Review: Islands of Privacy

Image Courtesy of University of Chicago Press

Christena Nippert-Eng’s Islands of Privacy is an interview-intensive book that grapples with how her sample group of Chicago residents attempt to achieve privacy, and the regular issues they face in maintaining privacy on a day-to-day basis. She finds a strong correlation between those who have had their privacy violated and those who want to secure and defend privacy as a concept and important element of their lived experience. 74 interviews were conducted with residents of Chicago and she makes very clear that her findings and conclusions are consequently highly contingent: other populations across America and the world would likely result in very different understandings of what constitutes privacy and a violation.

Privacy is defined quite early as “about nothing less than trying to live both as a member of social units – as part of a number of larger wholes – and as an individual – a unique, individuated self” (6). Further, privacy is identified as something to be managed: it exists by managing public information. Information is seen by participants as inherently public, with effort required to make it private, though interviewed subjects do not necessarily stick to this understanding of privacy throughout their interviews. On the whole, the approach to privacy remains wrapped up in the language on control, seclusion, and selective sharing of information; in this sense, Nippert-Eng’s work can be seen as a fusion of Westin’s Privacy and Freedom and key tenets of Nissembaum’s work in Privacy in Context: Technology, Policy, and the Integrity of Social Life.

She has organized her book into four chapters, along with an introduction and conclusion. This sees her focus on secrets and secrecy, wallets and purses, cell phones and email, and doorbells and windows. Each of these focuses are used to tease out different ways that privacy is understood, achieved, and violated by her interview subjects. The chapters are well organized and keep to their themes. The chapter on secrets, in particular, could be seen as a useful extension of Lawrence M. Friedman’s work in Guarding Life’s Dark Secrets: Legal and Social Controls over Reputation, Propriety, and Privacy, which lacked contemporary interviews to understand how secrecy and privacy function in the minds and actions of ‘everyday people’ in the contemporary American setting. The chapter does not, however, engage with any of the excellent analysis undertaken by Judith Wagner Decew in In Pursuit of Privacy: Law, Ethics, and the Rise of Technology, which left this reader disappointed. Decew’s work in mapping the context of privacy would have fit beautifully into many elements of Nippert-Eng’s work by nuancing understandings of privacy and secrecy, but it never appears. The section on cell phones and email can be read profitably against Turkle’s recently released Alone Together, providing yet more context and in depth interviews about how people see mobile devices as (dis)integrating their lives.

I remain unconvinced about the usefulness of the ‘beach’ metaphor that is laid out at the beginning of the book and the conclusion. In short, beaches are used to explain the domains of privacy that the author is interested in: privacy at the boundary points between clearly ‘public’ and ‘private’ domains. This continues from her work on boundary-play, but I would have preferred a more direct explication – the metaphor is not used in a strong enough way, throughout the book, to create a lasting positive impression or make particularly complicated theory more accessible.

The book’s real gems are scattered throughout the interviews; privacy and surveillance scholars will not necessarily be surprised by what subjects say, but Nippert-Eng enables scholars to better ground ground their work on exactly what people say about privacy in their daily experiences. This can facilitate a firmer foundation upon which highly theoretical arguments around privacy and surveillance can be built around and upon. Of course, the small sample size does limit how strongly her interviews can be relied upon; arguably scholars working on American privacy issues will be best served and international scholars less so.

Ultimately, Nippert-Eng has provided a real contribution to the literature by making available years of empirical research and reaffirming conclusions that the literature has come to by way of theorization. In this way, Islands of Privacy offers strong empirical support for existing theoretical work, better grounding scholarly work and offering novel ways of articulating issues and problems that scholars have grappled with for decades. If you are invested in the sociological analysis of privacy and surveillance, or are looking for strong empirical grounding for some abstract theorizations of either, then this is a good book to add to your library.