What Can Erving Goffman Teach Us About “Privacy”
posted by Ari Waldman
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.