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Surveillance States: Biometrics from the Border to the Bathroom (HI2H9)

You are being watched and measured. And you are not alone. For over a century, a global web of state, commercial, and individual surveillance has observed and measured an ever-widening variety of bodies, situations, and spaces. As our bodies have become legible to authorities and to ourselves, they have come to serve as identity documents, markers of kinship, and signs of entitlement or otherness. This module will explore the ways in which new ideas, knowledge and technologies have enabled states, societies and individuals to identify and assess their citizens, police their borders, and generate self-knowledge. From the invention of the ‘average man’ in the 19th century to the rise of home DNA testing kits and biometric passports, we will look at what it means to ‘measure up’ in modern society, and ask: how, when and where should our bodies be subjected to measurement, by whom, and for what purposes? Case studies will include fingerprinting, DNA profiling, and the all-too-familiar bathroom scale; others will be selected by students. Read more about our seminar topics here.

SEMINARS: Seminar groups will meet on Thursdays either from 9:00-11:00 or from 11:00-13:00 in FAB 3.25.

MOODLE: This module will use Moodle for a variety of activities -- like picking your student choice elements! -- and Talis for your readings. You will find our Moodle in your dashboards, and here.


10% Participation: This will be assessed through weekly participation in module discussions. Students may request reasonable adjustments if needed (e.g., assessment via written or oral participation only if special/medical circumstances apply). Read more here!

40% Applied Task: All students will identify and ‘curate’ (via a multimedia assignment equivalent to a 1000 word essay) an object or image which exposes or amplifies themes of the module. Required skills for this will be taught in the module, and for more information, see our 'Applied Task' page.

50% 3000 word Essay: Students may choose between writing a policy briefing on a topic related to the module OR a standard academic essay exploring a module topic.

Principal module aims

This module will build on the knowledge and approaches gained in Year One to:

  • Explore the ways in which states, societies and individuals have defined and observed 'normality', ‘health’, ‘disability’, and ‘abnormality’ in modern history;
  • Analyse how technologies of measurement and surveillance help to define both states and citizenship;
  • Examine how policy and politics respond to innovations in biomedical and technological understandings of our bodies;
  • Train you to use material and/or visual culture as well as textual sources from across science, technology, and medicine; and
  • Introduce you to key themes in the histories of medicine, technology, and disability. It will also complement the Year Two Research Project.


Learning outcomes

  • Demonstrate a detailed knowledge of the history of key surveillance technologies and modalities;
  • Analyse and evaluate the impact of measurement on the generation of social and political norms;
  • Identify and evaluate the contributions made by historical and interdisciplinary scholarship to understandings of bodily surveillance as state-making;
  • Locate, research, and analyse physical objects and/or visual representations as primary source material to generate new ideas and interpretations of the past;
  • Communicate the findings of independent research, adapting it to the needs of diverse audiences (e.g., policy makers, journalists, community members).

A baby's cradle sits beneath a mobile of CCTV cameras, against a background of blue summer skies. The image is a piece of art by Banksy, exhibited in his Croydon pop-up shop GDP in 2019.

(c) Banksy, 'Baby Mobile', 2019.

Module Convenor: Professor Roberta BivinsLink opens in a new window

Office: F3.54

Office Hours: IN PERSON except by prior arrangement.

Tuesdays: 10:00-11:00.

Fridays: 9:30-10:30.

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A 2002 Mark Thomas Transport for London poster featuring a red double-decker bus going over a bridge. The background is a rosy sky full of eyes. The eyes have the London Underground symbol for their pupils. Text extolls the policing and security of the Underground system.

(c) Mark Thomas, Transport for London, 2002

This image is a blueprint showing a male and a female figure, each of which is surrounded by a host of body measurements. It represents the physical statistics of the average American 'Joe' and 'Josephine', and was created for design and technology manufacturers by Henry Dreyfuss Associates in 1959.(c) Henry Dreyfuss Associates, Whitney Library of Design, 1969 (first published 1959)