Towards a history of privacy: conceptual and methodological considerations

If privacy is a highly debated topic today, particularly in the USA, it is mainly because of increasing concerns in the last two decades regarding the rise of digitalization, on the one hand, and surveillance promising security against “terrorism,” on the other. As a look at the surge of the term “privacy” in an n-gram Google books search shows, this had been a rising concern since the 1960s.

Alan F. Westin published the first seminal book on privacy in 1967, Privacy and Freedom, which influenced several legal reforms in the 1970s and 1980s in the USA. He devised a taxonomy with four different states of privacy: solitude, intimacy, reserve, and anonymity. The central issue was already the interception of communications, physical and increasingly electronic. In a similar vein, the growing use of the internet triggered concerns regarding a seemingly limitless invasion of privacy. Jeffrey Rosen published The Unwanted Gaze: The Destruction of Privacy in America in 2000, and The Naked Crowd: Reclaiming Security and Freedom in an Anxious Age in 2004, with an emphasis on privacy in a digital world. James B. Rule in 2007 Privacy in Peril, offered an account of the tradeoff involved between privacy and security or other conveniences by individuals willingly giving electronic information to government and corporations.

In his 2008 book, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, Jonathan Zittrain showed how the transition to a web 2.0 also involved a transition from a “Privacy 1.0” (data gathered by and stored in government and corporate databases) to a “Privacy 2.0” (data created and freely shared by individuals). In that spirit, in Constitution 3.0: Freedom and Technological Change, edited by Jeffrey Rosen and Benjamin Wittes in 2011, leading US scholars imagine the state of things to come and suggest policies and legal solutions to issues related not only to technological advances in surveillance but also neuroscience and genetics.

In conceptualizing privacy, these works have in common that they consider privacy as a valuable good from an individual point of view, an individual right that needs protection. Of course, I do not contend that we should not see privacy as a right that needs protection, but as a historian, and particularly an intellectual historian, this present conceptualization is problematic and is the starting point of a Foucauldian interrogation on a “history of the present.” How did we come to consider privacy as a human right? It was not present in the 1789 Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, but is in article 12 of the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Privacy is however difficult to conceptualize and attempts to do so may lead to everything and nothing. Daniel J. Solove, in his 2008 Understanding Privacy, noted this difficulty and suggested a new taxonomy different from Westin’s (information collection, processing, dissemination, and invasion of privacy). Solove suggests avoiding an essentialist conception of privacy with a defined “core.” Instead, one should consider Wittgenstein’s theory of language and “family resemblances” when studying privacy. Rather than looking at one issue, Solove suggests a bottom-up approach by understanding “privacy as a set of protections against a plurality of distinct but related problems” (p. 171). This set of related problems forms a cluster of disparate notions that we solely for practical purposes unite under the common denomination “privacy.”

As a parenthesis on Wittgenstein, one may note that he exiled himself in Skjolden, Norway, in a secluded and isolated hut, which was visible to all in the village downhill. A sort of “conspicuous privacy.” This points the finger on one issue, which is also identified by many book covers and also the logo chosen for the Centre for Privacy Studies: an external eye witnessing the “private.”Eye dilate

Now, a key issue in intellectual history concerns the methodological and conceptual characterization of the object of study, typically a concept, idea, any intellectual production. Consider liberty. One could chose to define liberty first, and then look to the past to identify how the defined liberty was used and thought of, and how the concept was formed. This way of writing history, however, runs the risk of anachronism. As Quentin Skinner showed in Liberty Before Liberalism, one may overlook other conceptions of liberty, a neo-Roman or neo-Republican conception, than the one determined by the dominant paradigm of liberalism. The issue is this: writing the history of an intellectual object has two occupations. First, writing the history of the object in the past. Second, writing the history of the formation of the object in the past–how we got this object today.

Privacy is no different and is a typical case of an object of study, for which the word did not necessarily exist in the past or rarely occured. As Ferdinand de Saussure put it, an object has two components: a signifié (signified), or the concept that a word is designating, and a signifiant (signifier) or the word that designates the concept. Now a historian looks at sources, documents, that prove the existence of an object in the past. However, looking at the word is only looking at one side of the object when it is an intellectual one. A concept may exist before a word appears to define it. Also, the same word may designate a different concept than the one we have today. One could see this as making the object of study two dimensional rather than one-dimensional.

Of course, the concept of privacy obeys the same methodological considerations for the historian. From an intellectual historian’s point of view, it is, therefore, a double endeavor: investigating how past human beings thought of privacy, and investigating how the notion itself developed and became a word. For the first endeavor, we often lack a word, so there is a need to consider alternative methods. For the second, we lack a clear conceptualization of what notions to look for that will create the word. A quick look again at Google books shows the beginnings of the use of the word “privacy” and a peak in the mid-17th century after the end of the English civil war.

Moreover, privacy is more than just a concept. It is also a feeling and a condition.  Beate Rossler has theorized three dimensions of privacy: decisional privacy (the privacy of actions), informational privacy (the proper “right to privacy” or “right to be left alone” from Warren and Brandeis), and local privacy (the traditional private home separate from the public). That may be a third dimension to understanding privacy as an object of study. Privacy is, therefore, a great case for a truly interdisciplinary study program and deserves to be expanded into a whole field of study: privacy studies.

