Introduction: An Eye on Surveillance and Governance

Mathieu Deflem
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Published in Surveillance and Governance: Crime Control and Beyond, edited by Mathieu Deflem. Bingley, UK: Emerald/JAI Press, 2008. 

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Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2008. "Introduction: An Eye on Surveillance and Governance." Pp. 1-8 in Surveillance and Governance: Crime Control and Beyond, edited by Mathieu Deflem. Bingley, UK: Emerald/JAI Press.


This volume presents recent insights in the sociological study of surveillance and governance in the context of criminal justice and other control strategies in contemporary societies. The collected chapters provide a varied set of theoretical perspectives and substantive research domains on the qualities and quantities of some of the most recent transformations of social control as well as their historical precursors in diverse social settings. Drawn from several quarters of the world, the contributors to this volume testify to the increasing relevance of surveillance and governance across the globe and, at the same time, demonstrate the cross-national spread of scholarly ideas on the study thereof.

Surveillance is not a conceptual invention of recent social-science scholarship. In fact, the term has a very long history that appears more closely related to the multitude of policy functions that historically were increasingly monopolized by the state, including matters pertaining to health, deviance, poverty, geography, and economy (e.g. Forrest, 1896; Langmuir, 1965). Surveillance is, in its origins, a concept of power. The term, however, has also acquired the status of a concept in social-science scholarship, and it is here that the contributions in the present volume are situated to ponder on the patterns, dynamics, and implications of the social practices and institutions involved with the observing and monitoring of behavior and the collection of information thereon. Yet, even as a concept, surveillance has undergone changes in meaning and has, consequently, been applied in a variety of contexts. Surveillance can probably be less clearly defined and is better experienced when we see it, or when it is discovered to have violated our sense of trust and privacy when we did not. Further indicating conceptual and theoretical complexities there has been the more recent introduction in social science of the concept of governance, itself a term going back hundreds of years to its origins in the world of politics and policy. At a general level, governance can be defined as the administrative or application-oriented components of government, the latter broadly defined with respect not only to politics but power more generally, including other spheres of conduct, notably private and corporate action. Evidently, the study of social control in terms of both or either surveillance and governance introduces further complexities about their relations and meanings.

The authors contributing to this volume have many intelligent things to say, in theoretical and empirical respects, about surveillance and governance. In order to briefly situate these varied discussions, I wish to clarify a few broad strokes of the study of surveillance and governance on the basis of the work of the French philosopher Michel Foucault. Of course, modern surveillance scholars have made much effort in recent years to move beyond Foucault, and in many instances they surely have done so successfully (e.g., see the contributions in Lyon, 2006; Zurawski, 2007). However, it remains instructive, also, just as much as we sociologists habitually remind ourselves that we are anchored in the 19th century, to briefly situate recent developments in the study of surveillance and governance with reference to Foucault’s work. This review can be useful, minimally, for strategic reasons aimed at uncovering the historical centrality of Foucault’s terms of discipline and governmentality in the development of what is now sometimes called the sub-disciplinary specialty of ‘surveillance studies’ (see Contemporary Sociology, 2007). Conceptually, furthermore, a case can be made that Foucault’s twin notions correspond to surveillance and governance, respectively, and have informed central aspects of their study in the social and human sciences.


Foucault discussed the theme of surveillance, in his now famous work on the birth of the prison (Foucault, 1977), in a manner that ignited the sociological imagination to devote increasing attention to a variety of mechanisms and technologies of control. A study on the transformation of punishment in the modern era, Foucault’s investigation is centrally involved in analyzing the disappearance of punishment as a public and violent spectacle centered on the infliction of pain (public torture) and the emergence of a meticulous surveillance of the soul. Since the second half of the 18th century, Foucault suggests, reform proposals were introduced in matters of punishment that proposed leniency only to enhance intervention and efficiency. Although the prison system originally did not fit this model, detention would become the most typical form of punishment. This peculiar development makes sense, according to Foucault, in terms of the spread of a new form of punishment called discipline. Oriented at the production of docile bodies, discipline involves a series of techniques of surveillance which emphasize a continuous supervision, examination, and normalization of behavior. Like other theatres of disciplinary power (the school, the clinic, the factory), the modern prison has the Panopticon as its most prototypical expression to economically keep and oversee the subject. Modern prisons (unlike the dungeons of the dark) bring its inhabitants to light: the prisoners are seen and overseen and subject to a normalization (through penitence rather than rehabilitation) on the basis of models of medical, economic, and political expertise. The human sciences legitimize and contribute to disciplinary power. Discipline is both discourse and practice.

