The culture of surveillance

(Edmonton) In what he guesses might be the only introductory undergraduate course on surveillance in the world, Kevin Haggerty tells his students to disappear. Not literally, of course, but they are expected to build a case for erasing their visible presence on Earth so no one can find them for at least a year.

As they discover, it’s an impossible task, but an instructive one. “You can do it, but the consequences for your lived reality would be so dramatic you’d essentially have to move into the woods,” says Haggerty. “The point is that it has become a precondition for existence in late modern societies to expose yourself in all kinds of different ways.”

If you want to understand the modern culture of surveillance—from the role of Facebook in our lives to the reason for all of those cameras on the streets in Britain—Haggerty is the go-to scholar to help clear the fog. Since he arrived at the U of A about 10 years ago, the professor of sociology and recent winner of the 2011 Killam Annual Professorship has been at the interrogative forefront of this social movement, asking crucial questions about all forms of policing in our lives.

Haggerty's first book, called Policing the Risk Society, was published before he even finished his doctorate and quickly went on to become a classic of criminology. Since then his research career has taken off explosively, but through it all runs a common theme that we are in the midst of a surveillance revolution the likes of which we've never seen before, “a world-historical transformation.”

“Students don’t necessarily appreciate it, because they don’t have the historical knowledge,” he says. “So my job is to make that strange, so say, ‘look, it’s very odd, even in this very small historical timeframe, for everything about you—your finances, communications, etc.—to be available, shared and scrutinized by other institutions.

“The idea that authorities would open your letters was tantamount to fascism not that long ago. Now we no longer have letters – we have emails and other forms of electronic communications that are scrutinized every day, and nobody blinks.”

In his own research, Haggerty negotiates that critical space between the two dominant models for thinking about surveillance. One is inherited from George Orwell, the notion of the " boot-on-your-face draconian state," or the ominous specter of Big Brother. “The other is [Michel] Foucault's theory, very much still in vogue in the academy, the idea of normalizing disciplinary power."

Haggerty might be best known in Canada as editor of the Canadian Journal of Sociology, and he is currently working on a companion to surveillance studies for Routledge press.

Perhaps the most telling and unequivocal assessment of Haggerty's work in the surveillance comes from John Gilliom, chair of political science at Ohio University. "If I were reviewing a book, a book proposal, or a grant proposal in the field of surveillance studies and did not find a discussion of Haggerty's paradigm shaping work on post-panoptic surveillance theory," he says, "it would be extraordinarily difficult to declare the work competent."

"His CV resembles what I might expect to see from an about-to-retire social scientist who has been a leader in her/his discipline over a thirty-year period," says Harvey Krahn, associate chair of the U of A’s Department of Sociology

According to Karen Hughes, associate chair of the sociology department, Haggerty "stands out as a virtuoso" in in his teaching life as well. He relishes teaching at the undergraduate level, sometimes unusual for an international research star of his calibre, and has taught a range of fascinating sociology courses at the undergraduate level covering deviance, criminology and policing.

Haggerty's supervision of graduate students is described by Hughes as "without parallel." He’s contributed to the success of over 30 MA and PhD students and has been a sought-after external advisor in political science, English and film studies, history and classics, and business. Some of his star PhD students include Temitope Oriola, recent winner of the Governor General’s Gold Medal for his work on Nigerian kidnapping and coercion in the oil fields; Phillip Boyle, winner of a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council grant, working on security, surveillance and environmental risk, and Ariane Ellerbrook, also a SSHRC winner, examining surveillance and Facebook.

Haggerty has also run an informal seminar for graduate students on "sociological writing and editing, which he teaches in addition to his regular course load "out of a passion for great writing and a belief that students need a forum to develop writing skills," says Hughes.

"He is an exceptionally gifted scholar and teacher who has made a huge difference to students on this campus and beyond."