Surveillance in Practice: Operators’ Collective Interpretation of CCTV Images

B. Heebels, I. van Aalst

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


CCTV surveillance is a cultural practice and collective effort. CCTV not only involves a technical assemblage that is used to discipline the surveilled, it is also a social assemblage in which the informal practices of operators play a major role in the multiple interpretations of images. This paper provides insights into the daily work practices and discourses of CCTV operators and their supervisors through observations of and interviews in the control room of public CCTV surveillance in Rotterdam. By providing a better understanding of the role of people in socio-technical assemblages, this paper contributes to the discussion on human mediation in computerized networks. The paper contributes to the expanding literature on surveillance as a cultural practice by combining insights on social sorting with insights on collective evaluation of unfolding situations—i.e., how group dynamics within the control room influence how people are “judged.” Building on Goffman’s frame analysis, the paper reveals the crucial role of talk and humor in re-performing what happens on the streets as well as evaluating situations and the people watched. Moreover, it discusses how these collective re-performances of what is being watched both reproduce and reshape “othering” practices within the control room. The paper shows how humorous utterances play an important part in overcoming hierarchy and collectively managing emotions, and explores how this humor influences profiling on the basis of bodily appearance.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)312-327
JournalSurveillance & Society
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2020


  • CCTV
  • Discipline
  • Human Mediation
  • Goffman
  • Frame Analysis
  • Humor
  • Emotions


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