Bureaucratic Surveillance Research Paper Starter

Bureaucratic Surveillance

(Research Starters)

In modern societies, the quintessential formal organization is the bureaucracy, defined by Max Weber as a hierarchical entity with power concentrated at the top, that required written rules, information control, and salaried officials. Although the successful functioning of a bureaucracy is dependent on a number of things (e.g., clear-cut lines of authority and written rules), its capacity to watch over and keep control over its members is important. Such surveillance is made possible through the accumulation of information and direct supervision and provides a means of procuring efficiency, especially in the large- scale and unwieldy tasks that confront any expanding modern nation-states. Because there is growing concern among organizations in terms of their liability for the actions of their employees, bureaucratic surveillance techniques are being explored by many businesses globally. However, the growth of surveillance has also contributed to public policy concerns about individual privacy.

Keywords Bureaucracy; Bureaucractic Surveillance; Disciplinary Power; Desktop Monitoring Programs; Electronic Communication Privacy Act of 1986; Governance; Panopticon

Social Interaction in Groups

Overview

The expansion of industrial societies was accompanied, among other things, by the growth in large-scale organizations such as the factory and the state. In modern societies, formal organizations exist to coordinate the activities of its members in a stable way across space and time (Giddens, 1990). The quintessentially formal organization is the bureaucracy, defined by Max Weber as a hierarchical entity with power concentrated at the top, that requires written rules, information control, and salaried officials. Weber not only viewed bureaucratic organization as the most efficient organizational structure for modern societies (as a sophisticated machine), but also as an inevitable aspect of modern life. Although the successful functioning of a bureaucracy is dependent on a number of things (e.g., clear-cut lines of authority and written rules), its capacity to watch over and keep control over its members is important. This monitoring is known as surveillance, and is made possible through the accumulation of information and direct supervision. Because there is growing concern among organizations in terms of their liability for the actions of their employees, bureaucratic surveillance techniques are being explored by many businesses globally. However, the growth of surveillance has also contributed to public policy concerns about individual privacy.

Bureaucracy

Bureaucracy is a type of formal organization that is equipped to accomplish large-scale administrative tasks in a rational way (Du Bois & Berg, 2002). Bureaucracies are typically large, impersonal organizations with a complex hierarchy. Power within such organizations lies with the institutional structure rather than with particular individuals, although there are clear lines of authority and a highly specialized division of labor. Job tasks are allocated to particular officials, and regulated through specific rules. People who work in bureaucratic organizations are expected to subsume their thoughts and feelings to our duties and responsibilities; the job or position occupied by a person is separate and distinct from the person herself, to the extent that bureaucracies are generally criticized as being impersonal places to work (Weber, 1946).

Although the contemporary experience of bureaucratic organizations is typically negative (people see them as slow, impersonal, and inefficient, with too much "red tape"), Weber viewed bureaucracy as a rational administrative structure that would govern and regulate the human nature of employees. For Weber, bureaucratic surveillance was a means of procuring efficiency, especially in the large scale and unwieldy tasks that confront any expanding modern nation-state (Webster & Blom, 2004, p. 330). Moreover, his ideal type emphasized practices and arrangements that depend on codified information (written rules and duties) and direct supervision. However, these are relatively under-explored dimensions within his work, which were taken up in more detail by the French philosopher-historian Michel Foucault.

Surveillance

Foucault studied at the Sorbonne in Paris in the 1940s and developed what is widely acknowledged as an eclectic and unconventional approach to scholarly study (Eribon, 1994). His work deals with diverse topics (sexuality, madness, medicine, and penality) that are connected to each other through his interest in social order and power. In particular, he was interested in how things come to be known and accepted as facts; or rather, how some groups and not others seem to be able to establish claims that come to be regarded as truth. He studied how language, cultural practices, and social perceptions help people exercise power and exert control over others. However, he didn't see power and control as "them" and "us" issues; as resources that some groups have and others don't. Rather, he saw power as constituted via specific practices that characterize modern societies: surveillance, specialized knowledge, and corrective measures (e.g., Foucault, 1973). Together, these social practices constitute a form of power over people that does not use force (as is evident in traditional forms of power, argued Foucault) but rather, makes people visible to those in authority, and in so doing, makes them amenable to degrees of control and regulation.

Foucault drew on a particular metaphor to describe his vision of shifts in forms of power and to illustrate his argument that visibility was especially important in what he termed disciplinary power (Foucault, 1979). This metaphor involves the "panopticon," a circular building designed by the English utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham in the eighteenth century with the goal of establishing order and conformity in prisons. The panopticon was a circular building with cells built around its edge and an inspection tower in the center, from which a guard could see all prisoners, and also could be seen by them. The goal of this design was control through isolation and the possibility of constant (invisible) surveillance. Although the design was never fully implemented, Foucault saw it as a metaphor for how modern power worked; by encouraging people to conform to dominant ideas and norms by regulating or correcting their own behaviors (Foucault, 1979). Because people never know when they are being watched, they have little choice but to ensure that they are behaving in conforming or appropriate ways. Thus, power for Foucault is productive; it works by persuading people to undertake activities and practices because they believe them to be in their best interests (Greco, 1993).

Surveillance

Accordingly, in Foucault's framework, the physical settings of organizations play an important role in establishing the visibility of one group by another (Foucault, 1973, 1979). There are many architectural similarities in buildings that are typical of modern societies, such as hospitals, schools, and prisons. In the nineteenth century, when these kinds of institutions expanded, the buildings that housed them represented new points of collection where people could be monitored and those in authority could observe them with minimum effort (Nettleton, 1992). The spatial layout — many rooms connected by walkways and halls — made it possible for one person to watch over a number of people. Moreover, such buildings were often designed with a social hierarchy in mind. The more elevated one's professional position, the closer one might be located to the top of the building. Therefore, Foucault argued that physical layout both reinforced a social hierarchy and established a spatial and widely recognized (given the uniform architecture associated with these organizations and buildings) form of authority. In turn, this authority was possible because of the degree of visibility supported by physical layout.

Foucault considered visibility important because of the degree of supervision it permits. For instance, in organizations where work is characterized by being dull, routine, and repetitive, it is not unusual to find that the employees work in relatively open spaces, where they are visible not only to each other, but also, crucially, to superiors. In such settings, employees need to give the appearance of being alert and absorbed in their work (Giddens, 1997). Moreover, when the activities of employees in organizations are coordinated (e.g. through timetables, such as in schools) efficient use is made of both space and people.

However, visibility is not only dependent on physical layout, but also on the extent and nature of information that is available about people. In organizations, such information could include employee records that might be used to evaluate performance, or the kinds of information held by the state about its population. The growth of this information has led many researchers to argue that modern societies are now surveillance societies (Lyon, 1994).

Further Insights

The Surveillance Society

Although Daniel Bell (1973) identified the explosion of information as the chief characteristic of modern society,...

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