Book review: Surveillance, Crime and Social Control

Mathieu Deflem
Google Scholar | ResearchGate | ORCID

This is a copy of a book review of Surveillance, Crime and Social Control edited by C. Norris & D. Wilson, published in Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice 51(1), 2009.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2009. Review of Surveillance, Crime and Social Control, edited by C. Norris & D. Wilson. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice 51(1):123-124. 

This book presents a collection of previously published articles. Even in an age when journal articles are more readily available online, there can be value to edited print volumes because they bring together literature from various disciplines and backgrounds. As such, a collection such as this on surveillance and crime control can have the ability to sensitize ideas and to show diversity and unity within a particular field of inquiry. At the same time, however, there must also be a point to reprinting works so that the reader may learn something new. As to the literature on surveillance, this volume fulfils some of these tasks better than others.

The volume is divided into five parts. The first part is, not surprisingly, devoted to theory. What is more troublesome —not only judging from this collection— is that the surveillance scholarship is not theoretically guided in any meaningful way. For starters, this book opens with a chapter by Gary Marx that is based on musings emanating from a song by the British rock band The Police. To be sure, the paper has some useful thoughts on the characteristics of what was at the time of its original publication, more than twenty years ago, called the ‘new surveillance.’ I leave it to the members of the YouTube generation to provide the chuckles. The rest of the theory papers in this volume hardly fare better, with some thoughts on Bentham by David Lyon and on Foucault by Gilles Deleuze and Thomas Matthiesen. As this collection’s final theory contribution, the paper by Kevin Haggerty and Richard Ericson on ‘surveillant assemblage,’ denoting the convergence of a multitude of surveillance practices, reveals the theoretical immaturity of surveillance scholarship most clearly in avoiding any sound analytical thinking to instead engage in a conceptual play that is rife with epistemological problems and cannot stand as the basis for meaningful empirical work.

The next three parts of this book offer some of the strengths of the surveillance scholarship in analyzing a number of surveillance practices, specifically CCTV, undercover policing, and information technologies. The articles on CCTV are primarily relevant to the British Isles, where the technology is widespread, although it will also be useful to consider in other contexts as bad technologies have a tendency to travel faster than good ideas. The part on undercover mixes empirical and theoretical reflections nicely, but it could have benefitted from one of the many contributions on the subject by Gary Marx, whose works remains most authoritative in the area. The papers on information technology betray the technological fix that occupies many surveillance scholars despite their continued proclamations to the contrary. This problem carries over into the book’s final part, which deals with speculations on the role of surveillance in the future.

The publisher of this book, Ashgate, has various series in place that reproduce works on a number of social-science topics. Such enterprises can still be useful as long as they give something to the reader that is scholarly meaningful and intellectually exciting. This volume primarily establishes the fact that many contributions in the literature on surveillance are much stronger empirically, showing the characteristics of surveillance, than theoretically, revealing the relevance thereof. It therefore seems advisable to scholars working on aspects of surveillance to remain firmly rooted in the intellectual insights of selected disciplines and then to develop a multi-disciplinary field. At present, regrettably, the scholarship presents a rather disjointed surveillance field assemblage.

See other writings on social control and criminal justice.