Q&A

Forms, Functions and Flows of Power: Investigating the Surveillance of the Sea

SEI talks with new member Dr Sara Leon Spesny about her research on state surveillance and bringing her ideas to Australia’s oceanic frontiers.

Image by Silas Baisch, via UnSplash

Anna Sturman: Your research spans such timely and relevant themes. Could you tell us a little bit about these and how you have cohered them into a research agenda?

Sara Leon Spesny: I have always thought that my relation to research has been a mix of academic interest and serendipity. As a Costa Rican anthropologist, who studied at the University of Costa Rica, I was sensibly attuned to the pressing social issues in Central America. Central America, the waist of the Americas, is this fascinating little part of the planet, filled with incredibly diverse landscapes and histories.

I became involved with collaborative action-research around sex workers rights, Indigenous land dispossession, and later, maternal health. With a colleague and friend, I conducted a study around birth and alternatives ways of thinking and feeling pregnancy and birth. One of the big takeaways for me was that we were talking to mostly middle-class urban women, and they had the ‘privilege’ to make certain choices around their experience. Looking at the racial/class/status divides within maternal health, undeniably stirred my attention towards this form of inequality. So, I decided to focus on one of the most vulnerable groups, which are the undocumented migrants who give birth in Costa Rica. They encounter legal, institutional, and moral barriers to access healthcare, despite a universal healthcare system.

“I have sought to understand how these institutions simultaneously deploy mechanisms of protection and repression, such as militaristic interventions through humanitarian discourses.”

At this point in time, I met my partner, who is Brazilian, and as we moved to Brazil, my internal compass shifted again. We landed on a Brazil that was preparing to host the World Cup and the Olympics. The country exuded excitement and anticipation, with one huge challenge: public security. All eyes were on the pacification police, a section of the police in Rio de Janeiro, that was portrayed as a renaissance of the Brazilian military police, infamous for their violence and corruption. This branch intended to displace drug-trafficking gangs from some favelas, bring democracy to its residents, and impart proximity policing, guided through human rights and full citizenship. I did an ethnography of the pacification police, following patrols and their daily work, looking at the different ways the police establish a social, racial dis(order) in the city.

So, as an overarching theme, I have been interested in the ways states control and discipline historically marginalized populations, through institutions such as the hospital or the police. More specifically, I have sought to understand how these institutions simultaneously deploy mechanisms of protection and repression, such as militaristic interventions through humanitarian discourses, focusing on how both processes often are weaved together. And I am especially interested in the way moral practices and discourses are embedded in local rationalities.

How did you come to be interested in the surveillance of seas and oceans?

I have a Costa Rican colleague who also worked with the police in Brazil, and we were talking about the ways we imagine new directions of this very specific work we did, with this very specific branch of the military police in Brazil, at this very specific point in time. Our interests are very similar, but our approaches to research are very different. We both focused on the ways the police establish territorial control, and we were bouncing off ideas about it. He had just started some research around illegal fishing in Costa Rica, and this conversation sparked my curiosity around policing practices and discourses of seas and oceans here in Australia. Not only focusing on control of illegal practices, but on broader narratives of surveillance and security. This includes, of course, policing strategies. I am also interested in expanding the idea of ‘who is policed?’, looking more closely at the human/non-human divides and trying to collapse these distinctions.

At the background, my interest does have a comparative aspect, as I draw some of my initial thoughts from the Costa Rican experience and I will be looking at maintaining a dialogue with colleagues there and elsewhere.

Will you be looking at Australia and the Pacific with this research, and if so, do you have a sense of what that might look like?

Yes, I will be looking at Australian strategies of policing the sea. Since I arrived in Australia, I have been living in a coastal town, Port Macquarie, and this location has given me an experiential closeness to the sea that has inspired me even more towards this project.

I am still unsure about what research methodologies I will manage to use in this research. My previous research is based on ethnographic approaches, and I hope there is an observational component in this research, as well as other qualitative methods. I am also interested in studying narratives of security and have thought of incorporating the study of maps and other documents as well.

Are there any particular aspects of your earlier fieldwork in Central and South America, and connected research, which you think will be particularly resonant with this turn to the oceans?

I am very interested in understanding processes of policing as a strategy of surveillance, both in practices (the material strategies of policing and technologies applied) and as discourse and imagination (the symbolic aspect of it). In my previous research, policing is fundamentally tied to territory. In the Latin American context, this implies that the police are mainly concerned with territorial control. This is, of course, in a context where drug traffic organizations are central to the public security dis(order) of the city. Another key element here is the special imaginations of the city, how the police and society more broadly imagine and materialize territory. Now, seas and oceans challenge these ways we imagine and grasp space and territorial control. So, I am looking forward to rethinking and reimagining the idea of policing in this sense. I want to challenge those assumptions about policing in relation to territorial control.


Sara Leon Spesny is an Academic Fellow in criminology in the Department of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney. She interested in the ways institutions of the State seek to manage, control and discipline historically marginalized populations. Her research has focused on the police, violence, migration (notably undocumented migrants), human rights, postcolonial (dis)order and the urban/symbolic borderlands of the Latin American city. Sara has carried out fieldwork in Central and South America. She obtained her PhD at the École de Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, France (2020). She worked under the supervision of Prof. Didier Fassin (Institute for Advanced Studies, Princeton, USA). She has been a member of the Institut de Recherche Interdisciplinaire sur les Enjeux Sociaux (IRIS) since 2013. Sara has also collaborated with projects involving indigenous rights and sex workers.