Deviance in the Sociologist’s Assumptions About Privacy

When last we spoke before the Jewish New Year (Shanah Tova, u’metuka to all who celebrate and G’mar tov as we approach the Day of Atonement), we had only begun to touch on the sociologist’s assumptions about privacy. In that post, I used the example of the sociologist Robert Maxwell’s assumption when he was studying sexual practices and social mores that “private” automatically referred to a “secret” or “hidden” space. I do not think, and did not mean to imply, that Professor Maxwell set out to study privacy per se; rather, it is clear from his discussion and his notes that the private world was a hidden world separated by walls. That’s why he studied wall construction permeability when he wanted to determine the pervasiveness of sexual norms.

The limitation to spaces is only one problem with the traditional sociologist’s assumptions about privacy. Another has to do with secrets. An entire branch of sociology focuses on secrets, which may indeed be a subset of the entire world of so-called private things. But too often, sociologists burden their discussions of private secrets with a normative moral weight: that is, a secret is private, or must be kept private, because it is deviant.

In his seminal article, The Sociology of Secrecy and of Secret Societies, Georg Simmel concluded that privacy is a “universal sociological form” defined by hiding something. It is universal in that we do it all the time: If all relationships between people are based on knowing something about each other, keeping certain facets of ourselves hidden can define those relationships. This does not necessarily mean that the person who knows more about us is more correct in his assessment of who we are; rather, different pictures of us are true for different people. Secrecy, therefore, allows us to do things and maintain relationships we would not otherwise be able to in a world of complete knowledge.

Simmel’s theory has one distinct advantage over any conception of privacy based on spaces: his discourse on secret societies can help us understand when a secret has ceased to become private. Privacy-as-separation fails in part because it is too strict—privacy can be eroded when one other person gains access. For Simmel, a secret can maintain its private nature, its inherent secrecy, throughout a group of people when keeping the secret is part of the identity of that group. Members of secret societies “constitute a community for the purpose of mutual guarantee of secrecy.” They define themselves by engaging in rituals and through separation from the rest of society. This does not just happen in cults; social cliques turn their backs on others or deny conversation to outsiders and groups of friends maintain each others’ secrets all the time. In all cases, the group is defined by what it knows and it expresses its privileged status by closure.

A mentor mine, the sociologist Diane Vaughan, connected this conception of secrecy with intimacy in her study of how couples break up. “We are all secret-keepers in our intimate relationships,” Professor Vaughan argues. Secrets can both enhance relationships, by smoothing over differences or by creating the intimacy of co-conspirators, and contribute to their collapse, by allowing plans to be developed without open inspection, intrusion, consent, or participation from others. And Erving Goffman would agree that this type of secrecy is an important element of privacy. “If an individual is to give expression to ideal standards during his performance,” Goffman writes, “then he will have to forgo or conceal action which is inconsistent with these standards.” In this view, privacy is the concealment of things that contradict an individual’s public facade: the “private sacrifice” of some behavior will permit the performance to continue. This is what Goffman’s famous back stage is really for. It is not, as a spatial theory of privacy would suggest, a room, stall, or secluded place; rather, it is the locus of private behavior, of secrets. For example, servants use first names, workers laugh and take breaks, and management and employees may eat together and converse informally. In some cases, this culture is associated with a space; but it is what we do in the backstage, the secrets we hide there, that defines it.

But the central failure of assuming privacy as something to do with secrecy is the tendency to conceive of those secrets as discrediting, embarrassing, or, to use the sociologist’s term, deviant. Deviance refers to behavior that violates the norms of some group. A tilt toward deviance, in turn, places a severe limitation on using secrecy to justify a legal right to privacy: if our secrets are so discrediting, society would rarely, if ever, see a need to protect them.

Much of the sociological discourse on secrecy and intimacy as it relates to privacy devolves into a normative moral judgment about those secrets. Despite the fact that he professes to make no such judgments, Goffman’s view of secret, hidden behaviors, for example, has a decidedly negative bias. The back stage is littered with “dirty work” and “inappropriate” conduct done in “secret” if it was fun or satisfying in some way. From this introduction of the back stage, Goffman only further burdens it with a normative twist. People “lapse” in the back stage, drifting toward indecorous behavior. They laugh at their audience, engage in mock role-playing, and poke fun through “uncomplimentary terms of reference.” They derogate others and brazenly lie and keep “dark” secrets.” Behind involvement shields, individuals do “sanctionable” or “unprofessional” things, like nurses smoking in a tunnel or adolescent horseplay outside of the view of others. Goffman also points to the little misbehaviors—activities he calls “fugitive involvements,” no less—that you can engage in when outside the public view:

While doing housework: You can keep your face creamed, your hair in pin curls; … when you’re sitting at the kitchen counter peeling potatoes you can do your ankle exercises and foot strengtheners, and also practice good sitting posture. … While reading or watching TV: You can brush your hair; massage your gums; do your ankle and hand exercises and foot strengtheners; do some bust and back exercises; massage your scalp; use the abrasive treatment for removing superfluous hair.

