Sarah Brayne, University of Texas, Austin
Title: Institutional Legibility: Data-Intensive Surveillance, Individual Outcomes, and Group Disparities
Abstract: In this talk, I examine the power of data-intensive surveillance to influence individual trajectories, population-level disparities, and inequalities long important to sociologists. As I demonstrate, surveillance influences outcomes through a process of making individuals legible to the state—that is, expanding the depth and breadth of the state’s capacity to “know” its population. Building a theory of institutional legibility, I leverage two empirical cases. The first draws on ethnographic and interview-based research conducted within the Los Angeles Police Department to understand the social process of data-intensive surveillance. I reveal how the police leverage predictive analytics and new surveillance technologies to allocate resources and codify risk, shifting discretion to earlier, less visible parts of the policing process. The second case seeks to understand the ambivalent role of the criminal legal system in tethering individuals to the state. I use demographic methods to analyze the impact of exposure to incarceration on life expectancy, finding it plays an underexamined role in shaping population-level racial disparities in mid-life mortality. Taken together, this research provides key insights into the conditions and consequences by which the state—and increasingly private actors—render populations knowable (and thus governable), and how this process has been transformed through mass digitization and mass incarceration.