Past Privacy Matters

On 3rd April 2024, the workshop “Past Privacy Matters: How to Study It and Why” attracted an audience of sixty-nine students and professors at the Federal University of Santa Maria (UFSM) in Santa Maria, Brazil, in addition to thirty-three attending online.

The workshop was organized by LAPS (Latin American Privacy Studies) and the postgraduate programme in history at UFSM (PPGH) in collaboration with the Centre for Privacy Studies (PRIVACY) at the University of Copenhagen. Natacha Klein Käfer (PRIVACY) designed the programme to bring together a small team of speakers, and Taís Tomazi (UFSM) arranged logistics on the ground with the help of PPGH students. The five lectures provoked an engaging discussion in Portuguese and English about the meaning of privacy and the challenges of studying it.

Speakers and participants were warmly welcomed by José Remedi, Professor of History and Vice-Dean of Humanities at UFSM. Professor Remedi expressed solidarity with striking university workers calling for improved wages and conditions.

In the opening lecture, Natacha Klein Käfer, Assistant Professor at PRIVACY, presented a methodological introduction to historical privacy studies. She gave an overview of the diverse research of the Centre for Privacy Studies, including publications and ongoing projects. Teams of scholars at PRIVACY focus on five key domains of knowledge: privacy in the context of law, health, the home, urban spaces and belief. An important tool of research are the heuristic zones developed by Professor Mette Birkedal Bruun, Director of PRIVACY [1]. The heuristic zones are neither a method, theory or result, but rather a tool for analysing the meaning of privacy in different contexts.

Natacha considered some questions privacy scholars ask, which may include, Who gets to decide what will be private? Is privacy imposed against someone’s will or willingly taken and defined? The following discussion highlighted that, although scholars are necessarily concerned with problems of identifying examples of privacy in different situations, the more important objective is not to define privacy in a concrete way but rather to focus on questions of its fluidity, how it is interconnected with aspects of the public. A withdrawal from public life, for example, may involve negotiating and giving public notice of the withdrawal.

The second session was presented online by Johannes Ljungberg, Assistant Professor at PRIVACY, on the topic of “What privacy are we talking about?” Johannes reviewed the historiography of privacy in the twentieth century in the context of the enshrining of privacy as a right in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Johannes argued that Jürgen Habermas’s theory of the public sphere has skewed thinking on privacy because, while it is commonly claimed that privacy did not exist in the premodern period, it is rarely recognized that the same is true for the public sphere as Habermas defined it.

Johannes sparked a good discussion with four propositions about privacy. Particularly interesting is the proposition that “privacy is a product of social interaction”. This refers to the idea that we often only notice privacy when we lose it, as a result of some social intrusion. Johannes suggested that this may be a recurring historical phenomenon. One example was the call for privacy to be recognized as a right, by Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis in 1890 [2]. The historical context was the rapid spread of photography and newspapers, which, according to Warren and Brandeis, was turning gossip into a trade, broadcasting the prurient details of people’s private sexual affairs.

In “Researching privacy through the history of emotions: voices from the margins”, Jelena Bakić, Researcher at the Free University of Bolzano, presented three case studies from Renaissance Italy of two women and a man who shared personal reflections in dedicatory epistles to their published books. Jelena’s research demonstrates that paratexts can reveal significant insights into the particular circumstances and concerns of individual writers, despite the commonplace that paratexts are merely rhetorical.

One of Jelena’s cases was that of Camilla Herculiana, an apothecary and natural philosopher from sixteenth-century Padua, who complains that the time she has to write and work is severely restricted by her responsibility to her husband, caring for her children, and the demands of household management. Although women were expected to declare their dedication to husband and family, Camilla’s words also express an emotional and personal protest against the position of women in her society. Jelena’s vivid examples showed how the public and private are intertwined in women’s and men’s paratexts. Although the published paratext is a public statement, the public persona it presents generally reveals some details about the individual’s life. Its public and private meanings lie therefore in what the writer chooses to make public about their private experience.

In “Privacy and the novel: a history of utopian possibilities”, Liam Benison, Researcher at the University of Verona and University of Porto, discussed how utopias have been used by scholars as sources to understand the history of privacy. He argued that utopian texts are of great importance to the history of privacy because the problem of the private is at the heart of utopian thinking. His research focuses on how representations of doors in utopian architectures open up insights into how utopian writers conceived of privacy and frequently saw it as a threat in an ideal society, although they often availed themselves of privacy in their own lives.

Liam presented an overview of the methodology he is developing in the CETAPS Digital Lab at the University of Porto, which applies PRIVACY tools using digital humanities methods in practice. Liam’s presentation was followed by an interesting discussion regarding literature and privacy, and also about surveillance and privacy in the early modern period and today.

The final session, “Privacy through quantitative sources: a possible encounter”, was presented by Taís Tomazi, PhD candidate at UFSM. Taís discussed the value of the use of quantitative sources and considered some of the disadvantages. She looked at the use of databases, fontes seriais versus qualitative information and information derived from personal testimonies such as diaries or official documents such as legal trial records. By focusing on inventories from the nineteenth century in southern Brazil, Taís showed how it is possible to reconstruct private space and private life, and what are the challenges. A serial history, Taís’s research shows, offers an important and valuable avenue of research for the history of privacy.

Taís provoked an engaging discussion in which Professor Luís Augusto Farinatti (UFSM) pointed to how a sense of privacy can affect the way in which certain facts of history enter or do not enter the historical record. He gave the example of Gaúcho households in the borderlands between Imperial Brazil and Argentina that owned knives used in feuds. The knives legally had to be registered, but if a researcher looks for knives in the registers, they almost never find them, because families regarded the cultural tradition of feuding as private and none of the business of state authorities.

The workshop demonstrated a strong interest in historical privacy studies among students and staff at UFSM, and was productive in fostering new scholarly contacts between the speakers and UFSM researchers. The authors of this post are very thankful to Natacha for the opportunity to present at this event and for the warm welcome we received at UFSM. It was a wonderful and memorable experience and we hope the first of many future engagements with the new scholarly friends we met.


1. Mette Birkedal Bruun, ‘Privacy in Early Modern Christianity and Beyond: Traces and Approaches’, Annali Dell’Istituto Storico Italo-Germanico in Trento, 44.2 (2018), 33–54.

2. Samuel D. Warren and Louis D. Brandeis, ‘The Right to Privacy’, Harvard Law Review, 4.5 (1890), 193–220.

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