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Overseers of the Poor

Surveillance, Resistance, and the Limits of Privacy

In Overseers of the Poor, John Gilliom confronts the everyday politics of surveillance by exploring the worlds and words of those who know it best-the watched. Arguing that the current public conversation about surveillance and privacy rights is rife with political and conceptual failings, Gilliom goes beyond the critics and analysts to add fresh voices, insights, and perspectives.

This powerful book lets us in on the conversations of low-income mothers from Appalachian Ohio as they talk about the welfare bureaucracy and its remarkably advanced surveillance system. In their struggle to care for their families, these women are monitored and assessed through a vast network of supercomputers, caseworkers, fraud control agents, and even grocers and neighbors.

In-depth interviews show that these women focus less on the right to privacy than on a critique of surveillance that lays bare the personal and political conflicts with which they live. And, while they have little interest in conventional forms of politics, we see widespread patterns of everyday resistance as they subvert the surveillance regime when they feel it prevents them from being good parents. Ultimately, Overseers of the Poor demonstrates the need to reconceive not just our understanding of the surveillance-privacy debate but also the broader realms of language, participation, and the politics of rights.

We all know that our lives are being watched more than ever before. As we struggle to understand and confront this new order, Gilliom argues, we need to spend less time talking about privacy rights, legislatures, and courts of law and more time talking about power, domination, and the ongoing struggles of everyday people.

277 pages | 5-1/2 x 8-1/2 | © 2001

Chicago Series in Law and Society

Law and Legal Studies: Law and Society

Political Science: American Government and Politics


"In a style that is readily accessible to both scholars and university students, [Gilliom] tells us that the idea of right-bearing individuals who can effectively assert the courage of their convictions and defend their personal liberty and autonomy through law and legal action is but a myth. Rather, he provides evidence that legality--privacy rights and due process--is largely absent from the world of the poor--and perhaps other Americns."

Richard A. Brisbin, Jr. | Law & Politics Book Review

“Gilliom reminds the reader why the welfare state observed through the experience of welfare recipients holds universal lessons. . . . The women who speak in <I>Overseers<I> eloquently describe their subordination to surveillance and its effects, but Giliom’s pathbreaking insight is that the women’s narratives also hold the promise of resistance. . . .<I>Overseers of the Poor<I> offers an alternative understanding of the universality of dependency, one that is unencumbered by the moral politics of welfare."

Frank Munger | Law & Society Review

“A compelling inquiry into the problems faced by poor women caught in the web of an instrusive welfare surveillance system. It is an elegantly written, nuanced account of the struggles of welfare mothers to retain a modicum of dignity and control . . . . By bringing the reader directly into the lives of women who must live under the thumb of this ‘overseer,’ the book provides a powerful account of the everyday politics of resistance.”

Alice Hearst | Perspectives on Politics

Table of Contents



ONE : Welfare Surveillance

TWO : Stories of Struggle

THREE : Rights Talk and Rights Reticence

FOUR : The Need to Resist

FIVE : Privacy and the Powers of Surveillance






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