Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2000


Mike Ball (2000) 'The Visual Availability and Local Organisation of Public Surveillance Systems: The Promotion of Social Order in Public Spaces'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 5, no. 1, <>

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Received: 10/2/1999      Accepted: 17/11/1999      Published: 31/5/2000


The empirical focus of the research reported in this paper is the recent rapid growth in public surveillance systems. It is now commonplace in Britain for certain "public" spaces to have video surveillance and for some stretches of public highways to have "Gatso" speed cameras located on them. The visual availability of items of material culture such as surveillance systems is introduced as an analytical organising principal for delineating the study of objects within the "seen" world. It is argued that we inhabit a palpable material environment of objects which has consequences for and impinges upon aspects of our practical decision making.

Local Organisation; Material Culture; Practical Decision Making; Surveillance; Visual Availability; Visual Data

Introduction and Organisation

We inhabit a world of objects including persons and other species, the natural environment and items of material culture. This paper explores aspects of how as social beings, we relate to and interact with one class of objects. Objects have a material presence, which is accessed through the senses. Vision is a significant sense and most objects are visually available. We make sense of our in - situ visual field, by observing its contents and engaging in practical reasoning. Simmel has pointed to the immense significance of the visual domain to socio cultural arrangements, when he argued that of our senses, "the eye has a uniquely sociological function" (Simmel 1921, p. 358). This paper serves to illustrate Simmel's insight. The empirical focus of the research is the recent rapid growth in public surveillance systems. The paper presents a consideration of how items of material culture are consequential for behaviour. The central argument is that public surveillance systems are designed to be visually available and that the sites where they are installed exhibit a local organisation with which those who enter them engage. Visual availability is introduced as an analytical organising principle for the study of objects within the "seen" world (Ball and Smith 1986, Ball 1998a, Ball 1998b). This paper illustrates and analyses how the visual availability of objects functions. The installation of surveillance equipment is now a significant social development. It comprises such a common place part of public, semi - public and private life, that its steady growth requires to be commented on.

Studies of visual arrangements amount to a small sub - area within the human sciences. As Becker has commented expressing more than some irony, " Visual social science isn't something brand new.......but it might as well be" (Becker 1979, p. 7). Analysis of visual data comprises a routine dimension of practical reasoning, and themes from within the methodological components of this are addressed. Items of material culture including surveillance systems can have direct symbolic significance for the behaviour of persons and their interactions, being consequential for practical reasoning. The local organisation of public surveillance systems including cameras, lighting, warning signs and the like, serve as an empirical example of these principles in operation. Surveillance systems are items of material culture that are capable of effecting a modification in the behaviour of persons within a clearly limited area. They are in large part installed to promote an element of social order and accountability within an environment. The paper thus addresses how aspects of social order arise within monitored contexts. As part of practical reasoning, persons entering an environment with video surveillance must take both the systems and their own visual availability into consideration before engaging in actions that will likely be recorded.

The paper adopts the following organisation. It commences with an outline of the empirical focus of the research, substantively, a collection of comparative empirical contexts, depicting the social use of visual surveillance systems and "Gatso" speed cameras. Public surveillance systems are purposely designed items of material culture. They are intended to see and be seen, exhibiting a visual availability. It is argued that we inhabit a material environment that has consequences for and impinges upon aspects of practical decision making. Our commentary is derived from and illustrated by data central to which is a collection of photographic case studies of surveillance sites. Photographs of video surveillance and "Gatso" speed camera sites and warning signs, are each in their turn items of material culture. The status of our data is examined in the context of the study and employment of visual records and the reflexivity of fieldwork practice. A purpose for the installation of surveillance systems is suggested that is embedded in practical decision making and the contingencies of social relations. The promotion of social order through the installation of surveillance systems is considered. Certain principles of social control and surveillance are outlined. It is argued that an ethnomethodological framework can complement and enrich themes originating within other analytical perspectives including that of Foucault. The social behaviour which occasions the installation and local organisation of surveillance systems and "Gatso" speed cameras is introduced alongside a discussion of the equipment's probable purpose and an indication of how this is achieved. Practical decision making , issues of social control, public surveillance and the structure of social order are explored within a treatment of the practical deployment and use of items of material culture. The paper concludes by indicating future fruitful directions for research, and predicted developments within the technology.

Studying Visual Surveillance Systems in Public Spaces

Within Britain in particular and western Europe more generally, the past ten years or so have witnessed a massive increase in the public and private use of video and other types of photographic surveillance systems. The most common forms that this now adopts is termed closed circuit television, as standardly and here after abbreviated to CCTV, and "Gatso" traffic speed cameras. The photographic and ethnographic data this paper is based upon has been collected over some years, at sites where CCTV and "Gatso" equipment have been installed. Figures 1 to 14 are each drawn from a broader corpus of photographs and case studies of sites. They are selected in order to illustrate the analytical themes developed in the text. Figures 1, 6, 7 and 9 are exceptions in so far as each is the subject of a more extensive analytical consideration. In publicly evident and displayed uses of these systems, cameras are typically and purposefully located so as to be seen. They are visually available. The cameras and their mounting poles and defensive scaffolding, signs warning of the systems existence and the like are all items of material culture which when located prominently in public or private spaces are there to "see" and be seen, figures 1 to 14.

CCTV equipment comprises items of material culture that are suggestive of a relatively sophisticated stage of technological development, and the social relationships that the use of the technology both reveals and facilitates. The design of CCTV equipment involves a technologically advanced blend of electronic, mechanical and optical engineering. Together, they fashion a material artifact with the potential to record amongst other things, the behaviour of persons and vehicles in cultural contexts.

