Surveillance in ancient times.

Among the innumerable ideas which in recent years has added to the sociological thinking on modernity is that modern societies are characterized by their level of vigilance (surveillance). For example, organizations continually monitor what they do to their employees; states handling huge amount of information on the status of their populations etc., it Is thing you read Giddens. In particular, one can remember Thompson and his insistence on the use of time (and time clock) to control, monitor and manage the nascent industrial strength -and the resistance of the workers against it.

Now, let’s see what that tells us an article about the situation in Ancient Egypt (Work Organization in the Middle Kingdom, Ancient Egypt; Mahmoud Ezzamel, Organization of 11.4: 497-534, 2004)

‘The compilation of rosters, name lists and work groups can be organized in a manner that renders them amenable to accounting calculation and clear delineation of accountability. .. It should be noted at the outset that, given the premodern nature of the material examined here, we should not expect a system of accountability that conjoins both precise time worked out and output achieved, as one would expect to be the case in contemporary organizations, because such a combination of time and physical output has its genesis in the 19th century AD’ (p 499)

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‘Rosters and name lists for workers were used extensively. Papyrus Reisner I, from the reign of Sesostris [Senusret] I in the early Twelfth Dynasty, 1971-1926 BC, contains entries for a building project involving nearly 300 workers and foremen organized by division… The various documents used included: (i) number of enlisted workmen, per day per year; (ii) lists of named individual workmen grouped under a named foreman; (iii) daily attendance and absence for individual workers grouped under named foremen; (iv) lists of workmen on the move to jobs in other locations; (v) speci?ed measures and quantities of various products/tasks converted into equivalent man-days; and (vi) rations allocated to each workman’ (p 507)

‘Without wishing to rule out alternative interpretations totally, I suggest that the practice of keeping name lists and attendance rosters was not a purely ceremonial activity. Absence from work on state projects was clearly noted and acted upon; it was classi?ed as a criminal offence against the state and punished severely. (p 515)

‘No matter which account we consider, the pattern of reporting on work in progress looks very similar. In each case, there is a clearly speci?ed work at target, and.g. number of bricks of a given size to be made or number of days to be worked. Then an inventory of current work is performed; this is compared with the target, allowing it to remainder to be implicitly calculated or explicitly stated. This system of accountability embodied the three elements of target-setting, measurement of current achievement and comparison of achievements against targets to signal the remainder. (p 518)

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The appointments are long but it illustrates the point to see: most of The features of systems of surveillance, control, and management (and I didn’t put quotes on how to allocate salaries, some indications of a possible system of bond-and of the 27 possible scales of payments that are in the article) are already from the beginning of complex societies. Controlling the work, monitored its progress, is recorded as the information, are punished for the lack etc And the author is insistent that these things are not merely ceremonial, but rather that they

What do you lack? Some technical elements (to collect precisely time and product) and probably some extension (this is for working groups of the egyptian state, say the workers of the pyramids). But the basic outline is this from ‘always’.

But then you remember all the resistance of european workers to the incorporation of controls (and the evidence on the ‘Saint Monday’ by example as usual until the NINETEENTH century). Or think that that type of documentation of labor organization is also common among the mesopotamians. And then one could bring forward another idea: it is Not that these levels of surveillance have always been present.

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But the level of social complexity (assuming that these organizational practices involve complexity) were achieved initially quickly but then lost it. Modernity would mean the recovery of a level of complexity (possibly permitted by the profound technological changes: The complexity of the first ‘civilized’ societies went beyond what they could sustain their technical level, and then lost. One can remember that in classical Greece there is, for example, many indications of economic organizations and of work of this complexity. In the end, in a parallel case, in Mesopotamia the extension of the first urbanization is higher than that of the civilizations and societies that happened. Although highly speculative it is still an interesting topic.

If this were so, then one may well remember that our current level of complexity in all probability is not sustainable at our present technical level. And therefore that something similar -although to a greater level of complexity – well it could happen today (let’s say, to complete a post-historical with some consequence for contemporary societies)

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