Sydney’s Discipline & Punish Blog

Control & Surveillance

Nonverbal communication is used every single day, even in instances we may not realize. Nonverbals can be conveyed through a reassuring hug or from a comment on social media. Though one is interpersonal and another is mediated, they are still forms of nonverbal communication. There are other ways, however, in which nonverbal communication can be used for very different purposes—for example, control and surveillance. In his book Discipline and Punish, Foucault speaks on these subjects as it relates to the penal system. Throughout his writing, the theme of control comes up in many different contexts. Whether it be controlling to discipline, to maintain norms, or to establish power, controlling can be displayed heavily through nonverbals. Surveillance is another topic touched on by Foucault, as perhaps, another technique used to control and maintain order.

Interpersonal Communication

There are ways in which both control and surveillance have context in the different areas of nonverbal communication. The first of these areas is interpersonal, or the ways in which people associate with one another and exchange information nonverbally. Control in this context is very common, although we may not directly acknowledge that it’s happening. One example relates to men and women and the ways in which they exert control differently. Traditionally, men are said to establish hierarchies when they communicate and tend to strive for control when they communicate (Reiman, n.d.). Men commonly do this through their paralanguage, general speaking louder than females. In addition, a man’s gestures are also more dominating in the sense that they are more inclined to point, stand up straight, and broaden their shoulders. Although at times these nonverbal signals may not be intentional by men, they are still ways in which they are able to exert control.


Surveillance and interpersonal communication may not be as clear cut, but it is still able to be observed in relation to the nonverbal aspect of it. Surveillance, in itself, is a nonverbal act, whether it be for a specific purpose or just out of curiosity. For example, surveillance technology is present in the majority of public spaces. For instance, in airports, surveillance is used by the cameras; however, nonverbally, there are airport employees as well as undercover individuals who are constantly watching and listening for suspicious behavior. This is a way in which humans are used to surveille. On the other end of the spectrum, we surveille others on a day-to-day basis as we casually people watch or communicate with someone. The NonVerbal Dictionary suggests that “the best observers tend to be those who are naturally curious” (Givens, n.d.). Surveillance as a nonverbal act is typically used to watch the nonverbal communication of others.


Propaganda is a type of nonverbal communication that is used to persuade others. According to the book Persuasion & Propaganda, “Propaganda is a form of communication that attempts to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist” (Jowett & O’Donnell, 2015). Primarily we see propaganda through visual mediums, whether it be posters or commercials. Control is one quality that can be easily spotted in propaganda, especially through advertising or social awareness causes. For example, the anti-smoking campaigns that have been pushed out in recent years try to persuade viewers through startling graphics and eye-opening commercials. Below are two anti-smoking graphics which were used as propaganda in an attempt to control people’s behaviors and steer them away from cigarettes.

We also see examples of surveillance through propaganda. During WWII, when Germany was under control of the Nazi Regime, there was pro-Nazi propaganda published all over. One specific category of propaganda during this time was surveillance. German civilians were under constant watch and warning to make sure they were kept in line and not revealing any secrets to enemies. Many of the posters at the time displayed phrases such as “Be careful—the enemy is eavesdropping!” The point of this propaganda was to instill fear in the people of Germany, fear that they were constantly being watched and had to monitor their speech. This example is certainly one the more powerful forms of propaganda we’ve seen in history, happening during a time when this type of nonverbal communication was very popular.


Mediated Communication

Mediated nonverbal communication has exploded over the past decade with the advancement of the Internet and the growth of social media. Simply through the ways in which social media is structured, our lives are being controlled by what we look at every single day as we scroll through our feeds. The structure and technology of social media caters content to us, making what we see more personalized and controlled. A specific example is given in an article by Social Rebirth. According to the article, Facebook has been using new ways to learn about its users and use the information to ‘control our reality’ through our news feed. Specifically, the social media giant has performed psychological experiments on large groups of Facebook users by altering their news feeds to either project positive or negative stories and then measuring their emotions (Dobson, 2015). With this type of control, Facebook (or any other social media platform, for that matter) can have power over what we see, hear, read, and ultimately affect how we feel.


Surveillance in regard to media is a topic that can get a little scary as well. In terms of ‘big data,’ our actions online are constantly being monitored. The data that is gathered is then used, primarily by marketers, to show us content that is relevant to us. One particular instance in which this got a little too personal was in an example with Target and a pregnant teen. Based on the information that Target was gathering on a particular teen customer, they began sending her advertisements that would typically go to a soon-to-be-mother. It turned out that Target’s surveillance and data collection was eerily accurate because, after the father of the teen girl got upset at the company for sending such advertisements, he soon found out that his daughter was actually pregnant (Hill, 2012). This was certainly a more public case, but on a smaller level, we all have exhibited surveillance over others on social media. We’ve all been accused of Facebook stalking from time to time, and that’s basically the same thing—right?


Dobson, S. (2015). How the media controls your reality. Social Rebirth. Retrieved from

Foucault, M. (1979). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. New York: Vintage Books.

Gershon, I. (2010). The Breakup 2.0. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

Givens, D. (n.d.). Nonverbal surveillance. The NonVerbal Dictionary. Retrieved from

Hill, K. (2012). How Target figured out a teen girl was pregnant before her father did. Forbes. Retrieved from

Jowett, G. & O’Donnell, V. (2015) Propaganda and Persuasion: Sixth Edition. SAGE Publications.

Reiman, T. (n.d.). Gender differences. Body Language University. Retrieved from

Sloan, E. (2015). Lessons from Nazi-Germany about surveillance. Gutjahr. Retrieved from


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