Who now could imagine going shopping in a city centre and linked pedestrian areas, visiting a bank or cash dispenser, hospital, school, supermarket, restaurant, hotel or other large organisation including in certain areas churches, attending a large sports fixture or concert and the like without having aspects of their behaviour recorded on CCTV? When travelling, most railway and bus stations, car parks, airports, sea ports, petrol stations, motorways and certain significant public highways are now "secured" and monitored by the extensive and one presumes consciously visual employment of CCTV and "Gatso" hardware. This situation has occurred with such stealth and the presence of the equipment is so common place that few people now give a second glance to the cameras and other technological hardware and objects which are clearly interlopers within the public, semi public and private domains. Mechanical and electrical surveillance equipment is now such a routine and taken for granted part of social life, that it is a significant trend. In the unlikely scenario of the cameras and other hardware not being noticed by those co-present, information signs, written or pictorial, informing of the systems existence are frequently conspicuously displayed.

The Visual Availability of Items of Material Culture

While it is almost a tautology to claim that objects exhibit a palpable material presence, none the less such taken for granted dimensions frequently need to be underlined. Our use of the term " palpable" follows that of Garfinkel. His use of the term suggested the obvious and readily perceived character of sensual phenomena. The material character of things is available through the senses, including vision. Within our visual field, we routinely see things and engage in practical reasoning, which includes differentiation. Sense is made of the seen environment by attending to its visual availability. Items of material culture are always fashioned for some practical purpose or other. They have a range of inescapable uses to which they may be put, involving forms of practical action. Certain items of material culture can have direct symbolic significance for the behaviour of persons and their interactions. The local organisation of public surveillance systems including cameras, lighting, warning signs and the like serves as an empirical example of these principles in operation. Surveillance systems are items of material culture which effect a modification in the behaviour and actions of persons within a clearly limited environment. They are in large part installed to promote an element of social order and accountability within an environment. As part of practical reasoning, persons entering an environment where video surveillance is in operation, must take both the systems and their own visibility into consideration before engaging in practical actions which will likely be recorded.

All items of material culture ranging from the pyramids in Egypt to recent developments in the small machines of Nano technology have some form of visual availability. As objects they exhibit a palpable concrete manifestation which can be seen and oriented towards. As biological beings, we inhabit an environment comprising of items from nature and culture. Our visual competence plays a large part in how we access elements and make sense of them in the framework of social action. The interactional world comprises of objects, persons and other species and it exhibits a fundamental social organisation. As Garfinkel has argued the matter, " In doing sociology, lay and professional, every reference to the "real world," even where the reference is to physical or biological events, is a reference to the organised activities of daily life." (Garfinkel 1967, p. vii). As part of cultural symbolic existence, it is crucial that at a fundamental level of categorisation we are able to actively differentiate between things. Differentiation is integral to all practical decision making. It is thus important that persons can efficiently distinguish surveillance equipment from other items of material culture in public spaces. Recognition work such as this comprises part of our contingent reflexive interpretive monitoring of visual information.

For persons with sight in a familiar environment, there is nothing so ordinary as the world of objects which they see. Things from the natural and social domains are palpably there to be seen. Existence is thus subtly permeated by the concreteness, observability and visual availability of the objects with which we come into contact when engaged in practical activities. We negotiate our way through a "sea" of objects including surveillance equipment. We are thus continuously engaged with existence in a material world of objects, within which we are, in turn, ourselves objects for others, much as occurs when we are observed by surveillance systems. It may strike the reader as splendidly ironic that part of our data collection involved making still, visual, photographic records of technologically sophisticated items of material culture which are themselves designed to make visual records. Photographs and the cameras which produce them are items of material culture, in much the same manner as CCTV equipment and "Gatso" speed cameras are. It is by no analytical sleight of hand that our photographic data of CCTV sites and equipment comprises representations of items of material culture which are themselves installed for the purpose of fashioning representations (Hall Ed. 1997). Photographic and video cameras fashion a visual record of some states of affairs. Our data comprises photographs of CCTV sites and equipment. It is consequently likely that on numerous occasions of data collection, the researcher's behaviour was recorded. The person conducting the study was thus themselves studied and their presence and actions became data for others. In a strictly visual sense, to collect data whilst simultaneously providing data for others is suggestive of the inescapably reflexive character of all fieldwork.

Figure 1

The orderly and reflexively accountable character of the seen world is locally produced as a consequence of persons doing interpretive work involving looking, seeing and categorising. The situations of daily life have a practical core, their visual and material contents impinging upon social action. For instance, figure 1 shows persons at work in a shop, and reveals various distinct items of material culture, including amongst other things lighting, a CCTV camera, a range of sports equipment, files, boxes and signs etc., each of which for identificatory purposes requires to be distinguished one from the other. For example, when attention is focused on the shelves of rackets, it is crucial to be able to recognise and distinguish say a tennis racket from a squash or badminton racket (figure 1). Of course more is involved here than differentiation and linguistic labelling. All objects have a visual availability. To be able to distinguish one thing from another in a culturally competent manner necessitates that a repertoire of appropriate practical reasoning and actions be brought into play, that is, the relationship between seeing, thinking, recognising and doing. Cognitive anthropology fashioned a scholarly enterprise out of the comparative ethnographic collection of what Frake has termed "words for things", constructing and exploring conceptual taxonomies (Frake 1972). Conversation analysis is a related tradition, within which there is now a sub- field of analytical studies of objects within social action (Heath and Hindmarsh 1998; Lynch 1998). We inhabit a material world and much of our knowledge has a location within it and a practical bearing upon it. Locating and framing knowledge within the world of objects emphasises the inescapably concrete character of existence. Items of material culture such as surveillance systems form part of the substance of our experience. Our orientation to objects such as those shown in figure 1. is however a chronic preoccupation that is always practical in some sense or other, and their visual availability serves directly purposes of recognition, differentiation and use.

