Date of Degree
PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)
John Durham Peters
During the last quarter of the twentieth century, there has been a significant expansion in the means by which parents in the United States might use technologies to watch their children. Watching and worrying about children are not new to the job of parenthood, but the ways of watching now available to parents represents a change of degree so great as to represent a change in kind. The parental gaze has become technologized. This dissertation investigates what happens when man-made devices insert themselves into this most basic of human endeavors.
Parenting desires, social expectations, and technological capacities have co-evolved in the United States to a point where the norms of parental watching are increasingly technology-based. This is a "mixed methods," cross-case study. It delves into the particulars of three distinct media while looking for patterns of use and effects across the different technologies. The core of this investigation is three case studies of particular surveillance technologies that all came to prominence, in terms of their popularity or frequency of use, in the United States in the last thirty years. The three subjects of these case studies--fetal ultrasound, Eisenberg, Murkoff, and Hathaway's 1984 pregnancy advice and guide book What to Expect When You're Expecting, and baby monitors--are all media that offer parents the opportunity to be better and less anxious parents by enhancing their powers of parenting observation. They form an optical--textual--acoustic triad that demonstrates the breadth of media that are enlisted into surveillance practices.
These new anxiety technologies change thinking, perceptions, and attitudes. They serve both to introduce new human capacities and to direct and to mold existing capacities. They have also helped to change our ideas of what is possible. A few overarching characteristics of American parental thinking have helped to pushed surveillance to prominence. Middle class American parents of the last quarter of the twentieth century have come to feel that the world is a more dangerous place for their children. They perceive their offspring as more vulnerable to dangers and as less capable of avoiding these dangers on their own. Parents also feel an increased sense of personal responsibility for the safety of their children. It is not that that contemporary parents have warmer or deeper feelings toward their children, but rather that contemporary parents believe that they both can and should control a much broader range of dangers to their children than parents in the past believed they could control.
The "anxiety technologies" of this study serve in part to bring home to their users the riskiness of parenting and the vulnerability of the fetus/infant. These technologies have come to promote responsibility expansion, efficiency orientation, and risk focus for parents. While these technologies do provide parents with a great deal more focused information, many of the perceived enhancements in powers to effect outcomes are presumptive, illusory effects of actual increases in information. Information without influence is as likely to contribute to anxiety as to power.
Copyright 2010 James Perry Howell
Howell, James Perry. "Parents, watching: introducing surveillance into modern American parenting." dissertation, University of Iowa, 2010.