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A simple deﬁnition of secrecy as the deliberate concealment of information has served cross-cultural comparison (e.g., Teﬀt 1980, Bok 1982). Under this deﬁnition, people in cultures everywhere have secrets. Since a secret may turn out to be ‘empty’—no hidden information in fact exists—some anthropologists have suggested that deﬁnition be refocused on the practice or the ‘doing’ of secrets rather than on a secret’s informational content. Anthropologists have been primarily interested in what could be called public, or institutionalized, secrecy: those persistent practices of hiding information within kinship, religious, political, or economic groups. Areas of research have included concealments of ritual knowledge and the social functions of secret societies. Uses of more personal, or private, secrets have also attracted attention insofar as these relate to cultural constructions of personhood and to the dynamics of interpersonal relationships. The study of secrets has posed obvious methodological and ethical problems for ethnographers.
1. The Paradox Of Secrecy
The revelation of secrets is as important as the keeping of them. Ethnographers have called this the ‘paradox’ of secrecy (Bellman 1984). For a secret to persist within a social order, it must eventually be told to someone who may in turn keep the secret until it passes along again. Furthermore, the social consequence of secrets rests on the fact that people know of their existence even though content remains hidden.
Public awareness of the existence of secrets can aﬀord prestige and power to those who know what others do not. Many accounts of secrecy revisit Georg Simmel’s ground-breaking analysis of secrecy and secret societies (1950 ), including his observation that secrets are a form of ‘inner property.’ Simmel suggested that secrets are a type of ‘adornment’—a jewel or bauble that seduces public attention. Secrets with social consequence thus must be at least partly transparent and also periodically transacted and revealed.
2. Public Secrecy
Simmel’s commodiﬁcation opened the door to a political economy of secrecy. If secrets are property, then they are produced, exchanged, and consumed. Secrets are public because they have exchange value within a knowledge marketplace, and because such exchange has political consequence. Systems of political hierarchy may be grounded in an unequal distribution of secrets. Those in the know may dominate those who do not know so long as the ignorant grant that hidden knowledge has value.
2.1 Secret Societies
Anthropologists have pursued Simmel’s original concern with secret societies, documenting a variety of secret groups, associations, lodges, and clubs in cultures around the world the members of which are pledged to maintain secrets, ritual and otherwise. The early comparative category ‘secret society’ was catholic enough to encompass Melanesian men’s houses and grade societies, Australian totemic cults, Native American medicine lodges, West African male and female associations, and more (Webster 1908). Secrecy itself—the one attribute that these diverse organizations had in common—thus enticed anthropological attention (as Simmel predicted).
Liberal theories of democratic process and of the capitalist marketplace are suspicious of secrecy as they are of cabals and monopolies. Democracy requires an informed citizenry, and the market is supposed to depend on the free ﬂow of information. From this perspective, secrecy generally goes against the public good. Structural-functionalist analysis, however, argued that secret societies commonly serve important social functions, including the education of children, preservation of political authority, punishment of lawbreakers, stimulation of the economy, and the like (Little 1949). Such ‘social’ secret societies address important community needs, unlike ‘anti-social’ secret societies whose goals are criminal or revolutionary (Wedgewood 1930).
2.2 Secrecy And Power
In the latter years of the twentieth century, anthropological attention returned to issues of power and inequality. Neutral deﬁnitions of culture as more-or-less shared knowledge gave way to new concerns with the contradictions, gaps, variation, and disparity in that knowledge. Secret knowledge and secret societies might have social functions, but they also maintain ruling political and economic regimes. The distribution of public secrets typically parallels that of other rights and powers. Adults hide information from children, often until the latter have been ritually initiated into adulthood. Men refuse to share ritual knowledge with women. Family and lineage groups own various sorts of genealogical, medical, or historical knowledge, sharing these only with kin.
Anthropologists have used a political economy of secrets to account for various forms of inequality. For example, the power of Kpelle elders over youth in Liberia was grounded in their management of the secrets of the Poro society (Murphy 1980). Beyond West Africa, anthropologists have argued that older, male keepers of secrets thereby acquired authority over women and the other uninitiated in various societies of Melanesia (Barth 1975), Native America (particularly Southwestern Pueblo cultures), and Australia (Keen 1994). Male appropriation of religious ritual, of access to the supernatural, of technology, of medicine, of sacred texts, of history, or of other valued information cemented men’s authority over the ignorant.
Furthermore, women, children, and others in subordinate political position may be forced to reveal what they know, or otherwise denied rights to secrecy. Rights to have secrets are as consequential as the right to reveal information. Conversely, secrets can be a device to resist power. The dominated conceal what they know from authority. Women share knowledge kept from men. Slaves commune in secret languages. Children construct hidden worlds that evade adult awareness. In this reading, secrecy is a weapon of the weak that functions to resist and deﬂect supervision from above. Secrecy can also preserve a person’s idiosyncratic beliefs and practices from public deprecation as in the case, for example, of middle-class English witches (Luhrmann 1989).
