23 Observation in a Surveilled World
It is difficult to imagine the long, rich tradition of social science research without the centrality of methodological observation. It was the “foundation” (Angrosino & Rosenberg, 2011) of research methodology, no doubt authorized by its bedrock function in the naturalistic sciences. This ocularcentrism not only belongs to the sciences, as Jacques Derrida (1978), David Levin (1993), Teresa Brennan and Martin Jay (1996), and others remind us, but also is foundational to modern epistemology. The enlightenment as concept is premised on vision, the ability to cast light upon the shadows of the dark ages.
Philosophy at its most abstract rests on the privilege of vision, be it “speculative” thought or high “theory” (from the Greek thea [θέΑ] “a view” + horan [ὁρᾶν] “to see”). It is no surprise, then, that this privileged sense carries over into the knowledge production housed in the sciences, social or natural.
Today, however, we cannot take this to be a foundation for a knowledge system isolated from other structures. History produces contexts in which a concept or practice takes on a new status and engenders new perspectives. In a world increasingly characterized by surveillance, monitoring, and control, the unalloyed value of observationbased research is in question. Is there an essential difference between natural observation as a research method and the institutional forms of power/knowledge that often depend on it? And how new is this imbrication anyway?
This chapter summarizes some of the epistemological debates about the value of observation’s veracity as method. Moreover, it outlines the historical connection between observation as valorized research method and the discourses that have employed them. It traces a genealogy of institutions that have mobilized observation to understand and manage populations. This lineage is one that leads us to the present state of what has been called a surveillance society.
In addition, the chapter argues that this observation has always been mediated, whether by documenting technologies (paper, camera, voice recorder) or by language itself. Finally, the chapter argues for the need to
foreground both the other sensorial engagements with the world as well as the discourses that position observers and observed. Observation, so dependent on distance and separation to operate successfully, now begs the question of what we should separate from.
Epistemology and Proximity
As Angrosino and Rosenberg (2011) posit, the trajectory of observation as method is a contested one. As a conflicted cornerstone, observation is extremely generative—creating a series of methodological debates around distance and proximity. How do we remain far enough to ensure the objectivity of the object and the researcher? How close can we get to our subjects without losing the ability to discern foreground from background, self and other?
Twentiethcentury social science has been shaped by methodologists attempting to manage the distance/proximity issue regarding observation. Debates revolved around, and resulted in, minimizing researcher bias through disciplined techniques of data gathering, documentation, writing, and validation. Sociology and anthropology, in particular, developed training mechanisms in ethnography to establish noninterventionist results.
But as far back as Gregory Bateson’s cybernetic hypothesis, the idea of a separation between observer and observed has been questioned (Angrosino & Rosenberg, 2011). The postmodern turn further undermined this seemingly sacrosanct disciplinary value by situating objective observation as interpretation, often based on the researcher’s social position (class, race, gender, sexual orientation).
The results of these critiques? There is no perfect balance between intimacy and distance that produces “objective consensus”; instead, we see a move to collaboration, multidirectional inquiry. What’s come to define observational research is a combination of reflectiveness on the ethnographers themselves (the subjective moment) and the “rigor of carefully conducted, clearly recorded, and intelligently interpreted observations” (Angrosino & Rosenberg, 2011, p. 468). Situating observers does not completely erase distance; it instead asks, what kind and to what end?
Codifications of proper distance have also had a practical, not just epistemologically positional, motive: The observer exists to reduce chances of “interference” in, or influence on, the matter at hand. The keen eye of the observer was thus also a question of inaction, of reserve and restraint, perhaps
even immobility. Do not interfere, only observe and record. The promise of observation was the ability to arrest the world’s continuous flow, to resist its dynamic pull. The reward? The ability to determine regularities and patterns, available only to the one who has sharpened the eye by calming the rest of the body.
Angrosino and Rosenberg give us a valuable history of the critiques of observation, especially in decoupling it from neutrality and pure detachment. Observation, as much as it wants to refuse it, is necessarily tied to judgment. This doesn’t need to be a moral judgment (although it often is). Rather, judgment refers to the process of selection and filtering, discrimination and sorting that accompany observation. As Vidich and Lyman (1994) argue in their accounting of qualitative research’s history in the social sciences, “An act of attention to one rather than another object reveals one dimension of the observer’s value commitment, as well as his or her valueladen interests” (p. 25). Even the scientific study of observation’s physical activity recognizes this. Visual cognitive psychology has studied the embodied processes of seeing and concluded that it is an active process of defining, circumscribing, and excluding (see Maturana & Varela, 1980).
This version of observation focuses on the single observer/researcher and the management of phenomenal separation of subject/object. Distance is not just a space to be maintained (for objectivity’s sake)—at a broader level, it was to be crossed. The invention of two scientifically indispensable scopes, tele and micro, is evidence enough of the will to extend the human eye, to traverse space to reach objects unobservable otherwise.
More important, these active engagements with the world through observation are not just physical and individualized. They are embedded in social relations.
Observation belongs to a gaze, which itself is situated in already existing practices of social power. What the eye sees is something that an apparatus or discourse has already determined to be of import. A dispositif, as Deleuze (1992) writes about Foucault, renders the world visible and articulable. Observation is thus embedded in such dispositifs, expressing that which can appear and be said. It is our task to delineate some of those dispositifs.
For one thing, the gaze is gendered. And this belongs not just to cinematic dreamwork, as outlined by Laura Mulvey (2001), but to research more broadly (Keller, 1985). As Sandra Harding (1986, 1987), Donna Haraway (1991), and others have argued, the foundational perspective of Western
modern science is one that renders the world feminine and the detached observer masculine. Moreover, the observing gaze is directed at the unfamiliar, the unruly, the Other (Said, 1979). On the domestic scene, we find the use of observation at the basis of sociological methods (e.g., the Chicago school’s early work in inner cities). On a global level, the observing gaze has been instrumental in expanding empires, anchoring colonial projects in understanding other societies to better manage them.
Observation as such is inseparable from, but irreducible to, a project of mastery.
