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Impact of Surveillance on the Individual

While there is an implicit assumption in the literature that surveillance has ‘impacts on the individual … surveillance studies have not yet developed a take on the surveilled subject’ (Ball, 2009: 654). Discuss.

Even though we may not know it, we come face to face with surveillance in our day to day lives. When many people think of surveillance they think of CCTV cameras or policemen on the streets, however, surveillance can manifest in many different forms and can often not seem like surveillance at all. As there are many different definitions of what surveillance is; the most commonly known definition of surveillance is that of the Oxford Dictionary which defines surveillance as: ‘Close observation, especially of a suspected spy or criminal’ (Oxford Dictionaries, 2018). This definition suggests that the only people that are surveilled or ‘watched’ are those that have done something wrong, therefore people may assume that it is not them that is being watched as they are neither a criminal or a spy. However, there are other sociological definitions for surveillance that are more complex than the explanation used in the Oxford dictionary. David Lyon (2001) defines surveillance as ‘Any collection and processing of personal data, whether identifiable or not, for the purposes of influencing or managing those whose data has been garnered’ (cited in Fuchs, 2011). This alludes to a different meaning to the one noted in the Oxford Dictionary. This definition suggests that you do not have to be a ‘criminal’ or a ‘spy’ to be ‘watched’; anybody can be under surveillance, it doesn’t matter if you have a criminal record or not.

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In many studies concerning surveillance, there has been a major focus on the ‘watcher’ and the types of surveillance that are used, however, in this essay these types of surveillance will be discussed in terms of the way people are impacted by them. This essay will look at how and if surveillance changes the way that people act, and if this subject has been overlooked by researchers in this field. As stated by John Gilliom (2006: 126) ‘a tour of the field suggests that we have been particularly good at studying the watchers – the police, the CCTV operators, etc. – but not so good at the necessarily messier, less institutionalized, and exploratory but absolutely crucial job of studying the watched’ (cited in Coleman and McCahill, 2011).

As technology has advanced so have the methods of surveillance that take place. So-called ‘new’ surveillance practices are now being used, which instead of targeting individuals now targets certain groups and whole populations. ‘New’ Surveillance targets the ‘digital self’ more than the actual person and uses machines to do this if they are watching the public such as the use of CCTV cameras. By using these types of technology for surveillance it means that we are now able to monitor the past, present, and future. When surveillance was first introduced by the government in the 1970’s it was said that surveillance would be used to protect people and make sure they were safe. This was reinforced after the Jamie Bulger incident when the use of CCTV images was used to find the culprits of his murder. People began to trust CCTV more as they saw it as a positive thing that prevented crime and helped bring justice to those that had been involved in crime. The use of CCTV cameras began to grow with people using them to protect their own properties and valuables (McCahill and Finn: 2010: 285). In 2015 the British Security Industry Association estimated that there were around 4-5.9 million CCTV cameras in the UK at that time. With the focus in the past being of the usefulness on surveillance and CCTV the question now is: How does this affect the individuals of society?

One of the most prominent people to take on the surveilled subject was Michel Foucault in his work on the panopticon. The idea of the panopticon refers to a circular prison with cells lining the perimeter with a tower in the centre where a prison guard would sit and watch the prisoners. The prisoners themselves could not see the watch tower so they were never certain if they were being watched by a prison guard or not. It was argued that by doing this the prisoners would then begin to ‘self-govern’ as they didn’t know if they were being watched by the police guard and if they were they didn’t want to be seen doing anything they shouldn’t be. Foucault (1977: 201) argues that by using this method the prison creates individuals that have a ‘state of conscious and permanent visibility’ that ensures ‘the automatic functioning of power’. This means that as the prisoners begin to self-police they are reinforcing the values of the state. Because of this, it is argued that this creates the perfect ‘docile bodies’ ready for the factories straight out of prison (Foucault, 1977). They are then perfect for the factories as nobody would step out of line or cause any trouble for fear of being watched and punished. However, this was Foucault’s view in his earlier works; in his later works he takes a different approach to the surveilled subject.

