Are You Being Watched

Theories of surveillance explained.

Karina Kay
3 min readJun 24, 2022


There are many theories, such as Michel Foucault’s, arguing that we are constantly being watched. Some believe surveillance is a tool of social control and others believe that it is used to oppress particular groups.

Photo by Burst in Pexels

From our phones to security cameras to people around us, there is a sense of paranoia. The fear of being seen doing something wrong or illegal.

These three theories explain the reasons for surveillance, how it came about and how it has changed.

Sovereign versus disciplinary power

Michel Foucault argues that before the 19th century, it was the monarch who had control of people and their bodies. Public executions and visible scars were how people were deterred from committing a crime. This is called sovereign power.

On the other hand, disciplinary power consists of governing the mind and not just the body. Since the 19th century, it is a common practice of disciplining the mind, by making people aware that they are constantly being watched.

Foucault used Bentham’s model of Panopticon to explain the disciplinary power — a design for prison in which each prisoner in their cell is visible to the guards from the central watchtower but the guards are not visible to the prisoners.

This makes the prisoners aware that they could be possibly watched at any point, making them behave at all times. This changes from surveillance to self-surveillance and discipline into self-discipline.

He states that disciplinary power is in every social institution in order to reach every individual.

We are being watched by doctors, social workers, and psychiatrists for any sign of deviant or abnormal behavior. Every action is assessed through the lens of what is seen as normal.

Synoptic surveillance

Norwegian sociologist Thomas Mathiesen (1997), argues that in postmodern society everybody is watching each other, thus changing the societal surveillance structure from a panopticon (top-down approach, watched by social institutions) into a synopticon (watching each other).



Karina Kay

I am a Student and a Freelance Writer. I write about everything from self-improvement to sociological issues and debates. Contact me: