The benefits of the “workshop volume” and the launching of a CFP – Talking in private: tracing everyday conversations in early modern Europe

Academia is often a solitary pursuit. In that light, the vision of collaborative research implemented at the Centre for Privacy Studies is rather unusual. Within the case teams of the research program, each postdoc and doctoral student is working close together with previously unknown colleagues, something that is certainly both challenging and stimulating.

But the centre’s collaborative endeavours stretch beyond the eleven case teams. For example, since May 2019, a group of Danish and Swedish scholars, covering affiliations to no less than ten different institutions, have been working on a joint volume with the preliminary title Private/Public in Eighteenth-Century Scandinavia. Since yesterday, the entire manuscript is in the hands of our brilliant editors (and co-authors in the volume) Helle Vogt and Sari Nauman. It will soon be submitted to the publisher.

The upcoming volume is a product of a series of workshops. Instead of preparing oral presentations, all participants have taken time to read each other’s work-in-progress beforehand in order to contribute to the discussion of each text. The sessions have, consequently, been marked by joint discussions rather than monologues.

Admittedly, this is not a unique concept. I had my first peak on this academic practice as a doctoral student at Lund University working in professor Svante Norrhem’s research project on French subsidies to Sweden during the early modern era. Together with his colleague Erik Thomson (University of Manitoba), Svante invited a group of scholars specialized in early modern diplomacy, of which they had not met most of them before. The result was a really insightful volume on the role played by subsidies in early modern Europe. As an observer, I was fascinated by this way of conducting research and producing publications.

To my mind, this sort of publication project – let us call it the “workshop volume” – is an underestimated way of making collaborative research in a smaller scale. The workshop functions, ideally but also in my experience, as a kind of writing group, marked by an explorative approach and a significant amount of peer learning. Beside the end product – the volume – it can really offer a boost to individual scholars as we tend to get different comments from people coming in from new environments.

The process of making a workshop volume differs from doing something together with people from your own department or graduate school, with whom you tend to share a lot of common references and underlying assumptions. It also differs from the typical “conference volume”. Indeed, there are many valuable conference volumes out there, but it is something different than collecting thoughtful presentations to let not finalised drafts be formed by discussion along the way of a production process. To be fair, strong departments, stimulating conferences and (most of all!) scholarly journals are fundamental to the academic infrastructure. But as I see it, the workshop volume offers a way of working towards a publication that has its own advantages.

In the case of our soon submitted volume, it all started with a rather general Call for Papers asking for perspectives on privacy, the private and the public, with the geographical area of Scandinavia and the early modern period as the only delimitations. I was myself one of the persons responding to the call. During our sessions, the scope for our volume was narrowed down step by step:

– We gradually shifted from discussing “privacy”, via “private and public”, to a more specific interest for “the private in the public”. That means, roughly, examples of public exposure of the private, or private spaces embedded in an understanding of the public (in various ways, as the volume will demonstrate…)

– Most of us brought texts dealing with the eighteenth century to the table, which it why it made sense to us as a group to arrange the chronological scope accordingly. However, this framework did not exclude contributions related to the seventeenth and the nineteenth century; on the contrary, the contributions dealing with a longer timespan could offer us valuable reference points at both ends that helped us to reflect on changes over time.

– We concluded that most texts related to either spaces or communication, or both. This helped us to stipulate sub-sections of the book, to narrow the thematical scope, and to identify relevant research fields and cross-references.

Of course, we also tried out other ideas that didn’t last throughout the process. The point I want to make is that the choices we made were formed organically by the dynamics of the workshops.


CFP on private conversations

My own text in the upcoming volume is exploring practices of talking in private in the early modern society, more precisely in the case of state investigations over Swedish Pietism in the 1720s. Much scholarship has depicted the early modern Scandinavian societies as public scenes, on which all matters were public. In my article, this perspective is turned upside down, and the focus is instead set on what was described as private conversations. The article demonstrates the possibility to explore how people involved in the investigations had practices of talking in private – and arguments for keeping it private.

