skip to Main Content

Making Surveillance States: Transnational Histories

By Robert Heynen and Emily van der Meulen (Eds.)
Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 2019. pp. 360.

This edited volume explores the theoretical foundations essential for conceptualizing how surveillance is conceived and examines the operational logic of its techniques across time and space. These topics are crucial when considering the various and complex ways that state surveillance can be challenged. The introductory chapter (One) strategically positions the book as a relevant and essential examination of historical surveillance practices. The chapter highlights the precedence for modern methods supporting the authors’ assertion that histories of surveillance are inherently entwined with the broader histories of imperialism, colonialism, globalization, and the movement of ideas, technology, and disease. This book aptly demonstrates the significant breadth that characterizes surveillance studies bringing together 20 unique contributors with diverse research interests and experience. The editors categorize the subject matter into three related parts, focusing on the justifications used to mobilize and execute specific state surveillance practices. Beyond the introduction, the eleven chapters are divided into three sections: 1) Medical, Disease, and Health Surveillance; 2) Identification, Regulation, and Colonial Rule; and 3) State Security, Policing, and Dissent. Each section begins with a concise contribution from the editors signalling how the chapters that follow are relevant and interrelated.

Thematically, the chapters in the first section argue that public health concerns were the initial drivers of contemporary state surveillance practices. The authors demonstrate this point by examining historical disease surveillance practices. In Chapter Two, Jacob Steere-Williams examines the widely routinized public health practice of disinfection. He argues that British colonial surveillance regimes seized upon moments of medical crisis for political advantage by implementing practices that served as a social sorting, pathologizing disease, demonstrating the discord and inequity of colonial biopower. Next, Holly Caldwell offers a comprehensive overview of the late 19th-century eugenics movement in Mexico. The thesis of this chapter (Three) is that modern medicine was used as a social control tool disproportionately affecting the Indigenous and the poor. By presenting case studies examining the lived experiences of the deaf, Caldwell outlines the methods that the Mexican government used to frame deafness as a severe social problem, only capable of remediation by the state. In the final chapter of Part One, B Camminga interrogates the intent of The South African Disguises Act used to regulate non-normative expressions of sexuality and gender. Camminga convincingly argues that this legislation’s purpose was to authorize a means of social control and apartheid surveillance that continued ten years into the implementation of constitutional democracy.

The first section of this book is challenging to read because the prose, particularly in chapters three and four, reads like a dissertation. Though this writing style offers the opportunity for significant knowledge acquisition, the act of reading felt laborious. Overall, the time spent reading Part One was worthwhile and informative, but onerous.

In the introduction to Part Two, Robert Heynen and Emily van der Meulen signal that the state surveillance identification practices deployed historically across colonial regimes are a double-edged sword. The methods enabled access to crucial social welfare and public health programs, excluding those who are ineligible. In Chapter Five, Ian Warren and Darren Palmer examine the identification and registration systems, including tickets of leave and attainder (often resulting in civil death), used during the 19th century in Australia. Given my background in Canadian corrections, I found this chapter, particularly the consideration of ticket of leave as a precursor to modern parole, particularly informative.

In Chapter Six, Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie and Margaret Allen offer a comparative analysis of Australia’s surveillance technologies and practices in South Africa from the 1890s to 1940s. The authors provide an interesting exposé of the unique lived experiences, offering visual examples of state identification certificates of Asians in both nations, including the use of the photograph and fingerprints on documents. The authors posit that both countries practiced selective surveillance of Asians aimed explicitly at controlling mobility into these countries that contributed to the broader global pattern of Asian exclusion. Chapter Seven, written by Midori Ogasawara, offers an examination of the first biometric identification card systems deployed by the Japanese government during their occupation of Manchuria (1931-1945). This process recognized the Chinese as representing both risks to Japanese security insofar as those seen as politically radical, but also an intrinsic reward in the form of cheap labour. Ogasawara suggests that the suppression of political radicalism that motivated these practices in Manchuria remains central to modern systems of state surveillance. The author suggests that allowing the state to trace movement, intervene in mobility, and record where and with whom individuals are engaging serves to target racialized bodies and reinforce social sorting efforts. In the final chapter of Part Two, Ahmad H. Sa’di draws upon historical documents and archival resources to argue that the Israeli government’s surveillance of Palestinians between 1948-1967 was not in keeping with Foucault’s (1991) panopticon but instead operated as a state of exception. Sa’di concludes that there did not exist a set of universally applied normative laws that resulted in high levels of instability and precarity that continue today in Israel.

Part Two of this book was engaging and would be an essential read for migration scholars and those who seek to understand the broader history upon which modern forms of biometrics were built. The inclusion of archival and historical materials was fascinating. It revealed the intent behind the highly discretionary and multifaceted myriad of surveillance practices in which state actors sought to categorize, catalogue, and control those perceived as the risky ‘other’ across and between nation-states.

Part Three of this book focuses on the second half of the 20th century. This part offers insight into how state agents have conceptualized dissent to encompass a wide range of perceived threats, including those actively engaged in challenging state power. Part Three offers insight into surveillance responses towards those individuals seen as otherwise threatening, but who are not involved in overt and deliberate political action.

In Chapter Nine, Cristina Plamadeala investigates the Romanian Securitate practice of ‘dossierveillance,’ concluding that a primary tool of communism in Romania was the perpetual fear of being watched that was achieved through the widespread collaboration of the state with informers who could be friends, neighbours, or lovers. One result of this process was the creation of deep feelings of mistrust among citizens. Next, Kathryn Montalbano analyzes FBI surveillance efforts focused on the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a religious Quaker organization focused on social justice by feeding the hungry and supporting immigrants and refugees. The FBI program COINTELPRO, which has received considerable media scrutiny related to its surveillance of the Black Panthers, is also examined. The AFSC actively sought to expose the FBI’s surveillance practices of their members, submit many Freedom of Information requests and received more than 13,000 pages of surveillance files in response.

In Chapter Eleven, Elisabetta Ferrari and John Remensperger focus on the FBI surveillance directed at two underground alternative media outlets, the Los Angeles Free Press, and the San Francisco Good Times. The authors posit that the efforts described in their chapter were replicated to monitor and repress other groups, including students and people of colour. In the final chapter, Matthew Ferguson, Justin Piché, and Kevin Walby critique the representation of surveillance practices as a policing tool in police museums in Ontario. They conclude that description in these facilities shields visitors from a fulsome understanding of the gendered, racialized, heteronormative, and classist dimensions of the history of surveillance in Canada. They argue that the displays intentionally avoid topics that may result in scrutiny of police practices. This is unsurprising given that the museums are funded by and situated within police organizations. I found Part Three valuable, particularly the documented modes of resistance, including legal challenges, public denunciation, and humour.

This edited book is recommended for scholars interested in examining the influence of historical surveillance practices on modern society. It is well-positioned as assigned reading at the graduate level in academic departments across the social sciences. I found the chapters illuminating and thought-provoking, particularly regarding the pace of replicating surveillance policies and practices, including fingerprints, photographs, and biometric identification, which were transferred across colonial spaces. This collection offers a timely contribution to the surveillance studies literature by considering the history of state surveillance practices deployed in response to varying state perceptions of those deemed risky.

ERIN C. OSTERBERG
UNIVERSITY OF THE FRASER VALLEY (BC)

Back To Top
×Close search
Search