The Status of Stored Visual Data: Epistemology

Collections of photographs have been taken to serve as a record of a range of case studies of publicly available contexts in which CCTV systems are employed. In outline, there are two categories of photographs. The first comprises photographs of a range of sites, at which video surveillance systems operate, illustrating the visual availability of the cameras, support poles, scaffolding, lighting and so forth. The other category is the often concomitant signs displayed to inform and warn about the existence of the recording hardware. Still photographic and moving film and video cameras fashion a visual record of some states of affairs. The recording is taken from a certain vantage, under certain conditions of light, with certain lenses and film, at a certain time and place, etc.

Figures 1 to 14 were collected at a range of sites with histories which occasioned processes of practical reasoning resulting in the installation of CCTV systems and "Gatso" speed cameras. The sites include motorways and other public highways (figure 2), petrol stations and garages for refuelling vehicles (figures 3 and 4), business premises (figures 5 and 6), inside shops (figure 1), entrances to hotels, private residences and the like (figures 7 and 8). These examples are drawn from a much broader corpus of photographic data. They can do no more than serve as illustrations of what in recent years has been a highly visible social trend, namely to increase the surveillance of persons and vehicles in public, semi - public and private spaces.

Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 4

Figure 5

Figure 6

Figure 7

Figure 8

Within the framework of the CCTV industry and police work, video and "Gatso" speed camera recordings can serve evidential purposes. A person's behaviour at a particular location and time can be recorded and stored for future inspection and analysis. Social actions and interactions in time and space thus become matters of practical analytical interest, for the participants to the setting, social scientists and also for security and law enforcement agencies. The evidential status of still photographic and moving filmic or video records is now, however, a contested matter. What has been termed the documentary tradition in still photography and moving film has become problematised in the wake of Marxist inspired critical theory, cultural studies and postmodernism. From this perspective, Minh-ha has made the claim that "There is no such thing as the documentary" (Minh-ha 1993 p. 90). Such claims about the documentary tradition have their origins in an orientation to the philosophy of science that argues that the objectivity, realism and fidelity to data claimed by "science" is no longer tenable (Nichols 1991, Winston 1995,). In outline, the argument for the demise of the documentary tradition suggests that within the practical decision making involved in the process of photography and film making, various extraneous practices can be brought into play, transforming the products of visual recording equipment. For example, there is the potential for an artistic use of the equipment, including lighting, filters, lenses, film, angle of shot, etc. There is the potential to set up the photograph or film in some form or other prior to taking it. Once recorded, there is the potential to modify the photographic or filmic product. A potential which has been extended with the advent of digital technology. Alongside these concerns, there is the ever present question of the extent to which recordings can be said to be representative of the phenomena recorded. Each of these practical concerns are deemed, in not particularly subtle ways, to be intertwined with notions of voyeurism and the "gaze", which are imbued with a political and historical dimension.

For Minh-ha and others, those who treat photographic and filmic records as evidence amount to what Garfinkel has termed "cultural dopes" (Garfinkel 1967). Ignorant of the ways of knowing, offered by Walter Benjamin and the postmodernists, they apparently fail to see the shortcomings of their epistemological assumptions. Operating with a more analytically radical orientation however, Garfinkel had earlier collapsed the distinction between lay and "scientific" or specialised knowledge to the generic notion of members' methods, central to which is the "documentary method" of sense making (Garfinkel 1967, 1986). Untroubled by such theoretical concerns, in a collection of practical endeavours and disciplines ranging from archaeology to zoology, still photographs and moving film are routinely treated as being imbued with evidential potential, and as capable of documenting "for all practical purposes" certain states of affairs. Thus, cameras can be used to access visually available matters in a manner analogous to other optical "scientific" instruments such as microscopes, telescopes or whatever and they can record things, in much the same sense as thermometers or barometers, for all practical purposes (Lynch 1998).

Unfortunately, it is not that simple. The use of cameras in common with other instruments frequently, but not on all occasions, involve human agency, which has caused commentators to claim with some justification that a blend of science and art can be involved (Ball and Smith 1992, Sontag 1979, Becker 1998). Employing an argument which Wittgenstein applied to language, certain of these dilemmas can be sidestepped by suggesting that the realistic or artistic component of still photography or moving film has in essence a technical and practical foundation embedded in use and purpose (Wittgenstein 1953). Thus, for the practical purposes of fashion photography, style, artifice and art are at a premium, whereas in police work, it is an acceptable occupational practice to treat visual records as being or having the potential to serve as evidence. Police work is far from alone in treating still photography and moving film as comprising realistic representations which serve occupational purposes. Archaeologists record and document "digs" as process, architects chronicle construction, in medical practice the visual stages of disease morphology are documented, sports authorities record photo-finishes, military authorities engage in their own surveillance through photo reconnaissance and photogrammetry, zoologists compare species and so forth (Brugioni 1996).

In our research into the visual availability of public surveillance systems, photographs of a number of sites serve as our data and function as an accountable source (figures 1 to 14). As a research procedure, this is an ethnographic variant that is informed by ethnomethodology, and which converts the methodological concerns of the humanities and social sciences into topics of practical analytical work which are embedded in socio-cultural scenes. What Garfinkel has termed "every society's locally, endogenously produced, naturally organised, reflexively accountable, ongoing, practical achievement," (Garfinkel 1991 p. 11). Central to the ethnomethodological criticism of conventional ethnography is the methodological observation that many ethnographies amount to "just so" anecdotal accounts of cultural arrangements in which the reader does not share with the ethnographer the rich data on which the account is founded. Garfinkel and Sacks refer to this practice as an anthropological gloss, the transformation of data collection and field notes into a professional ethnographic report, a process of "writing culture" (Garfinkel 1986 p. 18 Clifford and Marcus 1986). Whilst this criticism is directed at ethnographic practice, its fundamentals also apply to the many variants of humanities and social science discourse. From the radical ethnomethodological vantage, most conventional ethnographies are considered to be far too unaccountable in terms of the versions and interpretations they fashion from their data. For ethnomethodology, ethnographic practice is of interest in so far as the ethnographer employs members' methods for making sense of cultural arrangements.

