Posted in Conferences/events

Surveillance and religion workshop

This week I had the opportunity to join the first workshop of the Surveillance & Religion Network, organised by Eric Stoddart of the University of St. Andrews and Susanne Wigorts Yngvesson of Stockholm School of Theology. The ‘Surveillance, Religion, and Security – Workshop One’ took place in Birmingham from 17-19 October and was the first of several events for which the organisers secured funding from the AHRC.

My PhD research broadly deals with two areas: corpus linguistic methods (how can we identify patterns of meaning in a discourse?) and their application to surveillance discourse (how is the concept of surveillance discussed in different domains of public discourse?). In the first two years of my PhD I spent most time focusing on the methodological concerns. How do I collect relevant texts? How do I need to process these texts? What corpus linguistic methods are out there? How have other researchers applied and developed them? Which methods are most suitable for my project? As I was dealing with these questions I mainly talked to other linguists.

However, I haven’t engaged much with the other relevant group. So, when I saw the CfP for the first workshop from the Surveillance & Religion Network, I considered this a good chance to initiate some dialogue with surveillance studies scholars. They, I thought, would be more interested in the theme rather than the method and would therefore be able to give me more feedback with that regard.

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This photo of the refreshments provided at the workshop, in my view, is a good representation of the atmosphere throughout the event: friendly and familiar (the cookies were actually really good!)

Once the event had started, I was happy to discover that my nervousness to attend the event as a linguist was unnecessary. The atmosphere at the workshop was very friendly indeed. Attendees came from very mixed backgrounds: academics (sociology, theology, education, archaeology, linguistics), practicing clerics and even police.

We thus had an insightful programme full of different perspectives on surveillance. My personal highlight was the public lecture by Professor David Lyon, the director of the Surveillance Studies Centre at Queens University, Canada. The lecture was entitled ‘Why surveillance is a religious issue’.

Professor Lyon emphasised one point that was also voiced throughout other sessions in the programme: the increasing ‘surveillance culture’ promotes a climate of suspicion which can only be overcome through a promotion of trust. In Lyon’s view, while surveillance practices can reinforce the marginality of minorities, religious institutions are in a position that allows them to promote trust and hope. Lyon was particularly keen on promoting the idea that we should not give up on our agency, which, as he argues, is in line with the teachings of Abrahamic religions. Indeed, there are small steps we can all take in promoting trust by, for example, campaigning for less surveillance at our workplaces or encouraging our software-developing friends to collect less consumer data. The public lecture was recorded and the audio will be made available soon. (I will post the link here once it is live.)

I have just given the example from David Lyon here, but throughout the workshop we also heard about many ways in which religion and surveillance can be related. For instance, the metaphor of the ‘divine gaze’: how God, in Abrahamic religions, watches over the people. My own contribution was, obviously, linguistic in nature. I presented work related to my PhD thesis: a corpus linguistic analysis of religious themes in surveillance discourse in the academic journal Surveillance & Society and in a collection of blogs. I enjoyed meeting this group of scholars and practitioners who share an interest in surveillance and its social consequences. They also reassured me that my research is of interest for them, as there is not much dialogue between surveillance studies and linguistics.

If you are curious about the relationship between surveillance and religion in particular, you might be interested in the next event by the Surveillance & Religion Network. The ‘Religions Consuming Surveillance – Workshop Two‘ is taking place from March 20 – 22 in Edinburgh and the deadline for the CfP is 15 December. Should you have any experiences related to the theme of surveillance & religion or interdisciplinary encounters, I’d be curious to hear about these in the comments!

Update 26 October: I just found another blog post about Professor Lyon’s public lecture by the organiser of the Open Rights Group Birmingham, Francis Clarke. His attendance (and participation in the question session) is a good example of how academics and public groups, particularly activists, can engage with one another.

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