Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Surveillance and Political Communication

[I've recently contributed an entry on "Surveillance" to the forthcoming International Encyclopedia of Political Communication. Here's the main text. The references, key texts and additional reading sections are missing from this, but will be in the encyclopedia.]

The technologically mediated surveillance of individuals, populations and space is increasingly implicated in many forms of political communication. The developing interdisciplinary field of surveillance studies has conducted research into the representation of surveillance practices across a range of political discourses, the impacts of surveillance upon political communication, and the ways in which surveillance itself is a type of political communication.  


Often popularly associated with police or intelligence agencies and the physical surveillance of criminals or terrorists, surveillance is a much wider social phenomena. Contemporary definitions of surveillance focus upon the purposeful, routine and systematic monitoring of, or information gathering upon, a subject, group or population, frequently for the purposes of control, influence or management. Rather than an inherently negative activity, surveillance should be seen as a general tool that can be aligned with a wide range of organisational goals. As such, surveillance can be found in many social practices including entertainment, healthcare, consumer relations, as well as law enforcement and espionage. Examples of surveillance do include the coercive and the carceral, as in the wiretapping of political dissidents, or of CCTV aimed at reducing crime on city centre streets, but also include care – as in the monitoring of elderly patients to detect falls or other forms of distress. 

It is not only governments that conduct surveillance. Individuals watch each other and the surveillance activities of the private sector are substantial and increasing. However, the state remains a significant surveillance actor, especially for governmentality influenced research approaches. Surveillance is an inherently political activity, and therefore integrates with political communication in three main ways. Firstly, we can examine the political communication of surveillance, the way in which practices of surveillance are presented and represented by political actors. Secondly, we can examine the surveillance of political communication, the ways in which forms of political communication are put under surveillance. Thirdly, we can also understand surveillance as being itself a particular form of political communication. 

There is a developing interdisciplinary field of Surveillance Studies, which takes the phenomena and practice of surveillance as its object of study. Surveillance studies emerged in the latter decades of the 20th Century and draws upon a range of disciplines including sociology, criminology, political science, geography, information systems, science and technology studies and law. Sociologist David Lyon associates this with the realisation that inquiries into surveillance were crossing disciplinary boundaries, alongside an emergence and expansion of new surveillance technologies, post 9/11 security practices, and also an expanding conversation with the work of Michel Foucault (Lyon 2007). The field produces the journal Surveillance and Society, supported by the Surveillance Studies Network (, and there are now surveillance studies research centres – for example the Surveillance Studies Centre at Queen’s University, Canada, and the Centre for Research into Information Surveillance and Privacy (CRISP) in the UK. The field is marked by intellectual heterogeneity, with studies at different levels of analysis from the macro to the micro, and with different geographical and historical focuses (an initial focus upon Western European and North America is being expanded). 

One of the key debates within surveillance studies is the scope of the concept of surveillance. Kevin Haggerty has argued that it may not be possible to make many statements that hold true for all forms of surveillance in all contexts. A strong theme of contemporary research into surveillance has been the spread of surveillance practices into everyday life. Claims that surveillance is a usual, common human practice that can be identified in different forms in different historical periods, sit somewhat uneasily with claims that contemporary surveillance is expanding and potentially leading to “surveillance societies.” However, the first claim captures the sense that the analytical approaches developed in surveillance studies can be applied to other instances of this particular form of human interaction. The second claim captures the sense of a particular technologically mediated form of surveillance aligned with security and social control.
The field is also still wrestling with the legacy of the Panopticon. The prison design proposed by Jeremy Bentham and brought to theoretical significance by Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish (1991) looms large in the early works on surveillance. Many researchers of surveillance have adopted explicitly post-panoptic positions, often drawing our attention towards the multiple and decentralised forms of contemporary surveillance, or the way that surveillance can be participatory rather than enforced and inherently oppressive. David Lyon has drawn attention to the dual roles of care and control in many surveillance practices. Additionally, surveillance studies continues to debate the continued relevance of the concept of privacy, and the different analytical, normative or political roles it can play. 

Surveillance studies has begun to pay increasing attention to the discursive, representative and cultural aspects of surveillance, with a growing awareness that the sense- and meaning-making practices that surround and contextualise surveillance are incredibly important (Monahan 2011). In part this acts as a corrective to a previously existing focus upon technology and upon the institutions of surveillance. Early cultural accounts tended to identify occurrences of surveillance in popular media, such as films, television, literature and even music, and seek to put these representations to use in explaining and understanding surveillance practices. Surveillance studies has had an ongoing and productive set of interactions with artistic practice. Surveillance and Society has featured a number of art pieces and articles on the relationship between surveillance and art. More recently there has been a shift to include political language in these examinations. 