Conversation analysis treats language as social action , it offers rich descriptive treatments of stored audio materials, which the writer shares with the reader (Button and Lee 1987). The reader thus has the ability to agree or disagree with the analyst's version, amend it or rewrite it, a potential which arises from sharing the data on which the descriptions are based. This model is worthy of emulation with visual materials, and is potentially very productive. In the same spirit that conversation analysis modelled its data based analysis on cognitive anthropology and certain philosophical traditions, whilst differing from them, similarly, our suggestions for visual analysis differ from conversation analysis, but draw on certain of its strengths. A form of enquiry is being advocated which is tied to visual data sources. Presenting the data alongside the analysis, renders it accountable.The reader or viewer can agree or disagree with the presented analysis. Analytical descriptions based upon shared stored data and accountable through that data, amount to a worthwhile if somewhat ambitious undertaking. This paper offers a glimpse of this potential as our earlier treatment of figure 1 illustrates. We go on to examine figures 6, 7 and 9 as limited case studies in the analysis of visual materials.

Stored Visual Images and Analytical Purposes

When considering the communicative and interpretive potential of representations such as visual images and linguistic forms, it is apparent that they share certain features in common. Garfinkel draws our attention to language's indexical character (Garfinkel 1967, 1986). In a similar manner, recorded visual images reveal what have been termed indexical or polysemic properties, suggestive of an ambiguous potential (Goffman 1971, Barthes 1979). The inherent indexical and polysemic dimension of visual materials is fundamental to their character. It might better be accepted and tolerated as a practical problem, rather than complained about, as solutions are not likely to be forthcoming. For any single image, a range of potential "readings" are possible, dependent upon analytical concerns. The process of making sense of an image is thus always informed and structured by theory (Ball and Smith 1992). For example, figure 1 has already been employed to illustrate how persons orient to and differentiate between a range of objects in a sports shop, and how a CCTV system operates as an interloper in that environment. In addition, figure 1 could serve a myriad of alternative analytical uses. For example, it could serve as a study of the work practices of shop workers. It reveals one worker eating a snack, items of food which are taken from a bag, the other worker is plainly engaged in a practical task, using an item of machinery to achieve an outcome. Persons are revealed interacting with objects, and both are evidently aware of the researcher's presence. Other alternative uses of the image include a study of consumer practices, a study of the display of goods within the retail trade, of proxemics, illumination, of photographic composition and the like.

Similarly with our other images, it is possible to put them to different purposes than our limited case studies. For example, at one level, figures 2, 3, 4, 9 and 10 can be collectively organised around the theme of surveillance within road transport. Figure 2 shows a stretch of public highway which is subject to video surveillance, and drivers who enter it will likely be aware of the visual availability of the cameras and modify their behaviour to comply with existent speed limits and so forth. When surveillance cameras such as figure 2 are coordinated with "Gatso" speed cameras, speed limit signs and signs which warn of surveillance such as figures 9 and 10, then they will likely be "read" in combination. Employing what Garfinkel, following Mannheim, has termed the documentary method, and interpreting these items of material culture as related, motorists will likely and when necessary modify their behaviour. When refuelling a vehicle the visual availability of the surveillance equipment in figure 3 will serve to remind the motorist that a visual record of their visit to the refuelling station has likely been made, encouraging them to behave appropriately and to pay for any purchases. Similarly, in figure 1 the visual availability of the CCTV equipment is intended to discourage theft from the sports shop. Figure 4 reveals a futuristic French variant on this theme, a refuelling station on a toll motorway without any personnel, just video cameras recording arrivals and departures. Drivers can purchase fuel automatically by using credit cards or bank notes, and at certain times they can refuel and then drive to a pay point which is separate from the refuelling area, having been recorded doing so. Should they take fuel without paying for it then before they leave the motorway system they would likely be apprehended. At the comparative level, figures 1, 3 and 4, a shop and vehicle refuelling stations share the common characteristic of being sites at which the behaviour of customers generates a visual record that can be used for evidential purposes.

Why Install Surveillance Equipment?

At the level of practical reasoning, it is blatantly the case that the installation of CCTV or "Gatso" equipment and the like occurs for a purpose. This equipment is expensive to install and operate. In this respect, persons and organisations which install such equipment tend to do so out of a desire to promote a level of security and accountability within an environment. As items of material culture, CCTV systems and "Gatso" speed cameras serve to promote an element of accountability and security within an area. They are not however "all seeing", and are always limited in their scope potential and application. Employing the vocabulary of Sociology, installing surveillance equipment in an environment is an attempt to exert a level of "social control" within a social space. According to the sociological discourse of "social control," the cameras shown in figure 2 sited alongside a motorway are there to exert "control" over the behaviour of drivers. Drivers who see the cameras will likely proceed more cautiously. The cameras sited at vehicle refuelling garages in figures 3 and 4 are there to ensure that when they have refuelled their vehicle persons pay for their purchases and so forth. In a range of contexts and sites including public highways, organisational environments and personal dwellings, the installation of CCTV and similar equipment is done, in part, to enhance security and accountability by exerting an element of "social control" within a limited area. This comprises an aspect of what Garfinkel has referred to as "the real production and accountability of immortal ordinary society" (Garfinkel 1991 p. 11).

