What Can Erving Goffman Teach Us About “Privacy”

I hope those celebrating Yom Kippur had a an easy fast.

We’ve already seen a few clues into the famous sociologist’s assumptions about privacy. As I discussed last week, Goffman seemed to fall into the trap of burdening his vision of “the private” with a negative moral judgment: we do things in secret because to do them in public would be embarrassing, discrediting, or worse. The private sphere was assumed to be the place where we literally let our hair down, literally let out our gut, and literally curse our our bosses. (And I am using the word “literally” correctly here, not according to the frustrating new definition, which will literally — ahem — make your head explode!).

In a series of short posts, I would like to flesh out what else we can learn from Goffman regarding the sociologists’ assumptions about privacy. It’s worth looking at Goffman, not only because of the seminal role he continues to play in sociological theory (if not methods) but because his theories are part of the culture and zeitgeist in which privacy scholars from the legal and philosophical worlds also live.

Goffman is famous, in part, for his back stage/front stage distinction in his discussion of micro- and macro-social interaction. In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Goffman (1959) analyzes social interaction through an extended theatrical conceit, comparing individuals to actors on a stage. He separates the front stage, where the performance of social interaction occurs (p. 107), and the back stage, where individuals can drop the façade of performance (p. 112). And he describes them as places, or “setting[s]” (Goffman, 1959, p. 107). The back stage is a place of hiding (Goffman, 1959, p. 113), so that devices like telephones, closets, and bathrooms “could be used ‘privately” (p. 112). It is also cut off from the front stage by a partition, passageway, or curtain (p. 112). The backstage, then, is defined by providing the performer with a private space—like a home, a green room, or a bathroom—to do certain necessary things away from an audience.

This sounds like a perfect tool for supporting spatial assumptions about privacy. But that would be taking Goffman too literally.

Perhaps we should resign ourselves to the idea that Goffman is a moralist who has a limited view of privacy as a place for deviance. My previous post certainly offered strong evidence of that. But, again, that might be taking Goffman too literally. More importantly, it misses what I feel is his greatest contribution to the study of privacy from a sociological standpoint.

Consider Goffman’s (1972) explanation for why staring and “intrusive looks” (p. 45) are, to use his words, “invasions of privacy.” Staring, Goffman (1963) writes, is not an ordinary or appropriate social interaction: it discriminates against the target and puts him “in a class apart” (p. 86). You stare at zoo monkeys, not people, so the invasion of privacy must either be a threat to the victim’s dignity as an end in himself, per Kant, or a breach of some implied duty that individuals owe one another. Goffman, true to his sociological roots, argues the latter, calling it a duty “civil inattention” (p. 85). This has groundbreaking implications for the study of privacy.

Civil inattention is a form of polite recognition of strangers, manifesting itself in nods of acknowledgment alongside a respectful modesty not to intrude where you do not belong. Staring at a physically injured or deformed bystander is the antithesis of civil inattention. In this example, the target might consider his injury “a personal matter which [he] would like to keep private” (Goffman, 1963, p. 86), but the fact that it is visible makes it publicly obvious. This obvious injury “differs from most other personal matters”—namely, those personal or private things that go on in the private sphere—because everyone has access to the injury regardless of how much the target would like to keep it secret (Goffman, 1963, p. 86). We are told not to stare precisely because the behavior’s abnormality disrupts the normal course of social interaction. It has been known to cause fear and flight (Ellsworth, 1972).

