Personal Privacy and Culture Research Paper

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Personal privacy is a vexing and invaluable concept: vexing because it is difficult to describe; invaluable because privacy allows people the possibility of freedom, and thus autonomy and personal choice. In this sense, privacy is a precondition of psychological concepts of identity: the modern ideal of an individual requires—and cannot be fully realized without— substantial privacy. Personal privacy can be pictured as the atmosphere generating part of the ecosystem in which this individual can draw breath.



Perhaps most succinctly defined by the US social philosopher, Sissela Bok (1982), privacy is ‘the condition of being protected from unwanted access by others—either physical access, personal information or attention.’ This protection, whether physical, political, or psychological provides freedom because it shelters people from intrusion; it fends off predators that might pre-empt personal choice; it grants control. Privacy also emphasizes interiority: the subject–while protected from undesired surveillance and intrusive access—is freed to focus more fully on self-observation, and to develop efficacious forms of self-expression.

1. Historical Background

An early template of this phenomenon can be found in Jane Austen’s novel, Pride and Prejudice, published in 1813. Midway through the novel, its heroine Elizabeth is sitting alone in a room reading a letter when the romantic hero, Darcy, comes upon her and is startled by her solitude. Modern readers may not recognize what an unusual spectacle such a tableau offered in Austen’s era. Women were rarely alone, and many were only recently literate enough to read and write letters. The book also describes Elizabeth’s startling penchant for solitary walks. Her search for solitude underscores her characterization as a new, independent woman with a more self-conscious and thus a sturdier sensibility. Alone in a room with time and peace to peruse an intimate letter, Elizabeth can contemplate her reactions to what she is reading. She can notice what she thinks and feels without immediately being distracted or having her impressions overrun or overruled by others around her. Given a pen and paper, she can respond from her own perspective; she can express an opinion, and in a larger sense, a point of view.

These behaviors, made possible by privacy, and the resulting increased capacities for autonomous voice and self-expression, distinguish Elizabeth from her less able peers, and define her as a substantial individual in a modern sense. This view is furthered by her refusal to marry Darcy when he first approaches. Although he is wealthy and upperclass, and she is from a more middle-class family with money worries, and although marriage is the only avenue into society for her, she refuses his offer because she does not love him. Her behavior is radical as it suggests love—and the sensibility of the subject—as a value of more significance than social standing or economic well-being. While in contemporary Western culture, many take for granted love as the superior foundation for marital commitment, this notion, this priviledging of private feeling, is also—historically speaking—new, having developed a popular following gradually over the past few centuries. And, as Austen illustrates, in the era of Pride and Prejudice, it was easily displaced by other imperatives.

Austen’s heroine is only satisfied when she can choose to marry Darcy, based on her private feelings—those she discovers within her heart. Elizabeth’s insistence on such a course illustrates well the confluence between forms of privacy, like solitude, and the heightened capacity for personal choice based on feelings. One emphatic version of this idea of individual integrity rooted in private experience was asserted by the US transcendentalist Bronson Alcott (1799–1888) when he wrote, ‘Individuals are sacred. The world, the state, the church, and school, all are felons whenever they violate the sanctity of the private heart’ (in Seipp 1981, p. 99).

While all cultures have had some notions of privacy (Barrington Moore Jr. 1984 traces its rudimentary presence in Ancient Greece and the Old Testament), the modern concept—illustrated so well in Pride and Prejudice—has been developing gradually since around the seventeenth century. The cultural historian Philip Aries (1962) has pointed out that until the early seventeenth century, almost no one in Europe spent time alone. But privacy is more than solitude. Alan Westin defined its four substates as solitude, anonymity, reserve, and intimacy. While these states are diverse, they all describe methods of purposefully shielding oneself from the physical and/or psychological ‘gaze’ of others.

The ideal of personal privacy is partly an outgrowth of a gradual social transition accompanying the mass urban migration of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. People left communal situations—small towns and villages where their lives, monitored by church and neighbor, had been witnessed closely and controlled largely by people who knew them. Finding themselves more alone, separate, and increasingly anonymous, people, first in cities then in suburbs, realized that they were at liberty to choose their activities and behaviors with less reference to communal imperatives. Although in part following an economic infrastructure defined by industrialization and capitalism, this increased autonomy drew its cultural meaning from philosophies of individual rights and freedom. While the sources are too many to site, one would have to acknowledge the influence of John Locke, Edmund Burke, Jean Jacque Rousseau, Johann Goethe, William Wordsworth, Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mary Wolstencraft, Margaret Fuller, and Henry David Thoreau among many others.

