Synopticon Essay

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In contrast to the term panopticon, which is the observation of the many by the few, the term synopticon refers to the observation of the few by the many. Originated by sociologist Thomas Mathiesen, the term is often associated with a number of functions and trends related to the detection of criminal offenses and crime prevention efforts. Examples of this approach include the use of closed-circuit television and cameras as well the existence of crime-based reality television programs. Implications related to the use and perceptions of this approach often include the social construction of crime within society, which may have substantial influence within the context of criminal justice ethics.

Theoretical and Functional Basis

From a theoretical function, the existence of synoptic  measures  related  to the depiction  of crime include (1) the formulation and perception of crimes among the general public, and (2) the depiction of certain crimes (i.e., white-collar crimes, street crimes), which may highlight the relative significance of social factors in relation to allegations and criminal behavior within society. In addition, the use of such measures may afford citizens the opportunity of avoiding locations or circumstances that threaten their safety and well-being. The most common form of the synopticon is the use of closed-circuit television (CCTV), which is used by police and media in an effort to detect and reduce crime. Studies reveal that closed-circuit television devices can be used in a number of positions.

This includes police-driven monitoring, which is considered surveillance from above. The use of these devices by corporate and nongovernmental entities is considered midlevel or surveillance from the middle. Finally, individuals who have specific concerns regarding the existence of crime in certain areas are categorized  as surveillance from below. Regardless of position or perspective, the use of CCTV often stems from collective fears regarding the existence of crime.

Trends and Examples

With regard to trends related to the use of synoptic measures, history has identified a number of factors that have resulted in the diminishing publicity of certain acts of deterrence, such as public executions. These include both religious and social aspects. However, from a contemporary perspective, the depiction of certain crimes has increased. This is especially true in relation to the depiction of crime victims. The purpose associated with this development may include the legitimacy of crime control measures in relation to the protection of the vulnerable within society. Another example which demonstrates the growing influence of synoptic measures includes the growing popularity of the crime-stoppers program, in which citizens are offered cash in exchange for information related to crime. This program has developed in both the United States and abroad through the use of television and Internet advertisement measures.

Examples related to the use of synoptic measures can be found in both historic and contemporary time periods. For instance, amphitheaters in ancient Rome provided opportunities for the public to view offensive behavior within the context of entertainment and competition. In many cases the public use of spectacles was often established by those in power for the purpose of deterring criminal behavior as well as legitimizing their power. From a contemporary perspective, there are a number of public venues that are utilized. This includes the use of newspapers, reality TV shows, and the crime-stoppers program. In fact, some studies reveal that well-known celebrities are now viewed as spectacles of society, especially when they are victims of crime

Impact and Implications

The use of synoptic measures has considerable impact  within  society,  especially  with  respect to the existence of crime and crime prevention efforts. In light of such, individual personalities within certain media outlets such as television are often perceived as credible sources of information. Studies reveal that these individuals are usually popular within society or have certain individual characteristics (i.e., male, Caucasian, etc.). With the increased usage of electronic media, it appears that the growth of spectacles in society has increased as well.

This includes the existence, allegations, and victims of crime. An example of such is the creation of laws named after celebrity victims, such as Meagan’s Law. Research also reveals that the media will often depict certain types of crimes in a unique manner. This includes white-collar offenses such as fraud and embezzlement. Studies reveal that these types of offenses are depicted and possibly perceived as forms of entertainment (infotainment). Regardless of motive and individual perception, the coverage of crime through the mass media is viewed as a means of shaping and controlling the existence of this type of behavior in society.

Advantages and Disadvantages

Advantages related to the use of synoptic measures include how certain types of crime are constructed. The majority of instances in which CCTV is used are associated with the depiction of street crimes against businesses. This may lead to an increase in the use of CCTV devices within certain businesses, especially those located in certain areas (i.e., urban areas). In terms of crime control measures, certain offenses are often exclusively portrayed as a threat to public safety (i.e., street crimes) through the use of CCTV, thus reinforcing the perceived need for conservative crime prevention  efforts such as incapacitation and deterrence.

Disadvantages associated with synoptic efforts include the relative impact of the content  presented in relation to the existence of crime. This includes the media-based control and perception of crime through the presentation of negative stereotypes and fear. Specifically, the increased amount of visible minorities with respect to certain synoptic avenues (i.e., crime stoppers, CCTV) may lead to racial profiling toward certain individuals. This often includes the alleged commission of certain offenses like robberies, and seldom considers the commission of certain crimes related to white-collar or firearm offenses. Research has also examined the process of how images are depicted through the use of synoptic measures. For instance, CCTV images of alleged criminals and crimes are often depicted from a higher viewpoint (i.e., camera angle), which may denote an impression of superiority for the viewer.

In terms of crime prevention, CCTV is not an effective deterrent of crime. In addition, operators of CCTV may fail to notify or gain consent from the individuals  who are depicted  within the images portrayed, leading to a host of possible disadvantages. Moreover, celebrities  and individuals of influence in society may encounter the detrimental aspects of their fame and recognition  at the expense of victimization. Finally, media depictions of crime may have an influence in relation to pretrial perceptions with respect to potential jurors, which may have an impact upon jury selection and location of the trial proceedings in the criminal justice system.


  1. Doyle, Aaron. “Revisiting the Synopticon: Reconsidering Mathiesen’s ‘The Viewer Society’ in the Age of Web 2.0.” Theoretical Criminology, v.15/3 (2011).
  2. Levi, M. “The Media Construction of Financial White-Collar Crimes.” British Journal of Criminology, v.46/6 (2006).
  3. Lippert, Randy and Blair Wilkinson. “Capturing Crime, Criminals and the Public’s Imagination: Assembling Crime Stoppers and CCTV Surveillance.” Crime, Media, Culture: An International Journal, v.6/2 (2010).
  4. Lyon, David. “Facing the Future: Seeking Ethics for Everyday Surveillance.” Ethics and Information Technology, v.3/3 (2001).
  5. Penfold, Ruth. “The Star’s Image, Victimization and Celebrity Culture.” Punishment & Society, v.6/3 (2004).
  6. Walby, Kevin. “Open-Street Camera Surveillance and Governance in Canada.” Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice, v.47/4 (2005).

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