What is the willtoknow, asks Michel Foucault (2013), that results in rendering phenomena visible via discursive gazes, whether medical, religious, penal, or psychiatric? And how has observation been an expression of this will? Moving, standing still, rendering sensible, expanding out into the world, encroaching into dark zones: The history of observationbased research has been bound up with power and governance via spatiality and mobility. This chapter observes this winding pathway and its current position within a surveilled globe.
The notion that we are in a surveillance era is as pervasive as the scifi depictions of surveillance itself. Top news stories feature prominent whistleblowers like Edward Snowden revealing the National Security Agency’s (NSA’s) pervasive snooping tactics. Police observation involves human intelligence gathering (e.g., infiltrating activist groups) as well as biometric technology (Gates, 2011). Traffic lights and tollbooths contain cameras to catch violators automatically. Monitoring towers appear amid protests to gather data on dissenters and crowd movements and in parks to keep tabs on the homeless. Remotecontrolled small aerial craft (commonly called drones) fly into areas to gather information, often then relayed to control centers where pilots decide whether to give kill orders.
Corporate owners of social media platforms openly admit gathering and processing personal data, and some even publish research in how they turn observation into experimental intervention in the social media flow (Meyer, 2014). Marketers recruit tweens to be info gatherers on their peers, calling it trendspotting (Quart, 2004). Reality TV permeates the airwaves. More than a genre, reality TV is a transformation of television programming in the service of naturalizing surveillance (Andrejevic, 2003). It also speaks clearly to the fact that observation is not simply detachment but an active process that
involves intervention (programs experiment on their subjects) toward specific objectives (profit, entertainment, education/training) (Bratich, 2006). Self disclosure and peer monitoring are valorized as cornerstones of participatory culture. We experience an Internet visual culture replete with YouTube microvideos, citizen journalists, camgirls, and a social media ecology of “selfies” (Senft, 2008). These dynamics depend on a proliferation of observation, which is the middle term between selfdisplay and subsequent commenting/judging. Online performances of self depend on a hope and an expectation that an Other is observing and will react with (positive) evaluations (BanetWeiser, 2014).
The primacy of the amateur, whether in online independent video documentaries, grassroots media, or pornography, has made observation a “popular” activity—one that can now be undertaken for fun and profit by virtually anyone. Surveillance is thus attractive and pleasurable, shedding many of the psychoanalytic associations with scopophilia and voyeurism in favor of a democratized affect of surprise, intimacy, cuteness, and special moments—a process of selfie realization.
Taken together, these phenomena make up a contemporary surveillance ecology.
However, the pervasiveness of surveillance should not only make us think about observation’s status today. It prompts us to think retroactively. A surveilled world has been a long time in the making—how do we assess observation’s role in setting the stage? How was this method enmeshed in the long duree of surveillance society? And what are possible responses? We can begin with a brief genealogy of observation’s entwinement in the apparatuses that rendered it authoritative as method.
Doing an institutional history of observation means tracing it through the emerging apparatuses and the role of academic disciplines in building the contemporary surveillance society. Key pillars in that tradition are the disciplines in sociology and anthropology (Vidich & Lyman, 1994), as well as communication (Mattelart & Mattelart, 1998). Examining some of the messy 19thcentury origins of the social sciences, we find the observation of society in both enclosures (labs, asylums, prisons) as well as the openness of the public spaces (city streets). The discipline of psychology emerged around the medicalized gaze placed on detained subjects. In labs, sanitariums, and hospitals, people were observed, which authorized experts to construct
classifications of mental types (hysterics, paranoiacs, nymphomaniacs, drapetomaniacs). Institutions of confinement and discipline, such as schools, hospitals, military barracks, and prisons, were only operable insofar as they deployed persistent and pervasive observation (Foucault, 1975/1979). Harold Lasswell (1948), another very different reader of Jeremy Bentham, proposed “institution building for the purpose of carrying on a vital part of the intelligence function essential to the science and policy of democracy” and called them “social selfobservatories” (pp. 168–171, 173).
Moral reformers also took up these medicalized gazes in confined spaces. In the late 1800s, Sir Benjamin Ward Richardson observed subjects in a lab setting to determine the effects of various forms of alcohol on behavior. This was in conjunction with research produced by organizations involved in the temperance movement, like the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union’s Quarterly Journal of Inebriety. Later, social workers took on this method, as reformers went from religiousbased nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to becoming more explicit state agents. The rise of public services extended and institutionalized observation of populations, especially welfare services that sought to regulate urban spaces via control over poverty, moral vices, immigration, crime, and sanitation. Implementing these changes required detailed accounts and depictions of living conditions, which often meant sending in observers armed with recording devices—especially pen, paper, and cameras.
As mentioned, sociology also emerged out of these urbanizing conditions. Vidich and Lyman (1994) provide a long history of social science’s observational technique as embedded in national and international expansionist projects (as well as criticisms of those that drove the field). Survey methods sponsored by church and corporate interests defined the field until the early 1920s, expanding the moral reform impulses into immigrant and poor (“ghetto”) populations.
Observing urban crowd patterns in the 19th century also became a bedrock for the discipline’s area of social psychology, with key figures like Gustav LeBon, Scipio Sighele, Georg Simmel, and Gabriel Tarde. As Brennan (2004), Borch (2007), and others note, these were not neutral research practices. The study of crowds and masses was a prelude to controlling those populations. This was especially power laden, as these crowds (in streets, in nickelodeons, in public squares) were considered potentially unruly, even criminal, due to their race and/or class identity.
Later, more microinteractionist modes of observation (e.g., the Chicago
school) became prominent. Robert Park “conceived the city to be a social laboratory containing a diversity and heterogeneity of peoples, lifestyles, and competing and contrasting worldviews,” in which life experiences could be understood as sources for new civic behavior (in Vidich & Lyman, 1994, p. 33). Whyte’s (1993) Street Corner Society was a milestone not just in the canon of sociology but as a lightning rod for controversy around the ethics of observational research. Making the hidden researcher visible was the goal for many works subsequently (see especially Laud Humphreys’s  Tearoom Trade and Harry Wolcott’s  Sneaky Kid and Its Aftermath: Ethics and Intimacy in Fieldwork).