Within this tradition, privacy can be defined as the right to make one’s own choices relatively unobserved, unchastised, and unimpinged upon by others— whether individuals or institutions. While there is no legal ‘right to privacy’ in the USA, the concept began to be articulated in the late nineteenth century. In 1872 the feminist Victoria Woodhull referred to ‘the right to privacy’ in a newspaper piece. The famous expression, ‘the right to be let alone,’ was then coined by Judge Thomas Cooley in 1879. In 1890, Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis published a landmark article, ‘The Right to Privacy’ in the Harvard Law Review . No important discussion of privacy in the USA since then has failed to refer to Warren and Brandeis.

Privacy had been increasingly understood as a precondition for human dignity. Shielded from intrusive observation, people take control over the matter of ‘showing’ themselves to others or not based upon their own sense of readiness. Few feel dignified when exposed to hostile or secret surveillance. Privacy functions as a practice room in which people can process and master experience before displaying themselves to others. Having this option, people feel less shame. Shame is in essence an internal overseer— employed by those parts of the mind whose job is to keep the individual in line with the communal norm. Privacy provides the space in which the communal demand can be weighed against the internal individual imperative, and a choice of behavior made through consideration rather than reflex. Since shame is also a psychic experience where the sense of self temporarily disintegrates, the shielding of the individual with privacy, the minimizing of shame, and the valuing of dignity, all enforce conditions which enhance people’s sense of individual identity and worth.

2. Theories Of Privacy

Alan Westin’s landmark book, Privacy and Freedom (1968), defined four states of privacy. Because these states are to some degree counterintuitive, it is useful to describe them. The first—solitude—is perhaps the most self-evident and the one most popularly associated with privacy. When privacy is mentioned, the mind often jumps to an image of a person alone, whether in nature or in a room. In US literary culture, one might think of Henry David Thoreau living at Walden Pond, or—half a century earlier—of James Fenimore Cooper’s fictional frontiersman, Natty Bumpo, independently making his way through the American wilderness. Solitude is the most complete state of privacy; in it one is physically separate from others. Historically, solitude has been associated with men and linked to images of independence, moral awareness, and strength. Until recently in Western Europe and North America, women were only granted solitude for prayer. Unchosen, solitude becomes isolation and, like the extraordinarily punitive condition of solitary confinement, can be a psychically destructive experience; people, with inadequate access to others become more inclined to psychic turmoil.

Anonymity is Westin’s second state of privacy. When one is with others but unknown to them, as in a crowded train or a city or a suburban shopping mall, one is anonymous. Anonymity offers privacy by allowing human proximity in the absence of knowledgeable witnesses. One is freed in this situation (for better and worse) to experience a subjective sense of oneself or of current experience unchallenged by the proximity of knowing and potentially contradicting others. The degree of anonymity that urban and suburban dwellers experience today is historically atypical and sometimes shades into the alienating sense of anomie.

The third state of privacy is reserve. Reserve is perhaps the oldest and most universally available form of privacy; the privacy one can access even when surrounded by intimates. It is the default state of privacy, the great mediator of psychic survival and human freedom. One has, thanks to reserve, the freedom not to say openly or fully what one thinks or feels, not to reveal oneself in situations that feel unsafe. Reserve is a basic element in civility and civilization, but more than that, it negotiates the distances between people, facilitating all varieties of encounter by allowing exchanges among people where disruptive observations go unspoken and social intercourse is expedited. It is also one of the equalizers in social power. The powerful, denied critical response or information by the reserve of the ‘weak,’ can have their intentions impeded.

Intimacy is Westin’s fourth state of privacy, and perhaps the most surprising one to find in association with the others. Intimacy is a state of privacy where two people, or a small group or a family, shielded from the larger group, are able to reveal themselves more fully, physically, psychologically, sexually, and so forth. As individuals have come to live more separately and less communally, there has been an increased demand for intimacy in primary relationships. At the same time, continuing our delineation of the relationship of privacy to the ideal of the more fully developed individual, intimacy is considered a well-spring for psychic development. Within intimate relationships, individuals hope to find validation of their nascent self-expression which then ideally strengthens and reinforces their capacity to carry that private self into the public world. Intimacy also provides release in the form of freer emotional and sexual expression.

The ‘possibility’ within privacy also includes individual artistic expression, which in turn dovetails with the romantic emphasis on the artist as the highest realization of modern sensibility. According to this view, well articulated in Charles Taylor’s (1989) compendium on the sources of modern identity, the artist, creating in private and using privacy to appropriately shield and nurture his or her creative process, expresses otherwise obscured, often internally uncovered, truths about human experience, and by so doing transforms that experience.