Summarizing the characteristics of discipline, it is a form of power that is productive and useful. Punishment should benefit both the offender and society. It should be useful economically, politically, and socially. Discipline does not come in the typical form of power that excludes and is negatively enforced (as a prohibition). Discipline does not prohibit; instead, it prescribes proper modes of conduct. Disciplinary power is also pervasive throughout society as the Panopticon becomes articulated in multiple institutions outside of the prison as a generalized function of panopticism. The panoptical formula of power through transparency permeates the social body. The relations of disciplinary power cannot be captured in a dichotomy of dominators and dominated: discipline is a machine in which everyone is caught. And power is always related to knowledge which justifies power. Yet, discipline is not the one master-concept of power in the modern age. Instead, power relations today are multiple, of various kinds. The procedures of power today are more diverse than only the disciplinary type, and there remains a trace of torture. Finally, there is also always resistance against power. Disciplinary power is omnipresent but not omnipotent; modern society is disciplinary but not disciplined.

Also developed by Foucault and especially widely applied by contemporary post-Foucauldian scholars, the concept of governmentality broadens the perspective of discipline to focus on the objectives of modern power (Foucault, 1991). Governmentality is defined as “the way in which the conduct of a whole of individuals is found implicated, in an ever more marked fashion, in the exercise of sovereign power” (Foucault, 1991, p. 101). Central to Foucault’s notion is that power does not exclude people but that, on the contrary, governmental power centers on the population and its truth by presupposing, measuring, and evaluating individuals in their conduct as living subjects. Especially in 19th-century Europe, Foucault explains, instead of a justification of power in terms of a centered state, power was conceived in terms of an efficient economy directed at furthering the fertility of territories and the health and movements of the population. Governmentality thus broke with any form of state-sanctioned legalism.

According to Foucault, governmental power relies in its effectuation on a triple alliance of criminology, statistics, and police (Foucault, 1980, 1984; 1991; see also Deflem, 1997). Indeed, in order to concretize the governmental form of political technology, it was critical to know the population. With respect to criminality, it was criminology which, as the science of the criminal species, provided this knowledge, while criminal statistics uncovered the relevant regularities in the population. Police is understood, not in the contemporary sense as law enforcement, but as “a program of government rationality... to create a system of regulation of the general conduct of individuals whereby everything would be controlled to the point of self-sustenance, without the need for intervention” (Foucault, 1984, p. 241). Corresponding to the objectification of the lives of delinquents in systems of criminological knowledge, governmental policing is targeted at a society of living beings outside and beyond the context of law. This extra-legality does not imply that the practice of police would not be influenced by political and economic developments. However, Foucault maintains, “the type of power that it exercises, the mechanisms it operates and the elements to which it applies them are specific” (Foucault, 1977, p. 213).

Clarifying and extending the concepts of discipline and governmentality, the burgeoning scholarly move towards the study of surveillance and governance can be conceptualized, at its most general level, as referring to the instrumental and goal-directed components of modern manifestations of social control, respectively. Importantly, the concept of social control has thereby come to be understood in an increasingly broadened meaning that is no longer tied up exclusively with crime and deviance, but that is applied in a more general sense to a nation, a world, a society of beings. Sometimes, even, scholars have in this direction altogether abandoned the very idea of social control in order to move away from an implied functionality in surveillance and governance towards an observing attitude in terms of risk and suspicion. Not surprisingly, a tendency of postmodernism, implied or explicit, can often be detected in contemporary surveillance studies.


Traditionally, sociologists have contemplated power in terms of the institutions of politics and its modern apex, the state. Yet, because of many of the contemporary changes affecting the institutions and practices of surveillance and governance, it can be argued that social control today is less a domain of the nation-state alone. At the same time perhaps, never before has the state been involved with social control as much as today. Surveillance and control also are no longer an exclusively local or regional affair but extend beyond national boundaries to take up the sphere of the global order. Yet, at once, much control is localized and continues to go “down to the finest grain of the social body” (Foucault, 1977, p. 80). Also, many of the new technologies that a decade ago led to analytical reflections of the highest order today have become banal in their everyday application and routine diffusion. What can sociologists intelligently say about these developments in both empirical and theoretical respects? It is from this perspective that the authors of the present volume were invited to contribute a chapter in which they could freely explore any facet of the broader constellation of contemporary surveillance and governance strategies with respect to both crime control and related developments that push social control processes beyond the concerns of crime and deviance. Based on their research efforts, the contributors were encouraged to offer provocative and thoughtful reflections that can stimulate our theoretical thinking about relevant issues. As this review will make clear, the authors yield the very rich variety that exists in contemporary sociological thinking about surveillance and governance.