Observation is thus more than an epistemological principle or a method to be discussed in terms of validity or reliability. It is a practice embedded in discourses and institutions, one that warrants a genealogy of observation. How has observation been deployed as a way of what James C. Scott (1998) calls “seeing like a State”? How does it presume certain interests and self/other divides around problematized populations? It’s here we see that a contemporary surveillance society has a longer history than expected, one that includes social science in its fundamental commitments.
One strand of this genealogy traces out how dispositifs of control used observation via mediation. As is generally accepted, there is no such thing as a raw and unfiltered human act of observation. The moment of observation is highly constructed and not just by language or given sociomental frames. Mediation is done with recording devices, testing instruments, technical systems, and structured settings. What is needed is an accounting of the material forms of observations’ mediations.
We can begin with the scientific tools already mentioned. A variety of optical technologies, like telescopes and microscopes, assisted natural science observation by rendering the previously invisible visible. In this willtoknow as totalizing effort, nothing should be too far or too small to be observed. At the same time, a whole host of devices were invented for amusement. As Jonathan Crary (1990) points out, the 19th century was marked by the development of entertaining vision machines.
From Muybridge’s zootrope cinematic precursors to thaumatropes, phenakistoscopes, and kaleidoscopes, observation itself became a source and site of pleasure. Even the scientific understanding of vision (e.g., the study of optics) needed technological mediation to represent the eye and the optical
processes, such as the stereoscope. Crary details how the 19th century’s “techniques of the observer” involved a blurring of entertainment and scientific instruments to the point where rendering everything visible was both a means to knowledge as well as to pleasure.
The late 19th century’s experimentation with mediated observation included extensive use of photography. Perhaps the most important medium for research observation, photography delivered visual meaning as truth, as natural window on the world. John Tagg (1988) unravels these claims by examining the rise of evidentiary truth in legal, criminological, urban reform, and medical discourses. From the use of photographic evidence via mugshots of criminal “types,” to scientific claims about race through visualizations of facial features, to flash photography illumination of squalid conditions in cities, the medium of photography extended the reach of observation. The power of photography resided in its ability to render visible a set of identifiable features, whether of the urban setting, racialized body markers, or phrenological signs of criminal tendencies.
Most important, it gave observation (and its visual mediation) an authoritative status because it was imprinted with evidentiary power within these burgeoning state institutions (Tagg, 1988). Recording observation with visual media now allowed the discourse’s truthclaims to carry more weight, as experts (police, municipal reformers, lawyers, scientists) could transmit their authoritative knowledge to juries, politicians, and the public via naturalized mediated observation.
The “moving pictures” also had similar origins as authorized observational media. While cinema studies has for decades treated film as art, culture, and entertainment, recently “scientific films” have been included in that genealogy (Hediger & Vonderau, 2009). As mentioned, film was used to study inmates in mental asylums. Training the camera on disturbed subjects allowed burgeoning experts in the field of psystudies to secure their work’s legitimacy by demonstrating a truthful representation of their patients. Around the turn of the 20th century, timemotion studies of worker productivity also employed films. Drawn from the analytic techniques proposed by Frederick Taylor, these studies captured laborers’ precise movements in visual media to dissect inefficient practices that could then be corrected via managerial disciplinary measures.1
From a broader perspective than cinema studies, Norman Denzin (1995) has crafted an analysis of the 20thcentury U.S. social order that places visuality at its core, calling it the Cinematic Society. All three phases of cinema, the
realist, the modernist, and the postmodern, organize a relationship between observation, reality, and truth making. As a result, the modern subject is defined in its relationships around gazes. The social is thoroughly saturated by voyeurism. The rise of the cinema form is a distilled version of the way the social is organized through a visual apparatus that separates subject from object, mediating the interaction with a series of imaging and monitoring acts.
Over time, this visual regime spreads from the realm of entertainment into the world of the sciences, especially the social sciences. Denzin (1995) notes that the “scopic and investigative pleasures of the state” (p. 192) become interiorized as the normal functioning of everyday interactions. This, of course, raises issues around privacy and secrecy—who invites the observation in? How does the pervasiveness of gazing as social interaction seemingly naturalize its scientific valorization? Can the intrusion (once acknowledged as such) be resisted?
Observational research does not introduce this voyeuristic relation; it merely “scientizes” the gaze and makes it function as regulatory ideal in knowledge production. It is an authoritative gaze tied to judgment, measurement, and expectation, one that establishes new epistemological orientations in which looking is tied to knowing. Besides the photographic and filmic mediations, observation has depended on a whole host of what Fuller and Goffey (2012) call “grey media”: the mundane technical formats that have underpinned state and corporate bureaucratic communication. The field of media archeology has also begun to examine these neglected technologies (following the work of art historians on archival storage such as Sekula, 1986, and Tagg, 2012) like passports (Robertson, 2010), organizational manuals, storage units (Kirschenbaum, 2008), paper itself, and information management policies.
All of these trajectories combine to remind us that observation was only a moment in a process that involved documentation, editing, and circulation: recording the activities of subjects, transactions, and movements to transmit those interpretations to others.
The types of mediating mechanisms thus presuppose observation as a method but also organize it. Whether it involves how to frame a subject in a medical file, what to zoom in on when photographing a criminal, what features of an interaction to look for to fill out a form, or which areas of a city to light up with a bulky flash camera, technological mediation has arranged observation in such a way that it can function for the discourse that has mobilized it in the first place.