When arriving to the centre, my new colleague Natacha Klein Käfer was working on an article with partly shared connotations. Her article (for another volume) raises the question how we can understand bonds of confidentiality between healers and patients in early modern societies by reading court records.

With both these articles recently submitted, we are together launching a CFP for delving deeper into these matters in the form of a “workshop volume” preliminary entitled Talking in private: tracing everyday conversations in Early Modern Europe. In accordance with the workshop concept explained above, we are looking forward to a collaborative and open process towards the unexpected!

The workshop will take place 7–8 October 2021, hopefully in person (depending on the corona situation), at the Centre for Privacy Studies, University of Copenhagen.

The deadline for the CFP is 11 April 2021, so there is some time ahead to go through sources, and join our new quest for this kind of private matters in early modern times.

Essay: Staying home – an opportunity for privacy or a threat to privacy?

‘Please stay home for us!’ Since the outbreak of the corona crisis, healthcare workers from across the world have been successful in crowding social media with this message to the public. Indeed, it seems sensible for the common good to follow their advice, at least out of necessity. Thinking about implications for privacy, as we constantly do at the Centre for Privacy Studies, it seems obvious to ask whether more time at home might not also have positive side effects in terms of privacy. To be sure, long before the modern era, the home has been defined as a private sphere, in opposition to the public square. Along the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, residential buildings have been gradually extended, isolated from each other and become places where an increasing number of people could benefit from certain legal rights to live undisturbed by the outside world (and to some extent even by their closest neighbours). Accordingly, privacy is sometimes described in terms of physical and mental autonomy or solitude, for example as ‘a state of being alone’.[1] With this background, one could imagine that the appeal to stay at home, apart from the apparent problems embedded in transforming it to a place of work, would resonate like a romantic invitation to an existence rich with valuable privacy, whether alone or with family.

Indeed, the corona realities liberate more time for ourselves or our families. But after several weeks almost entirely spent between the walls of our homes, does it really make sense to talk about life dictated by the virus as an existence beneficial for privacy? Although families get more time together – which can surely be valuable in many cases – children have had a rising need to get out. [2] In several countries, public playgrounds have been closed during the strictest lock-downs, and the Spanish government has only recently opened up for children under fourteen to leave their home one hour per diem. [3] As for people living by themselves, the order to stay at home tends to lead to isolation, at least after the first weeks of intense puzzling with crosswords and Netflix consummation. Mental disease, and even suicide rates, are expected to increase as a consequence of rising loneliness.[4]

When I first started to reflect upon how to approach the elusive topic of privacy, which surely escapes too narrow definitions, I was a bit sceptic to approaches that put too much emphasis on the individual’s inner life or a state of solitude. In my efforts to problematise such definitions, I was struck by a stimulating question formulated by Helen Nissenbaum, professor of information science at Cornell Tech: ‘Does a person stranded on an island really have privacy?’.[5] I still find it really difficult to motivate an affirmative reply on that question. Slightly reformulated, it seems to be quite applicable on the quarantine situation: Does a person locked inside his or her home really have privacy? Isn’t rather each family or household stranded on a desert island, although equipped with a decent WiFi-connection?

Professor Helen Nissenbaum (b. 1954)

Helen Nissenbaum has been highly influential in forming US legislation on informational privacy, which is partly based on her concept of ‘contextual integrity’ regarding public surveillance. The basic principle is that no information is private as such; laws must be formulated with regard to its social context. Together with the Canadian philosopher Michael Walzer’s concept ‘spheres of justice’, the framework of contextual integrity urges information gathering to define categories depending on the social norms of various contexts.[6] While Nissenbaum specialises in informational privacy, her heuristic questioning of whether there is reason to speak about privacy on a desert island with one single inhabitant implies that social relations might be an important factor when trying to understand what makes privacy valuable.

