Introductions and the Sociology of Privacy

It is always a pleasure to join the Concurring Opinions community, one that I find supportive and tough, insightful and witty. I hope to contribute to ongoing discussions, raise a few eyebrows and bring some new perspective to issues of great concern to us all. Thanks to the incomparable Danielle Citron and the Con-Op community of leaders for having me on this month, and thank you in advance to all the readers for indulging my interest in sociology and privacy.

That is what I’d like to write about this month. My research is on the law and sociology of privacy and the Internet, but I am particularly concerned with the injustices and inequalities that arise in unregulated digital spaces. This was the animator of my previous work on bullying and cyberharassment of LGBT youth. This month, I would like to speak more broadly about how sociologists (I am completely my Ph.D. in sociology at Columbia U) talk about privacy and, by the end of the month, persuasively argue that we — lawyers, legal scholars, sociologists, psychologists, economists, philosophers and other social scientists and theories — are, for the most part, thinking about privacy too narrowly, too one-dimensionally, too pre-Internet to adequately protect private interests, whatever they may be. But before I get there, let me start small.

Many of us are familiar with the work of legal and economic privacy scholars, from Dan Solove to Alessandro Acquisti, from Jeffrey Rosen to Larry Lessig and Julie Cohen. All incredibly smart and insightful academics who have taught me much. But many are less familiar with sociologists like Robert J. Maxwell (not to be confused with the Robert Maxwell who produced “Lassie”) who’s work I would like to discuss briefly. I argue that Maxwell’s work evokes a typically narrow conception of privacy too common among sociologists: that privacy is, at best, about mere separation from others and, at worst, about the space for deviance.

Maxwell wanted to know about the presence of premarital sex in preindustrial societies. So, using an established data set including all sorts of details about these societies, Maxwell decided to look at the connection, if any, between sexual norms and, of all things, the permeability of wall construction materials. The codings for whether sex was allowed ranged from “premarital relations not allowed and not sanctioned unless pregnancy results” to “insistence on virginity; premarital sex relations prohibited, strongly sanctioned in fact rare.” Wall material codings ranged from the relatively impermeable “stone,” “stucco,” “concrete” and “fired brick” to “nonwalls” (literally, no walls, or temporary screens). He was working off the glass houses hypothesis — people who live in glass houses will not throw stones. Therefore, he thought that the more permeable the wall, the less rigid the antisex norms.

He was right.

He found that there was inverse relationship between the permeability of the materials used in wall construction and the rigidity of the norms regulating premarital sex for women.

The data provide a simple, though imperfect, proxy for talking about privacy in a discrete social unit. Walls are barriers to knowledge about what’s going on behind them (though, not impenetrable barriers, see Kyllo v. United States, 533 U.S. 27 (2001) (heat sensors used to pierce the wall of a home)). Strong anti-premarital sex norms existed in communities that could afford to have them, i.e., communities that had impenetrable walls to create hiding spaces. Communities without walls or hiding places more likely had their members have sex out in the open or, at least, in view of others. They could not afford or were not able to have strict antisex norms.

This tells us two things about how sociologists study privacy.

First, sociologists tend to think about the private as separate from the public and indulge in an oft-used spatial analogy. In fact, they’re not alone. Much of the social science literature uses the rhetoric of spaces, territories, walls, and other indicators of literal separation to support theoretical arguments. For example, Joseph Rykwert, an historian of the ancient world, argued that there was a direct correspondence between ancient conceptions of privacy and the women’s rooms in the home, on the one hand, and public behavior and the men’s rooms, on the other. The distinction in the home was literal. In his work on secret societies, Georg Simmel not only argued that “detachment” and “exclusion” were necessary for the success of a secret organization, but analogized the role of the secret to a wall of separation: “Their secret encircles them like a boundary, beyond which there is nothing.” Erving Goffman, a preeminent sociologists whose work almost every undergraduate reads in a Sociology 101 course, built his entire microsociology theory of how people behave in public around a theatrical conceit that distinguished between the “front stage,” where the action happened, and the “back stage,” where the actors could kick back. And so, when the Maxwell wanted to study sexual intimacy in pre-industrial societies, he chose to study wall construction, material permeability, and hidden spaces to determine if there was a relationship between intimacy norms in the greater society and private behavior.

But conceiving of privacy as sequestration or as a hidden space has its limits. Neither Goffman nor Simmel ever really meant their analogy to be put into practice. Both wrote much about how privacy could exist in public, in crowded rooms and when you around many other people. And yet privacy-as-sequestration in a space permeates the law of privacy, from the continued sanctity of the home to old cases like Olmstead v. United States, 277 U.S. 438 (1928), that hinged privacy invasions on an actual, physical trespass. Some sociologists appear to be guilty of the same lack of imagination that Justice Brandeis called out in his Olmstead dissent: “The protection guaranteed by the amendments is much broader in scope. The makers of our Constitution undertook to secure conditions favorable to the pursuit of happiness. They recognized the significance of man’s spiritual nature, of his feelings and of his intellect. They knew that only a part of the pain, pleasure and satisfactions of life are to be found in material things. They sought to protect Americans in their beliefs, their thoughts, their emotions and their sensations. They conferred, as against the government, the right to be let alone-the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.”

The second thing this approach to the study of privacy tells us about sociologists and privacy is that they, and many other scholars, burden privacy with a moral dimension. They associate privacy and private places with deviance. This is where I will pick up in my next post.

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2 Responses

  1. Orin Kerr says:

    Ari, I look forward to your posts. Just based on your description, though, it’s not obvious to me that Maxwell was studying privacy. He seems to be studying an one example of how the possibility of observation by others can influence conduct. While this is one part of privacy, it’s not clear to me why it shows that Maxwell has a limited conception of privacy — as compared to a broad conception in general that happened to be studied in one small way with his study. More broadly, my sens is that pretty much everyone intuitively gets that the word ‘privacy,’ like the word ‘liberty,’ has lots of different meanings depending on the conduct. The question for lawyers is which meanings should receive legal force in which contexts. It’s not clear to me what “conceptions of privacy” have to do with answering that question.

  2. Ari Waldman says:

    Hi Orin, Thank you for your comment. You’re right in the sense that Maxwell did not go about his project to study privacy as such. He was studying sexual norms and publicity. Few, if any, sociologists study privacy; they study spaces, territories, norms, interactions, some of which evoke everyday ideas about private spaces and territories. My broader point, which I will discuss over time, is that sociologists are too quick to assume a definition of “the private”, wrap it into their work and move on, leaving unexplained why they chose to think about a given space as “private.” But you are correct when you say that Maxwell was not studying privacy explicitly. I do think we can go beneath his project and see his assumptions about privacy. Thanks for your comment!