Alongside preservation of regimes of power, secrecy also contributes to perceptions of individual identity. Self-understanding may transform after a person has acquired secret information. Boys, for example, come to redeﬁne themselves as men after progressing through an initiation ritual during which they learn adult secrets (Herdt 1990).
2.3 Rights To Reveal Secrets
Many analysts of secrecy systems have concluded that many secrets are not actually secret. Women know men’s tricks: those spirit voices overheard during ritual are really bamboo ﬂutes or bullroarers. Children pretend not to know that their parents are not really Santa Claus. Kin from one lineage are familiar with the supposedly secret names and genealogies of their neighbors. In oral societies, the leakiness of secret knowledge, in fact, helps maintain its viability within a community. If a secret holder dies, others are around to reveal lost knowledge if need be.
Systems of secrecy often rely upon inequalities in rights to reveal knowledge rather than on an eﬀective concealment of information—rights that the Kpelle summarize in the term ‘you cannot talk it’ (Bellman 1984). Folk copyrights of this sort regulate who may speak about what (Lindstrom 1990). Even though someone may know the content of concealed information, that person may not repeat this knowledge in public without the copyright to do so. Family groups in Vanuatu, for example, own songs, myths, genealogies, and medical recipes that others may not publicly reveal without that family’s permission. In private contexts, however, public secrets are surreptitiously discussed.
Knowledge is regulated not just by restricted transmission—by secrecy—but also by copyrights that limit who speaks publicly. Folk systems of copyright transform secrets into ‘open’ secrets. Those supposed not to know must pretend not to know. And those supposed to know pretend to think that only they, in fact, do know. Anthropological analyzes of the social and psychological dynamics of open secrecy preﬁgured work on other similar institutions, including the homosexual ‘closet’ (Sedgwick 1990, see also Taussig 1999 on public secrecy).
3. Personal Secrecy
Secrecy becomes possible given particular assumptions about personhood. The person must comprise some sort of inner self where secrets are stored along with an intention and capacity to conceal information. One can imagine a culture where notions of the person lacking such an inner self might deny the possibility of secrecy. No such culture exists although Western conceptions of childhood have often presumed that psychologically immature children lack competence with secrecy—that aptitudes to intentionally conceal information emerge as part of the child developmental process (Bok 1982).
Western historians, too, have suggested that there have been diﬀerent regimes of secrecy in the past, related to shifts in constructions of personhood. Simmel (1950) connected the evolution of secrecy to that of individualization and urbane modernity (his argument recalls similar evolutionary accounts of personal privacy.) In pre-urban societies, lack of individualism and everyday intimacies of contact made secrecy diﬃcult. Simmel supposed that secrets increased with developing opportunities for personal reserve and discretion.
More recent historians, stimulated by the work of Michel Foucault (1978) have argued instead that modernity shrinks opportunities for personal secrecy—that bureaucratic power structures increasingly have come to rely upon the monitoring of individuals, either by themselves or by institutional devices that extract information. According to Foucault, the origins of such extraction trace back to the Christian practice of confession. People are obliged to reveal their secrets to ecclesiastical, juridical, and other authorities. Revelation to authority conﬁrms ones subjugation within a social order. The modern individual possesses inner capacities to conceal information but also contradictory urges and duties to reveal those secrets.
Stimulated by the work of Erving Goﬀman (1959) and others, students of interpersonal relationships have remarked the signiﬁcance of secrets, masks, and ‘face’ in an everyday micropolitics of self-presentation. Such studies have noted more egalitarian uses of revelation. People strengthen their relationships, creating communities of trust, by revealing secret information. This may be a secret about themselves, or a secret about another that they pass along, often in return for the promise ‘not to tell.’ Such secrets are a kind of gossip (Bok 1982), the exchange of which remarks and maintains sentiments of friendship. Personal secrets are a social currency that people invest in their relationships. Whereas public secrets maintain political value insofar as their transmission is restricted, the value of personal secrets ﬂows from their easy everyday revelation.
4. The Study Of Secrecy
Anthropology’s interest in cross-cultural description as a whole can be taken to be the desire to learn and reveal other people’s secrets (Taussig 1999). Methodologically, ethnographers face obvious problems of access to concealed information, but the study of secrecy raises even larger ethical puzzles. Anthropological codes of ethics generally require ethnographers to ensure that research does not harm the safety, dignity, or privacy of the people they study. Some researchers have described the structure and function of secrecy systems while avoiding details of secret knowledge content. Others have promised not to make their publications available to those members of a community (women, often) who should not have access to secret information. A few have refrained from publishing at all and restrict access to their ﬁeldnotes. Ethical issues are thorniest where the secrets that anthropologists probe help maintain unjust social orders.
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