In the Social System, Parsons sets the mechanisms of "social control" to out wit various manifestations of antisocial or deviant behaviour (Parsons 1951). From the vantage of Parsons and other classically informed sources, the principles of "social control" are plain enough in their manifestation and operation. They are concerned with attempting to modify the actions of cultural members and to direct their behaviour towards variants of compliance and conformity with a set of norms and standards. What Schutz has referred to as the "life world" is comprised at the visual, palpable level of items from nature and society, which are there to be seen and made sense of in the context of social action (Schutz and Luckmann 1973). For example, at the level of practical reasoning, the CCTV equipment sited in figure 7 , a hotel car park, might suggest to any potential car or vehicle equipment thief that this car park is a relatively secure environment. Any criminal behaviour will likely be recorded, and most significantly, the visual record may be employed as evidence for purposes of prosecution. An element of "social control" is thus exerted over persons within a specific environment. In this example significantly, the "social control" is exerted not by the presence of persons such as agents of the law, but by the visual availability and strategic location of items of material culture, CCTV equipment. This can cause certain persons, particularly candidate criminals, to reflect on appropriate behaviour within the environment. There is a distinct sense in which conspicuously sited CCTV equipment acts as a silent, although by no means "sleeping policeman" against various forms of criminal behaviour 24 hours per day, 7 days per week and 52 weeks per year. Most significantly, it is a form of policing with an almost faultless, electronic, mechanical memory and recall of past events.

Social Order and Practical Decision Making

Whilst the discourse of social control and surveillance are strongly suggestive of persons being influenced by external agency, this only provides access to certain elements within the equation. For ethnomethodology, the orderliness of social scenes arises from the endogenous and interactional practices of those co-present. Order is a product of how people interact both with other persons and objects, including inanimate items of material culture such as surveillance systems. To explore how social order arises in empirical contexts, in this view, is to address aspects of in situ practical reasoning and action. In public spaces , where CCTV equipment, "Gatso" speed cameras, warning signs and the like are prominently displayed and thereby visually available, there is evidence of a deterrent effect on the crime rate, at least initially (Kitchen 1994). This finding strongly suggests that certain inanimate items of material culture have the potential to influence and possibly be causally consequential for how social order arises in certain environments and is directly linked into social action and practical reasoning. In other contexts, Heath and Hindmarsh have considered how objects are noticed and oriented to through action and interaction (Heath and Hindmarsh 1998).

There are plenty of other illustrations which support this view, situations in which items of material culture have a distinct bearing on social order. For example, with the assistance of an item of material culture such as a gun, baton, water cannon, or whatever, a law enforcement agent can transform a "public disturbance" into a situation of social order. Emergency services such as the police, the fire service, the ambulance service and the like share in common with public surveillance systems a distinct visual availability. In the case of emergency services, the visual can be supplemented by an audial component, each of which encourages persons to engage in practical reasoning and take responsibility for their own behaviour within the environment. How such compliance arises and its fundamental reliance on visually available items of material culture is of analytical interest.

It is not accidental that public surveillance systems have had a broad application within public spaces as technological items which can be employed to encourage a level of compliance, social order and civility. Public spaces have always had the potential for incivility and disorder ( Mayhew 1851, Park and Burgess 1925). In recent times, the introduction of visual surveillance systems within limited, public environments has rendered the perceived dangers of these areas decidedly less acute. Goffman has examined issues of public order in the modern urban world. Adopting a variant of a Durkheimian position, Goffman explores the balance between internalised morality and external constraint (Durkheim 1933 Goffman 1971). In terms of external constraint, Goffman argues that policing is always limited in its scope and potential and he poses the essentially ironic question of who ultimately polices the police ? As a question, this has clear relevance for the scholarly analysis of CCTV systems and similar installations. In essence, this ironic question is at the core of the issues most frequently raised by civil rights groups concerning the use and accountability of such systems. Goffman argues that for much of the time social order is the product of persons policing their own behaviour, and, if somewhat grudgingly, trusting in the behaviour of others. It needs to be added that social order is of course always contingent and consists of some compromise between the pursuit of collective ends and self interest. From this perspective it is possible to view the deterrent effect of CCTV and similar systems in terms of collective ends overriding self interest.

With current technology, the potential surveillance coverage offered by CCTV systems is always limited. All surveillance systems operate within a confined environment, and even then they only offer certain strategic views. Given the current financial cost of installing CCTV systems and foreseeable technological developments, it is unlikely that they will be extended to cover all parts of urban areas. Even if complete surveillance were technically feasible, its monitoring would undoubtably prove labour intensive and problematic. An assessment of the predicted future of CCTV and related forms of visual surveillance equipment suggests that they will become an increasingly consequential tool for ensuring social order within public spaces. In the foreseeable future, the surveillance environment will tend to remain limited in scale. For the surveillance of persons and vehicles, the following are likely developments. Surveillance systems are now available which link into computers and can "digitise" faces matching them with considerable accuracy against stored, digital, photographic, facial images in a data base. These systems have the ability to scan faces at the rate of 1200 per minute. According to a range of technically informed soothsayers however, we are now less than a year away from the prospect of CCTV systems linked to powerful computers which can scan millions of faces in less than a minute. Even if this number turns out to be optimistic, the surveillance implications of the technology and its predicted, potential accuracy are almost in the realm of science fiction. For vehicles, equipment is available that can judge when a particular vehicle is emitting pollutants through its exhaust system, whilst simultaneously identifying the vehicle by recording its registration number. Taken alongside "Gatso" speed cameras, this is another potential means for governments to raise revenue. Single image "Gatso" systems will in time be replaced by digital S.V.D.D. systems which average speeds over a set distance. In this context, it is far from surprising that surveillance equipment and its application is now big business comprising technologically sophisticated items of material culture that can have significant effects on aspects of public order.

