the failure of privacy structures is glaringly apparent in how a surveillance society has sprung up around us, notwithstanding a large and vibrant privacy bureaucracy. In essence, the unrelenting growth of intensive surveillance measures is presented as conclusive evidence that the privacy infrastructure has proven itself to be incapable of thwarting the expansion of surveillance. Scholars in this tradition tend to focus their research more on the mundane daily practices that individuals use to try and secure a private realm, such as closing blinds, shredding documents, purchasing anti-surveillance devices, or learning how to “hide in the light” (Gilliom 2001; Nippert-Eng 2010; Whitson and Haggerty 2008; Marx 2003).

Any resistance to surveillance ultimately depends upon an informed, motivated and engaged citizenry. This points to the fact that perhaps one of the greatest surprises in the field of surveillance studies has been the comparatively muted public response to developments in surveillance that seem to be self-evident threats to personal liberties. One wants to be careful here not to discount the vital efforts by anti-surveillance activists and concerned citizens, and some of the important anti-surveillance victories that they have won. At the same time, it is clear that by and large the public has enthusiastically or resignedly accepted such technologies, accepting claims that they are viable ways to secure profit, increase security, or simply as fun devices to play with (Ellerbrok). This muted public response, combined with a new willingness by individuals to hand over information on assorted social media applications, has challenged many assumptions that scholars have about citizen engagement and the politics of surveillance.

These are just a smattering of the important preoccupations of scholars studying surveillance.

They are themselves the culmination of an emergent process that has helped to give rise to a new and vibrant multi disciplinary field.

The Rise of Surveillance Studies

The timing of surveillance studies’ appearance is no accident, in at least two ways. First, personal information became economically, political and culturally significant in unprecedented ways during the later twentieth century. The biggest single driver of this was the shift to computerized record-keeping. What was once stored in static, fixed locations—index cards and filing cabinets—and shared with others only under strictly limited circumstances was expanded, became mobile, searchable and shareable, not only within but across organizations and even countries. This meant that surveillance capacities grew massively in several ways at once. Even as they did so, other processes, such as burgeoning global corporations, increased government outsourcing and a vast increase in the commercial use of personal data for marketing, offered new incentives for personal data-processing. Now, people not only take for granted that they have to remember their passwords or show ID but also, as social media multiply, cheerfully and voluntarily expose their data to others.

Nor is the appearance of surveillance studies an accident in social and information sciences either. In the last part of the twentieth century many social scientists queried just what model of “modernity” had dominated that century’s social thought, and questions were raised about whether surveillance had been given sufficient prominence (e.g. Giddens 1987). The work of Michel Foucault (1977) catalyzed considerable controversy over the role of the “panopticon” prison plan within modernity; did this diagram for disciplinary practices mark a watershed in modernity and usher in new regimes of surveillant power? Simultaneously, in the same quarter-century, social scientists found themselves grappling with the rapid rise of new media, often seen first as information and communication technologies with “social impacts,” and later as indispensable and inextricable dimensions of everyday social life.

These three major currents of thought produced a healthy debate over the realities of surveillance in the last part of the twentieth and the first part of the twenty-first centuries, marked in the latter period by the surge of surveillance developments consequent on 9/11. The attacks on America and subsequent attacks in Europe were rather specific but their surveillance repercussions have become global. At any rate, the most stimulating surveillance scholarship to emerge was not that which focused on single events, or declared that we now live in a digital panopticon or an electronic cage, but rather that which put surveillance in an historical, comparative and critical frame. The fact that “control” and “risk” had become dominant themes of politics was not a mere spin-off of cybernetics but had to do with long-term trends in political economy (e.g. Garland 2001). The fact that new technologies for personal information-handling were being adopted in many countries simultaneously did not mean that the surveillance outcomes were identical. And the fact that “surveillance” was often taken to be a loaded term—with sometimes sinister and socially negative connotations—did not mean that the quest for more “neutral” concepts would eventually succeed. Surveillance studies is not free of ethical, legal and policy dimensions, and indeed here such issues are often more readily apparent and pressing than in other fields of study.

These things are clear from some of the earliest books to appear within a recognizably—in retrospect— surveillance studies stable. James Rule’s work on Private Lives and Public Surveillance (1973) examined the role of early computer-based administrative systems such as social security and credit cards, showing against an historical background how these were consequential new developments. The very notion of privacy, as understood in the Western world, was being challenged by the growth of automated record-keeping and the digitizing of personal data. Gary T. Marx’s (1988) study of undercover policing in the United States also put such practices in an historical context and again demonstrated how new technologies were helping to change the nature of policing. The section of his book that examined “new surveillance” such as video cameras, polygraphs and computerized records became a classic. If Rule’s work was in sociology and Marx’s work depended on criminology, Oscar Gandy’s (1993) studies in consumer surveillance—The Panoptic Sort—appeared within communication studies. He showed decisively how personal information is economically valuable and how the consumer playing field is far from level. Data on more and less valued customers help reproduce social inequalities.

