Privacy in Public: Negotiating the Category of Privacy in the Digital Age
In this paper, we propose to analyze privacy as an abstract cultural concept that is more than a simple classification of objects or activities (Solomon, Medin & Lynch, 1999). The process of the formation and re-formulation of abstract concepts concerns struggles over epistemic control and political dominance that are only weakly bounded by ‘objective’ qualities of the category. Abstract categories like privacy are embedded, as meso-level meaning structures, in theories of the world offered by comprehensive institutional regimes. Abstract concepts are negotiated and elaborated with the help of vocabularies that are aligned with institutional regimes of knowledge and that fuel the meaning construction that constitutes or reformulates the concept (Swidler, 2001; Boltanski & Thevenot, 1991)
How does an abstract concept, such as privacy, then maintain a sense of realness in the face of technological change, such that it offers ontological security to individuals (Giddens 1990)? We focus on two dimensions through which abstract concepts like privacy become social realities: Public understanding of the concept, and state regulation. We are thus interested in what is best described as ‘privacy rights’. Through a study of how the idea of privacy evolved in the United States since the 1970s we make three contributions. First, we shed light on the dynamics of categorization for abstract concepts, specifically the role of institutional regimes in constituting categories. Second, we illuminate how meaning making processes are mediated by distinct configurations of policy networks (Atkinson and Coleman 1992). Third, we provide an alternative means of conceptualizing category boundaries by juxtaposing the privacy category across moral orders of worth (Boltanski 2006).