The Centre for Privacy Studies opted for an ambitious methodological and theoretical approach while maintaining a firm and clearly delineated bottom-up case-based study. Centre director Mette Birkedal Bruun published two papers on the centre’s working method. One is “Privacy in Early Modern Christianity and Beyond: Traces and Approaches” Annali Istituto storico italo-germanico/Jahrbuch des italienisch-deutschen historischen Instituts in Trient 44 (2018/2), 33-54. Another one is available on the Centre’s homepage. We understand privacy both as a quality and a threat from the perspective of all parts involved. In order to examine family resemblances, we not only analyze the stem “priv” in a corpus of texts–“priv- words”, i.e. words like “ “private,” “privacy,” “privy,” in various languages–but we also use a semantic mapping of words related and/or opposed to “private”–such as “common,” “professional,” “public,” etc. We also use heuristic zones to delineate the intersection, exclusion, and overlap of various spheres of privacy:

By examining how some problems related to privacy occurred at different places and times, we want to present a micro-historical observation of the human condition. All these cases could then serve for the basis of a bigger macro-analysis of the variations in thinking of and living with privacy.

This is what a scientific research program in the humanities aims to achieve: to provide society the tools to understand itself and the human condition in order to make better-informed decisions for the future. However, humankind does not understand universally the concept of “privacy” in the same way. Barrington Moore wrote a seminal anthropological and historical study comparing an Eskimo community, classical Athens, the Old Testament, and Ancient China. The first issue lies in the translation of this cluster we call “privacy” in other languages and in wondering with Moore whether it is universal at all. In my next post, I shall consider “privacy” in the French language as an example.

Privacy Challenge Seminar: Family Secrecy and Privacy

With Associate Professor Karen Asta Arnfred Vallgårda, SAXO-Institute, University of Copenhagen.

Family Secrecy and Privacy

Every family has a skeleton in the closet, or so the saying goes. A dubious deed or a disgracing detail that is kept under wraps through more or less elaborate practices of secrecy. But what does this convey about the family and its relationship to society or the state? And how might a historical perspective help us better understand the nexus between the public and the private in contemporary society? The presentation introduces the collective research project The Politics of Family Secrecy, which examines practices of knowledge management related to different taboos in twentieth century Denmark, and reflects on the historical and contemporary connections between secrecy and privacy.

Karen Asta Arnfred Vallgårda’s research centers on political family and childhood history in the 19th and 20th centuries. She examines how people have organized their family life, how power is exercised in intimate relationships, and how such relationships have been shaped by shifting social, economic, political and legal circumstances.

About the Challenge Seminars:

PRIVACY hosts two Challenge Seminars each semester. Here, the PRIVACY’s research team join with invited experts on topics such as surveillance, privacy rights, medical ethics, work-life balance or social cohesion, in order to pose mutual research challenges.

Centre for Privacy Studies

The Danish National Research Foundation Centre for Privacy Studies (PRIVACY) was established in September 2017 through a generous grant of 50 Mio. DKK (approx. 6.7 Mio. Euro) from the Danish National Research Foundation (DNRF).

The PRIVACY research team will examine how no­tions of privacy shape relations between individuals and society across diverse historical contexts. We are particularly interested in indications of privacy as a quality and threat: in the emergence and development of the idea that too little privacy threatens the individual while too much may ruin society.

PRIVACY focuses on the period 1500–1800 that sees critical changes in individuals’ relationship to society. It brings together the fields of Church History, History of Architecture, Legal History and History of Ideas.

PRIVACY’s scholarly goals are grounded in the overall aim to launch privacy studies as a new re­search field.

We aim to develop:

  • systematized historical knowledge of dynamics that shape, induce or curb privacy in society.
  • an interdisciplinary method equipped to grasp such dy­namics.
  • a strong and vibrant international research environment dedicated to high-profile historical research and equipped to incite a much broader investigation of privacy.

PRIVACY brings together the fields of Church History, Architectural History, Legal History, Social History the History of Ideas in a novel interdisciplinary approach based on disciplinary integrationand site-based analysis.

Our principal focus rests with the period 1500-1800. The wider aim of PRIVA­CY is, however, to mobilize knowledge of past notions of privacy as a resource that can help decode the intrica­cies of present concerns related to the indi­vidual’s place in society.

PRIVACY is hosted by
The Department of Church History, The Faculty of Theology, University of Copenhagen

in association with:
The Faculty of Law, University of Copenhagen
The School of Architecture, Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Schools of Architecture, Design and Conservations (KADK), Copenhagen

and in collaboration with:
The Department of Arts and Cultural Studies, Institute of History of Ideas and Sciences at Lund University, Sweden
Institut für Geschichte und Theorie der Architektur, ETH Zürich, Switzerland
The Herzog August Bibliothek, Wolfenbüttel, Germany
Institut d’Histoire du Droit, Université Paris II, France
The Subject Group Political Thought and Intellectual History, University of Cam­bridge, United Kingdom