Synoptic Surveillance and Crime Control

Thomas Mathiesen (1997) posits the concept of the ‘synopticon’, where widespread surveillance allows mutual monitoring. This contrasts with Foucault’s panopticon. Synoptic surveillance, exemplified by public monitoring and media scrutiny of politicians, may deter deviant behavior. However, classic law enforcement can impede bottom-up scrutiny. The implications for societal control and elite compliance are significant.

Thomas Mathiesen (1997) argues that control through surveillance has developed beyond Foucault’s panopticon model. The panopticon allows the few to monitor the many, but today the media increasingly allow the many to monitor the few. Mathiesen argues that in late modernity, there is a significant increase in surveillance from below, which he calls the ‘synopticon’ – where everybody watches everybody else.

An example of synoptic surveillance is where the public monitor each other, as with video cameras mounted on dash boards or cycle helmets to collect evidence in the event of accidents. This may warn other road users that their behaviour is being monitored and result in them exercising self-discipline. For an example of synoptic surveillance in action see below, and you might also like to check out this Facebook page devoted to people caught doing illegal things on camera.

Synoptic Surveillance: Greater public control over the powerful?

The synopticon suggests that ordinary citizens might have more power to ‘control the controllers’.

Increased surveillance from below provides greater scope for ordinary people to monitor and control agents of social control. Two ways in which we have seen this include:

  • More public surveillance of the police, through Body Worn Videos (BWVs) for example.
  • More public scrutiny of politicians, mainly through media scrutiny.

Synoptic Surveillance: Public Control of the Police?

Two ways in which the police have come under greater surveillance include body Worn Cameras (BWVs) being widespread. We also see more members of the public filming the police at protests or when the police engage in ‘routine’ stop and searches.

Two examples of where public surveillance of the police had dramatic consequences were the cases of Rodney King in 1991 and George Floyd in

In 1991 Rodney King was stopped by the police for drink driving in Los Angeles. He didn’t try to resist arrest but was badly beaten up by four police officers at the scene of the crime. This was filmed by a member of the public and sent to a news station. The four officers went to trial, but got off, and this sparked the 1992 Los Angeles Riots.

Fast forward 30 years and in 2020 George Floyd was murdered by a police officer kneeling on his neck for almost 10 minutes in Minneapolis. This was again widely filmed and distributed. In this case the officer went down for 20 years for manslaughter.

If we take these two case studies together then potentially it seems that synoptic surveillance has become normalised and is today more powerful in controlling the police than it was in the 1990s.

The public increasingly film the police at protests

Activists now routinely film the police at protests. This should work to prevent police brutaility.

However, this bottom-up scrutiny can still be stopped by more classic law enforcement such as the police confiscating cameras from ‘citizen journalists’.

Synoptic Surveillance and Public Control of Politicians?

Thompson (2000) argues that powerful groups such as politicians fear that the media’s surveillance of them may uncover damaging information about them, and this acts as a form of social control over their activities.

Chris Huhne (M.P) and partner Vicky Pryce – Caught out by Surveillance Technology and jailed for 8 months in 2013

Discussion Question: Does fear of surveillance and thus fear of getting caught and publicly shamed prevent politicians from doing deviant and criminal acts?

Discussion Questions:

Are people more likely to obey the law because of synoptic surveillance?

Does the increase in synoptic surveillance mean elites in particular are more likely to obey the law?

Signposting/ Find out More

This material is relevant to the Crime and Deviance module within A-level sociology.

Thomas Mathiesen (1997) The Viewer Society: Foucault’s Panopticon Model Revisited (Behind a pay wall because Sage clearly doesn’t support free access to knowledge.)