Principles of Surveillance

CCTV systems frequently comprise a conspicuous form of surveillance. They are designed to exert social control on persons within a specified territory, causing them to modify their behaviour, thereby achieving the deterrent effect. Whilst the artful, technological foundations of systems such as CCTV and "Gatso" are of relatively recent invention, the essential principles of surveillance are much older and multifarious in form (Dandeker 1990). In an examination of Bentham's eighteenth century consideration of the panopticon, Foucault constructs a description that has relevance for aspects of CCTV systems and "Gatso" speed cameras. Foucault suggests of the object of surveillance that, "One is totally seen, without ever seeing", and of the observer that "One sees everything without ever being seen" (Foucault 1979 p. 202).

The proposition that "One is totally seen, without ever seeing" requires modification when applied to public surveillance systems. Cameras currently only have the ability to focus and scan from one direction or angle at a time. In this sense, unless a sophisticated and subtly co-ordinated bank of cameras are set up and employed to simultaneously collect data from every conceivable direction and angle, a "total" view is not feasible. Indeed even as an idea, it is arguable that a "total" view may never prove practicable. That said, from the perspective of persons under surveillance, that they perceive themselves to be in a condition of being "totally" seen is crucial for their practical reasoning and the efficient operation of the systems deterrent effect. It is of course transparently the case that persons under surveillance are not able to see those who are able to observe their behaviour in minute detail, and if necessary , repeatedly view it. For example, the hotel car park shown in figure 7 has a collection of sets of cameras and lighting covering a range of visual trajectories within it. Each entrance and exit to the car park and building have cameras focused on them. As a person moves around the car park they could be forgiven for reasoning that they were under constant surveillance by who knows how many sets of eyes, without ever seeing those who are able to see them. From the vantage of the observer, to suggest that one sees everything without ever being "seen" is something of an overstatement. While plainly the viewer is not seen, their view is far from "everything" or all encompassing. There are always blind areas or zones within a CCTV system which the cameras either fail to cover or cover inadequately. In addition, an area can temporarily be screened from view by a large object being in close proximity to a camera, such as a parked lorry or whatever. In the case of figure 7 delivery lorries would be commonplace. At the end of the twentieth century, while the technological ability to record and store visual facsimile of persons actions at a particular location and point in time is powerful, the practice of the systems turns out to be far from faultless. That said, the technology is impressive and confers advantages to those conducting surveillance and attempting to exert an element of social control and accountability within a clearly delimited environment. The principal advantage of such systems is the potential to carry out constant, automatic, mechanical, electrical surveillance by inanimate machinery for policing purposes. In contrast, the attention span of persons can be short or variable and they also require statutory working conditions involving breaks.

When shopping , and viewing the range of goods for sale, it is now commonplace to be aware that , aspects of one's behaviour may be viewed and recorded simultaneously, as illustrated by figure 1. Similarly, elements of one's behaviour are again seen and recorded in a range of other contexts such as when visiting a bank (figure 12), a business organisation (figures 5 and 6), a hotel (figure 7), whilst travelling along a highway in a vehicle (figure 2), refuelling a vehicle (figure 3), travelling from a seaport (figure 11). Thus, we are continuously engaged with existence in a palpable, material world of objects, within which we are in turn ourselves objects for others, as occurs when we are recorded by surveillance systems. The orderly and reflexively accountable character of the seen world is thereby locally produced from our behavioural arrangements and their visual availability.

There are a range of different ways in which the data generated by equipment such as CCTV can be employed and attended to, and people whose behaviour is apparently observed by a system have no way of knowing which mode is in operation or whether anyone is actually monitoring the data. For example, it is frequently the case when a large number of strategically sited cameras are located in a limited but relatively sizable environment such as a city centre, sports arena, shopping precinct, motorway services or whatever, for there to be a control room and a bank of visual monitors with a person or persons whose task it is to oversee developments. Should it be necessary, the observer can initiate a reaction to problems. In other situations and environments generally smaller in scale, such as a hotel (figure 7), or a vehicle refuelling station (figure 3), then it is unlikely that an operational on site control room exists, although industrial premises may employ a security officer whose work space can perform this function. In these contexts, the relevance of CCTV systems inheres in their ability to produce a continuous visual record of events, which can be referred to, should it prove necessary. A possibility which in practice serves to deter people from engaging in unwanted behaviour. Persons who enter an environment in which CCTV systems are visually available cannot know whether or not they are switched on at that point in time. It is even possible that the "cameras" are dummy cases with no optical or recording equipment built in, connected or attached. Those who enter an area with CCTV equipment can thus never know for certain if their behaviour is being recorded, and consequently they will likely err towards caution, presume that it is and behave accordingly. Thereby resulting in the desired deterrent effect of the system. It is of course possible that as CCTV equipment becomes increasingly commonplace, its deterrent effect may diminish, but it is also probably more likely that, as time passes, the equipment's technological sophistication will increase, and the visual image and picture resolution will improve making the systems even more efficient at gathering data.

When an elaborate network of CCTV cameras are installed, the persons whose job it is to oversee a bank of monitors receiving their images from the cameras will become specialists in the practical decision making involved in such work. In common with Sacks's insightful characterisation of neophyte policemen, they will acquire the ability to distinguish between orderly routine legitimate behaviour and those extraordinary or illegal events which might possibly require some form of intervention. As Sacks informs us concerning the neophyte policeman walking a beat, "As he walks through his beat with a mature officer, persons who appear legitimate are cast in the light of the illicit activities in which the latter knows they are engaged." As Sacks goes on to argue, "The novice is shown how to see the streets as, so to speak, scenes from pornographic films." (Sacks 1972 p. 281). As operatives become trained and competent in the routine decision making involved in watching banks of visual monitors, they acquire the practical ability to distinguish between an "uneventful" screen and one depicting a situation which they need to react to, by for instance drafting in security guards or the police.

