Prisoners’ view of surveillance technologies in Austria and in Portugal

This guest post comes from the latest addition to the Action –Portugal — and from the newest member of our Management Committee, Helen Machado.

I am a professor of Sociology at the University of Minho and a researcher at the Centre for Social Studies at the University of Coimbra in Portugal. In my capacity as a recent new arrival to the working group “Experiencing supervision”, I am trying to catch up with the group’s work. I was impressed by the amount of work already done in terms of collective publications and creative thinking about methodologies and comparative analysis in different national jurisdictions.

Following Fergus McNeill’s kind suggestion, I thought that a good way of introducing myself to the Action would be to describe part of my work with prisoners and their respective views about surveillance technologies. Together with the political scientist Professor Barbara Prainsack (King’s College, London) I conducted a comparative study involving in-depth interviews with a total of 57 prisoners in two prisons in Austria and in three prisons in Portugal. Results of this comparative study were published as a book, Tracing Technologies. Prisoners’ views in the Era of CSI (Ashgate, 2012).

The main focus of this book were prisoners’ understandings of technologies used in the context of criminal investigation and criminal justice (‘tracing technologies’), including DNA analysis, fingerprints, photos, CCTV cameras and any other data retrieved from the body). Nevertheless, our research required us to seek additional information from practitioners in the criminal justice system. We interviewed attorneys, public prosecutors, police officers and criminal investigators who provided technical clarifications about legislation, criminal investigation and trial procedures. These informants also provided valuable information about the role that forensic identification technologies play in their practices, and about the use of police archives and databases containing various sorts of data – from DNA profiles and samples, to criminal psychological profiles, photos and biographical details about active criminals. We also collected and analysed documents and media coverage of criminal cases that had a high exposure to the public and which involved a relevant role of DNA technologies.

There were many challenges that Barbara and I had to face in this adventure of doing comparative work. The first challenge was to deal with the fact that we were trying to conduct comparative research on two case studies which represent two very, very different contexts for the forensic uses of DNA technologies in particular: One country, Austria, having established one of the world’s first DNA databases in the mid 1990s, and the other one, Portugal, having only recently established such a tool for criminal investigation. These two national case studies also presented deep differences in the discursive, political, operational, and also historical contexts, in which forensic DNA technologies and criminal databases are utilised by law enforcement agencies. Socio-economic parameters, such as unemployment rates and GPD (Gross Domestic Product), also highlight huge differences between the two countries.

Despite the obvious differences between the two national case studies, there were also significant similarities, especially when we compare these countries to systems outside of continental Europe: Both Austria and Portugal are countries where prisons are state-run, and market forces do not play a large role in service provision (also in the context of criminal investigation  provision of forensic expertise is largely restricted to state-run or state-affiliated institutions). Moreover, neither in Portugal nor in Austria does crime dominate public media and public policy agendas to the extent that it is the case in the UK or in the USA, for example. Finally, both Austria and Portugal are countries with a ‘deep state’, without a strong tradition of transparency and openness in policy making, and with informal networks playing a large role in the distribution of political and administrative functions. Similar to many other countries in the world, there is a growing public sentiment in Austria and Portugal about corruption being on the rise, and that anti-corruption measures undertaken by their governments are often not very effective.

Many other challenges besides differences and similarities between the two national cases had to be faced by Barbara and me in writing this book together: not only the traditional headaches of doing comparative work but also language issues. Barbara had the transcription of her interviews in German and I have mine in Portuguese, and we had to resort to English to communicate with each other and to write the book. Many times I felt “lost in translation”.

Perhaps the most prominent challenge that we had to face was to use qualitative methodologies applied to a detailed empirically grounded study. Most of the social sciences comparative work has been done at macro-levels and resorted to quantitative methodologies, which helps with the systematization of the analysis and discussion of the results. However, our choice to use a “grounded theory approach” – by which the objective is to raise new concepts from the empirical reality under observation – turned out to be our best ally. Without the shackles of a large theoretical apparatus and analytical model defined a priori we were able to reflect on our data with greater open-mindedness and flexibility.

One of the biggest lessons I learned from this comparative work was humility – something that I suppose is very similar to what Christine has described as one of the “pains and sorrows” of doing comparative work. Perhaps due to the naivety of a beginner in making national comparative analysis by using a qualitative methodology, I was very surprised by the fact that at the end we found more similarities than differences in the narratives of the Austrian and the Portuguese prisoners. We are very easily tempted to look at our surrounding and familiar contexts as having a sort of idiosyncratic nature. I dare say that in comparative work we risk finding more insights of a cross-cultural and transnational relevance, rather than being generated by a configuration of national idiosyncrasies.

When embarking on a new adventure of doing comparative work in the context of the working group “Experiencing supervision” I will have a new ground to test if my theory is right or not. I look forward to it!



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