From edition

Review: Discipline and liberty. Television and governance.

Gareth Palmer

Manchester University Press: Manchester/New York, 2003.

Gareth Palmer’s main focus is on how television documentary shapes or aims to shape our conduct, lives and identities. Discipline and Liberty is about the processes of governance set in motion through television. Departing from a Foucauldian understanding of governance/government, and the work of governmentality studies scholars like Nikolas Rose, Mitchell Dean and Graham Burchell, governance is defined as ‘concerned […] with the calculated direction of conduct to shape behavior to certain ends.’ (3[1])

Traditionally, Palmer argues, the relationship between governance and television documentary was defined in terms of the installment of social citizenship. In the past, documentary was associated with the pedagogical production of ‘worthy citizens’. The aim of documentary was to provide citizens with the knowledge, language and tools to interact with state authorities. Palmer suggests that this relationship between citizens, documentary programming and governance has changed in the last two decades. This happened in reaction to a range of political, cultural, technological and economic changes, which also explain the rise of new, popular hybrid docu-genres, such as reality TV. In short, in Discipline and Liberty, Palmer explores this new relationship of television documentary with citizenship. He shows how conceptions of citizenship and the social, civility and morality, and the relationship between authorities and citizens have changed and how to understand the role of television documentary in these processes.

Palmer’s analysis is built on four (partially overlapping) dimensions. First comes the panoptic characteristic of contemporary documentary television and reality TV formats. These formats allow us to meet, to know, to scrutinize, and to monitor the behavior and identities of a diversity of distant others. Secondly, there is the governmental character of reality TV, that is how this genre is used by various actors and institutions to govern oneself and others. The ideological character of reality TV deals with the representations, and their underlying (neoliberal) discourses, promoted by reality TV. Fourthly, Palmer distinguishes the critical character of documentary television and reality TV, that is the critical, investigative potential of these genre(s) in the context of a changed relationship between documentary media and authorities.

The panoptic approach refers to the practices and technologies of surveillance underlying contemporary reality TV formats. Nowadays, reality TV formats, Palmer suggests, tempt us in one way or another to become part of a surveillance culture, monitoring and governing ourselves and others. Throughout his examination of different reality TV formats, Palmer shows how these formats contribute to the acceptance of both practices and technologies of surveillance in society. The first four chapters are mainly about the new police documentaries and crime programming. In this breed of CCTV-based documentary (e.g., America’s Dumbest Criminals, Crimewatch UK) viewers are offered the spectacle of a robbery or a real-time car chase. At the same time, they are suggested to monitor their neighborhoods and communities, secure their homes, and to collaborate with the police. Palmer argues that these formats contribute to the naturalization of surveillance culture. Palmer also examines how other reality TV genres draw heavily on and promote practices of (self-)surveillance and (self-)control. For example, a scam-show like Lie Detector deals with monitoring and disciplining one’s family, housemates or friends. A program like Video Diaries is for Palmer mainly about (ordinary) people’s practices of self-scrutiny and self-management.

In close connection to this panoptic characteristic, the second theme examined in Discipline and Liberty is the governmental character of reality TV. Reality TV genres are often considered new democratic spaces in which both viewers and participants can perform their identity politics. Palmer examines reality TV from another perspective, concentrating on how television documentary, and culture more generally, is associated with processes of social management. The specificity of this theoretical approach is in alignment with the fairly recent governmentalist shift in cultural studies. The governmentalist turn (e.g. Bennett, 1995; Barnett, 1999) examines the relation between culture and governance, defining governance as the deployment and mobilization of cultural practices in order to constitute morally elevated and civilized populations. It questions how cultural practices are constituted by and constitutive of a moral order, and how they become the object of modern strategies of governance. Likewise, Palmer sees culture as ‘a set of practices aimed at producing – in line with governmental objectives – self-regulating, self-governing individuals’ (18). Television documentary and reality TV can then be seen as means for governing individuals, communities or whole populations. Palmer links this conception of governance to the aforementioned panoptic characteristic of reality TV. As in these formats individuals are subjected to surveillance and scrutiny, they are simultaneously subjected to a range of normalizing discourses about what is considered to be appropriate behavior or moral conduct. But the governable character of reality TV is also connected to what Palmer calls its synoptic characteristic: ‘it offers the opportunity for the many to look at the few […] while the many now see the few we are encouraged to learn the lesson of self-discipline’ (148). As reality TV allows for opportunities to see ourselves, and for others to see us, it increases our awareness about how we conduct ourselves in public and private spaces. Reality TV is involved with morality as it allows viewers to judge others and at the same time asks them to examine themselves. Both the therapeutic discourses in talk-shows like Judge Judy or the instructional discourses in crime programming invite us to participate in responsabilizing strategies and to judge ourselves (and others) on the basis of the frameworks of morality and authority offered by these programs.