George Orwell in his book 1984 had an interesting take on the surveilled subject. In his book, the character of ‘Big Brother’ was ‘always watching’ which made people adhere to the rules and laws that were set. This reinforces the ideas of Foucault’s Panopticon with the idea that if people are aware they are being watched, they will self-police and adhere to the rules that they are given, even if they are not welcome. Nevertheless, there are still differences in Orwell’s book to Foucault’s Panopticon. Whereas Foucault says that the continuous surveillance of the prisoners creates ‘docile bodies’ that follow the rules and don’t step out of line, Orwell suggests that where there is continued surveillance, there will be people that will find a way to break the rules undetected and regardless of surveillance. For instance, in Orwell’s book, Winston keeps a diary hidden from Big Brothers view where he writes his true feelings. ‘Down with Big Brother’ (Orwell 1949 :20) Winston writes in his secret diary, which further shows that constant surveillance does not turn people into ‘docile bodies’. Furthermore, despite being in a relationship with Julia being against the rules of ‘The Party’ Winton and Julia continued to form a romantic relationship while working under ‘Big Brother’ (Orwell, 1949).

The idea that constant supervision does not turn people into ‘docile bodies’ is supported by the work of Goffman (1961), Sykes (1958) and Pfaff (2001). Goffman (1961) studied the inmates of asylums and found that even in places such as these, where patients were watched almost constantly, patients managed to create ‘free spaces’ where they would play poker and drink alcohol. Similarly, Sykes (1958) looked at prisoners in a maximum security prison and found that even though the prisoners were watched constantly and searched, the behaviour that the inmates exhibited was not what the government wanted. Finally, Pfaff (2001) studied the German Democratic Republic to see how they controlled their population. Pfaff found that even though there were strict rules and ‘oppressive use of panoptic surveillance’ he found that instead of creating ‘genuinely disciplined’ people, the system created a unique kind of ‘deviance and dissent’ (Pfaff, 2001).

These articles show that it could be argued that the first take on the surveilled subject could be that constant surveillance creates people that always follow the rules and never step out of line as they live in fear of being punished, which makes them perfect for working in the factories and other sectors that would be beneficial those in power (Foucault, 1977). However, this view has been shown to be wrong by many different studies that show that in areas with heavy surveillance and strict rules; people don’t follow the rules and they do step out of line. These studies show that instead of obedience, surveillance creates deviance and rebellion against the system.

In Foucault’s later work he takes a different approach to the surveilled subject. In his later works, Foucault discusses the ideas of ‘Governmentality’, ‘Disciplinary power’ and ‘bio power’. ‘Governmentality’ refers to the government itself such as ‘how to govern oneself, how to be governed, by whom should we accept to be governed, how to be the best possible governor?’ (Foucault, 2007). While talking about ‘Governmentality’ Foucault mentions the use of ‘biopower’ which is about a set of events that change biological structures, such as life and death, and turns it into a strategy used in politics to control entire populations (2007). Foucault argues that Government must be given the same meanings as it did in the 16th century as then Government ‘designated the way in which the conduct of individuals or of groups might be directed – the government of children, of souls, of communities, of the sick … To govern, in this sense, is to control the possible field of action of others.’(2007). In these lectures, Foucault argues that although the state creates social actors that are able to ‘think for themselves’ they are, in fact, encouraged to think in a way that benefits the state (2007).

