Ana Batley

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) was an English philosopher, social reformer, and lawyer. Throughout his life, he strived to become the “Newton of legislation,” or provide humanity with structural social guidance the way Isaac Newton did with natural science (Everett, 1969). He was a social reformer with the convention of people being transparent and therefore accountable and responsible for their actions (Horne and Malay, 2014). He is known for popularizing Utilitarianism, or the philosophy of equality, abundance, subsistence, and security which connects to the Greatest Happiness Principle, that actions are morally correct if the majority of people benefit and are happy (Mack, 1969). It was by these principles that he would create all of his works.

In the 1780s, he invented an incredibly detailed plan for a building known as the Panopticon. His design was a circular building with a guard tower in the center, and the prisoners on the edges kept in isolation. The guards could see the prisoners, but the prisoners could not look at the guards, leaving them to act as though they were always being watched. Eventually, they would have disciplined themselves without the need for violence or multiple guards. This design was also intended for hospitals, factories, asylums, and schools. His plan never came to fruition due to changes of leadership in the British Parliament who were not fully committed to the plan (Horne and Malay, 2014).

Michael Foucault, a French philosopher, and historian, applied the method of prisoners reforming themselves due to the fear of being watched to surveillance in modern society. Instead of isolated prisoners, the general public is subject to surveillance from multiple angles such as phones and cameras. People are fearful that they are being watched, so they do not commit certain punishable acts. Bentham’s idea of prisoners disciplining themselves was crucial in understanding the effects of surveillance in modern society through Foucault’s theory (Horne and Malay, 2014).

Although Bentham never physically created the Panopticon, there are many recreations. For example, the Isla de la Juventud was a prison built in Cuba that could hold 2,500 prisoners. There were five circular towers and a central observation tower in the center of each. However, after the Cuban Revolution, the prison held over 8,000 prisoners causing overcrowding and an inability for the guards to see every person (Horne and Malay, 2014).


Dinwiddy, J. (1989). Bentham. New York, NY: Oxford City Press.

Everett, C. W. (1969). Jeremy Bentham. New York, NY: Dell Publishing Co. Inc.

Horne, E. & Maly, T. (2014). The inspection house: An impertinent field guide to modern surveillance. Toronto, Canada: Coach House Books.

Mack, M. (Ed.). (1969). A Bentham Reader. New York, NY: Western Publishing Company.


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Key Concepts in Surveillance Studies Copyright © 2019 by Ana Batley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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