A new ERC project exploring how morality interacts with surveillance will be led by a King’s anthropologist.
Dr Vita Peacock has recently joined the Department of Digital Humanities as Principal Investigator of the ERC Project Surveillance and Moral Community: Anthropologies of Monitoring in Germany and Britain. This five-year collaborative project will explore, using ethnographic methods, how surveillance and surveillance technologies proliferate by being harnessed to social goods. It comprises four sub-projects respectively oriented around the ‘goods’ of care, health, safety and citizenship. Its overarching aim is to arrive at a fuller understanding of why, and how, people consensually interact with monitoring technologies to advance forms of collective human welfare.
The project brings together two disciplines that have so far remained largely distinct - surveillance studies and anthropology.
Dr Peacock said the moral dimensions of surveillance have been placed in a particular spotlight by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Complex ethical questions around how much good there is in being surveilled for the benefit of public health, and where the limits should lie, have been of necessity thrust to the centre of public debate. These debates are ongoing and unresolved, and the project seeks to make both a scholarly and a pragmatic contribution to them, by illuminating in depth how people themselves interact with and relate to monitoring itself on an everyday basis.
The four ethnographies will be carried out in Britain and Germany, places with both similar and diverging, civic histories and attitudes towards the legitimacy of surveillance.
– Dr Vita Peacock
Surveillance studies, an interdisciplinary field with a particular inflection on criminology, has grown proportionately as an analytical response to the growth of surveillance in modern industrial societies over the past five decades. It was profoundly influenced by Michel Foucault’s landmark text, Discipline and Punish, and until recently has focused extensively on the repressive aspects of surveillance.
Anthropology, by contrast, has a long tradition of exploring moral life¾of how societies are held together by shared values¾and thus a different set of insights that can be brought to bear on this phenomenon. A significant part of the story of surveillance over the past 200 years is its intimate relationship with power and coercion, but, as the project investigates, there is another story which is equally, or perhaps even more important¾its moral acceptance and legitimation. After all Jeremy Bentham, inventor of the infamous ‘panopticon’ and a key reference for surveillance studies, saw this apparatus through an explicitly moral lens. ‘Morals reformed, health preserved, industry invigorated, instruction dispersed, public burdens lightened…all by a simple idea in architecture!’ he once proclaimed.
See the project website here: https://samcom.uk/