Furthermore, in a study by Staples and Decker (2008), they suggested that their findings on offenders on house arrest reinforces Foucault’s later work of ‘governmentality’ and ‘disciplinary power’. In this study, Staples and Decker (2008) argue that offenders are under house arrest are encouraged to ‘monitor’ themselves and ‘turn themselves in if they deviate from the conditions of their contract’ (293). They argue that this is similar to the panopticon as offenders ‘internalize the gaze of authority’ therefore they won’t break the rules of their contract for fear of the repercussions (Staples and Decker, 2008: 293). It is suggested that the technology used in house arrest reflect Foucault’s (2007) idea of ‘governmentality’ as the technology essentially turns the offender’s body into an ‘object to be monitored’ which produces compliance as it ‘normalizes the participants’ (Staples and Decker, 2008: 293). When looking at Rose (1999) it was found that there were three ‘self-governing capabilities of subjects’ which included: ‘Enterprise’, ‘Autonomy’ and ‘Ethics’ (cited in Staples and Decker, 2009: 294). ‘Enterprise’ refers to ‘the array of rules for the conduct of one’s everyday existence that include initiative, calculation, and personal responsibility’ and ‘Autonomy’ refers to the ‘taking control of activities, defining a set of goals and planning a course of action’ (Rose, 1999 cited in Staples and Decker, 2008: 294). ‘Ethics’ is understood as ‘the domain of practical advice as to how we conduct ourselves in the various aspects of our everyday existence’ (Rose, 1999 cited in Staples and Decker, 2008: 294). Staples and Decker (2008) explain that the house arrest scheme represents this theory this by stating: ‘it governs its subjects through structuring and controlling the possible field of action where they are “free” to make the “right” choices in which they learn to govern themselves’ they explain that people are ‘rational actors’ who react to ‘positive incentives and negative consequences’ (294). Furthermore it is also argued in the study that what created docility was due to the offenders being introduced back into the labour market, required to work 40 hours per week (Staples and Decker, 2008) this produces docility as when they are at work they are monitored constantly and furthermore when they leave work they are monitored further by the house arrest system.

During the interviews with the offenders under house arrest, it is clear to see the structure that Rose (1999) sets out earlier (Staples and Decker, 2008). Many of the offenders in the study praised the house arrest system as it gave them well needed ‘structure’ in their lives as it taught them life skills and taught them how to become ‘responsible’ and ‘accountable’ (Staples and Decker 2008: 296). This study clearly reflects Foucault’s (1977) idea of the ‘docile body’ as many of the offenders that were interviewed in the study often mentioned how they were scared to break the rules of contract out of fear for the ‘consequences’ so they would do as they were told for fear of being punished, in this way the house arrest programme is conditioning these individuals to act in a way that is beneficial to those in power (Staples and Decker, 2008).

Despite Staples and Decker suggesting the practice of house arrest and electronic tagging reflected Foucalt’s (1977) ideas of ‘docile bodies’ the work of McCahill and Finn’s (2013) study regarding the panoptic-like surveillance techniques used with ‘prolific’ offenders told a different side to the story. McCahill and Finn (2013) found that there were ways in which the offenders resisted the techniques to track them; for example when it comes to drug tests, some offenders refuse to take part, others questioned the results when they came back as positive however others decided to ‘go along’ with the testing with hopes that it will lead to less surveillance in the future. This further reiterates the idea that surveillance encourages people to rise against it. However, there is also evidence to ‘docile bodies’ with offenders going along with the surveillance techniques nonetheless it is stated that the offenders only do this to reduce the amount of surveillance in the future (McCahill and Finn, 2013: 28). When talking about electronic tagging many of the offenders cut off their tags or deliberately broke curfew and, again, those that followed the rules of the electric tagging did so only the surveillance would be eased in the future (McCahill and Finn, 2013). This is another instance of people who are under strict surveillance rebelling against it.

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It was also shown that ‘prolific’ offenders had an extensive knowledge of what information was shared by which institution. One offender used this knowledge to avoid another form of surveillance by suggesting the interviewer ‘look in his file’ instead of asking him (McCahill and Finn 2013: 32). Bourdieu (1977:85-87 cited in McCahill and Finn, 2013: 33) states that you can identify which class a person belongs to due to the ‘way of walking… facial expressions… a tone of voice and a style of speech’ therefore CCTV cameras are more likely to target those who are working class as they have distinctive styles and ‘style of speech’. This means that these people who are more often than not targeted by surveillance notice the cameras more and therefore know where they are situated and know how to avoid them. However, some ‘prolific’ offenders that were spoken to in the study said that they would smash the cameras if they saw them (McCahill and Finn, 2013: 34). This type of resistance to surveillance is also used regarding speed cameras as many have been vandalised since being installed (BBC, 2011) even though these types of surveillance are supposedly there to keep us safe, people are still resistant.

