In a New York Times analysis of a recent Pew survey, Claire Cain Miller highlighted an apparent paradox: Even as we say we value our privacy, we willingly share personal information in exchange for convenience or free services.
The conversation around this issue highlights the way we look at privacy as an individual matter. Each one of us can choose to keep our photos off Facebook, avoid sexting, and disable cookies that capture our browsing patterns. If we don’t, we’re the ones who suffer the consequences.
Or are we? Is privacy something each of us can protect as individuals, or is it something more complicated? Debbie V.S. Kasper argues for the latter view in a 2007 paper, “Privacy as a Social Good,” published in Social Thought & Research.
Kasper looks at the ways that sociologists have conceptualized privacy as a value for societies, not just individual people. In different contexts, of course, people have very different expectations of privacy, but Kasper argues that everyone has the desire to keep parts of their lives private.
“In essence, one’s mere membership in society inspires a desire or felt need for varying degrees of privacy, which is integral to one’s psychological, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual development,” she writes. “Privacy is central to one’s development of autonomy, problem solving skills, and communicative capacity. We use private time to organize our interpretations about daily thoughts, behaviors, and our place in society.”
When privacy erodes on a pervasive, society-wide basis, people may lose some of their ability to step back and figure out how to interact with others. Similarly, privacy plays a role in the formation of relationships, which are defined both by mutual knowledge of each other, and mutual withholding of some information.
“Relationships of acquaintance imply the duty of discretion, ‘to renounce the knowledge of all that the other does not voluntarily show us,'” Kasper writes, quoting sociologist Georg Simmel. “In these relations, it is acceptable for one to learn about others through observation and reflection. However, using means beyond that—eavesdropping, reading another’s mail and even intentionally using one’s psychological superiority to infer and draw conclusions about a person—is indiscretion, an invasion of privacy and a destructive force in such relationships.”
Privacy also functions in societies to reinforce social hierarchies—powerful people tend to enjoy more of it—and to exert social control—criminals may have their privacy curtailed in prison or through various methods of monitoring.
Whatever we think of these uses of privacy, there’s no doubt that it’s a crucial element in many of our relationships with the rest of humanity. And that means it goes well beyond an individual issue that we can each take care of on our own.