Communication Surveillance and Communication
Ask Risom Bøge, Anders Albrechtslund, Peter Lauritsen
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0193


Over the past decades, surveillance has become an integral part of society and the everyday life of individuals. To many, the surveillance society has to do with the accelerated uses of surveillance cameras by the police, shopping malls, workplaces, and private citizens. However, the electronic eyes of cameras are but one of many important aspects of the surveillance society. In particular, surveillance has become intrinsic to our digitally mediated communication. Many are constantly engaged in forms of social surveillance as they observe what friends, family, celebrities, love interests, and acquaintances are up to on social media. In turn, they also leave trails of digital footprints that may be collected and analyzed by governments, businesses, or hackers. The imperceptible nature of this new surveillance raises some pressing concerns about our digital lives as our data doubles increasingly represent and define us in lieu of our embodied selves. It is thus vital for students and scholars in the field of communication to address surveillance issues. This article takes up the task of providing an overview of the most relevant work on surveillance for the field of communication. The article is structured in five parts. First, it introduces the reader to general overview texts of surveillance studies, including its topics, theoretical diversity, and its history. Second, the ideas of the surveillance society and surveillance cultures are taken up, as they are often understood to be central to surveillance studies’ undertakings and politics. Third, the article presents the reader with core surveillance theories and their sources of inspiration. It points to the panopticon, which has been a dominant but also controversial concept, but mostly the bibliography suggests post-panoptic theories, which are particularly relevant to this topic and audience. The fourth section outlines a variety of themes in which surveillance of communication is being studied. Organized under the headings Tracking; Mass Surveillance; Media; and Art, Fiction, and Popular Culture, this section provides a survey in surveillance studies pertaining to communication. Fifth and finally, the article points to recurring discussions of the relevancy and understanding of privacy.

General Overviews

Surveillance studies is a new but already diverse field, encompassing many different academic disciplines, theories, and areas of study. Since the late 20th century, surveillance has become an increasingly important topic in academic and public debates. Surveillance studies emerged in this environment with its own journal, Surveillance & Society, and its own conferences and has grown into a complex network of scholars from disciplines ranging across the social sciences, arts, and humanities. This section presents a selection of texts that map this diverse field and can act as entry points and guides for aspiring scholars in quite different ways. New readers might want to begin with Lyon 2007. David Lyon is one of the pioneers of surveillance studies, and in this book, he details the history and core concepts of the field and presents the reader with an understanding of the breadth and depth of surveillance in society. Ball, et al. 2012 presents a more difficult and more up-to-date overview of the field. In this anthology, numerous key surveillance scholars review and engage with their specific theoretical and contextual areas of expertise. The Surveillance Studies Reader is a collection of twenty-four original and important texts in the field. In combination with the authors’ framing, the original texts followed by questions to the reader makes this work well suited for teaching purposes.

  • Ball, Kirstie, Kevin D. Haggerty, and David Lyon, eds. 2012. Routledge handbook of surveillance studies. London: Routledge.

    This encyclopedic anthology encompasses fifty chapters, which provide a comprehensive understanding of surveillance studies. It covers panoptic and post-panoptic theories on surveillance and a wide range of surveillance contexts. Most notably, the handbook dedicates two of its four sections to “surveillance as sorting” and “limiting surveillance.”

  • Hier, Sean, and Josh Greenberg, eds. 2007. The surveillance studies reader. Maidenhead, UK: Open Univ. Press.

    The reader differs from the other “overviews” in that it is composed of a selection of original texts. For instance, it includes seminal texts such as Foucault’s chapter on panopticism, but also newer texts by surveillance scholars. Its inclusion of questions for each section makes it well suited for teaching purposes.

  • Lyon, David. 2007. Surveillance studies: An overview. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

    This book sums up the history, core concepts, and contexts of surveillance studies. Furthermore, the book describes how surveillance is organized and part of everyday life, how the watched are made visible, and how they resist. It covers popular culture, the politics of surveillance, and finally, ethical issues.

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