Starting from the assumption that new media allow faster, more powerful and cheaper surveillance capabilities, the collection Media, Surveillance and Identity edited by AndrĂ© Jansson and Miyase Christensen (2013) adopts a social perspective upon the interrelation between the three concepts in the title. This focuses upon the social and political registers through which media are received and experienced. Surveillance is implicated in control over information and technological means of communication. Rather than seeing inherent potentials for liberation or domination in surveillance and media technology, they suggest these potentials are culturally and ideologically embedded, and therefore contestable. The authors see technologically mediated surveillance practices implicated in relationships between expressivity and control, privacy and publicness, and the relationship between self and society. 

Political Communication of Surveillance

Reflecting upon the politics of surveillance, Kevin Haggerty and Richard Ericson suggest that “the politics of surveillance involves both contestation over particular tactics and technologies of surveillance, as well as wide ranging social consequences of monitoring practices” (2007:6). One aspect of this they describe as the “stakeholder politics of surveillance”; the efforts to influence the volume and configuration of surveillance – what is to be put under surveillance, for what reasons, and under what circumstances? A key element of this stakeholder politics is the way that various political actors publicly represent the practices of surveillance in which they and others engage, or which they are attempting to resist. This is often conducted through debates between experts, and often with a focus upon the effectiveness of surveillance technology. Important to this communication of surveillance is the representation of the subjects of surveillance – which categories of people are deserving of surveillance attention and which are not (Finn and McCahill 2010). Resistance to surveillance practices also requires knowledge about those practices, and the media can play an important role in this. Leaked documents on intelligence agencies surveillance programmes published in the media in 2013 form an intervention in this politics, the impact of which is still to be determined. 

Research into the way that government actors represent surveillance has used this as a starting point for reconstructing governmental models of surveillance. Public pronouncements are taken as reflecting the way in which government as a complex, multiple assemblage thinks collectively about surveillance methods, and puts these models into practice. It is also important how government constructs political problems as requiring a surveillance response. If for example security is constructed as requiring visibility and increased knowledge, then surveillance becomes a logical response to all manner of social problems. 

Potentially missing from these accounts of the various discursive and rhetorical representations of  surveillance practices are empirical accounts mapping the impact of these representations upon the public, with some of the research coming up against the audience problem familiar to much media research. Research projects such as Globalization of Personal Data ( and Privacy and Security Mirrors ( have recently attempted to understand the public experience and perception of surveillance practices. These projects have suggested that future research should seek to better understand the relationships between perceptions of different technologies and what this implies for people’s sense of privacy (Watson & Wright 2013) .

Surveillance of Political Communication

The second area of interaction between surveillance and political communication is the way in which surveillance practices alter pre-existing forms of political communication. Surveillance, often digitally mediated, is a central component of contemporary systems of censorship and Internet filtering. The Open Net Initiative has demonstrated how online surveillance and censorship have been increasing in scale, scope and sophistication across the world (Deibert et al. 2010), with increasing implications for media freedom, political activism and the discussion of matters of public interest. Practices of web filtering are a subtle combination of surveillance and censorship, which is often invisible to citizens, with few or no mechanisms for oversight or accountability, and telling impacts upon the way political information is disseminated or accessed. The increasingly granular type of communication an individual receives is part of what surveillance studies refers to as “Social Sorting”. However, new media technologies allow people to gather information about their peers and others. Transparency projects (such as SpinWatch and WikiLeaks) also make use of similar methods and logics of surveillance and the circulation of information. Thomas Mathiesen’s concept of the synopticon (1997) captures the way in which the many come to watch the few at the same time as populations are subject to increased surveillance. This highlights the multiple directions of political attention and knowledge production, and again the interrelated nature of surveillance and political communication.

Surveillance as political communication

Finally, it may also be possible to examine surveillance itself as a form of political communication, taking into account the way that surveillance is deployed symbolically, and this is an area of research in need of further development. Whilst some forms of surveillance are covert, many forms of surveillance operate to reinforce a particular form of behaviour. The awareness of surveillance (or the possibility of surveillance) creates a sense of anticipatory conformity. This is the function at the heart of the Panopticon. Furthermore the categories created through surveillance practices can become meaningful and real for the people placed in them, creating new forms of political subjectivity. Surveillance technologies have become symbolic of modern governance, of national or organisation capacity and security. Surveillance is deployed to demonstrate that something is being done, and that attention is being paid to political problems.


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