This modernization of observation via media took place from roughly the 1870s to 1920s, the time of establishing key scholarly disciplines that have come to form the social sciences and the kind of qualitative research that depends on observation. Later iterations built from the foundation formed in those early years. The rise of cheaper popular technologies of photography, film, and eventually video empowered more institutions and disciplines. In the corporate world, marketers eventually found their own use for observation, from enclosures (e.g., labbased focus groups) to ethnographies in consumer spaces. “Retail anthropologists” like Paco Underhill employed observational techniques (learned from William Whyte with regard to public spaces) to understand consumer movements and behaviors in shopping spaces. In the late 1990s, cool hunters observed and recorded youth in their cultural habitats (concerts, bars, streets) to determine how to better market to subcultures. Child marketers observed kids in their domestic spaces to understand how they play with items, with the goal of figuring out how to target them more effectively. Market research now has moved into a couple of mediated directions: (1) neuromarketing, which depends on digital scans and other technologically enabled observation of brain activity, and (2) tracking massive amounts of data and determining patterns via analytic software. In each case, whether algorithmic rendering captured info or mapping brain zones, visual technology is needed to make individual or aggregate subjects intelligible (akin to Crary’s  analysis of early microscopes).
The securitization of post9/11 society has heavily depended on observational technologies, whether enrolling citizens to submit information on suspicious behavior (“See Something Say Something”), police monitoring of Muslim student groups, or expanding a media ecology of CCTV. This 21stcentury surveillance complex is an extension of the long previous century of spycraft, involving human intelligence gathering, popular snitching, and a host of observational media like hidden cameras, audio bugs, and tracking devices. Of course, a longstanding institution that has relied on such mediated observation is the military. The history of warfare is replete with weaponized observation, as Paul Virilio (1989) argues. Virilio argues that our modern vision technologies, even cultural ones like cinema, have their roots in seeing ata distance, of “remote viewing” via technical assistance. Telescopes, periscopes, binoculars, all the way through today’s unmanned aerial vehicles have been inventions resulting from the need to monitor enemies and their territories.
What does all this have to do with qualitative research, one might ask? Much of the research found in both academic disciplines as well as other institutions has relied on the truthpower of observation that depended on mediating
mechanisms that themselves were authorized as truthful (evidentiary, passive, windowlike recording) by emergent governmental discourses. The major institutions of our time—medical, criminological, psychiatric, educational, military, and marketing—have relied significantly on mediated observation (e.g., what Latour and Woolgar  call “inscription devices”) to establish their authoritative status. In a mutual reinforcement loop, observation itself has garnered explanatory power because of these expert discourses.
Thus, in addition to the metaphysical foundations of epistemological claims about observation as a research method, we need to familiarize ourselves with the ordinary concrete development of observation as part of a wider complex of modern governance and control. Observation as a seemingly autonomous academic research method needs to be understood as a matter of institutional and discursive authority. We need to situate observational research in “the macropolitical, economic, and historical contexts in which directly observed events occur, and perceive in the latter fundamental issues of domination and resistance” (Vidich & Lyman, 1994, p. 42). Having established the sketches of some of those contexts, we can now turn to the classic and contemporary debates in observationbased research as well as speculations on future developments.
Ethics of Proximity
Ethical considerations are paramount. For the most part, in academic practice, this has been managed by institutional review boards (IRBs), whose motivations have been as much about fiduciary concerns for universities as they have been for the wellbeing of subjects. It has certainly put the issue of data and subject privacy in full view. Privacy takes on new significance in an era marked by concerns over the prying eyes of state and corporations. How do we think about contemporary academic researchers in terms of data confidentiality (explored in detail by Clark & Werner, 1997) but moreover in terms of mimicking, if not working directly with, the state/corporate surveillance complex?2
The rise of communitybased research orientations has reconfigured ethics, contra the IRB model, from the bottom up. Within this approach, Angrosino and Rosenberg (2011) posit that observation is not so much a type of data collection as “a context of collaborative research in which the researcher no longer operates at a distance from those being observed … [but] in which those involved in the research collaboration can interact” (p. 467). This has resulted in a more participatory relation between researcher and subject, involving sharing drafts of research writeups with the community to
soliciting feedback on the results. Participatory action research, social movement studies, and others have made the research process a collaborative, ethically aware one. In addition, researchers need to pay attention to the power differentials in access to the observational media involved (see Nardi & O’Day, 1999).
This means, on one hand, a detailed metaconsideration of the researcher’s role in interpretation. On the other, it entails articulating “defined membership roles in the communities they study” (Angrosino & Rosenberg, 2011, p. 468). In this way, researchers are “agents of those communities in the same way that they once thought of themselves as extensions of their academic institutions or granting organizations” (Angrosino & Rosenberg, 2011, p. 469). With the dispersion of previous communities in physical and virtual space (Gupta & Ferguson, 1996; Malkki, 1996; Marcus, 1997), researchers develop new modes of identification, via “mobile consciousness” (Denzin, 1997, p. 46). We witness a shift in voice from the “omniscient narrator” (Tierney, 1997, p. 27) to personal pronouns. We translate the work to a multiplicity of audiences, including those being represented. This collaborative, multiagential process is the new context for observation as relation between researcher and researched, opening the door to further elaborations.
To put it another way, researchers are less removed observers and more interlocutors in dialogic inquiry, situating observation within a communicative process. The dialogic process involves both initial community input into the inquiry (Paul, 2006) as well as postwriteup evaluation (Roschelle, Turpin, & Elias, 2000). Where do the inquiry’s results go? Researchers have offered extra publications and presentations, some for academic audiences and others for the audiences embedded in the communities studied. This is also the fundamental ethos of Conricerca or the Italian autonomist method of militant inquiry (a derivation of Marx’s call for a “workers’ inquiry”), which results in accountability presentations in addition to the academic conference circuit (Roggero, 2011). Just as we are accustomed to getting feedback from peer scholars to sharpen our analyses, we can get comments from our collaborators as interpreters of the work, ones that will sharpen the political, ethical, and conceptual quality of research.
Angrosino and Rosenberg (2011) detail some of the effects of a more participatory and collaborative model of research: It can empower “those formerly voiceless communities … to participate in a variety of public forums in which their nonmainstream positions can be effectively aired” (p. 474). Angrosino’s work (summarized in Angrosino and Rosenberg (2011) has
given specific recommendations:
1. “The researcher should be directly connected to those marginalized by mainstream society.”