Considering privacy as a fundamentally relational phenomenon would suggest that valuable privacy would typically emerge as a response to social experience, in dynamic with others and the outside world. Indeed, this idea coincides pretty well with some creative approaches to study notions of privacy within the field of cultural history, for example as a protest against intrusion (from authorities or fellow citizens), an act of temporary withdrawal from social life or a need to cultivate more intimate relations.[7] This would not exclude the assumption that key moments of experienced privacy are taking place in more or less secluded physical spaces, or while the individual is fully occupied with his or her inner life. But it would encourage scholars in search of privacy to investigate how such moments are related to a social context (authoritarian or friendly) that provokes a need for privacy. It would also imply that long-term isolation might be a threat to privacy.  

If privacy is understood as a response to social experience rather than just in terms of being in one’s private sphere, the social isolation following on the plea to stay at home during the corona crisis may not contribute very well to evoke the values of privacy. But it does seem to suggest a clear-cut distinction between private and public responsibilities during the crisis: the private responsibility being to stay at home; the public responsibility to provide health care to those who need it. From a historical perspective, it might be most peculiar that people are encouraged to be passive. In emergency regulations for seventeenth-century Helmstedt and eighteenth-century Altona – two of the case cities that we are currently researching at PRIVACY – private responsibilities were generally of more active character. In order to prepare for the risk of fire, private people (Privat-Leuten) were ordered to be constantly on guard to provide the city’s functionaries with water and lighting, even in the middle of the night. Today we are barely asked for more than to provide ourselves (and our elderly) with food and toilet paper. Briefly, we are encouraged to fight the corona virus in our distinct private sphere. Having reached a high degree of specialisation and material welfare, today’s Western societies provide its citizens with both physical space and room for action to perform their private lives, in states of emergency as well as under more normal circumstances.


Extract from the fire regulation of seventeenth-century Helmstedt

One thing is sure. Setting our normal lives on hold and staying home gives us quite a unique occasion to ponder and experience what privacy is and what it isn’t. Does it make sense to us, under these extreme conditions, to regard privacy as a state of being alone or as an existence in our private sphere? Or does it rather correspond to our experience that long-term isolation, or the conditions in the private sphere, make it more difficult to experience privacy? We may take the opportunity to try to detect how ‘the corona human’ is seeking his or her privacy. Perhaps by borrowing a dog from the neighbour? It has been widely noticed that dog owners in areas with strict quarantine regulations have been lending out, or even renting out, their dogs to people desperate to get out.[8] The rising interest in dog-walks might satisfy many needs in terms of privacy. It might offer socially overwhelmed family members ‘a time of one’s own’. Obversely, individuals living in self-isolation can get an opportunity to escape their cells, which may help them to live through or, even better, benefit from further days in solitude. A third person might find the dog walking business a joyful way to outsmart the authorities and reconquer his or her autonomy. Perhaps these various efforts to leave one’s private sphere indicate that the state of emergency following on the corona virus is as much a threat to privacy as an opportunity for it? 


[1] E. g. Cambridge English Dictionary, ‘Privacy’. For a rich discussion on theories regarding privacy in relation to freedom and autonomy, see Beate Rössler, The Value of Privacy, Polity Press (Frankfurt am Main 2005) [2001], p. 43–76.




[5] Helen Nissenbaum, Privacy in context: technology, policy and the integrity of social life, Stanford Law Books (Stanford 2010), p. 71.

[6] Helen Nissenbaum, ‘Privacy As Contextual Integrity’, Washington law review, 79:1 (2004).

[7] See for example Barrington Moore, Privacy: Studies in Social and Cultural History, M. E. Sharpe, Armonk (New York 1984), p. xi, 71–73; Diana Webb, Privacy and solitude in the middle ages, Hambledon Continuum (London 2007), p. ix; Julie C. Inness, Privacy, Intimacy, and Isolation, Oxford University Press (New York 1992).