It was also shown in this study that these types of ‘new’ surveillance such as electronic tagging changed how people lived as some people refused to accept overtime or take part in shift work because it would mean they had to admit they were tagged (Dodgson et al, 2001 cited in Nellis 2009:51). Mair and Mortimer (1996) found that it wasn’t just the individuals that were affected by surveillance, the families were affected too with one mother of an offender prevented grandparents from visiting as they didn’t know that her son was tagged (Cited in Nellis, 2009: 51). Nellis (2009) found that there was a great deal of stigma involved with electronic tagging. Offenders may feel embarrassed as McCahill and Finn (2013) discussed when offenders went to a shopping centre they had to show security guards their money to prove that they were going to pay for things. However, Nellis (2009) suggested that for young offenders tagging could be seen as a ‘sign of status’ among peer groups however, there was no strong evidence to prove this (51). This take on the surveilled subject is that the more surveillance that we put on people, the more knowledge they are going to gain about it, therefore they can find more efficient and cunning ways to evade certain types of surveillance. However, with certain surveillance techniques, there come attached stigma that may make the individual embarrassed. It is clear to see that in this study examining electronic tagging that the findings are contrasting to that of Staples and Decker (2008) as rather than conforming to the rules of surveillance as they did in the previous study, in this article the offenders were largely resistant to surveillance and would only conform to the rules if they knew it would result in less restrictive surveillance in the future (McCahill and Finn, 2013).

Furthermore, another study by McCahill and Finn (2010) further shows that surveillance causes individuals to ‘resist’ rather than ‘conform’ by studying three different schools to find out the effect that ‘new’ surveillance had on the pupils of these schools. It was found in this study that the way pupils responded to surveillance depended in their social background. The study looks at three schools: a council estate comprehensive school, a private school, and a girls comprehensive school. The first school that was studied, a council estate comprehensive, it was found that both ‘old’ and ‘new’ surveillance was used in the school, mainly to keep the pupils inside the school (McCahill and Finn, 2010). All of the main entrances to the school were gated and locked during school time and pupils had use of ID cards which were used to see if the students were allowed to leave at lunchtime. Teachers also roamed the grounds with radios so they could check a student’s ID cards if they wanted to leave. The school also had CCTV cameras in operation at the school, the CCTV cameras had two uses according to the teachers: firstly it was used to watch pupils who were out of classes when they weren’t supposed to be, secondly it was used by teachers to identify disobeying behaviour by students (McCahill and Finn, 2010).

Due to this surveillance in the school, it was found that the pupils also had a similar experience of surveillance outside of school. The pupils of the council estate comprehensive had a good knowledge of the surveillance technologies outside of school in the local area; most of this knowledge was learned due to direct contact with surveillance as the area which they lived had an extensive network of CCTV cameras (McCahill and Finn, 2010). The pupils knew where all the cameras were but their knowledge about who controlled them was not as well known. However despite them knowing that the cameras were in operation, it did not stop them doing things they shouldn’t be doing such as drinking and smoking. This therefore reinforces the idea that surveillance does not create obedience, but rather it creates the opposite.

The next school that McCahill and Finn (2010) studied was a private school in the same city as the council estate comprehensive, however, it was found in this school that the surveillance techniques that were used in the private school were drastically different to that of the council estate comprehensive. In the private school there was no use of CCTV or ‘automated registers’, instead the pupils themselves were encouraged to carry out their own surveillance on each other through the concept of a ‘’pastoral’ system of ‘prefects’’ (McCahill and Finn, 2010: 277). However, one form of surveillance that the private school used that the comprehensive school did not was the use of computers. Teachers were able to log on to their own portal so they can monitor what the students are doing on their computer, however, the students were uncertain about who was being watched on the computer and when; much like the panopticon. The technology is also used to ‘block’ students from searching certain terms and blocking access to sites such as social media sites (McCahill and Finn, 2010).

The students at the private school also had a different experience of surveillance outside of the school compared to the council estate comprehensive students. The private school students had never had ‘direct encounters with the police or the PCSO’s’ which is different to that of the council estate comprehensive students who regularly came into contact with the police as they were closely watched by the CCTV cameras due to the way they dressed (McCahill and Finn, 2010: 279). Unlike the students of the council estate comprehensive the pupils of the private school did not think that they would be disproportionally targeted by these cameras. One student explained that he ‘didn’t really mind’ the cameras because he’s ‘not doing anything wrong’ so there would be no worry for him to be targeted (McCahill and Finn, 2010: 279). McCahill and Finn stated that there was an ‘us’ and ‘them’ attitude towards surveillance technologies with the students from the private school suggesting that surveillance technologies would be targeted at ‘them’ rather than ‘us’ (2010: 280). However, if the private school students were approached by a security guard one boy suggested that as long as they told the security guard that they were from private school they wouldn’t be bothered by them (McCahill and Finn, 2010: 281). This shows a significant difference in the way the two types of students experience surveillance, with the students from the council estate comprehensive school being targeted more by surveillance and have more surveillance in their everyday lives as opposed to the private school students that seemed to be more ‘trusted’.