2. The researcher should “ask questions based on our experience of life as it is actually experienced in the community under study.”
3. “The researcher should become an advocate, which might mean becoming a spokesperson for causes and issues already defined by the community.” (p. 474).
Multiple goals are in play here: “to empower the community to take charge of its own destiny—to use research for its own ends and to assert its own position relative to the power elite” (Angrosino & Rosenberg, 2011, p. 474). At other times, assertion is already happening but communities face obstacles, often academic ones. What are the resources that researchers can offer, outside of empowerment and voice? Legitimacy? Shelter?
We can look at recent social movement research for some guidance. The 21st century social movements have produced a type of researcher who is or was an insider but now has moved into an institution that turns them more into researchers. Not exactly outsiders, they are bridges across institutions and genres of writing and audiences (DunbarHester, 2014; Feigenbaum, 2013; Grindon, 2007; Shukaitis, 2009; Wolfson, 2014).
Angrosino (2005) invokes a fruitful figure for such scholars: the “culture broker,” a researcher whose focus is on providing access, connections, and platforms to put people in “touch with other circles of interest to which they might not otherwise have had access” (in Angrosino & Rosenberg, 2011, p. 474). Bratich (2008b) has called these types of scholars “machinic intellectuals,” building out from the more commonly known organic or public intellectual. These intellectuals inhabit liminal zones between academia and its outside to create spaces in each for new potentials for social movement actors. They do not represent a community or seek to shape it with expert knowledge. Instead, they bring their experiences with them to create zones of contact between insiders/outsiders.
Some social movement research cocreates not only the questions, frames, and public discussion followup but also the social justice actions themselves. Activists still working with their organizations also have academic positions (see de Peuter, 2011; Thorburn, 2014). Some even pick up observational media technologies in the service of the movement being studied (see Chenjerai Kumanikaya’s  embodied scholarship around Livestream
All of these ethical considerations are important in establishing the new context of interactions with communities. What is also needed is a way of situating these interactions in broader contexts, especially to show that interactions have a discursive history with relations to a number of institutions. A selfreflective ethos develops not just on the ethnographer’s role as “interpreter” but as an agent empowered by that discursive history. This is not to say that every research project is an expression of new modes of control—far from it. Rather, it targets claims about “research for its own sake,” as they mask the power relations that can put it to work, either explicitly or as further grounds for naturalizing observation. Having an authority a century and a half in the making, dispositifs empower observation and structure relations of researcher/subject.
Observing Observation, Differently
The ethical questions need to focus on the researchers’ relation to institutions and discourses of power that have for so long deployed them. This is not a call for “purity”— this is impossible—but for understanding the space from which one has perspectives and stances. These spaces have been formed through “problematizations” that render subjects and objects sensible and intelligible. In creating relationships to communities via research, the researcher asks herself, how did these communities come to be? How have they been problematized in discourse, academic and nonacademic? Problematization here is used in Michel Foucault’s (1988) sense: It is not the representation of a preexisting object, nor the creation by discourse of an object that does not exist. It is the totality of discursive and nondiscursive practices that introduces something into the play of true and false and constitutes it as an object for thought (p. 257).
A problematization takes a variety of practices, habits, and experiences and isolates them into an object of concern or discussion. Sometimes this takes the literal form of a “problem” or threat (such as urban gangs or protestors), while other times the problematization creates a source of anxiety or worry (as in African American filmgoers and teen comic book readers in the early 20th century or young social media users today). In each case, significant time and resources are spent isolating and analyzing an object.
A reflection on the researcher’s role in the observation context means asking how this interaction emerged—what are the problematizations underpinning the research?
Why this community? For whom is this community of interest? Getting to know a community intimately needs another layer, an understanding and defense against a broader context that determines friend from enemy, target from waste.
As Angrosino and Rosenberg (2011) note, “Naturalistic observation can only be understood in light of the results of specific interactive negotiations in specific contexts representing (perhaps temporary) loci of interests” (p. 470). They make a call to reorient observation: “Our social scientific powers of observation must, however, be turned on ourselves and the ways in which our experiences interface with those of others in the same context if we are to come to a full understanding of sociocultural processes” (p. 470). I am following their call with another reorientation: “observing” a complex diagram of institutions deploying techniques of observation for particular objectives of power, pleasure, and regulation.3
This is especially pertinent when it comes to the method that employed observational techniques the most—ethnography. A call for more immersion and reciprocation in ethnographic work sensibly and ethically blurs lines between researcher and researched. But a more sustained professional discussion of ethnography’s historical and contemporary usefulness in marketing and warfare strategies is also warranted.
Links between observationbased research and discourses of power abound.
Barbara Tedlock’s (2000) work on narrative ethnography distills many of these entangled histories and reimmersion experiments in the social sciences. The canonical and contested writing in the 1980s introducing postructuralist selfreflection into ethnography is well known (Clifford & Marcus, 1986; Rosaldo, 1989). Soyini Madison (2005) maps the functions to which ethnography has been put, finding the discursive and material practices that have been organized via this method of invasion, interruption, immersion, and then deduction. In 2015, a public controversy erupted around the status of ethnography again, with pundits (academic and nonacademic) scrutinizing researcher Alice Goffman’s (2014) ethnographically based On the Run. Her project, examining the dynamics between the police and young African American men in Philadelphia, was called into question due to alleged overproximity to particular subjects that clouded her observational integrity.
More concretely, the use of anthropologists for colonial projects is notorious (Marcus, 1997; Vidich & Lyman, 1994). As Armand Mattelart (1994) details in Mapping World Communication, some major developments in 20th
century research came out of counterinsurgency programs that needed to learn a population’s folkways to subvert, manage, or neutralize them. Ethnographers were employed to understand the culture of target populations. The recruitment of anthropologists into global war campaigns is a direct link between observation, qualitative research, and state power.
