This is the ninth installment of the themed series on Border Criminologies network members. The series aims to present our members’ ongoing research, recent publications, new course modules they might be developing, grants and awards, partnerships and collaborations, and questions they have been considering or struggling with.

Post by Maggy Lee, Professor, Department of Sociology, The University of Hong-Kong.

Photo: Maggy Lee
Across the world people are moving from place to place in greater numbers. Governments try to keep track of and control people’s movements using surveillance methods that are sometimes controversial. The new study I’m part of ('Big data, live methods and surveillance subjectivities among transnational migrants in Hong Kong'), together with Mark Johnson and Mike McCahill, is funded by the British Academy and investigates transnational migrants’ experiences of surveillance as they travel to and live in Hong Kong. In doing so, we move beyond the usual focus on the way that states in the global north restrict people’s movement from the global south, as well as beyond research that focuses on the technological processes involved in producing big data and regulating people’s movement, often at a distance and without their consent. Rather, our project is designed to help us develop and test new methodologies using smartphone apps that will enable ordinary people to document their encounters with and responses to the different sorts of surveillance they face in a world city characterized both by movement and constraint.

More specifically, our research study aims to provide an ethnographic account of how British and Filipino transnational migrants experience and respond to different sorts of surveillance in Hong Kong. Previous scholarly work has been important in disclosing the proliferation of digital and bio-metric border controls and in documenting the social sorting of good and bad migrants that takes place at external borders and internal frontiers (see, for example, work by Aas, Bigo,  Bauman and Lyon). Our contention is that it’s time to move beyond distinctions between kinetic elites and the kinetically challenged to attend to the social, cultural, and geographic diversity of surveillance practices and disclose the range of ordinary migrants’ experiences of surveillance and mobility.

By surveillance we refer to both the systematic, purposive watching, and data collection practices that may be directed at migrants in particular, and the more speculative and totalizing aspects of big data (Boyd and Crawford, Lyon). Big data refers to the automatic generation of large data sets by public and private sectors that are processed by algorithms and used for diverse purposes, such as profiling and risk calculation. While these procedures may be surreptitious, recent research by the Pew Research Centre reveals widespread awareness and concern among the public about the collection of information about them. However, there have, to date, been few attempts to explore empirically people’s daily experience of monitoring. We will build on our small pilot study with five Filipino transnational migrants in Hong Kong completed in 2014-15 to investigate Filipino and British transnational migrants’ experience of surveillance through the use of smartphones to record time-space diaries. Second, we will use those innovative methods to provide more embedded and embodied accounts of surveillance and detail the social corollaries and consequences of surveillance experienced by different sorts of more and less privileged migrants.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Lee, M. (2016) Research Update: Maggy Lee. Available at: (Accessed [date]).