The Long History of Modern Surveillance: Excavating the Past, Contextualizing the Present

ICA Preconference Washington, DC, USA, 24 May 2019

Sponsor: ICA Communication History Division

Organizers: Josh Lauer, Nicole Maurantonio’

NOTE: Preconference submissions are closed.

Surveillance is a key feature of modernity and a well-established topic of communication research. Since the 1980s communication scholars have studied a broad range of surveillance-related technologies, from databases and CCTV to biometrics and big data, highlighting their implications for the future of privacy and civil society. This research, however, has focused almost exclusively on “new” media. Such presentism is understandable given the speed and stakes of recent developments, but it has also limited our understanding of larger historical forces and global historical perspectives. In short, the study of surveillance needs a history to understand where we are, how we got here, and where we might be headed.

This ICA preconference is dedicated to bringing together communication scholars from diverse research traditions and from around the world to illuminate the long history of modern surveillance. Submissions are invited to consider the full breadth of past surveillance techniques and regimes, in any geographic or national context, prior to the current moment. The scope includes empirical research and comparative studies, historically-informed theory, intellectual histories of the field, and methodological reflections. We especially welcome submissions that address histories of surveillance from transnational and/or de-Westernized perspectives.

(1) Past surveillance practices and technologies:

Case studies and comparative histories of surveillance from a variety of perspectives are invited to shed light on the diversity of surveillance practices across time and around the globe. These studies may include embodied forms of individual or social surveillance; technologies of inscription, recordkeeping, archiving, and communication; examples of social sorting and classification; and organized efforts to record, track, or monitor individuals and populations. Submissions might address issues of power, privacy, recognition, and rights; gender, race, class, and sexuality (and their intersections); nationalism, empire, and colonialism; risk, security, and policing; the social construction of populations and conceptualizations of health, normality, deviance, markets, and audiences; reputation, celebrity, and shame; and the political economy of information and its commodification.

(2) Theorizing surveillance history:

Historical accounts of surveillance have been heavily influenced by Foucault’s theories of panopticism, governmentality, and biopolitics. Additionally, Giddens’ sociology of modernity and Scott’s concept of legibility have shaped understandings of surveillance as an historical phenomenon associated with the state and bureaucracy. Subsequent contributions by Deleuze, Haggerty and Ericson, Poster, Gandy, Andrejevic, and others have sought to connect Foucauldian theories to late 20th-century technologies, especially databases and digital media. We welcome submissions that review, critique, revise, or synthesize these existing theories of surveillance history. We also encourage efforts to develop new theories of surveillance history that address the limitations of dominant models, particularly their Western European perspective, early modern chronology, and generalizations about the social and psychological effects of surveillance. Is surveillance always a tool of power and disciplinary control, or can surveillance also produce positive forms of visibility, recognition, and participation?

(3) Intellectual histories of surveillance studies and communication research:

Communication scholars have long been concerned with issues of surveillance and privacy, though often in different forms and under the banner of democratizing agendas. For example, early efforts to study audiences, public opinion, and journalism addressed problems of mass surveillance, classification, and social influence. Submissions that interrogate the intellectual, philosophical, or disciplinary origins of surveillance scholarship within the field of communication are welcome. This might include genealogies of surveillance research among communication scholars, including roots in sociology, administrative research, and Marxist critical theory; contributions of communication scholars to late 20th-century surveillance theory and privacy policy, including political economic and information society critiques; the development of surveillance scholarship in global and/or non-Western contexts; the institutionalization of surveillance studies within communication programs; and the marginalization of historical scholarship – and surveillance history in particular – within the field of communication.

(4) Doing surveillance history:

Amid a welter of rapidly evolving technologies, communication scholars have struggled to keep up with new developments and to make sense of their implications. What can the study of the past contribute to such urgent contemporary issues? Unlike historians, whose scholarship is unselfconsciously backward looking, communication scholars are often compelled to justify the current relevance of historical inquiry to their peers. We invite submissions that address the value of surveillance history for understanding new and emerging social problems. This might include contributions to theories of modernity and technological change in a global context; the social construction of identity, privacy, and risk; and insight into the age-old problem of identifying, naming, and controlling bodies and populations. We also welcome submissions that consider the challenge of writing of surveillance history, including problems of periodization, geography, and sources (especially inaccessible institutional archives and ephemeral electronic evidence); inadequate theoretical models; and bridging interdisciplinary audiences.

Abstracts of 300 words (maximum) should be submitted no later than 30 November 2018. Proposals for full panels are also welcome: these should include a 250-word abstract for each individual presentation, and a 200-word rationale for the panel. Each abstract should be accompanied by a brief (no longer than 50-word) author bio. Panel proposals should include bios for all panelists. Send abstracts to: Josh Lauer at

Authors will be informed regarding acceptance/rejection for the preconference no later than 15 January 2019. Full papers will need to be submitted no later than 1 May 2019 as these will be posted online and made available to all those participating in the preconference. Early career scholars and graduate students are highly encouraged to submit their work, as are scholars exploring the above issues from transnational and/or non-Western perspectives. Please indicate if the research submitted is part of your thesis or dissertation project. The organizers will aim to arrange for discussants to provide an intensive response for graduate student projects.

Please direct any questions to either Josh Lauer ( or Nicole Maurantonio (