The presumed deterrent effect of the visual availability of CCTV systems has been considered. This operates according to distinct principles and when persons imagine that they are being observed, they will frequently modify their behaviour. Variants of this have been in evidence in a range of surveillance or observational systems, for instance, Lloyd - Warner's research into the bank wiring room , and Dandeker's historically informed overview of surveillance systems (Dandeker 1990, Rose 1975). The visual availability of CCTV and "Gatso" type systems in the public domain, amounts to a powerful device which manipulates suggestions of surveillance into people's imaginations and interpretations of the situation, thereby functioning as a very potent means of shaping their behaviour. As W. I. Thomas observed, the definition of the situation is always of significance. This is epitomised in Thomas's much quoted aphorism that "If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences", the significant and subtle interplay of imagination and perception is thereby accessed (Thomas 1928).

Persons who are vulnerable to surveillance experience uncertainty and they must employ their imagination and interpret the situation to the best of their ability, a form of practical decision making. The palpable, visual availability and material presence of CCTV systems "Gatso" speed cameras and other related equipment , including signs informing of their presence, thus likely promote a deterrent effect which operates, in part , through the imagination of the persons who enter the environment. In this context, it is notable that for public surveillance, whilst miniaturisation of the equipment is now technically feasible, this is not a direction which is being followed by the industry. The exception being for very specialist purposes within espionage or sports coverage. Similarly, while it is clearly technically possible to disguise or in large part cover up or camouflage cameras and other equipment, including signs which advertise their existence, it is notable that such directions are not followed. Plainly, to pursue these directions would significantly detract from the deterrent effect and potential of surveillance systems, and minimise or remove its visual availability.

Effecting Behavioural Modification Through the Visibility of Surveillance Equipment

When CCTV equipment is installed, a strategically located sign warning of its existence within the environment can amplify the system's visual availability. This is cogently illustrated by figure 6 in which the bold warning sign is located mid way up a scaffold supporting a CCTV camera, lighting and other equipment. The CCTV equipment is on private property behind a bright red fence and plainly designed to be seen and serve as a deterrent. Figure 13 is a close up of the warning sign, which informs of continuous recording.

In the British Isles, figure 9 is a now widely used pictorial symbol which informs the passing public of camera surveillance. On public highways in particular, CCTV and "Gatso" equipment is much used, as illustrated by figure 2. Pictorial signs such as figure 9 are located at regular intervals along a stretch of highway to remind drivers that aspects of their behaviour are under surveillance. The pictorial symbol shown in figure 9 is used in conjunction with warning signs such as the one shown in figure 10. Figure 10 is distinct from figure 9 in so far as it supplements the image with language, informing us that traffic signal and speed cameras are in operation. In contrast to figure 9, figure 10 is a large sign which is displayed in a location where it is designed to be seen by the majority of those travelling through the area. Drivers entering an area where speed cameras are apparently in operation seem to employ the documentary method in their practical reasoning to guide their in - transit behaviour , reading the signs in conjunction with other information such as cameras as in figure 2, and the practices of other drivers etc.

Figure 9

Figure 10

The signs and recording equipment revealed in figures 9, 10 and 2, serve to monitor the speed at which drivers proceed in a zone in which specified speed restrictions are in force. The surveillance equipment also records the behaviour of vehicles at traffic signals, including failing to stop, stopping too late, departing too early, ignoring filter lights or whatever. The degree to which a particular installation of surveillance equipment and warning signs is visually available is of direct significance for the system's deterrent potential, the visual availability of items of material culture having practical consequences for behaviour. Thus, a level of social control is effected.

Police "Gatso" speed cameras and their attendant warning signs are expensive, but highly profitable systems to install. Government statistics for mid 1994 estimated that speed cameras earned the treasury in excess of one million pounds a month, and had the potential to earn far more. In addition, it was estimated that their existence significantly reduced accidents to persons and vehicles within a specified area, thus further saving resources, including emergency services, public medicine and private insurance etc (The Daily Telegraph August 22, 1994 p. 2). Indeed, speed cameras had proved so successful that by the end of 1995, advertisements were appearing in the press which employed the pictorial symbol from figure 9 to promote the sale of a form of mobility insurance for drivers who feared the possibility of disqualification from driving. It is thus likely that surveillance on public highways has a distinct deterrent effect on the behaviour of motorists. In certain instances, these effects can be very distinct and marked, indeed, as the following report illustrates. Under the headline "Speeding driver lassoed spy camera", the news item informs us that "A speeding motorist who realised that he had been caught on a police camera leapt from his car, lassoed the camera, tied the rope to his bumper and drove off, according to police," resulting in 20,000 worth of damage to the system (The Times May 17, 1997 p. 3). Clearly, inanimate items of material culture such as cameras combined with warning signs and other paraphernalia, can exert significant effects on the behaviour of persons. Such effects can range from the system acting as a form of social control, directing people to behave in certain law abiding ways, to inducing them to break into an uncontrollable rage and destroy a camera. (Kitchen 1994).

