David Lyon’s comprehensive Surveillance Studies: An Overview not only has a purposefully punny name (overview, surveillance…. get it?) but it provides readers with multiple entrances into the interdisciplinary field of surveillance studies. Lyon focuses on asking questions dealing with the field, as well as pointing out the inability of providing definitive answers to these questions. He provides a few working definitions of “surveillance”:

Surveillance is not merely something exercised on us as workers, citizens or travelers, it is a set of processes in which we are all involved, both as watched and watchers. Indeed, one of the most striking areas of growth for systemically keeping an eye on ordinary people is that of consumption. (13)

…it (surveillance) also has some fairly straightforward meanings that refer to routine and everyday activity. Rooted in the French verb sur-veiller, literally to ‘watch over,’ surveillance refers to processes in which special note is taken of certain human behaviors that go well beyond idle curiosity. (ibid.)

So what is surveillance? For the sake of argument, we may start by saying that it is the focused, systematic and routine attention to personal details for purposes of influence, management, protection or direction. Surveillance directs its attention in the end to individuals (even though aggregate data, such as those available in the public domain, may be used to build up a background picture). It is focused. By systematic, I mean that this attention to personal details is not random, occasional or spontaneous; it is deliberate and depends on certain protocols and techniques. Beyond this, surveillance is routine; it occurs as a ‘normal’ part of everyday life in all societies that depend on bureaucratic administration and some kinds of information technology. Everyday surveillance is endemic to modern societies. It is one of those major social processes that actually constitute modernity as such. (14)

Immediately after these definitions, Lyon reminds readers that there are always exceptions to the rules, particularly when discussing surveillance. Later in the first part of Surveillance Studies, he also covers important ‘modern’ theories of surveillance studies and contrasts them with ‘postmodern’ theories. Essentially, the major difference between the two is the postmodern focus on “technology-based, body-objectifying, everyday, universal kinds of surveillance” (55) while the modern theorists view surveillance as “an outgrowth of capitalist enterprises, bureaucratic organization, the nation-state, a machine-like technologic and the development of new kinds of solidarity, involving less ‘trust’ or at least different kinds of trust (51). Lyon is careful to point out to readers the fact that postmodern also includes most of what was considered ‘modern’ and adds to it.


Notes & Quotes

  • In Lyon’s discussion of the “roots” of surveillance studies, he includes the theories of Émile Durkheim, including his theory of crime: “When the gap between the relatively well-off and the relatively disadvantaged is growing, he argues, each group will come to see the other, increasingly, as a threat to their security. There may be both real and perceived increases in crime rates, because of the widening inequality gap, and the better-off will respond by supporting more draconian counter-measures and broadening the definition of ‘crime.’ This includes obtaining technologies of self-protection, thus further excluding the more marginalized and targeting offender and innocent alike” (49). This concept links to at least two of my research interests as reflected on my neoliberal exam list: (1) The building of bunkers and increase in survivalism amongst the wealthy elite (see Evan Osnos’s “Doomsday Prep for the Super Rich”); and (2) The sudden interest in true crime that is occurring today, but was also popular in the 1970’s/80’s and the 19th century, all of which were major periods of change and development in capitalism that included the widening of the gap between the super rich and the super poor.
  • Within the postmodern conception of surveillance studies, there is the understanding that daily life surveillance “now goes far beyond criminal or workplace deviance” which sometimes leads to attempts to “gauge future-life chances” prior to or at birth (55). This can result in a sort of ‘living dead’ subject, whose future has already been determined prior to life.
  • In Lyon’s chapter on popular culture conceptions of surveillance, he notes that these instances can challenge, celebrate, or even elicit involvement in surveillance. I was particularly interested in his discussion on films (he notes the current importance of the voyeur’s gaze as a result of the cinematic gaze (140)) and his discussion of reality television. During his discussion of Big Brother, he notes that “in contemporary societies we inhabit more and more a ‘surveillance space’ that is beyond ‘public’ and ‘private’…this space is one in which ‘performative effects are produced that constitute identities” (153). Reality tv celebrates this space and encourages others to perform appropriately in the surveillance space by making this act appear hip and luxurious. This also reminds me a lot of the economy of reputation as represented in early American seduction narratives like Charlotte Temple and The Coquette where visibility and performance were vital aspects of the creation of one’s identity/reputation. Lyon also states that reality television can encourage viewers to participate in the surveillance system, not only by watching, but also by interacting through voting systems. He states that the ultimate winner of these shows, however, are the corporations that are advertising or gaining profit in other ways through the reality tv show’s popularity. I would push this further in the current era of ‘social media influencers,’ a popular job for former reality television television contestants following their time on the show. This is particularly true of shows like The Bachelor. I would also be interested in the ways that ‘live-tweeting’ episodes of shows like The Bachelor (a common tradition of the fandom) help to surveil the patterns of audiences.  I’m also interested in considering the current WWE narrative that the audience is “the authority” and that we are now in charge of managing the two shows- Raw and Smackdown by making it clear to the McMahon family what we want.


Surveillance Studies: An Overview (2007) by Caitlin Duffy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.