Privacy, then, is about concealing bad things, not just concealment in general. The anonymity provided by privacy does not merely allow someone to do something different; rather, it allows him to “misbehave,” to “falsely present[] himself, or do the “unattractive” things inappropriate in the public sphere.

One of Goffman’s major works, Stigma, is entirely concerned with negative or inappropriate behavior. That may sound like an uninspired conclusion given the title, but what is most telling is not the mere recitation of stigmatizing activities and things, but rather the implication that the private sphere is defined by stigma. Stigmas are “discrediting,” “debasing,” and “undesirable.” They are “secret failings” that make us “blameworthy” and “shameful.”

It is hard to deny the moral dimension to this discussion of private behaviors, activities, and symbols. They are stigmatizing, at worst, or dissonant with normal social interaction, at best. In either case, there is a moral dimension that burdens privacy with an attendant profanity and that profanity does violence to our ability to protect privacy thus understood: if the private sphere is characterized by dark secrets, or behaviors and activities that society refuses to tolerate, it is unclear how a right to privacy could ever exist.

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4 Responses

  1. Fhalyshia Orians says:

    Hey there! I’m taking an ethics class focused on how our ethics are affected by technology this semester,and one of its requirements is to read and comment on a relating blog post every week.
    Recently in class we’ve been discussing the notion of privacy on the internet: what defines privacy, and to what degrees we are entitled to it. The various views you gave in your post, although specifying more intimate forms of privacy rather than technological, are still interesting ways of thinking about privacy and are applicable to internet privacy as well.
    The notion that secrecy is inherently negative because, if the thing itself wasn’t shameful or negative in some way by society’s definition, then it wouldn’t need to be kept secretive in the first place was a fairly logical rationalization to me at first. If I am doing nothing illegal or morally reprehensible, why should I care that my email provider can access and share the contents of every email I have ever sent or received? But then I went on to think that if society’s definition of wrong was different than that of my own, how would I be affected by this lack of privacy? Just because the information that is gathered and stored about me through my various uses of today’s technology isn’t obviously affecting me, it doesn’t mean it couldn’t be. What society tolerates depends on that society’s culture, and these societal norms don’t necessarily match the personal ethics of every individual. So what this really seems to come down to is a question of individual versus the whole; privacy protects the individual from potential punishment for adhering to their own moral principles, while it prevents the governing body from completely enforcing their own. Who has the right to what, and where is the line drawn?

  2. Frank says:

    Very smart post, and you’re clearly exposing deep flaws in current discussions of privacy.

    I have one suggestion as to a “neutral” concept of privacy—perhaps emphasizing that Goffman’s “offstage” is a way of creating spaces where individuals don’t have to compete with one another–for approval, for acting decorously, for politeness, etc.

    That’s a natural extension of Peppet’s “unraveling privacy” argument. The house-spouse who doesn’t get all dolled up while cleaning the toilet is, fortunately, privileged not to have people looking at him/her while doing so.

    The inhumanity of reality TV shows like Big Brother lies in part (as Mark Andrejevic shows) in the inhuman insistence of constant competition or pressure for attunement to social norms in all moments of existence (eating, sleeping, flirting, etc). And the rise of anti-heroes (like Honey Boo Boo mom June) perhaps reflects a demotic transvaluation of values, a rebellion insisting: “if you’re going to watch us every minute of the day, infantilizing us, we may as well act like toddlers.” This is a natural response to “an immense and tutelary power” which no longer bothers to “secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate,” but merely wants to mock, contain, correct, and scold.

    • Ari Waldman says:

      Thanks, Frank. Very insightful. I like your take on Goffman’s offstage. Thinking about it not as a space, but as a space between competing individuals feeds directly into the theory I hope to unravel this month in these posts. Let’s see if it works!

  3. Emma D. says:

    I found this post very insightful. I think this discussion really points out how privacy can mean so many vastly different things to different people. I was intrigued by the concept of privacy as defined by the act of hiding something because of the connotations I see as being involved. The idea of hiding brings to mind the concept of deviance, as you discuss later on in the post, which I don’t think is always a part of the situation when someone wants privacy or to be private. I connected in some ways to the discussion of the connection between privacy and space because often the first thing that comes to mind when I think of privacy is the ability to be alone or have space to oneself. As a college student living in an apartment I am regularly incredibly grateful that I have the ability to go to my own room and be alone. I appreciate time to myself and quiet for doing things such as studying or reading. I see this situation as an example of a way that I enjoy privacy, but I don’t see it as involving any type of deviant behavior. Most of the time when I am on my own I am not doing anything differently than if someone else were there as well, like for example if I was sharing my room with a roommate, but I enjoy the ability to carry out these actions in solitude. I find that it actually feels better to do these same things on my own. Because of this personal understanding that I have I also struggle to level with a definition of privacy that necessarily involves secrecy. To use the same example, everyone in my apartment may know that I am in my room doing homework, but I still feel a sense of privacy involved in the situation despite the fact that there is no secrecy about my actions. I feel that sense of privacy simply because I have a space to myself where I can be alone. I am still working on pinning down the specifics about my feelings related to privacy, and I appreciate all of the questions that this post raises and the various potential definitions of privacy that are provided.