Saturday, April 6, 2013

PhD project: Laboratories of Crime Governance

In 2009 I started a PhD project  called 'Laboratories of crime governance: Experimenting surveillance in everyday life'. For this study I did ethnographic research on three pilot studies in the Netherlands. A new surveillance technology was introduced in an everyday policing practice in each of these pilots. My question is how experimenting with these new technologies affects crime governance, and vice versa.

I followed ticket inspectors in public transport to understand the use of synthetic DNA; I sat in a police control room to see how a technology for the acoustic detection of aggression was used; and I worked in a municipal crime policy department to learn about the use of data mining.

In the end (hopefully in 2013), I hope to be able to contribute to the literature about the following concepts: real-life experiments, surveillance and crime governance (in terms of authorities, the surveillance object, norms and governable space).

Some, very preliminary, and somewhat disorderly, outcomes:

Experiments are common in Dutch local crime control; they have become part of the repertoire of policy officials. Pilot studies may serve to test a technology but they can also have a demonstrative function, for instance be part of a media campaign.

My case studies did not introduce spectacular changes. In fact, they were labelled as ‘failed’, and they slowly died out.

Nevertheless, they performed a certain type of politics: in- and excluding local actors and practices from policing methods. For instance, in a pilot study on the acoustic detection of aggression, barking dogs and bus horns were excluded from aggression signals. These in- and exclusions were part of the changes in crime control we know so well, such as privatization and the deployment of ever more risk-based strategies.

Aggression is an important topic in the context of Dutch crime control and it was an explicit concern in two of my case studies. In these cases, however, aggression only existed as a somewhat clearly defined and delineated object in policy documents. Policemen and private security officers rarely referred to aggression; they worked with terms such as violence, insult, domestic violence and resistance. Surveillance technologies consequently did not only measure aggression; they introduced it.

Technologies, such as data mining, promise to ‘zoom in’: to see something in greater detail, with higher granularity. To see something closer, however, does not mean seeing the same thing better. In my fieldwork, it involved an effort to create a new target group. Zooming in by data mining was characterized by the visual practice of combining results on screens with other inscriptions, such as paper maps. In addition, it was a storytelling practice in which data mining results were folded in to neighbourhood politics, administrative knowledge and common theories.

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