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Subjects of Quantum Measurement: Surveillance and Affect in the War on Terror

Italo Brandimarte (2022)

International Political Sociology. Online first

Abstract. The idea of measurement (of bodies and identities) is a guiding principle of globalized surveillance in the War on Terror. Nevertheless, this inherently scientific notion is so naturalized in public and academic discourse that its meaning and implications are left undiscussed. This paper builds on quantum theory to present an immanent critique of measurement in surveillance. Foregrounding surveillance’s transdisciplinary conceptual foundations, it argues that a notion of identity measurement centered on ambiguity and embodiment, rather than fixity and abstraction, reshapes the scope for political action and opens new avenues for critique. I suggest that a lack of critical engagement with the concept of measurement accounts for Surveillance Studies’ and International Political Sociology’s difficulty in exploring the relation between the material–affective dimension of surveillance and its identity-fixing function. Challenging unquestioned notions of measurement in social science, quantum theory highlights the interconnected importance of ambiguity and embodiment in processes of identity measurement. Through the case of airport security, I illustrate how quantum measurement departs from recent critical accounts of surveillance—concerned with the fixity of unambiguous identities and the digital abstraction of bodies—and foregrounds the ambiguity of affect to postulate new forms of agency and resistance to the politics of surveillance.

Extract: “Serious discussions around the sociological meaning of measurement only began to appear at the end of the twentieth century (see Hacking 1990; Porter 1995; Desrosières 1998), with increasingly numerous contributions being published only in the past decade (Mennicken and Espeland 2019, 224; see Espeland and Stevens 2008; Diaz-Bone and Didier 2016; Berman and Hirschman 2018). Most works considered measurement a key component in the emergence of statistics (e.g., Desrosières 1998; Porter 1995) and in a broader “sociology of quantification” (e.g., Espeland and Stevens 2008) whereby numbers populate, dissect, and control virtually all aspects of modern life. Exploring the application of quantitative methods to the sociopolitical sphere, such investigation unveiled a plurality of approaches to—and understandings of—measurement in social science, which can be ultimately reduced to two interpretations (see Desrosières 2001; Espeland and Stevens 2008, 417–18). On one end is the realist conception of measurement, directly inherited from astronomy and classical physics (Hacking 1990, 3; Porter 1995, 68–71; Desrosières 2001, 341).” (p. 7-8)

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