This has hypertrophied in the 21st century with the arrival of the revolution in military affairs, a transformation in war making that proposed “fullspectrum domination” as the most effective strategy. Fullspectrum dominance (FSD) involves social, cultural, ideological, and political strategies, or, as Hardt and Negri (2004) argue, this new form of warfare operates directly on “biopower” (pp. 51–62). Creating an environment that aims to deprive the enemy of its resources and capacities, FSD seeks to understand the culture (customs, language, symbols) to neutralize it. Recently, this entails understanding the social networks of populations. Social network analysis stands at the intersection of sociology and communication studies and combines online and offline connections to comprehend and predict nuanced behaviors. This kind of “mapping” neatly aligns with colonial and military ways of seeing.
Sometimes ethnography involves online observation, which raises similar issues of power, now in digital contexts. In the best of circumstances, one should recognize what Brigitte Jordan (2009) calls the “paradigm of hybrid spaces,” as communities contain real and virtual personae. In addition, it’s important to note that communities do not solely exist online, as the work of upholding and maintaining ties and beliefs happens in multiple spaces (Lievrouw, 2011).
We now know that powerful institutions have attempted to shape many online communities of practice. The Pentagon’s Operation Earnest Voice proliferates fake online persona to spy on and influence discussions. Marketers and public relations agencies frequently employ false personas to promote their message in virtual forums. And in an age where bots generate messages and data as fake friends and followers, what does it mean to collaborate with such communities? Observation now faces even more of a challenge in an age of manufactured subjects, ones with a direct but covert agenda.
Angrosino and Rosenberg (2011) sketch out the global dimensions of observationbased inquiry. The globalizing effort cannot be separated from the colonizing projects, the expansion of capital into new markets, and, in line with the theme of this chapter, the need to establish a securitized world through surveillance mechanisms. As researchers note, the very idea of a global village was accelerated with a mediated observation—namely, one of
the first NASA photographs of the Earth taken from outer space. Stewart Brand (2009), founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, cites this picture as a motivator for his own project to cultivate a global consciousness. The photo, taken on a ship launched as part of the Cold War space race, literally inaugurates a surveilled world. In addition, the subsequent development of space exploration was critical to the development of a satellite system that became the technological infrastructure for contemporary surveillance (global positioning system information, realtime tracking of users, instantaneous relay of video footage, remote logistical communications, and the spread of cultural forms like reality TV and social media information).
In addition, such observational technologies regulate movements. Rather than presume a boundaryless world, we need to pay attention to how border zones are created and maintained (often with surveillance tools and checkpoint technologies). Thus, the “situational characteristics” of researcher and community, as well as the global changes so well elaborated by Angrosino and Rosenberg (2011), need to be mapped onto a Western hegemonizing project, one marked by the emergence of disciplinary and control mechanisms that have depended on mediated observation as a tool and weapon to expand globally.
Practical Issues of Implementation
Knowing the genealogy of observation in relation to institutions of power is one thing. Implementing it as part of the context of inquiry is another. What would it mean to ask ourselves as we engage with a community, “How does observation, whether far or near, reproduce power of discourses that encourage it?” Angrosino and Rosenberg (2011) propose an enhancement of “researcher integrity” that requires intellectual honesty (p. 471). They also propose service learning as one avenue toward a praxisbased inquiry (Roschelle et al., 2000, p. 840). Even here, the multilayered observation would come into play. For instance, much funding and attention has been given to overcoming the “digital divide” in communities of color. For whom is broadband access a value and goal? For what purposes? Does research into this disparity seek to transform deeper structures of inequality that manifest in technological forms? Does it open avenues for community storytelling and expression about those structures? Or does it pave the way for the expansion of quasimonopolistic corporate service providers to open markets, find consumers, and control information flows? These are specific versions of the questions of how praxis affects communities as well as the apparatuses that problematize them. It means researchers are often also organizers, or at least have the skills to navigate institutional pressures, community needs, and
resource opportunities with finesse.
In other words, praxis means that, even after immersion into a community, a researcher should retain a version of critical distance. What is the role of the researcher if not to disengage temporarily as a moment of offering analysis, of being a feedback mechanism? Movements and communities have needs for consultation and advising. But “leaving” the scene via a critical analytic perspective does not need to be doubled by taking the observations away to give to another (grant funder, state agency, academic journal). Dialogic practice, even if it entails a moment of critical removal, means making oneself accountable to the observed.
In addition to whatever specific issues define the community and could be analyzed by them (e.g., poverty, criminality, cultural development, gender performance, militant organizing, technology usage, everyday folkways), the communities certainly can speak to being problematized and observed as communities. In other words, the most salient question here is, “What is their analysis of surveillance and observational power?” What histories are triggered when an ethnographer appears? How can communities observe the observer and give feedback on the status of observational power?
Some disciplines have been attuned to their historic role in observation and as power. The recent case of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) in relation to the War on Terror is worth noting. In the early 21st century, it was revealed that anthropologists were being recruited to study enemy cultures in detail, as knowing them was necessary to win them over (or just win). In 2007, the AAA’s executive board issued a statement formally denouncing the Human Terrain System (HTS), a Pentagon program that embedded scholars within military units in Iraq and Afghanistan. In late 2009, the AAA released a report that found that HTS lacked ethical standards and did not qualify as professional anthropology.
Also in 2009, a collection of top researchers calling themselves the Network of Concerned Anthropologists published a “countercounterinsurgency manual” to analyze this relationship historically, methodologically, and politically. Did observation in the service of the War on Terror and imperialist interests halt? Of course not. Research of all stripes goes on. But the AAA made a commitment to calling out specific disciplinary and methodological articulations and resonances with the contemporary war context. This not only makes those on the “payroll” accountable (at least in principle) but also asks us to reflect on how any research project might be aligned with such objectives. It was a watershed moment that brought to the fore the connection
between observation as method and surveillance as context. This public statement could become a model for other disciplines as well, especially those who are prone to align their observational gazes with state perspectives.
