January 2011

Lauren Smith


Islands of Privacy by Christena Nippert-Eng

Everyone wants to talk about privacy. The recent death of Tyler Clementi, the college student who committed suicide after his roommate streamed his sexual encounter online, has highlighted how vulnerable privacy is and how high the stakes for it are. Christena Nippert-Eng’s Islands of Privacy gives us a rich perspective on this topic and challenges us to ask what, and how, we can keep anything to ourselves.

The book presents the results of Nippert-Eng’s nine-year study on privacy, during which she interviewed 74 people. Nippert-Eng is a professor of sociology, but she ditches scholar-ese in favor of lively, energetic writing free of jargon. (As someone who edits dissertations, I know this is no small feat.) At its most powerful moments, Islands of Privacy does what a work of social science does best: allow a person to connect her individual experience with broader phenomena. I was glad to learn I’m not the only one who forgets secrets in order to avoid blurting them out and who hides lowbrow magazines before company calls. It’s good to discover that some beliefs we hold and worries we have come from shared culture, not personal weirdness.  

Nippert-Eng devotes chapters to secrets; wallets and purses; e-mail and cell phones; and doorbells and windows. The chapter on secrets -- what they are and why/how we make them -- paves the way for the more complex discussions of “privacy work” that follow. The chapter on wallets and purses tells how Nippert-Eng’s study participants had to empty their wallets and purses and put their contents into piles of “more private” and “more public.” Then they explained why they made the piles they did. The results of this experiment are fascinating. Participants were split, for example, on how private they considered driver’s licenses to be. All of the people who carried makeup put it in their “more private” pile. Every tampon-carrier labeled it as either private or in between public and private, but the one diaper-carrier labeled it public. Many couldn’t decide whether cash was public or private, and one person declared a paper clip a private item. Wallets and purses help people, says Nippert-Eng, “manage the tension between the need to interact with and be oriented towards others in their daily lives and at the same time, the need to be inwardly oriented and concerned with the self.” Along with privacy, this chapter honors the diversity of our feelings about material objects, offering a playful, smart take on how our belongings make us who we are.

The other chapters aren't as engrossing. Nippert-Eng’s claim that we use technology to manage others’ access to us doesn’t seem groundbreaking; nor does her observation that over time people want to have different degrees of closeness with their neighbors. Many readers, perhaps, could reach these insights without the aid of research.

Ultimately, Islands of Privacy sparks my imagination more than it convinces me of its arguments. I didn’t agree with the study participants’ definitions of privacy. For them, privacy is: a) the ability and power to control access to some thing, place, or piece of information and its dissemination; b) the condition of being alone/without others’ demands, interruptions, intrusions/safe, secure, at peace; and c) the freedom to do/live/make decisions without regulation or restriction. Some of these descriptions mix privacy with solitude, which strikes me as another kettle of fish. It might bug me when my neighbor plays her stereo too loud, but I don’t feel she’s violating a boundary. If I smoked cigarettes, I wouldn’t take a smoking ban in my apartment building as a personal invasion. Individual choice and the desire for quiet are not the same as privacy, and so a little voice of dissent would pipe up in my head whenever I tried to accept Nippert-Eng’s larger claims. Moreover, the author strains to put an objective, scientific spin on what is essentially a subjective conversation. She used a judgment sample for her study, meaning she purposefully chose her participants -- she picked some of them because she believed they would already know something about privacy. Wouldn’t it have been more revealing to talk with people who knew nothing about this dimension of life, who had to consider it fresh? Although Nippert-Eng acknowledges the limit of this approach, I still felt sometimes I was reading a chat between friends. Overlong extracts from specific interviews worsened this effect.  

These are minor quibbles, though. Islands of Privacy is a brisk, invigorating read, and it provides a field guide for a subject that concerns us all.   

Islands of Privacy by Christena Nippert-Eng
The University of Chicago Press
ISBN: 0226586537
325 Pages