Ph.D candidate, Sociology
Using a surveillance studies lens to look at the South African credit card economy
by Meredith Dault
June 04, 2011
PhD student Sachil Singh initially came to Queen's for a single reason: David Lyon. "He is the global icon in surveillance studies," Singh explains with a smile. "Queen's is really a focal point of this academic field. So to be studying here, and to be supervised by the most influential figure in surveillance studies, is just incredible."
Singh, who is from Durban, South Africa, had followed Dr. Lyon's work, and was thrilled at the idea of being able to work with him directly in the Department of Sociology. "My background is in economic history and development studies," Singh says, describing an interest in the relationship between technology and society. "In my MA thesis, I focused on the political economy of the internet and cell phones in an African context."
For his PhD research, Singh is using a surveillance studies lens to look at the South African credit card economy. "I'm looking at the construction of rhetorics of consumer empowerment in South African society. More specifically, I'm examining how these rhetorics are marketed by those that seek to profit from consumer surveillance and the extent to which the rhetorics are internalized by prospective and current credit card holders," he says.
Though credit cards may not be the first thing that springs to mind when one thinks of consumer surveillance, they're potentially more insidious than many people realize. "If you shop using a credit card, you leave a trail of your tastes and preferences," says Singh. "What many credit card companies and/or issuing banks do is access your information and sell it to other agencies." But Singh says that one's trail is also used to do targeted advertising.
Singh recently had the chance to investigate another avenue of consumer surveillance when he took part in the Surveillance Studies Summer Seminar in May. Held on alternate years, the seminar brings together a small group of international graduate students, post-doctoral students and junior faculty (this year included 22 participants from 16 countries) who then spend five days workshopping ideas together and attending lectures.
Singh teamed up with five others (from the United States, Italy, France, and Switzerland) to work on a project looking at energy consumption in households in the United Kingdom. "We were looking at the ways in which energy providers suggest to households that they should consume in certain ways," he says. "So when you get your statement of energy consumption (in the U.K), it will tell you how much energy you've used. But it will also say how much people are using in similarly sized households. So the questions become what kind of surveillance is happening on the household, and why is it being performed?"
Singh says the workshop's primary benefit is being able to interact and share ideas with participants from around the world. "It's also about getting insight into this emerging field in different countries," he says. "It allows me to draw comparisons between my own work, and what others are doing." He adds that working on his group's project helped open his eyes about the scope of surveillance studies. "It really added a dimension to my understanding of how surveillance studies can be performed," says Singh.
Though the seminar is behind him, Singh says he and his working group hope to be able to continue their project. "Our hope is to take it beyond just the seminar and to actually publish a paper," he says enthusiastically, describing the growth of a scholarly global network. "If we go ahead and create longstanding academic relationships, I think it will definitely benefit us."
Now that Singh, who hopes to graduate from Queen's by 2014, has completed his required course work he's ready to turn his attention to his thesis. "I'll use the summer to get started with that, and of course, to train in the martial arts intensely and with great discipline," he says optimistically. Though he hasn't yet solidified a plan for after graduation, he says he knows he'd like a life in academia.
Singh also holds a Second Degree black belt in karate, an art which he has been learning for 20 years. "The Queen's Karate Club and its instructors have definitely helped to make Kingston more of a home for me." Singh is actively involved in the Club, and will commence as its incoming Vice-President in September 2011.
For now, he's enjoying the life he's found in Kingston, explaining that he particularly enjoys the limestone buildings. Singh says that on the day following the conclusion of the Surveillance Studies Summer Seminar, David Lyon took the international group on a walking tour of the campus and the city. "It was nice to hear about the histories of various buildings, and of different parts of Kingston. I like the sense of history that Queen's has."