The third school that was studied was a girls comprehensive school in the same city as the other two schools studied. At this school there was also use of CCTV cameras and an ‘automated text system’ that texted parents to let them know if their child was marked absent at school. The girls in this school were worried that the use of the CCTV cameras were used in a ‘voyeuristic way’ such as being able to see ‘down their tops’ and being able to look into the toilets (McCahill and Finn 2010: 282). It was found that the girls did not have much contact with PCSO’s but they were more regularly stopped by the security staff at the university close by. They also had encounters with security staff in the local shopping centre and were often ‘watched’ by other shoppers who thought they were ‘teen mums’ (McCahill and Finn, 2010: 282). The girls at the comprehensive schools mostly connected the use of CCTV cameras with that of ‘voyeuristic’ use.

It was found that the surveillance made the students more aware of how they were behaving in a public space and they began to change their actions in case they were misinterpreted by security staff as malicious. The reinforces the ‘self-policing’ idea of the panopticon as the students are changing their behaviour in order to prevent themselves getting into trouble. On the other hand, there were also many incidences that students would ‘avoid’ or ‘resist’ surveillance (McCahill and Finn, 2010: 283). Many students found ways to avoid cameras such as putting up their hoods so that the cameras couldn’t see their faces and putting things in front of the cameras so that they wouldn’t see what they were doing. Other students found ways around the ‘blocking’ technology on computers so they could visit sites that were ‘blocked’ and if they were banned they just used somebody else’s account (McCahill and Finn, 2013: 284). Other pupils tried not to cause suspicion when they were out by not putting their hoods up in public spaces. Another way in which students avoided surveillance is by going to areas where they knew there wouldn’t be a police presence or doing things that would catch the attention of people watching the cameras (McCahill and Finn, 2013: 284).

In conclusion, it is clear to see there is not just one take on the surveilled subject, there are many. The first ‘take’ of the surveilled subject comes from Foucault (1977) and his ideas of the ‘docile bodies’. This is reflected in Staples and Decker’s (2008) research that showed people under house arrest were conditioned into docility by the conditions of their house arrest and the consequences that would occur if any of the rules were broken. It is also see in people’s behaviours online, as since in was revealed that after Edward Snowden reviled the extent of mass surveillance in America in 2013, the amount of searches for terror-related subject dropped dramatically the year after this Shaw, 92017). Even though Jon Penney (2016) found no evidence that people were being arrested or punished for accessing this content, he explained that the fear of this happening lead to the ‘self-censorship this is seen in his research. Coustick-Deal (2015) found that people were also afraid to fight for that they believed in as ‘police count activism as akin to domestic terrorism’ she argues that although these people that are being surveilled are not criminals, they may as well be for the amount of surveillance that is being put upon them. This shows that as people are fearful of the consequences they then ‘self-police’ and eventually become the ‘docile bodies’ that Foucault (1977) predicted. However, there is substantial evidence to suggest that rather than create ‘docile bodies’, surveillance encourages resistance. As seen in Orwell’s book 1984, although there is the constant surveillance of ‘Big Brother’, there were still people that resisted against surveillance. This is further reflected in Goffman (1961), Sykes (1958) Pfaff (2001) and Finn and McCahill (2013) work in which they all found that in areas of mass surveillance, people will avoid and resist surveillance wherever possible. However, it is also noted by Finn and McCahill (2010) that it does depend on the social background of those who are being surveilled and how they respond to it. Overall, as said by Marx (2009) ‘Individual responses may be collective in the sense that many persons respond the same way to the same stimulus, however, they need not be organizationally inspired or coordinated’ (p295) however, it could also be argued that there can’t be just one take on the surveilled subjects as each individual has a different experience within society therefore not all individuals reactions to surveillance could be the same.


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