The Fourth Eye

Surveillance and Ethnography: Researching Surveillance as Everyday Life

Green, N. and N. Zurawski (2015). “Surveillance and Ethnography: Researching Surveillance as Everyday Life.” Surveillance & Society 13(1): 27.

Ethnographies of surveillance is interested in both the production of surveillance through organizational practices and the performance of legal governance or politics, as well as the everyday social interactions of actors with each other.

“That is, by pre-defining a particular surveillant assemblage as a research ‘site’, amenable to ethnographic ‘field’ research, are researchers pre-supposing or assuming what surveillance relations might be or mean for the participants imbricated in those relations?” p 29

Considered broadly, surveillance can be conceptualized as one form or mode of the social, becoming apparent in other activities and practices, something that is created, performed and perceived as such (in all its technical, discursive and interactional modes)—or not. p. 29

“surveillance is a field with assumed boundaries, which can be identified in order to conduct research—and, on the other hand, is something that comprises social relations that can be studied ethnographically in their contexts and processes, and that therefore actively constitute surveillance in practice.p. 30

“However the central argument here is that ethnography should not be understood as a way to describe and explain how people act in a surveillance setting that has been identified as such.

Ball and Haggerty (2005) suggested a similar point when they argued for a broad research approach in Surveillance Studies that does not investigate surveillance defined as a set of ‘things’. Rather, research would always begin from the intention to explain surveillance and how it may be empirically constituted,…” p. 30

What such an approach implies is that surveillance as a field cannot be ‘placed’, locally or conceptually. Ultimately the question remains whether it is a ‘field’ as such, something that would lend itself to traditional ethnographic research—or whether it is simply a way of describing multiple and diverse aspects of many human experiences that share some relation to forms of monitoring or control—i.e. the sometimes purposeful, sometimes mutual (mediated) observation of people by other people.p. 30

Surveillance Studies is constructed as an interdisciplinary field—it bundles theoretical approaches and makes sense of wide and diverse phenomena. Like other fields or disciplines it does not follow a fixed methodology, nor any one particular theoretical framework.

Another approach is historical analysis— and while this cannot be linked to a particular field or practice of surveillance, it often involves the historical evolution of a specific technology—such as RFID (Rosol 2010), algorithms (Graham and Wood 2003), or CCTV (Kammerer 2009)—or the history of a particular practice, e.g. the administrative surveillance of alcohol consumption in Ontario (Genosko and Thompson 2006, 2009). There have been combinations of these approaches as well, such as comparative research using one or more method—e.g. large studies on CCTV in Europe (Hempel and Töpfer 2003)—or on privacy legislation or identity management (Lyon and Bennett 2008). p 31

What emerges from an overview of the surveillance evidence base, however, is a fairly common emphasis on structures, rules and systems (despite their different foci and epistemological perspectives). This emphasis constructs a meta-framework that views surveillance as so large, and such a complex set of processes, that it can best be researched and understood through its systems and structures, at the expense of attention to embeddedness in everyday life. p .31

Although a number of studies have been conducted on a micro-level and represent in-depth studies, few also address the proposition that surveillance as a field is diffuse, and the practice of empirical research itself may therefore conceptualize and construct the field of study in the first instance. We argue that as surveillance is one aspect of human life (although one which is present continuously in multiple forms), its impact, meaning and consequences for human societies can only be fully understood if the complex interactions between social life, technology as the practical application of knowledge (Vannini 2009a), and the resulting constructions, collectivities and political strategies, are viewed as interlinking, and not as solitary building blocks.p. 31

Interviews can, “produce in-depth understandings of participants’ attitudes and perceptions, providing extensive subjective narratives of experience.” p. 31
a process of fairly intense observation, in addition to interviewing or other qualitative empirical research (wherever it is ‘located’, such as in the case of ‘virtual’ ethnography [Hine 2000]) p. 32

“Ethnography—classically meaning ‘writing people’—entails the intensive description of a particular society, culture or group in full detail and every aspect. The term ethnography (and its attendant ethnographic fieldwork methods) is most often used to describe combined processes of reflexive participation in grounded and empirical social worlds, and intensive observation of them—often also including extensive formal and informal interviewing in the course of the everyday life of that social world, as well as other, for example, materially or textually-based analytic strategies. On a very basic level, ethnography attempts to portray the world as seen from a ‘native’s’ point of view (cf. Mitchell 2011), or to understand the realities of those being studied. These general aims could, however, be carried out via a range of different approaches, and with very different foci. Ethnographies attempt to be open, inductive, and focusing towards researching a whole ‘field’ rather than a single phenomenon within that field, site or institution. Ethnography therefore offers the opportunity to study multiple, interlinked phenomena. ” p. 32

“institutional ethnography—that is, an ethnographic approach that recognizes the ways that institutions interpellate individuals—a ‘method of inquiry that problematizes social relations at the local site of lived experience, while examining how sequences of texts coordinate actions, consciousness, and forms of organization extra-locally’ (Walby 2005: 159).

Durão and Lopes (2011) in particular highlight the importance of research into institutions—they argue that institutions generate systems to classify both types of people, and the relationships between them. After Lyon’s (2003) focus on social sorting, surveillance scholars are quite aware of the ordering and categorizing preconditions or effects of surveillance—which implies the need to ‘follow’ these relations in their contexts, and understand the contextual meanings within a larger social setting. The ethnography of infrastructures seems especially appealing in those cases.

“Institutions seem to lend themselves to research into surveillance practices and relations, but are certainly not the only way to ‘follow a process’ or research something in which control, purposeful observation, managing populations and power play a role. ” p. 34

the task is in mapping an array of constitutive dynamics—including, but not limited to, dynamics at the local level. (Fortun 2009: 169) p. 34

“In starting from the empirical formations themselves, ethnography could produce extensively rich material on how, when and where surveillance is performed, constructed, ‘made’ in the broadest sense; and therefore reflect on the subject of Surveillance Studies itself.p. 35

“Ethnographies of surveillance may shift in focus, location or processual attention: but is always interested in both the production of surveillance through organizational practices and the performance of legal governance or politics, as well as the everyday social interactions of actors with each other.” p. 38

“In studying the ethnographic dynamics of social interactions and the meanings that are understood or attributed to them, research on surveillance will profit significantly, because some deeper understanding of processes leading to surveillance practices and how they are addressed, accommodated, or resisted, will be generated.” p. 38

Ethnography, understood as a multi-sited approach amenable to the investigation of flows and processes in human action, would need to systematically concentrate on a number of areas to usefully extend existing research on the constitution of surveillance relations and processes in everyday life, in order to demonstrate where they are manifest. p. 38 i.e. Pine Gap, North West Cape, Darwin, etc.

Paying attention to materiality focuses on the things people engage with, simultaneously inquiring into the meanings that may be attached to them.p. 38

the focus of such ethnographies may be to gather information on the subjects’ knowledge of technologies or surveillance practices, with the goal to reconstruct how knowledge is (socially/culturally) produced. As this knowledge can be identified through narratives about technologies, objects or practices that play a role within a given context (cf. Woodward 2009), the surveillance context may be re-constructed discursively in the process of research.p. 39

Or focused on daily or professional routines, or how people act and why, or how institutions are built, work and are conceptualised in relation to something that might be called surveillance.

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