I am a Professor of Sociology at Queen’s University, where I direct the Surveillance Studies Centre and hold a Queen’s Research Chair in Surveillance Studies. I am also cross-appointed as a Professor in the Queen’s Faculty of Law.
I was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, and received a B.Sc. and Ph.D. in social science and history at the University of Bradford in Yorkshire, UK, which fueled my fascination with the driving forces and social consequences of some major transformations of the modern world.
My early work wrestled with historical, theoretical and conceptual issues in the social sciences, in particular their relation to religious and Christian commitments, a theme that still runs strongly through my work.
I am best known for my work in Surveillance Studies, and have developed key concepts in the field, such as "social sorting." I have also taught and researched in the areas of information society, globalization, secularization, and postmodernity. I am the author, co-author, editor or co-editor of 29 books.
I am a former co-editor of the journal Surveillance & Society and an Associate Editor of The Information Society and am on the international editorial board of a number of other academic journals. Since 2000 I have led a series of team projects; currently, “Big Data Surveillance” (2015-2020). I am also on the international advisory boards of other major projects in Surveillance Studies.
I have held visiting appointments in a number of universities including Auckland, Bir Zeit, Edinburgh, Leeds, Melbourne, Sydney, Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo, the Centre for Social and Economic Change, Bangalore, and the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris. I have also encouraged surveillance research initiatives and groups around the world, especially in Israel/Palestine and the Middle East, Japan, and Latin America.
Surveillance Studies has been my major research area for the past 25 years and more. I bring a sociological perspective to bear on the issues raised by personal data processing in a database-dependent world. My surveillance interests include border and airport controls, social media, organizational routines, video camera surveillance, citizen registration and identification systems and social media. My concerns include, prominently, the social sorting capacities of contemporary surveillance, and popular participation in surveillance in everyday life, along with an exploration of their ethics and politics.
From the mid-1980s, my broad concerns prompted a critical examination of the much-hyped ‘microelectronics revolution’ that gave way to the so-called ‘information society.’ In the 1990s, I focused my analyses on the social origins, incidence and consequences of processing personal data, arguing that surveillance has become a major dimension of modernity in its own right. This aspect of my research has expanded considerably, especially since 9/11, and involves extensive collaboration with colleagues and students. Surveillance is a globalized phenomenon, and my work focuses increasingly on the global south and on encouraging the development of Surveillance Studies networks around the world.
From 2008-2010 I was a Canada Council Killam Research Fellow, investigating the current rise of national ID card systems in a cross-national comparative perspective. The work complements some of my other studies of surveillance and contributes to both empirical and theoretical understanding of contemporary smart, biometrics-based ID systems.
My recent works include Surveillance After Snowden (Polity 2015) The Culture of Surveillance (Polity; forthcoming 2018), and I am working on a primer entitled Surveillance: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford) and a book on surveillance ethics, The Eye of God: Surveillance Ethics for a Secular Age (Oxford).
While I am best known for my work in Surveillance Studies, my research and writing span several other areas as well. Starting in Historical Sociology in the 1970s, my early work was on secularization processes – and the critique of some key theories -- in the modern world. Today, I try to keep abreast of debates over the "post-secular" with an emphasis on the work of Charles Taylor. Following this, my main research directions explore other forms of social transformation that are both characteristic and constitutive of modernity. This understanding of the secular also informs my work on surveillance ethics.
Surveillance Studies Centre
As the Director of the Surveillance Studies Centre, I work with a multidisciplinary and international team on several related initiatives from primary research to theoretical development as well as associated media, policy and advocacy activities. The current team project is on “Big Data Surveillance” (2015-2020) and is funded by the SSHRC Partnership Grant program. It has streams on security, marketing, and governance and the academic team works in conjunction with privacy commissions and NGOs. This offers opportunities for a number of PhD students and postdoctoral fellows within Sociology and related disciplines.