Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

CCTV Surveillance and the Civic Conversation: A Study in Public Sociology

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

CCTV Surveillance and the Civic Conversation: A Study in Public Sociology

Article excerpt


Michael Burawoy's presidential address to the American Sociological Association in 2004 stimulated international dialogue and debate about public sociology (see Burawoy 2005a). Burawoy argued that the growing appeal of sociology concerning the issues facing modern societies means that sociologists must develop new ways to meaningfully engage with multiple publics. He also argued that critical sociologists are well positioned to provide the moral and political defense of civil society that public sociology requires (see Burawoy 2005c). Although Burawoy encouraged reflection on the direction and obligations of the discipline, insufficient attention has been devoted to thinking about how sociologists enter concretely into a civic conversation on public policy matters with "thick" and "thin" publics (but see Burawoy 2004).

Drawing from our research on city street video surveillance monitoring programs in Canada, we reflect on some of the ways that our work intersects with the goals of public sociology. Since 2005, we have been investigating the implementation of video surveillance technologies in cities across Canada (see Hier 2010). The investigation examines the decision-making and planning processes involved in establishing monitoring systems (see Hier et al. 2007; Hier et al. 2006). (1) The overall project is not explicitly conceptualized as a study in public sociology, yet our research adheres to Burawoy's formulation in at least two overlapping ways.

To understand how communities plan for and react to city street video surveillance systems, first, we identify and engage with a diverse range of publics involved in the process of establishing and promoting monitoring systems. Most of our interactions take place in the context of interviews and control room observations with system representatives and project managers but we also engage with civil libertarians, community groups, and members of various publics that circulate in urban environments. These groups can be thought of as "thick" publics (see below) who have established protocols for knowledge production and communication. We have also interviewed groups that are "thinner" publics; they are visible but share no knowledge production and communication protocols or orientations to social problems. In this article, we assess how hybrid thick-thin publics respond to the communications and research initiatives of sociologists.

Our study is motivated, second, by a shortcoming in public dialogue about video surveillance. It is rare to find video surveillance promotional efforts informed by interactive public dialogue, and we seek to address these limitations through publishing and presenting empirical findings, as well as by facilitated communication among diverse publics. Our research reveals that a small (and selective) body of social-scientific literature influences video surveillance policy formation. We introduce a broader range of sociological findings into the ongoing process of establishing and maintaining video surveillance systems across the country. (2)

In the course of our research, we conducted a study on public perceptions of and experiences with video surveillance in Kelowna, British Columbia. From 2001-2008, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) used a video surveillance system to survey the Queensway bus loop district and the area surrounding the corner of Leon Avenue and Abbott Street in downtown Kelowna. (3) This monitoring program was promoted by RCMP, business, and city representatives to respond to perceptions of rampant drug trafficking, violence, and aggressive panhandling in the downtown area. We held focused group interviews with residents of shelters and seniors' homes in downtown Kelowna.

These publics were selected because seniors and "street" populations are commonly invoked in official promotional communications and informal claims about the need for video surveillance in Kelowna, yet neither group has been consulted about the monitoring program. …

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