Discretion in the surveillance state

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Practitioner discretion is a necessary corollary of uncertainty across ‘the social state’ and the means via which professionals exercise both function and authority. But what happens to this discretion as knowledge and understanding increase and uncertainty declines? Changes in the extent and capabilities of surveillance technologies hold significant potential (as well as possible pitfalls) to enhance the accuracy and effectiveness of professional practitioner judgments and decision making. In this chapter I review debates regarding the role of practitioner discretion across the contested arena of the social state by examining the ways in which technological change has enabled the development and deployment of surveillance as a strategy of government. My central argument is that the use of surveillance by broadly defined state actors to generate data, information, evidence or knowledge pertaining to ‘social’ questions and problems is hampered by inherent epistemological issues when applied to the judgments and decisions of practitioners. In theory, at least, knowledge generated via surveillance enhances the ability of state actors, including professional practitioners, to make the ‘right’ decision, by strengthening the robustness of the knowledge on which such judgments are made, thus promoting security in its broadest sense. Technological changes, however, are occurring in a context in which the decisions we all make are subject to intense scrutiny and critique, while concerns regarding harm, risk and security have become conflated, and so their character reflects these concerns. I draw on the notion of bio-politics to help make sense of how shifts in the means and extent of surveillance are impacting on practitioner discretion, situating current concerns within enduring debates regarding the proper role and limits of the state. As an analytic frame, this enables us to trace shifts in state practices and the knowledge which underpins them, as well as the practical and political value attached to professional expertise.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationPalgrave Handbook of Discretion
Subtitle of host publicationThe Quest for Controlled Freedom
EditorsTony Evans, Peter Hupe
Place of PublicationBasingstoke
Number of pages26
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 2019

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