Date of Award

January 2021

Document Type

Open Access Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Public Health (MPH)


School of Public Health

First Advisor

Jason Schwartz


At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, contact tracing was implemented as a public health measure to prevent the further spread of disease. In this thesis, I analyze contact tracing as a case study of public health surveillance. I argue that public health does not sufficiently study the social components and consequences of its surveillant activities, and as a result is hyperopic; it sees health-related phenomena at a distance with clarity, but has not brought its own logics under view. To remedy this, I utilize perspectives from the field of surveillance studies, which studies surveillance as social and cultural phenomena. In analyzing federal guidelines for contact tracing and statewide contact tracing interview scripts, I show how contact tracing has two primary functions, knowledge production and public assistance, and I argue that these programs in their first few months focused on the former over the latter. Through analyzing contact tracing training materials, I show how contact tracers are taught to utilize a rhetoric of care within their practice to build rapport with the public and therein to better be able to collect data. I argue that this instance of surveillance might better be understood in terms of what I call “serveillance,” replacing the root sur- (meaning “over”) with ser- (meaning “to protect” and “to order”). This brings to the forefront questions of whom and what purposes surveillance serves, and whom it protects. By bearing in mind the various social aspects of these surveillance practices, I argue that public health’s commitments to knowledge production over public assistance are made clear in times of crisis, and this transparency shows how future public health practice can be altered to better support publics.


This is an Open Access Thesis.

Open Access

This Article is Open Access