In sum, the ongoing dynamic of distance/proximity with regard to observation takes on broader significance. No longer a matter of determining “objectivity versus bias” in a narrow epistemological game, distance is now a matter of disaffiliation from one’s imbrication in systems of power via surveillance/knowledge. Distance does not disappear; it is transformed into a practice of disidentification. As a methodological value, it already involved this disengaging process but was directed against the “object” of study and not the subject of the research apparatus. What I am suggesting as a practical ethos is a detachment from, and interruption of, the processes of subjectification that empower researchers. Not distance from the observed but from the source of observation’s authority. From a critique of natural observation to a denaturalized observation.
This kind of distance is never achieved as separation (that would presume a different kind of detachment). Instead, it recognizes what Andrew Pickering (1995) calls the mangle of practice and seeks degrees of disentanglement. There is never pure detachment but an unending honest appraisal of one’s imbrication and identifications within authoritative materialdiscursive apparatuses—the “new materialism” (see Chapter 20, this volume, for an assessment of how the seemingly neutral results of observation—data—are profoundly shaped by “new materialisms”). The process of situating and disaffiliating one’s perspective is a collective and institutional one, preempting illusions of individual separation or objectivity.
Developments in Observation and Surveillance
Two key developments are worth highlighting among the recent emerging trends in understanding observation. First, researchers have been rethinking the centrality of vision. Even remaining within the visual privilege, we see writing that complicates this sense by examining ways of seeing. For instance, researchers have developed a notion of seeing as witnessing rather than as observing (Allan, 2013; Peters, 1999) with all of the ethical dimensions that come with that genre of seeing. Others focus on the passage from observation to writing as a type of mediation. The postmodern legacy continues in works that diminish the authority of observation by treating writing as translation rather than description (Clifford, 1997).
Following this postmodern turn of 1980s social sciences, observation was
played down in favor of performance, as a method of overcoming and refusing the valorized selfnegation and “writing degree zero” of the observational method (see Conquergood, 1985). Other approaches situate vision as always an active selection (even cognitively speaking; see Maturana & Varela, 1980) and as always already a “vision machine,” essentially a military artifact (Virilio, 1989).
Some of these deconstructive operations derive from the very apparatus that seemed to authorize observation. As Denzin notes, the irony of the Cinematic Society is that the gaze itself is represented on screens, subjecting it to narrative situatedness. The Cinematic Society thus provides tools for undermining the power of looking by making it an object of a gaze (the camera’s, the viewer’s). More than an endless recursivity, this multiplication allows for a difference—a detourning of the power of the “original” observing subject.
Furthermore, some approaches situate vision in an embodied subject. While observation always depended on a fully sensorial body, the ocularcentric metaphysics privileged sight as a separate sense. Recently, corrective works have downplayed vision to accentuate listening.4 Emerging from participatory action research, service learning models, and nonacademic models such as the Zapatista method of the encuentro, primacy is given to listening to community needs (Lievrouw, 2011). Embodiment was also a central component of displacing observation in favor of embodiment. Together, these tendencies situate vision in a series of bodies, institutions, and practices, such that its authority is rendered indeterminate.
The second trend involves the study of surveillance itself. Surveillance studies has become a significant area within media and communication studies since the mid2000s, including a journal devoted to it (Surveillance and Society) as well as some major books on the topic within critical cultural studies (Andrejevic, 2007; Dubrovsky & Magnet, 2015; Gates, 2011; Lyon, 1994; Magnet, 2011). This involves studying “up” as well as “around,” since much surveillance is encouraged in the form of peerbased citizen spying (Andrejevic, 2007; Bratich, 2008a). It’s a type of counterobservation within academic research. In this post9/11 development, “observing observation” means redirecting the research gaze toward the very discourses that have empowered the method. It is this second trend that opens up speculation about what is on the horizon for observation.
Emergent Issues, Tendencies, and Speculations About
In thinking about the future of observation, two convergences of observation and surveillance come to mind. Each puts cultural politics in the foreground.
First is the increasing power and technical expansion of nonhuman observation.
The most visible contemporary expression of this nonhuman observation is a type of automated seeing encased in what are typically called “drones.” The camera’s longstanding importance in mediated observation across distances now literally takes flight. While remote surveillance has been embedded in military operations for over a century, its popularity as a civilian technology raises new questions. What do we say about the militarization of everyday life, now concretized in the remotecontrolled or automated flying device? Which gaze belongs to the drone? A number of scholars are beginning to address the history, structuration, and ethical implications of drones (Asaro, 2013; Packer & Reeves, 2013; Parks, 2013). We could even speculate that the drone brings with it an automation and ultimate impersonality of Denzin’s cinematic gaze, making it the fourth type. The drone gaze, with its seemingly pure objectivity, masks its true goal: to render the world into data, thus controlling difference and flattening subjects to conform to its instrumental objectives (upon pain of death). A sovereign gaze no longer tied to the king’s body, or to individual agents, but to a distributed network whose objects automate the power of life and death.
Beyond the concrete device, nonhuman observation is part of a technological environment that Mark Andrejevic (2015) calls the “droning of experience,” marked by the ubiquity of information sensing, processing, and application. The spread of monitoring technologies (closedcircuit cameras, license plate readers, smartphone apps, drones, RFID scanners, audio sensors, online tracking software programs) forms a media ecology in which data are produced, mined, scraped, processed, and fed back into technical systems. We live in an era that is marked by a fascination with what has been called “Big Data,” or the ability to gather and process massive amounts of information for instrumental objectives. Observation is not necessarily of people or behaviors but of microinteractions, of fleeting transactions, of social communication, of conscious and unconscious information emission, of all technologized expressions.
The future of major apparatuses of power depends on an infusion of surveillance into everyday life—namely, by corporations (primarily media
and marketing) and state agents (primarily those devoted to war and security). Whether adopted to preempt presumed security threats or to predict buying patterns, observation is directed at distributed information. Observation is not primarily image based—it is a mediated instrument that sorts and accumulates to recognize patterns that then are deployed against individual consumers or citizens. This nonhuman dimension infuses both the observer (e.g., bots and algorithmic programs) and the observed (now a cluster of depersonalized and aggregated bits). The ethical researcher’s role here will be to intervene into the matter of identifying with this impersonal observer.
