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Surveillance—watching over through human and/or non-human technologies for an intended purpose—can connote a dystopian imaginary in which all activity becomes visible before a hostile gaze. Anthropology has explored and complexified this picture. While surveillance can enable intensive control over space, social categorisation, and the affective states of large societies, among other things, such asymmetries can also be evaded, refashioned, or reversed. Surveillance can take place from above (‘panoptic’) but also laterally (‘synoptic’), or from below (‘sousveillance’). Indeed, in the field of human relationships it is not always apparent who is watching who. Because of the vast range of human response to being monitored, surveillance infrastructures—particularly when implemented at scale—often do so within moral discourses that are regionally specific, and vital to their legitimacy.

The field of surveillance studies has extensively explored surveillance as a mode of security and policing, and this emphasis has shaped early anthropological engagements with the subject. With the growth of computerisation, surveillance has become more relevant to a variety of other ethnographic contexts. Digital monitoring now plays an expanding role in forms of care, public and private health, communication, and the management of work, in which the harvesting of data for profit always remains a near or distant possibility. An emerging ‘anthropology of surveillance’ invites us to consider not only conditions of visibility but also their perpetual relation to what is not seen. Here the moral question is not whether surveillance itself is good or bad, but how and why are human beings rendered visible through technology, and under which circumstances do they seek to remain opaque?
Original languageEnglish
JournalThe Open Encyclopedia of Anthropology (OEA)
Publication statusPublished - 5 Dec 2023


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