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The power of secrets and life on Islands Of Privacy

Updated Tuesday, 2nd August 2011

Our secrets, and how we choose to share them, form a type of currency, which can make loss of privacy an attack on how we feel about ourselves.

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Laurie Taylor:
Ah secrets - secrets, secrets, how lovely to tell them, how lovely to disclose them but of course as a cynic once observed secrets are things you only tell one person at a time. But how might we distinguish between those secrets we share and those we keep, between short and long lived secrets, between secrets and privacy, between privacy and publicity?

Well those are just some of the questions, very subtly addressed, in a new book called Islands of Privacy and its author is Christena Nippert-Eng, who is associate professor of sociology at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago and she now joins me on the line from that city. Christena, nice title - Islands of Privacy. Why did you choose it?

Christena Nippert-Eng:
I chose that title because I encountered it originally in a wonderful old piece of sociology published here in the US by Barry Schwartz and that was the first time I encountered that very visual imagery for me and, the more I started to do this work on privacy, the more it very much captured the feel that I was getting from all of the people that I was talking to; all the places I was going to.

Which is that we have these I think ever tinier islands of privacy that are scattered about in this great and increasing ocean of accessibility in our lives.

And as someone who likes to do this kind of Goffmanesque microsociology I became very, very interested in the beach - the space around the island, where this ocean of accessibility and what we think should be private are coming together.

Laurie Taylor:
It is a very, very nice image because it's a slightly static geographical image. As you make plain in your book we have to work ourselves to create these islands - privacy is something that we have to do, it's not simply accorded to us.

Christena Nippert-Eng:
Absolutely, and we do it every day probably hundreds of times a day, without even realising it because we become socialised into these behaviours and into these ways of making decisions that are just part and parcel of everyday life for us.

Laurie Taylor:
You spoke to a large number of people for this book, and one of the things that you asked them to do - a nice little experiment - was to open their wallets and their purses and to lay out the contents. Now tell me about what you were trying to get at with this experiment, and what was revealed.

Christena Nippert-Eng:
What I wanted to do was get a more concrete way of finding out how people thought about what was private - more private, less private - so what I asked them to do was open up these vessels of identity management that they have, and to make two piles for me. One pile was more private, and one pile was more public.

And then we systematically went through why they put each object in their wallet into either one of those piles, or sometimes made a third pile in the middle, or sometimes would say 'oh everything in my wallet is public' and sometimes 'everything in my wallet is private' but then go ahead and find these very subtle gradations of what made something more private or more public. Detail from Lauren Manning's drawing of the contents of her purse Creative commons image Icon Lauren Manning under CC-BY licence under Creative-Commons license Lauren Manning's sketch of the contents of her purse

Laurie Taylor:
Give me an example, because I think that if you were talking about things like credit cards or matters like this. Questions of security come into it as well, don't they?

Christena Nippert-Eng:
Absolutely, and what I found was that there is no single object that people carry in their wallets and purses that is uniformly defined as private or uniformly defined as public.

Instead people seem to ask themselves two different questions:

'Is this something that could cause harm to me or to the people I'm responsible for if I lost it?' That's one question.

And the second question is: 'Is this personally meaningful to me - this thing I have?'

So people carry lots of little souvenir type things in their wallets and purses too. So something that is both highly significant for very personal symbolic reasons and something that if somebody else got their hands on this it would cause a lot of trouble for [the person or their] family, something that you answer yes to on both of those questions is highly private, regardless of what the actual item itself is.

Laurie Taylor:
It is interesting that it isn't the intrinsic item, so some people will be carrying photographs of their loved ones around with them and not even regard those as private?

Christena Nippert-Eng:
Absolutely not, and they carry them to show everybody and anybody who'll look, so they would never say that's private.

Laurie Taylor:
I'm just thinking I do know that too well in some circumstances.

But it's hardly the objects at all, it is really people's decision about what will be their island of privacy. Privacy is something like ownership isn't it? 'This is an area I own', if you like, 'this is my island and this is where I erect the flag'?

Christena Nippert-Eng:
Yes and I think that there's nothing better than secrets to really explore that notion of ownership, and how important it is in terms of deciding what happens next with this thing.

Laurie Taylor:
And [on] secrecy [you] used the nice phrase "relationship currency". Tell me what you mean by that.

Christena Nippert-Eng:
The ways that we reach out to people, and try to create certain kinds of relationships with them, are absolutely intrinsic to this process of managing privacy.

One of the main reasons that we're so concerned with controlling and managing privacy is because of the impact it has on our relationships with other people, with other institutions, and so to offer up secrets, offer up intimate information about yourself, to another person or even to another institution, that's a way of saying 'I would like to be closer with you, I would like to decrease the amount of social distance between us'.