Signs that Inform about Surveillance

As a body of data, figures 9 to 14 serve as illustrations of publicly displayed signs that warn of the operation of surveillance systems within the immediate area. We now consider aspects of how they function. Figure 11 employs the standard, pictorial, symbolic illustration of a camera as displayed in figure 9. In this instance however, it supplements the information with a statement of location, port of Dover, and an explanation in English and French of the purpose of the installation of the surveillance equipment. We are reassuringly informed that, "For your safety and security, video - linked cameras maintain constant surveillance". In a similar manner, figure 12 shows a sign at the entrance to a bank, informing and reassuring us: "Security notice: camera surveillance systems in operation". The orderly and reflexively accountable character of the seen world is locally produced as a consequence of persons doing interpretive work involving looking, seeing and categorising as forms of practical action. The situations of daily life have a practical core, their visual and material contents impinging upon social action. If the signs shown in figures 11 and 12 are designed (at least in part) to reassure persons using the facilities that the surveillance systems are installed with their welfare and safety in mind, there is another category of sign which serves as a direct warning only. Figures 13 and 14 operate fundamentally as warning signs to persons in the vicinity that video surveillance systems are in operation. In figure 13, the sign is attached to a scaffolding which is adorned with barbed wire, on top of which is mounted a video surveillance camera and lighting. In the case of non public or private spaces such as that depicted in figure 13, the sign also implicitly informs that this is private property, Keep Out. Figure 14 is interesting in so far as it also shows in the top righthand corner a burglar alarm, which additionally serves to warn off any criminals. To this extent, CCTV equipment, warning signs and burglar alarms are all items of material culture which serve a purpose within crime prevention techniques, and operate to best advantage when they are distinctly visually available, and operating in combination.

Figure 11

Figure 12

Figure 13

Figure 14

As Schwartz and Jacobs have argued, warning signs are relatively common socio - cultural products, and both written and pictorial symbolic signs can warn about a range of matters (Schwartz and Jacobs 1979 ). In the case of warning signs informing of CCTV systems, the signs, the cameras and other hardware such as camera mounting poles, scaffolding, lighting and the like are visually available and serve to inform people who enter the vicinity. The strong suggestion is communicated that they should behave in a law abiding manner, as aspects of their behaviour will probably be recorded. Signs that include writing are an economical and relatively concise means of communicating a warning, and persons who read them are fore warned. Installing CCTV equipment and warning signs prominently within the visual field relies on their visual availability to render them noticeable. When they enter an environment which contains surveillance equipment, persons engage in practical reasoning. They are made aware that being in this location, they can see and be seen and that, significantly, aspects of their actions are likely recorded.

For persons who enter an environment in which signs supplement CCTV and "Gatso" equipment , a considerable proportion of the interpretive work is carried out on their behalf, and underlined by the signs placed prominently in the visual field. In such contexts, aspects of the sense making which cultural members would routinely embark upon as they see the cameras and other equipment, is carried out for them by the signs, as illustrated by figures 9 to 14. A central purpose of signs, is to draw some states of affairs to a viewer's attention. The routine reading of signs comprises part of the practical, reasoning work involved in making one's way around social environments. Indeed, written and or pictorial signs amount to a taken for granted feature of the public and to a lesser extent private domains of many cultures, and they are there for an informative purpose.

Sharrock and Anderson's analysis of a collection of hospital directional signs is, in certain respects, illuminating concerning the use of signs more generally (Sharrock and Anderson 1979). Within hospitals, signs serve the purpose of finding one's way, and making directional sense. Following directional signs is an embedded and contextualised practical activity. As Sharrock and Anderson argue, "We find a sense for the signs by finding a function for them to perform", in much the manner that was sketched above for the signs informing of CCTV systems (Sharrock and Anderson 1979 p. 86). What then is the likely function of the signs, figures 9 to 14? A major purpose of these signs is evidently to inform and warn persons who enter the vicinity of the existence of surveillance systems, and to indicate that they are at risk of aspects of their behaviour being recorded. Without the supplement of signs, persons within an environment with surveillance equipment would need to be sufficiently mindful of its existence in order to notice it and act accordingly. At the technological level, it is now increasingly feasible for surveillance equipment to be designed and manufactured in compact and miniaturised unobtrusive forms which are less visually available and likely to be noticed by persons entering an environment. It is however evident from current practice within the industry that for most public uses, these developments are not being pursued and that the systems currently used are designed to be seen. Designers of surveillance systems hence rely upon their visual availability. In this respect, manufacturing bulky surveillance equipment confers the advantage of self advertising the system's existence. In the case of the surveillance equipment shown in figures 5 to 7, when in the vicinity, it is difficult not to notice it, and such noticing will have an immediate consequence for practical reasoning. Such noticing can be underlined and made easier by strategically located information signs, as in figures 9 to 14. For persons with sight, much of life in natural and social environments involves continuously monitoring what they see, and drawing the relevant inferences from appearances.


It has been argued that in recent years there has been a significant and rapidly expanding development and employment of surveillance technologies in public use. CCTV systems and "Gatso" speed cameras comprise technologically sophisticated items of material culture which have the ability to effect surveillance by recording aspects of the behaviour of persons and vehicles. The palpable, material character of CCTV and "Gatso" systems, has been explored, and it has been suggested that such items of material culture exhibit a visual availability, they are there to be seen. Consideration has been given to aspects of how the presence of CCTV systems, "Gatso" speed cameras and related equipment including information signs have consequences for the in situ, practical actions of people. While the current level of development of the technology of public surveillance including CCTV systems and "Gatso" speed cameras can only cover limited spatial areas, within these constraints, they have the potential to effect the practical actions of persons who enter these environments. Items of material culture and the socio legal systems which back them up thus have an ability to modify the behaviour of persons. Within the existent discourse of social science, such matters are to different degrees accessed by the analytical frameworks of social control, surveillance and social order. Clearly this is a fertile area for future research and the empirical potential is vast, ranging from ethnomethodological studies of police work to studies of technological development.


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