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Technology, work and surveillance:organisational goals, privacy and resistance

Principal Researcher

Professor David Mason
Department of Sociology
University of Plymouth
Drake Circus
Plymouth PL4 8AA
+44 (0)1752 233232


Professor Graham Button
Xerox Research Centre Europe

Dr Gloria Lankshear
University of Plymouth

Ms Sally Coates
University of Plymouth

Research Period
1 October 1997 to
30 September 2000
Aims and Objectives
Project Design


Many of the technologies now used in the workplace are able to keep detailed records on the behaviour of employees. Often this is not their primary purpose but is a by-product of systems designed to assist such tasks as stock control, re-ordering of materials or the planning of work flows. The surveillance capacity of such systems clearly raises questions about the implications for employees' privacy. Many discussions of these issues rely upon assumptions drawn from theoretical debates about the nature of the employment relationship. They assume that employees always experience them as an intrusion into their privacy and that they respond by trying to undermine the technology in some way. However, little research has been conducted into what employees think, how they respond or what they see as acceptable and unacceptable aspects of modern electronic technologies.

Aims and Objectives

The aims of the project are to investigate:

  • how surveillance impacts on, and is framed by, the social relations of work
  • how employees define the boundaries of legitimate and illegitimate surveillance, particularly in relation to issues of privacy
  • how employees perceive and mobilise techniques of control and/or resistance in the context of definitions of legitimacy.

The objective of the project is to use field-work investigations in order to:

  • inform sociological debates over surveillance and privacy
  • show how technological innovation can be informed by grounded sociological investigations.

Project Design

The methods chosen reflect the need to go beyond theoretical speculation in order to examine the extent to which the responses of both employers and employees depend upon their situationally specific perspectives. In order properly to capture the impacts of surveillance and surveillance-capable technologies, as well as the perceptions and reactions of employees, the project comprises in-depth qualitative case studies of actual work situations.

The case study approach entails several elements and stages. First, an initial period of familiarisation involves interviewing key personnel and documentary analysis. Second, a series of semi-structured interviews is conducted with managerial staff and employees, designed to elucidate perceptions of the nature, purposes and utility of technological innovations. These, inter alia, map the boundaries of what is considered legitimate surveillance and what are the privacy expectations of those concerned. The third phase of the research comprises observational studies of selected work situations. Ethnographic techniques are utilised to uncover and understand the actual work practices that have been developed in the context of perceived surveillance and surveillance potential.


The research addresses the important question of how personal privacy can be preserved in the electronic age. It also has lessons for those who design and develop technologies with a surveillance capability. Without a clear understanding of the likely reactions of employees, they are unable to develop systems that achieve organisational goals without transgressing the boundaries of legitimate surveillance and giving rise to resistance or subversion. This could help to ensure that workplaces become more productive without generating unnecessary conflict and resistance.

Visit the project web site


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Contents current at 8th February 2000