Thirdly, the ideological character of reality TV is associated with its neoliberal representations of society. As mentioned above, reality TV offers us spaces to scrutinize ourselves, to question ourselves and maybe to remodel or transform ourselves. Indeed, the testimony, the malleability, and the transformation of the self are central to reality TV. The underlying ideology of reality TV, Palmer argues, is the promise of empowerment through self-belief. Empowerment is seen to be grounded in liberal discourses, and in what can be called a burgeoning enterprise culture. In this enterprise culture we are asked to scrutinize and realize ourselves in order to ‘be all that we can be’ (176). Palmer furthermore suggests that – as the self in reality TV is constructed as a ‘transformative project’ – reality TV formats neglect or avoid to ‘engage with the social, moral and political contexts in which selves are formed’ (176). He argues that the majority of reality TV genres sidestep social and political issues, as the emphasis is mostly on the individual. In crime programming, for example, the focus is on the victim, rather than on the offender or the reasons behind the criminal behavior, such poverty, unemployment or the lack of resources. In his analysis of Neighbours from Hell, Palmer argues that ‘what remains uninvestigated are the reasons why neighbourhoods become the “hellish” places that they are’ (126). Likewise, government responsibilities such as urban planning or socially inclusive policies remain mostly unaddressed in these reality TV shows. Palmer shows how these programs offer us representations of how people govern themselves within ‘chaotic’ and ‘disordered’, ‘uncivil’ and ‘dangerous’ worlds. Moreover, the idea of self-governance is presented as a democratizing force, as ordinary people nowadays become involved in the maintenance of order and morality. Citizenship, Palmer suggests, thus becomes redefined in terms of self-governance and moral responsibility, and empowerment becomes articulated within a broader neoliberal framework.

Fourthly, the critical potential of the aforementioned formats is another important strand of analysis in Palmer’s book. He suggests that television documentary nowadays is far removed from its traditional objectives rooted in a public service ethos. Documentary is no longer fulfilling a crucial role in enabling societal debate, and in questioning authorities. Palmer argues that this critical, investigate role has vanished in the context of reality TV. He argues for example that, rather than critically investigating the growing surveillance culture that characterizes public life in both the United States and Britain, contemporary reality TV formats have become an integral part of it. In the first chapters of the book, Palmer contextualizes how the relationship between police authorities and documentary-makers has changed, and has become more reciprocal and collaborative over the last decades, resulting in uncritical accounts of police work. Furthermore, Palmer highlights how crime programs sacrifice analysis for spectacle, reinforce stereotypes and fail to foster a deeper understanding of criminality.

These four themes are analyzed within the context of a range of older and more recent reality TV formats. Palmer takes a holistic approach and situates the changes in television documentary and the rise of reality TV in what he calls a ‘changed discursive formation’: a complex of political and cultural changes that have affected the relationships between media, state authorities, and citizens, as well as our conceptions of citizenship and morality, of surveillance and liberty. He shows how the aforementioned panoptic, governmental, ideological characteristics of reality TV became interwoven with the characteristics of neoliberal, post-welfare societies. He successfully avoids a too media-centric account and uses a major part of his book to scrutinize how broader political and social changes work, and how they work through the reality TV formats. For instance, chapter five discusses Britain’s community life and politics, in order to put the series Neighbours from Hell into a political perspective. Similarly, chapter three shows how the new genre of police documentaries connects to the administrative criminology of the 1980s/1990s. This chapter highlights, for example, how a program like Crime Squad connects to UK policies on crime, and the shift from criminal rehabilitation to situational crime prevention. In the 1980s and early 1990s, a time when reality TV shows like Neighbours From Hell dealt with these very issues, the Tory Government strongly emphasized the re-articulations of citizenship and the responsabilization of the community. Although Palmer does not claim that there is some kind of intentional manufacturing of consent going on by the major power centers in society, much of the analysis in Discipline and Liberty deals with how reality TV plays a role in the reproduction of the neoliberal, post-welfare state.

However fruitful this contextualization of reality TV in relation to broader processes of governance is, it also risks becoming interpreted in too functionalist terms. At some points Discipline and Liberty tends to provide an image of reality TV as a practicable tool that can be used by authorities for governing populations. When reading about the program Crime Squad and its connection to neoliberal policy frameworks (promoting self-governance), one is inclined to overestimate the role of reality TV in fashioning individuals’ selves or in modeling communities. And although Palmer’s analysis does not ignore questions of audience reception, this perspective does not get much attention in the book.

More generally Discipline and Liberty provides a stimulating series of arguments, highlighting how documentary television and reality TV are implicated in modern forms of governance. Although an over-arching conclusion remains absent from the book, the last chapter on Big Brother is illustrative for the many questions one could ask. These questions deal with the processes of (self)governance in the context of the wide range of reality TV formats that are circulating in our contemporary media cultures. The book argues that the relationship between documentary media and citizenship has altered radically, expressing how reality TV renders viewer-citizens knowable and governable, how surveillance has become an accepted practice in both our media culture and society, and how reality TV connects to and produces neoliberal discourses.


[1] References to the reviewed book contain only the page number(s).


Barnett, C. (1999) ‘Culture, government and spatiality. Reassessing the “Foucault effect” in cultural-policy studies’, International Journal of Culture Studies, 2(3): 369-397.

Bennett, T. (1995) The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics. London: Routledge.


Frank Boddin obtained a MA in Communication Studies at the Free University of Brussels (VUB). He graduated in 2005 with a MA thesis concerning the role and audience perceptions of Belgian documentary filmmakers. He is currently working as a PhD student at the Communication Studies Department of the VUB. His research deals with documentary production within North-Belgian public service broading. His work is mainly situated within media sociology and cultural studies and concentrates on media production and professional identity; public broading and new public management; governmentality and discourse theory; television documentary and factual entertainment.

This entry was posted in Reviews and edition . Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
  • Pages

  • Categories

  • Issues