CORDIS - EU research results

Surveillance and Moral Community: Anthropologies of Monitoring in Germany and Britain

Project description

Investigating the morality of surveillance

Surveillance technologies have become a significant part of daily life. Their prevalence has transformed many aspects of how we live, but questions still remain regarding the moral implications of these technologies. The EU-funded SAMCOM project seeks to further our understanding of surveillance by investigating how it fits into moral communities and how it is used by people for goods and services. It will also explain how surveillance impacts human welfare on an individual and nationwide level and determine how it can be considered moral or immoral. The goal is to enhance public understanding of which types of surveillance can assist or even harm everyday life.


Surveillance—the mediated monitoring of human behaviour for some intended purpose—has become part of the structure of European life. As ubiquitous monitoring technologies transform every new relationship that they mediate, there is grave concern that the social gains of past centuries will be lost, as states and large corporations use these technologies to expand and entrench their own power. Scholars of surveillance have been following these developments since the 1970s, but recently have faced the paradox that most surveillance now takes place with the active collaboration of the surveilled. Moreover, the enthusiasm for self-monitoring popularized through smart technologies has been met by many surveillance scholars with bewilderment. Why would people choose to enter relationships objectively deemed to be coercive?

This project takes a new approach to how we understand surveillance. I embark on the first sustained inquiry into the association between surveillance and moral community, between practices of ‘watching over’ and the presence of a group of people who share a commitment to certain goods. By ethnographically investigating the role that surveillance technologies play in realizing four different types of good—care, health, safety and citizenship—within four different communities—the family, the interest group, the circle of intimates, and the nation—this research explores how surveillance proliferates not as a lever in power relations, but by being harnessed to forms of human welfare.

The gains of this project are substantial. To surveillance studies I import insights from anthropology, offering a comparative and embedded approach that situates surveillance as a social relationship. I also initiate a major conversation about surveillance in anthropology. Finally I develop the concepts of ‘moral’ and ‘immoral’ monitoring, achieving greater public clarity on those forms of surveillance that support collective welfare, and those that threaten to harm it.

Host institution

Net EU contribution
€ 1 476 127,50
WC2R 2LS London
United Kingdom

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London Inner London — West Westminster
Activity type
Higher or Secondary Education Establishments
Total cost
€ 1 476 127,50

Beneficiaries (1)