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Islands of Privacy

Gary T. Marx enjoys a trip down the information byways of everyday life that we like to keep hidden

At a swimming pool with her children, a mother discovers, "I'd lost the string to my tampon. It was up there somewhere, but I couldn't find it." She returns home, settles the kids down with a snack and retreats to the presumed privacy of her bedroom. As she is trying to locate the wayward string, her young daughter pops up from under the bed and shouts "Hi mommy!" and then runs out of the room.

And so begins sociologist Christena Nippert-Eng's insightful, engaging and sprawling book on the "work" (and sometimes the "play") of creating privacy in everyday life.

Through interviews and the author's X-ray-vision-like observational skills, the book brings new life to Erving Goffman's admonition to seek big meanings in little things and extends the concerns and methods of Nippert-Eng's 1996 study, Home and Work: Negotiating Boundaries through Everyday Life.

Here, she explores how people make sense of secrecy and secrets, and the private and the public, in face-to-face relations and those mediated by time and distance. Across diverse relationships, tools and settings (from business cards to rubbish bins), she looks at information about the self that we offer to, or withhold from, others.

This is examined through chapters on secrecy, wallets and purses, mobile phone and email communication, and doorbells and windows. The complex interplay of culture and cognition, contexts and contingencies and the properties of environments and objects result in tensions and paradoxes, as individuals connect and disconnect through what they reveal and conceal from each other.

In extending and building on the classical insights of Goffman and of Georg Simmel, this book joins the small pantheon of original and enduring social studies of the topic. It will be necessary reading for specialists desiring to leave no contour unexamined. With a novelist's eye for the details of the taken-for-granted world and for imagining roads not taken, Nippert-Eng offers a cornucopia of stories about communication offered, withheld and blocked. Yet she goes beyond mere storytelling to provide broader conceptual maps.

The book's many poignant, humorous and resonant stories will appeal to the general reader, although the density of the material and the abstract analysis will be more appreciated by the scholarly professional. The depth of detail and breadth of swath mean a volume in which the individual parts are greater than their sum total.

Fine-grained analysis and keen metaphors provide valuable insight into the thicket of cognitive and emotional issues within which privacy and its close kin, secrecy, are enmeshed and enshrouded. Some limits and conditions are set by culture and by natural environments (darkness, spatial barriers, time) and the properties of information tools (drug tests, computational means, voicemail). But simply knowing about the potential uses of email or what the law, policy or manners say about a topic (eg, who owns a secret or is entitled to cross another person's borders) are distinct from how these are applied and evaluated. Meaning and the related sense of what is appropriate or inappropriate lies much more in the context - both formal, as within organisations, and informal, as among friends - than in the behaviour or object per se.

The privacy tent, as Nippert-Eng defines it, is indeed expansive. This helps to reveal commonalities across forms as diverse as autonomy, solitude, communication, accessibility, confidentiality, confessions and whistleblowing. But for other purposes, these are better seen as distinct and contrasted.

Nippert-Eng offers a radically subjective definition of privacy as merely being whatever degree of control individuals desire for their information. This is, of course, necessary in considering personal sense-making, strategic impression management and the negotiated nature of much interaction. But equivalent attention needs to be given to other threads (beyond the kind the book begins with) that transcend the protective actions of the individual actor.

Important empirical questions involve the means (whether coercively involuntary or softly "voluntary") made use of by organisations to discover and communicate new information, as well as those used by individuals such as suspicious partners, parents and voyeurs. Perhaps Nippert-Eng's next book will consider the work of publicity, and how individuals and organisations advertise themselves to others. A key normative question involves the social issues of fairness, equity and justice, as these are affected by the tsunami of technical and social changes associated with society's seemingly insatiable appetite for new and more detailed forms of personal data.

As the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead observed, every way of seeing is also a way of not seeing. In emphasising the micro worlds of subjectivity, symbolism and interaction, attention is drawn away from broader issues of history, organisations, ethics and public policy. The individual sensibilities and efforts chronicled here so enthusiastically and so well need to be considered alongside the more transcendent rules and expectations (whether laws, policies, manners or tradition) that do, and should, govern personal information.

Islands of Privacy

By Christena E. Nippert-Eng

University of Chicago Press

360pp, £42.00 and £14.50

ISBN 9780226586526 and 86533

Published 19 October 2010

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