And to withhold secrets or to withhold any kind of information from others is a way of increasing the distance between us.

Laurie Taylor:
Yeou have an example of a sister who doesn't tell her own sister about the abortion that she's had, but she does tell a friend. That's an interesting example of relationships being renegotiated by the use of that particular secret.

Christena Nippert-Eng:
Absolutely, so it is a currency, and we trade it back and forth and we decide 'okay, wow that's a really big secret' and you almost feel compelled to offer one of your own back to someone if you want to keep making that relationship tighter and tighter.

And then that example, for instance, those sisters were twins, so for one twin to withhold that information from her sister was probably even more significant than if they had been sisters who had not shared the womb at the same time.

Laurie Taylor:
And when that is discovered then, of course, these people immediately rethink the nature of their relationship don't they?

Christena Nippert-Eng:

Laurie Taylor:
And you talk about privacy. People feel that their privacy is violated when certain secrets are revealed. You've got this notion of secrecy etiquette. Expand on that for me.

Christena Nippert-Eng:
This notion of ownership is one of the first things that people have to do in the many decisions that we make about information - I'll back up just a little bit and say that the reason that I was interested in secrets is because secrets are our most private of our private things, not all private things are equally private.

Secrets are things that we've made an active decision that we do not want to share this with another person, even if they ask us. So we've preemptively decided there's going to be this nice private boundary, this line that we've drawn, and now we have to go through all this work.

At every moment where disclosure might happen, or disclosure should happen, we have to go through this process of work in order to keep that piece of information from whoever we don't want to find out about it.

So we're engaged in secrecy work, and the work of secrets, both when we make a decision to have a secret, make a decision to keep a secret, make a decision to reveal a secret to another or make a decision to try to find out someone else's secrets.

So secrets are absolutely chock-full of all kinds of decisions, and probably the first one that we make is 'is this my secret, do I own it, do I have to right to decide what happens next to this piece of information?'

Laurie Taylor:
And you want to talk about privacy violation - the moments when secrets are discovered or the way in which this impinges upon notions of citizenship and individuality and identity ,and also relates very much to the hierarchies of power, those who feel that they can invade and take away our secrets.

Christena Nippert-Eng:
Absolutely, so now this gets to be something that's very fundamental, certainly in America, that we equate the possession of privacy with being a citizen in good standing; that that's something that every single citizen is entitled to unless you've done something wrong, unless you've proven that you are untrustworthy in some way or another.

So the symbolic meaning of having or not having privacy, the symbolic meaning of a privacy violation, is that somebody else is saying that you are not entitled to this fundamental right, there's something that you've done that allows me to deny this to you.

Laurie Taylor:
So this impinges upon your identity, it takes away from your identity, because it puts you into a position not necessarily of powerlessness, but it implies that you have less power because you cannot protect that secret?

Christena Nippert-Eng:
Correct, it puts you in a position of thinking this person is somehow more powerful than me, somehow this person is allowed to decide what is and is not private in my life.

And the other thing that it does is that it removes your capacity to manage your identity in front of other people.

Remember this is such a fundamental thing of who we are, we're constantly engaged in what Goffman called impression management - we're trying to present a certain image of ourselves to ourselves and to all these other people around us and if you deny people privacy you're denying them the capacity to control what is known about them to other people and to shape their identity in a way that they would like it to be. A pile of News Of The Worlds on the title's last day in production Creative commons image Icon gravity_grave under CC-BY-NC-SA licence under Creative-Commons license The last News Of The World, laid low by invasions of others' privacy

Laurie Taylor:
And picking up on this, and thinking about these violations of privacy which have been occurring as a result of hacking into mobile phones in this country, which is, as you know, everywhere in the news. You're talking about the fact that people who have suffered those invasions of their privacy, are thereby rendered not merely less powerful, but also their identity is impugned and they also in some ways become less citizen-like - their citizenship is challenged?

Christena Nippert-Eng:
That's exactly right and I don't think that anybody has provided better evidence about that than Gordon Brown frankly, from what we get to read over here with all of the interviews and reactions that he's been sharing with the public.

One thing that he did, by the way, which I thought was quite brilliant from a personal point of view which was when he found out that the information about his four-year-old - four-month-old son having cystic fibrosis, when he found out that they were going to break that story in the newspaper the next day he called a press conference the night before and broke the news himself.

And one of the things that that did was that allowed him to regain a little bit of power. It was a forced choice, but at least it allowed him to say you're not going to break this on me, that's private information you never should have had in the first place and I'm at least going to grab it for myself.

This discussion was originally broadcast as part of Thinking Allowed on BBC Radio 4 on July 11th, 2011

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