Theses Doctoral

Notes on the Use of Surveillance in Public Housing

Owens, Lisa

The increasingly widespread use of surveillance as a cornerstone of crime control presents novel challenges to questions about personal autonomy, stigmatization, and the shape of social processes. In New York City, the end of stop-and-frisk policing meant the rise of “omnipresence,” built on a progression of the surveillance infrastructure. For residents of NYCHA public housing developments in New York City, the installation of highly visible surveillance structures provokes questions about the role of surveillance in increasing contact with the criminal justice system, as well about how use of these structures redefines spaces against a background of gentrification, a globalizing real estate market, and unbuffered income stratification.

This project uses ethnographic methods, including interviews and participant observation to explore the phenomenology of social processes undertaken by individuals in relation to surveillance structures and to interrogate the use of surveillance in public housing. Engaging with the work of Bourdieu, Lefebvre, Wacquant, Goffman, and Sassen, the dissertation explores social ordering, stigmatization, norm durability, and place-making among NYCHA residents. The experiences of residents of neighborhoods that are on both sides of the city-wide demographic shifts associated with gentrification are further contrasted, contextualizing their interactions at the macro and micro levels.

At the policy level, NYCHA housing becomes a focus of crime control measures as if containing public housing will address the root causes of crime. On the ground, however, cameras do not work to prevent crime, even when they are in good repair. Lights may make some individuals feel safer walking through courtyards late at night, but those same individuals fear that danger is just beyond the reach of the lights in the stairwells or playgrounds. If the cameras and lights fail to allay the fears of those in public housing, if their experiences with the system of surveillance have proven unsuccessful in preventing crime, giving the feeling of safety, or helping to solve crime, what is their purpose? This study posits that these structures are a spectacle. They are structures heavily laden with symbolism that reassure non-residents and residents alike of the neutralization of NYCHA residents. This symbolic dynamic ultimately stigmatizes NYCHA residents and pushes them further towards the systemic edge.

Among the theoretical implications of the dissertation’s conclusions are an enhanced understanding of the connections between the persistence of social inequality, the “terra non grata” of certain urban spaces, and the dismantling of the social welfare state. The practical implications of this work are significant and add to discourses around the function of technology in the creation of new types of barriers.

Geographic Areas


  • thumnail for Owens_columbia_0054D_16031.pdf Owens_columbia_0054D_16031.pdf application/pdf 1.56 MB Download File

More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Sassen, Saskia
Reich, Adam Dalton
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 28, 2020