Surveillance Studies is a growing field of research devoted to understanding the ways in which surveillance shapes society. It brings together scholars from diverse disciplines such as sociologists, geographers, political scientists, philosophers, lawyers, and historians who explore the effects of surveillance on our lives. Surveillance has always been a part of daily life, but the recent advances in material and data-handling technologies have changed it dramatically. The interdisciplinary study of surveillance provides a useful framework for examining the complex and sometimes unintended consequences of the gathering of information on individuals. Surveillance has been used for both beneficial and deceptive purposes and it is important to examine the implications of its use.
The first books in this growing genre addressed issues related to new forms of surveillance and sought to make them visible. James Rule’s (1973) Private Lives and Public Surveillance framed the early computer-based systems of record-keeping and personal tracking against a historical background, demonstrating that they were consequential developments. Gary T. Marx’s (1988) study of the undercover policing that had come about because of the development of video cameras and polygraphs was also an early classic.
In the wake of these publications, other works took up the challenge of interpreting these new surveillance developments in more systematic ways. Michel Foucault’s comments on Bentham’s Panopticon influenced many who would later work in this area, and Orwell’s dystopian vision inspired others. These and other authors made it clear that surveillance was not only about national security or economic stability, but was a process of social sorting that often resulted in unequal life chances.
While the critiques of those who argue that surveillance is always used for negative purposes were important, these authors missed a crucial point, which is that surveillance can be used for both good and bad purposes, as long as it is used appropriately. This is why it is necessary to analyze both the benefits and harms of surveillance in its proper context, rather than making it into a debate about government spying or secrecy.
It is this normative orientation to surveillance that characterized most of the subsequent works in this field. Scholars sought to show that surveillance is a ubiquitous and multifaceted process that has implications for all parts of society, whether mediated by coercion (government or private), care (parenting and childrearing), contracts (work and consumption) or free-floating personal data.
These scholars also sought to understand how surveillance, when it is used for unequal ends, reproduces forms of oppression such as racism and sexism. More recently, scholarship has delved into the intersections of surveillance and other social categories including gender and sexuality. In addition, this new field has incorporated key insights from sociology and communication studies, with works such as Gandy’s (1993) The Panoptic Sort showing that the playing field for consumer data is far from level and helps perpetuate racial and class inequalities.