WhatsApp Image 2018-10-10 at 5.40.10 PMAlmost inevitably, as this research appeared in the Europe-North America axis, the question of privacy was never far from the surface. The value of personal information was becoming increasingly apparent across a range of sites. In order to try to stem the flow of such data, most people readily appealed to the concept of privacy. At the same time, other concepts within surveillance studies raised important questions about how far privacy could be conceived as the best antidote to surveillance.

The new surveillance was associated with electronic technologies and, as David Lyon (1994) pointed out in The Electronic Eye, several studies emphasized how this facilitated a crucial categorizing dimension in addition to the already-existing use of statistical tools in administrative surveillance. “Social sorting” (Lyon 2003) became a useful shorthand for this, which could be seen for instance in policing (Ericson and Haggerty 1997) or in public space camera surveillance (Norris and Armstrong 1999). As legal scholar Lawrence Lessig (1999) noted, the use of software code and algorithms, along with dependence on searchable and remotely accessible databases, produced new sets of problems. People were to be treated differently depending on how they were categorized.

Newer ones, like “social sorting,” “surveillant assemblage,” “visibility” or “exposure” are sensitizing concepts, used to alert us to new dimensions of social practice, but are still in need of further specification, empirical analysis and comparative study in different contexts. Social sorting highlights the categorizing enabled by new statistical and software practices and which tends to reproduce and amplify social divisions. The surveillant assemblage (Haggerty and Ericson 2000) draws attention to how discrete and varied surveillance systems tend to converge into flows of personal data, drawing members of any and all populations into their purview. Visibility (Andrea Mubi Brighenti 2007) prompts examination of whose data are seen by whom and with what effects, because managing visibilities is at the core of control, while exposure (Ball 2009) points more to the subjective experience of surveillance, how people actually experience being “watched” and what differences that makes to the process.

These concepts connect back, in turn, with strands of theory from various disciplinary sources. They are necessary both for explanation and also for critique and they require of anyone engaging with surveillance studies a willingness to hear what people from other “home disciplines” may have said about a particular problem.

The concepts used in surveillance studies also indicate the need for exploration across different fields of study. Two examples are particularly important, to do with software and security. This is not to downplay the significance of other aspects of surveillance that have little or nothing to do with technology or public safety but rather to illustrate how this field of study intersects with others at some crucial points. It is hard to grasp what is going on in today’s surveillance practices and processes without some informed reference to issues such as software and security.

Software, a category that until the 1960s referred to cotton or woolen fabrics, is now understood as programs and instructions that operate computers, but its intimate involvement in everyday life is less frequently recognized. Yet the codes controlling computers are crucial for data-handling and thus for most surveillance (Galloway 2004). In the world of mobile devices using social media, for instance, one is obliged to think in terms of the “techno-social.” Social media are defined by the “user-generation” of content, but users may only generate that content with the available software codes. And just as users keep track of each others’ activities on iPhones and Blackberries, those machines themselves are programmed to keep track of their users and the data are constantly fed back into circuits of control. This world of software code, through instructions and algorithms, not only mediates but also helps to constitute social interactions and associations (Kitchin and Dodge 2011).

Security represents another field of study with which surveillance studies has many commonalities and overlaps. They are definitely not the same as each other. Much security is defined generally, and not necessarily helpfully, in terms of “national security” and depends on surveillance. But at the same time, much surveillance is not directly related to security as this is commonly understood (think of social media, for instance).

Even the attacks of 9/11, which undoubtedly prompted widespread attempts to bolster security through unprecedented levels of surveillance (Lyon 2003), have to be understood in context. Those events did not produce a radical rupture in existing practices, but instead served as an important punctuation point for wider processes in the dynamics of security and surveillance that were already in play. The terrorist attacks coalesced a sense amongst security experts that surveillance might be a panacea against terrorism, and this, in turn, led to a significant expansion in the “surveillance industrial complex” as corporations rushed to sell surveillance solutions to any number of perceived security needs (ACLU 2004). At the same time, the enormity of the attacks also tended to dampen the voices of those individuals and groups who historically have been most opposed to new state surveillance practices.

These are just some of the valuable insights that surveillance studies scholars have produced about some of the most consequential phenomena of our generation. Surveillance studies will continue to intersect critically with crucial concepts from other disciplines. Indeed it is these intersections that provide the analytical leverage which follows when studying surveillance. Studies of surveillance are scattered across a wide multi-disciplinary field, one that can take the uninitiated years to begin to navigate.

Source: Ball, Kirstie, Kevin D Haggerty, and David Lyon. Routledge Handbook Of Surveillance Studies. London: Routledge, 2014. Print.

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  1. how can one do doctoral research around surveillance studies?


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