Part I of this volume brings together contributions that primarily focus on the boundaries that modern surveillance practices attempt to break and the spaces they are applied to. In a study of the Minuteman Project at the southern border of the United States, James Walsh offers a penetrating analysis of the history, ideology, and practices of a peculiar form of citizen surveillance. Walsh argues that such non-state projects, in fact, represent an effort by citizens to align themselves with the surveillance apparatus of the state. Turning to the city of New York, Kirsten Christiansen examines the intrusion of systems of surveillance and control in large public spaces. She concludes that public urban space greatly impacts our understanding of rights to free speech and assembly, which affects the health of the contemporary democratic process. Taking us on a journey to France, Fabien Jobard and Dominique Linhardt scrutinize the control systems at the international airport of Orly, south of Paris, and in the housing projects in the town of Dammarie-lès-Lys. They draw illuminating comparisons between these very different spaces of surveillance that particularly indicate a strong difference in the intensity of surveillance. Extending the analysis to the international level, Thomas Mathiesen scrutinizes various transnational systems of surveillance, especially in the context of the European Union. This global order, Mathiesen argues, presents a system of control without a state.

The chapters in Part II focus on the technological and strategic elements of surveillance and governance. William Staples and Stephanie Decker examine the techniques of house arrest as they are applied in a Midwestern town in the United States. The authors use ethnographic interview data to contemplate on the implications of house arrest for the person’s sense of self in view of the objectives of docility. Scott White also takes on a formal means of social control by investigating the practices enacted by the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) to control activities in the academia. What White’s analysis brings out is the centrality of the extraction of information in modern systems of surveillance. FBI activities are also at the heart of the chapter by David Cunningham and John Noakes in their analysis of counter-intelligence programs. What the authors particularly focus on are the implications of such activities for the course and outcome of social movement activities and, by extension, the lessons thereof for social movements theorists. Focusing on the much discussed CCTV systems, Michael McCahill contemplates on the formation of a plural policing system, extending beyond the confines of formal policing activities. Plural policing, McCahill shows, is blurring the traditional divides between public and private systems of control in a multitude of respects.

Part III contains chapters that contemplate on the objectives as well as the counter-objectives of surveillance. Janet Chan examines what she calls the new lateral surveillance, especially as it took place since the events of September 11, that centers on the involvement of citizens in reporting suspicious behavior and people. In this new constellation of state and public collaboration, Chan argues, a new culture of suspicion is formed that, like the high policing efforts of old, is both dangerous and political. Karen Glover centers her analysis on racial profiling strategies that are aimed at racial minorities in the United States. Glover argues that such systems of hyper-surveillance instill in minorities a sense of double-consciousness that separates them from the dominant groups in society. Turning to counter-objectives, Benoît Dupont notes without irony that modern technological systems can also be turned against surveillance strategies. Specifically focused on the use of the internet, Dupont argues that a democratization of surveillance takes place whereby the categories of those who watch and those who are being watched can interchange and shift. Kevin Stenson contemplates on changes including, but also extending beyond, the internet to argue that surveillance scholars ought not to make claims that the nation-state would be disappearing. Instead, Stenson argues, many advanced practices of surveillance are to be seen as extensions of the powers of the sovereign state.

In Part IV, finally, a group of chapters examines systems of surveillance that are not primarily focused on matters of crime and deviance. John Gilliom discusses the surveillance aspects of recent educational programs in the United States that have been designed to test the progress of children. Gilliom argues that these educational policies will particularly affect lower-income schools and their students, who are subjected to sanctions and shaming as expressions of power oriented at shaping institutions and those who inhabit them. Nathan Harris and Jennifer Wood also focus on the younger members of society by discussing child-protection programs. Theoretically, the authors raise important matters related to responsive regulation, regulatory theory, and nodal governance. Finally, Minas Samatas examines the curious development in Greece, since the Olympic games were held there in 2004, that implied a movement against the installation of CCTV in matters of traffic control and other surveillance systems. Even though the use of CCTV to secure traffic control and prevent car accidents is widely accepted, the people of Greece are generally opposed to systems because of the burdens posed by the authoritarian political past of the country. Covering analyses that cover surveillance and governance from a plurality of perspectives and centered on a multitude of important components, the chapters in this book collectively show the vibrancy of serious scholarship on the nexus of surveillance and governance.


I am grateful to the authors who contributed to this volume in such exemplary fashion. All who are interested in important theoretical and empirical puzzles surrounding surveillance and governance can learn much from their efforts. I also thank Shannon McDonough for her kind assistance in preparation of this volume.

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See overview of this book.