What we are witnessing is the rise of machinic observation that is so mediated that it becomes indifferent to the human. These technologies are more than nonhuman—they become inhuman. Mediated observation reaches its hypertrophied apex: separated not only from the other senses but also from the embodied human subject that lives through them. This kind of separation, or distance, is an attempt to flee the messiness of the body and the human, especially of the politics that come with human sociality. It is a detached and clinical logic insofar as it starkly realizes the longstanding dream of hegemonic observation: to become absolutely objective and thus coldly instrumentalize all research subjects. Subjects are now fully subjugated to the imperatives of the algorithm and, more important, to the becominginhuman apparatuses of state and capital that reduce people to relevant data. This alienation and asymmetrical divide requires witnessing. How do we observe this divide without adding to it? Here is yet another task for researchers as they rigorously take into account their position and alignment.
Second, and last, observation’s future might lie in its extension as well as in its refusal. As Norman Denzin and Michael Giardina (2009) insist, this is a “historical present that cries out for emancipatory visions, for visions that inspire transformative inquiries, and for inquiries that can provide the moral authority to move people to struggle and resist oppression” (p. 11). These visions can take a number of forms. For one thing, it means turning the observational gaze on surveillance itself or, in the language of popular culture, “Who watches the watchers?” (Watchmen). Called countersurveillance or sousveillance, this practice reappropriates the power of monitoring, returning it to the citizenry that in Enlightenment politics was supposed to be empowered against monarchical secrecy. Today, groups like Copwatch, a police watchdog organization that combs the streets with video cameras to document abuse, operate to reclaim surveillance for popular ends. They ask, who gets to be an observer? How can asymmetrical power relations be overcome through a popular surveillance? Here researchers employing observation need to ask how their tools can be put in the service of such
popular justice projects.
It is thus crucial to retain some of the political impulses of the Enlightenment —namely, to illuminate the obscured zones of power. Research that investigates power’s systemic relations and dynamics, or “studying up,” can put observation to use for social justice ends. Bratich (2014) examines developments in “public secrecy” to this end. It is not enough to seek transparency as a counter to secrecy. The media sphere is rife with revelations and exposures, many of which add to the mysteries rather than dispel them. What this public secret sphere does is require us to train our analytic eyes to see the hidden—even and especially when it seems to have been illuminated.
All of these responses signal that observation need not be jettisoned (how could it?) but reabsorbed and situated. It needs to be a minor act, not a major value. It is part of a panoply of senses, embodied and situated in apparatuses that authorize it with power. What can it give? It lets some phenomena be noticed, in the way one might pause amid the whirlwind of stimuli of contemporary life (especially one’s own entangled impulses) with a provisionally cool affect. It is a slower mode of being affected, one that allows for a reflection upon the affected body itself. It resonates with elements of what Vidich and Lyman (1994) call the sociologist’s mission: “a sensitivity to and a curiosity about both what is visible and what is not visible to immediate perception” via the “ability to detach him or herself from the particular values and special interests of organized groups in order that he or she may gain a level of understanding that does not rest on a priori commitments” (p. 23). However, these abilities and sensitivities are not ends in themselves, nor do they guarantee anything. They are provisional moments of careful selection and openness that allow detailed insights—sometimes new, sometimes a confirmation of the known.
Instead of thinking of a nonobservational research act, we might begin to explore observational nonresearch. In accordance with deemphasizing observation’s authoritative status, another tactic involves interrupting the smooth flow of official observation. The visions here can be ones that publicly struggle for the unobservable, to refuse and resist the surveillant gaze. This can be seen in the emergent antisurveillance movements, which have protested the NSA’s incursions as well as disrupted the observational technologies themselves (disabling cameras, knocking down drones). Here we might find what Gilles Deleuze (1990) called “vacuoles of noncommunication,” a will to opacity that refuses to express, to render visible, to become legible. In other words, a will to nonobservability, a becoming secret, a “popular secrecy” (Bratich, 2007).
Research on the online/offline collective called Anonymous (Coleman, 2014; DeSeriis, 2015) grapples with this tendency in activist clandestinity. How do we research the unobservable? What would it mean for researchers to also become opaque? No longer hidden or removed from their “subjects” but blending in, becoming inconspicuous to challenge the techniques of rendering knowable. This liminal zone prioritizes immersion rather than distance from subjects while disidentifying from the discursive power accorded to observational research. Immerse differently!
Enriching our understanding of the unobservable, or secrecy, does not mean spreading observation completely into hidden zones (the willtoknow that installed observation into a central place in urban reform as well as urban sociology). Instead, it means being sensitive to the reasons for concealment. Some groups are shrouded as a matter of survival in a legal system such as undocumented migrant workers (Chavez, Flores, & LopezGarza, 1990; Stepick & Stepick, 1990) or those involved in criminal activities (Agar & Feldman, 1980; Brewer, 1992; Dembo, Hughes, Jackson, & Mieczkowski, 1993; Koester, 1994; van Gelder & Kaplan, 1992). Others keep their activities and identities hidden as a matter of performance (Lingel & boyd, 2013) or as an activist tactic (Bratich, 2007; C. Scott, 2013).
Ultimately, doing justice to the unobservable means determining the powers to reveal and hide, to observe and conceal. In the heart of observation reside power, asymmetry, and structural inequality. As the surveillance society begins to creep into all spaces and absorb observation for its own ends, it is important to retain the antagonism within this longcontested practice. Preserving antagonism prevents the totalizing impulse of surveillance and protects the spaces for a democratic, popular expansion of observation as a weapon in the struggle for justice. Recently, the distribution of the visible and the invisible, the transparent and the secret, has been the domain of capital and state. Needed now is a democratic notion of observational gazes rooted in and furthering popular justice.
1. These early films could thus be seen as types of documentary filmmaking, ones produced for specific institutional objectives. See Greene (2005), Cartwright and Goldfarb (1994), and others on the politics of the educational/training film.
2. The 2014 proposed changes to IRB protection of human subjects, if passed, will significantly alter the range of research and conditions that warrant
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