Privacy in Public: Negotiating the Category of Privacy in the Digital Age

Saturday, June 25, 2016: 10:45 AM-12:15 PM
228 Dwinelle (Dwinelle Hall)
Kartikeya Bajpai, Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL
Klaus Weber, Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL
The tidy division between the public and private has increasingly come under pressure due to the advent of modern information and communication technologies (ICT). Privacy is widely recognized as an important good that deserves protection. But what cannot be described, defined and understood cannot be defended or regulated. Hence, how the category of privacy is constructed has far reaching implications for how privacy boundaries and behaviors are being negotiated and potentially re-settled.  Arguably then, the understanding of the category of privacy holds the key to the future of privacy in the digital world. Given the impressive amount of recent work on categorization in organization theory, economic sociology and management research, one might expect a body of insights that can be readily applied to the question of privacy or similar concerns. We argue that, surprisingly, this is not the case. The reason is that organizational research on categories has drawn mostly on theories of what cognitive psychologists and anthropologists call ‘object concepts’, at the neglect of ‘abstract concepts’ (Medin, Lynch & Salomon, 2000). Abstract concepts, such as truth, self or – privacy – are representations that are embedded in systems of meaning, and are constituted based on theories that organize conceptual space and relate abstract ideas to others (Murphy & Medin, 1985). The process of concept formation is thus in essence about the construction of cultural ontologies (Ruef 1999) as part of broader theories of the world.                          

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).