Deviance in the Sociologist’s Assumptions About Privacy
posted by Ari Waldman
When last we spoke before the Jewish New Year (Shanah Tova, u’metuka to all who celebrate and G’mar tov as we approach the Day of Atonement), we had only begun to touch on the sociologist’s assumptions about privacy. In that post, I used the example of the sociologist Robert Maxwell’s assumption when he was studying sexual practices and social mores that “private” automatically referred to a “secret” or “hidden” space. I do not think, and did not mean to imply, that Professor Maxwell set out to study privacy per se; rather, it is clear from his discussion and his notes that the private world was a hidden world separated by walls. That’s why he studied wall construction permeability when he wanted to determine the pervasiveness of sexual norms.
The limitation to spaces is only one problem with the traditional sociologist’s assumptions about privacy. Another has to do with secrets. An entire branch of sociology focuses on secrets, which may indeed be a subset of the entire world of so-called private things. But too often, sociologists burden their discussions of private secrets with a normative moral weight: that is, a secret is private, or must be kept private, because it is deviant.
In his seminal article, The Sociology of Secrecy and of Secret Societies, Georg Simmel concluded that privacy is a “universal sociological form” defined by hiding something. It is universal in that we do it all the time: If all relationships between people are based on knowing something about each other, keeping certain facets of ourselves hidden can define those relationships. This does not necessarily mean that the person who knows more about us is more correct in his assessment of who we are; rather, different pictures of us are true for different people. Secrecy, therefore, allows us to do things and maintain relationships we would not otherwise be able to in a world of complete knowledge.
Simmel’s theory has one distinct advantage over any conception of privacy based on spaces: his discourse on secret societies can help us understand when a secret has ceased to become private. Privacy-as-separation fails in part because it is too strict—privacy can be eroded when one other person gains access. For Simmel, a secret can maintain its private nature, its inherent secrecy, throughout a group of people when keeping the secret is part of the identity of that group. Members of secret societies “constitute a community for the purpose of mutual guarantee of secrecy.” They define themselves by engaging in rituals and through separation from the rest of society. This does not just happen in cults; social cliques turn their backs on others or deny conversation to outsiders and groups of friends maintain each others’ secrets all the time. In all cases, the group is defined by what it knows and it expresses its privileged status by closure.
A mentor mine, the sociologist Diane Vaughan, connected this conception of secrecy with intimacy in her study of how couples break up. “We are all secret-keepers in our intimate relationships,” Professor Vaughan argues. Secrets can both enhance relationships, by smoothing over differences or by creating the intimacy of co-conspirators, and contribute to their collapse, by allowing plans to be developed without open inspection, intrusion, consent, or participation from others. And Erving Goffman would agree that this type of secrecy is an important element of privacy. “If an individual is to give expression to ideal standards during his performance,” Goffman writes, “then he will have to forgo or conceal action which is inconsistent with these standards.” In this view, privacy is the concealment of things that contradict an individual’s public facade: the “private sacrifice” of some behavior will permit the performance to continue. This is what Goffman’s famous back stage is really for. It is not, as a spatial theory of privacy would suggest, a room, stall, or secluded place; rather, it is the locus of private behavior, of secrets. For example, servants use first names, workers laugh and take breaks, and management and employees may eat together and converse informally. In some cases, this culture is associated with a space; but it is what we do in the backstage, the secrets we hide there, that defines it.
But the central failure of assuming privacy as something to do with secrecy is the tendency to conceive of those secrets as discrediting, embarrassing, or, to use the sociologist’s term, deviant. Deviance refers to behavior that violates the norms of some group. A tilt toward deviance, in turn, places a severe limitation on using secrecy to justify a legal right to privacy: if our secrets are so discrediting, society would rarely, if ever, see a need to protect them.
Much of the sociological discourse on secrecy and intimacy as it relates to privacy devolves into a normative moral judgment about those secrets. Despite the fact that he professes to make no such judgments, Goffman’s view of secret, hidden behaviors, for example, has a decidedly negative bias. The back stage is littered with “dirty work” and “inappropriate” conduct done in “secret” if it was fun or satisfying in some way. From this introduction of the back stage, Goffman only further burdens it with a normative twist. People “lapse” in the back stage, drifting toward indecorous behavior. They laugh at their audience, engage in mock role-playing, and poke fun through “uncomplimentary terms of reference.” They derogate others and brazenly lie and keep “dark” secrets.” Behind involvement shields, individuals do “sanctionable” or “unprofessional” things, like nurses smoking in a tunnel or adolescent horseplay outside of the view of others. Goffman also points to the little misbehaviors—activities he calls “fugitive involvements,” no less—that you can engage in when outside the public view:
While doing housework: You can keep your face creamed, your hair in pin curls; … when you’re sitting at the kitchen counter peeling potatoes you can do your ankle exercises and foot strengtheners, and also practice good sitting posture. … While reading or watching TV: You can brush your hair; massage your gums; do your ankle and hand exercises and foot strengtheners; do some bust and back exercises; massage your scalp; use the abrasive treatment for removing superfluous hair.
Privacy, then, is about concealing bad things, not just concealment in general. The anonymity provided by privacy does not merely allow someone to do something different; rather, it allows him to “misbehave,” to “falsely present himself, or do the “unattractive” things inappropriate in the public sphere.
One of Goffman’s major works, Stigma, is entirely concerned with negative or inappropriate behavior. That may sound like an uninspired conclusion given the title, but what is most telling is not the mere recitation of stigmatizing activities and things, but rather the implication that the private sphere is defined by stigma. Stigmas are “discrediting,” “debasing,” and “undesirable.” They are “secret failings” that make us “blameworthy” and “shameful.”
It is hard to deny the moral dimension to this discussion of private behaviors, activities, and symbols. They are stigmatizing, at worst, or dissonant with normal social interaction, at best. In either case, there is a moral dimension that burdens privacy with an attendant profanity and that profanity does violence to our ability to protect privacy thus understood: if the private sphere is characterized by dark secrets, or behaviors and activities that society refuses to tolerate, it is unclear how a right to privacy could ever exist.