And while the artist may be the prototype of this style of individual, it would be a mistake to minimize privacy’s broader but related function in everyday life. Take two contemporary flashpoints as illustrative: One can see the critical role of personal privacy both in the abortion debate and the gay rights movement. In both these situations, the wish of individuals to choose behavior around sexuality and procreation is placed in conflict with traditional social imperatives. Specifically, these imperatives have dictated the primacy of procreation and heterosexual procreative sex. In both cases, the progressive position has been framed as valuing individual choice above procreation specifically because this choice highly values subjective experience—the primacy of the individual heart. Thus the individual’s private feelings—about readiness to have children, or the number of children to have, about whom one wants to love and how—are held to be of worth precisely because they enforce people’s capacity to act according to their own lights, and to transform themselves by these actions: to become ‘more fully’ human through freedom.

Sigmund Freud’s notions of a complex human psychology that requires and transforms itself through self-knowledge, and particularly through self-knowledge inculcated in the intimate process of psycho-analysis, fits within this modern template. In the various psychotherapies which have proliferated in the USA and Europe during the twentieth century, the therapist assists patients to become themselves more fully by verbalizing their private (even secret) heretofore inexpressible thoughts and feelings. The process of naming, the intimate yet contractual relationship, and the resulting restructuring of aspects of the patient’s mind are meant to create a transformative and relatively liberating self-knowledge. The privacy of the consulting room and the confidentiality of the process are considered central to its efficacy in that they secure a free space between social demand and individual subjectivity.

3. Threats To Privacy

Privacy is a fragile state, and one—as the twentieth century has demonstrated—that is exploited readily. No discussion of the merits of personal privacy can be complete without some exploration of its accompanying liabilities. While many of the most eloquent voices of the twentieth century—among them George Orwell, Nadia Mandelstam, and Primo Levi—have delineated the damage to liberty and individual authority brought about by hostile surveillance and its companion, terror, less has been said until recently of the equal threat to privacy caused by secrecy and social isolation. (Perhaps the one historically illuminated aspect has been in those instances when it has been tied with totalitarian power wherein the masses are placed under surveillance while the motives and behaviors of leaders are kept secret.)

But domestic secrecy turns out to be a potent destructive force with regard to personal privacy. Under the guise of privacy, more powerful members of families have had reign to exploit or abuse less powerful members—whether emotionally, sexually, or physically. These acts are significant not only because of their exploitative dimensions, but because by their very nature they stunt the freedom of the oppressed to use the privacy for the aims elaborated above. Any historical survey of social conditions would suggest that such abuse has always been amply present. Yet what has altered currently may be an ideology which pictures family life as unrealistically benign—‘a haven in a heartless world’ (Lasch 1977)—an idealization that sometimes denies, sometime mitigates, the inherent violence.

A corollary concern is the degree to which many of the benefits made possible by personal privacy accrue only to a privileged or powerful few. Does such a scatter imply that privacy reinforces other social hierarchies, or can it still be construed as a valuable humanistic ideal which will only find full expression if social justice increases other aspects of social equality?

So too, US social philosophers like Christopher Lasch, and the ‘communitarians’ Robert Bellah and Amatai Etzioni have attacked aspects of US individualism which they see both as excessive, and as indulging an unchallenged pursuit of private purpose and private gain at the expense of the welfare of a larger group. According to this critique, the goals of the individual and the community may be enough at odds to warrant more vigorous interventions on the part of the state to protect communities. Privacy becomes implicated in this debate for its functions shielding individuals and honoring their imperatives.

The technological revolution of the present age also threatens privacy. Computer databanks, video cameras, audio taping, sophisticated surveillance capabilities, and medical technologies like DNA testing make it extremely easy for people to learn private information about other people which was more difficult to access earlier in the twentieth century. Reacting to excessive social isolation and anonymity, and to the enormous profit in selling private information, there is strong interest from many quarters in developing new ways of observing others. The technological gains have come so quickly that inadequate attention is being paid to their pros and cons with regard to the value of preserving privacy. So, for example, the DNA sampling in prison of a petty offender implies a lifelong increased access to knowledge about that individual by the state. And civil liberties issues have tended to get suppressed in the enthusiasm for the new capabilities.

4. Conclusion

In summary, personal privacy protects a wide variety of modern social ideals. Privacy advocates argue that people have a right to be ‘let alone’; and that, shielded from excessive authoritarian intrusions, people will make choices based on some more personal sense of what is desirable, that thus constitutes more authentic self-expression. As a corollary, these ideals justify and affirm other cultural notions which support individual liberty and dignity, the value of self-knowledge, and they privilege relationships based in love.


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