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Envisioning technology through discourse: a case study of biometrics in the National Identity Scheme in the United Kingdom

Martin, Aaron K. (2011) Envisioning technology through discourse: a case study of biometrics in the National Identity Scheme in the United Kingdom. PhD thesis, The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).

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Abstract

Around the globe, governments are pursuing policies that depend on information technology (IT). The United Kingdom’s National Identity Scheme was a government proposal for a national identity system, based on biometrics. These proposals for biometrics provide us with an opportunity to explore the diverse and shifting discourses that accompany the attempted diffusion of a controversial IT innovation. This thesis offers a longitudinal case study of these visionary discourses. I begin with a critical review of the literature on biometrics, drawing attention to the lack of in-depth studies that explore the discursive and organizational dynamics accompanying their implementation on a national scale. I then devise a theoretical framework to study these speculative and future-directed discourses based on concepts and ideas from organizing visions theory, the sociology of expectations, and critical approaches to studying the public’s understanding of technology. A methodological discussion ensues in which I explain my research approach and methods for data collection and analysis, including techniques for critical discourse analysis. After briefly introducing the case study, I proceed to the two-part analysis. First is an analysis of government actors’ discourses on biometrics, revolving around formal policy communications; second is an analysis of media discourses and parliamentary debates around certain critical moments for biometrics in the Scheme. The analysis reveals how the uncertain concept of biometrics provided a strategic rhetorical device whereby government spokespeople were able to offer a flexible yet incomplete vision for the technology. I contend that, despite being distinctive and offering some practical value to the proposals for national identity cards, the government’s discourses on biometrics remained insufficiently intelligible, uninformative, and implausible. The concluding discussion explains the unraveling visions for biometrics in the case, offers a theoretical contribution based on the case analysis, and provides insights about discourses on the ‘publics’ of new technology such as biometrics.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information: © 2011 Aaron K. Martin
Library of Congress subject classification: H Social Sciences > HV Social pathology. Social and public welfare. Criminology
Sets: Departments > Management
Collections > Economists Online
Supervisor: Whitley, Edgar
URI: http://etheses.lse.ac.uk/id/eprint/181

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