And so, as bystanders in general, we owe a duty to other individuals to treat them with discretion. Every interaction includes bystanders’ social obligation to protect social actors so that their interactions can continue. We have a “tactful tendency … to act in a protective way in order to help the performers save their own show,” Goffman (1959) writes, using his theatrical conceit to analogize to everyday social interaction (p. 229). We show extra “consideration” for novice performers, i.e., the young, who, because of the likelihood of mistakes, could damage ongoing social interaction by lapsing, forgetting how to behave, or brazenly engaging in asocial behavior, like nail-biting, nose-picking, or staring (Goffman, 1959, p. 323, 132). This tact is simply another word for discretion and respect: the knowledge that he is a beginner is appropriately set aside and ignored so that the performance can continue despite his mistakes. We also owe a measure of “tactful inattention” to neighboring conversations and nearby individuals to guarantee the “effective privacy” of others, a principle colloquially encapsulated by the phrase, “keep one’s nose out of other people’s” business (Goffman, 1959, p. 230). Privacy invasions, therefore, are not simple intrusions into personal territory or the disclosure of negative behaviors; rather, they are socially inappropriate behaviors that violate the trust and discretion we owe others.

Privacy-as-trust and discretion is also captured in Goffman’s early essay, The Nature of Deference and Demeanor (1967). Deference conveys respect “to a recipient or of this recipient, or of something of which this recipient is taken as a symbol, extension, or agent” (p. 56). In doing so, deference certainly imbues others with value and dignity; but that is merely a byproduct of the overarching purpose of creating a path for interaction. Rules of deference and respect constitute “rules of conduct which bind the actor and the recipient together” and “are the buildings of society” (Goffman, 1967, p. 90). In others words, they cue others as to our potential as interaction partners. This is the role of privacy. It creates a sense of confidence that allows people to share.

Teasing out this argument is how I would like to spend the remainder of my posts for the month. It highlights the central theoretical contribution of my dissertation.

And with that “Who-Shot-J.R.”-style cliffhanger, I leave you… for now.

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4 Responses

  1. Danielle Citron says:

    Privacy scholars from law and other disciples have long leveraged Goffman’s work to that end. So too my favorite legal scholars have provided a deep theoretical account or privacy as essential to group interactions and trust. I’m thinking of Lior Strahelivitz’s Social Network Theory of Privacy, the many pieces by Dan Solove and Neil Richards on breach of confidence law, and Julie Cohen’s work in the Configured Network Self, among many others. I’m looking forward to seeing how you build on their work or distinguish yours. Thanks for posting!


  2. Frank says:

    Again, very enlightening. I think this says far more about the values and concerns implicated by the common understanding of privacy than economic models of optimized self-disclosure.

    The challenge, I think, is to consider the bounds of this theory with respect to internet privacy. It fits perfectly for cases of overexposure and harassment online. I can see it also helping us to understand Ryan Calo’s and Neil Richards’s concerns about “persuasion” as a menace to integrity. I don’t know if it fits Dan Solove’s “Kafka” critique of big data processing. But perhaps in a future where there is more pervasive access to such data (along hte lines of Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story) it fits there, too.

  3. Emma D. says:

    I found this discussion of privacy fascinating. I was intrigued by the concept of the on stage/back stage metaphor. It made me think about how such a metaphor might translate to the realm of digital privacy. I think it is possible that, using the terminology of the example, when using the internet people feel as though they are on stage, while simultaneously maintaining the anonymity to act in ways that would normally only be acceptable backstage. I see the complexities of the digital world as almost removing the curtain or division between what happens on and off stage. I feel that this is especially true of the internet, which is often the venue for choices made in this behavioral grey area.

  4. Fhalyshia says:

    I was completely unfamiliar with Goffman before your posts,so reading about his studies of social interaction and the theatrical metaphor he applied to them is extremely interesting to me. The distinction of ‘back stage’ and ‘front stage’ settings is wonderfully concise way of viewing the societal facades that people wear, regardless of how minute or grand they actually are. That he includes the idea that these two stages are separated by a kind of curtain or passageway seemed to me to be representational of information flow and how it is accessed.
    I also found the duty of civil inattention to be very fascinating, as I feel that “privacy-as-trust and discretion” could be applicable to the ways in which some experts are looking at the control of internet privacy. “Creating a path for interaction” reminded me slightly of Helen Nissenbaum’s view on internet privacy and security, in that there needs to be a general code of conduct for the was in which privacy in handled among internet providers and users.