Security, Surveillance, and Sociological Analysis

By Lyon, David; Wood, David Murakami | Canadian Review of Sociology, November 2012 | Go to article overview

Security, Surveillance, and Sociological Analysis

Lyon, David, Wood, David Murakami, Canadian Review of Sociology


THE COLLAPSE OF the iconic twin towers of New York's World Trade Center in 2001 affected Canada in more ways than the loss of two dozen Canadians among the tragic deaths on that day. Immediately, American fingers pointed to supposedly lax northern border security that had facilitated terrorist action in the United States. Although this fabrication was eventually acknowledged as such, the damage was done. The defined situation was real in its consequences. In a bitterly ironic move, Canadian officials outdid themselves in demonstrating security vigilance with the result that several innocent Canadian citizens were whisked away by American forces in "extraordinary rendition," to suffer torture in Syria and Egypt and to have their lives torn apart by the experiences. The best known of these is Syrian-born Maher Arar, an Ottawa engineer (see O'Connor 2006). In each situation, the mishandling of personal information pertaining to the victims was crucial to their wrongful detention. Although security and surveillance are demonstrably central to this situation, with some notable exceptions (Calhoun 2002) sociological analysis did not figure strongly in attempts to understand it.

Especially since 9/11, security and surveillance have featured as prominent themes in news and current affairs. Scarcely a day passes without the appearance of some story appearing in the press, relating to one or both concepts. Strangely, these concepts are not common currency in sociology, even though more studies of surveillance have appeared from that stable than any other and studies of security are relatively common in one of sociology's sister disciplines, criminology. Here we make a case that more systematic sociological attention should be paid to security and surveillance just because they are fields of study crying out for careful and critical analysis of a kind that sociology offers. They are connected both with major currents of political--economic and technological power and also with everyday routines of mundane life and thus qualify--at the intersection of biography and history--as key topics for sociological imagination (Mills 1959).

In the post-9/11 era, then, security and surveillance are concepts that appear increasingly frequently as a pair, yet are all too often separated by disciplinary and semantic divisions of labor. Although it has common use meanings relating to personal safety and integrity, security as an academic concern has been predominantly in the area of International Relations (IR), and for most of the existence of this field, work in this area has concerned itself with diplomatic and military relations between nation states in the classic Westphalian model. In recent years, however, security as a field of study is also making its mark in criminology and sociolegal studies, often under the related rubric of "securitization." At the same time and in contrast, surveillance as an object of concern originally appeared largely as a national domestic issue both in its American sociological antecedents, for example, James Rule's Private Lives, Public Surveillance (1974) or as a product of particular modern but again national and domestic governmental practices and institutions in the Foucauldian tradition following Discipline and Punish (1977).

Both traditions are to an extent still limited by their histories and starting assumptions. IR and its transdisciplinary offspring, Security Studies, has undergone 20 years of challenge and reassessment, through first questioning of its largely military orientations and the previously dominant "realist" conception of national security (Buzan and Waever 2003), with concepts like human security, challenges from political economy, and a sometimes compatible, sometimes competing field of International Political Economy, with a significant cultural turn, and most recently with the emergence of a "new" or "critical" Security Studies that tries to integrate these challenges into the recasting of the aims of the whole field (Burgess 2010). …

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