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American Journal of Sociology > Vol. 117, No. 1, July 2011 > Islands of Privacy b... American Journal of Sociology Publication Info American Journal of Sociology Coverage: 1895-2011 (Vols. 1-117) Published by: The University of Chicago Press ISSN: 00029602 E-ISSN: 15375390 Journal Description Established in 1895 as the first U.S. scholarly journal in its field, American Journal of Sociology remains a leading voice for analysis and research in the social sciences. The journal presents pathbreaking work from all areas of sociology, with an emphasis on theory building and innovative methods. AJS strives to speak to the general sociological reader and is open to sociologically informed contributions from anthropologists, statisticians, economists, educators, historians, and political scientists. AJS prizes research that offers new ways of understanding the social; for example, a project currently under way seeks to compile a special issue organized around genetic influences on social interaction. Published by: The University of Chicago Press Article DOI: 10.1086/661075 Stable URL:

Islands of Privacy by Christena E. Nippert-Eng Kevin D. Haggerty Book Reviews Reviewed work(s): Islands of Privacy. By Christena E. Nippert-Eng. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010. Pp. xi+404. $22.50. Kevin D. Haggerty University of Alberta

Christena Nippert-Eng has produced an impressive piece of research on the daily regimes that people use to carve off a sphere free from unwanted scrutiny. Islands of Privacy is a welcome and timely contribution that helps fill a long-standing gap in our understanding of how individuals relate to monitoring. It also complicates the prevailing sentiment that privacy is declining in a straightforward fashion. On concluding the book, one appreciates the profound challenges to privacy in contemporary society, but also the diverse ways that people respond to such developments, and the reasons they believe it is vital to so. So, rather than a simple picture of privacy receding, one garners a sense that privacy is continually mutating.

The author interviewed 74 Chicago residents. These participants were chosen through a process of selective sampling of people who she believed might have interesting things to say on the topic. Readers are consequently presented with the views of police officers, students, and stay-at-home parents, among many others. This material provides for a rich tapestry of extended interview excerpts that present diverse insights into why people might want to carve off a private realm, and the creative ways they do so. The fundamental “privacy problem” faced by individuals, according to the author, concerns how to achieve a balance between the need and desire for both privacy and publicity. Managing privacy is therefore a process of maintaining boundaries, making ourselves differentially accessible to others. Privacy can be an intimately personal project, and one that involves a series of complex regimes pertaining to such things as shredding files, closing blinds, and telling white lies. Such procedures can be so ingrained that they operate at an almost precognitive level. Nippert-Eng’s task is to prod her participants to articulate and reflect upon such practices. Such attention to the micro scale makes the volume reminiscent of Erving Goffman’s foundational work on the presentation of self. This is not a book designed to arrive at some sweeping conclusion about the nature of privacy. Indeed, given the picture that emerges of privacy as a highly subjective and contextual phenomenon, the book implicitly works against the prospect of producing such totalizing generalizations. Instead, Nippert-Eng presents a procession of nuanced insights about why people desire privacy, and what they do when it is violated. The volume comprises of six chapters, including the introduction and conclusion. The first substantive chapter, “Secrets and Secrecy” outlines how secrets are a means to the end of maintaining privacy. It presents some of the factors people consider in deciding what secrets to keep, how they do so, and their different competencies in keeping secrets. Rather than being a solitary affair, secrets are shown to be inherently social, as they serve to increase the intimacy among those who share confidences. The following three chapters are organized around particular sites where there can be marked tensions about selective exposure. They flesh out the nuance of privacy understood as a subjective condition of relative inaccessibility. The first chapter of the three is based on a protocol where interviewees were asked to discuss the contents of their wallets and purses, and to differentiate those things that are more private from those that are more public. What is revealing is the variability in such distinctions, and how they were related to imaginings of a host of potential audiences and uses for the items participants carried. The chapter also accentuates the tension between objects that allow people to fulfill an institutionally prescribed role and those that speak to a more subjectively defined personal identity. The following two chapters both deal with social accessibility. The chapter “Cell Phones and Email” focuses on how communication technologies have allowed for new interventions into previously private realms. The other chapter is a variation on this theme, in that it dwells upon the boundaries we place around ourselves and our home, and how we manage the task of selectively allowing others access to those realms.

Highlighted here are issues pertaining to such mundane things as managing trash, mail, dogs, and neighbors. The conclusion, entitled “Violations, Fears, and Breaches,” portrays privacy violations as situations where the level of access someone acquires exceeds what the violated party wants or expects. Privacy is therefore deeply subjective and wrapped up in efforts to manage our relationships with others. Violations reveal privacy to be something that we possess only at the mercy of others. Violations can also be deeply unsettling in that the struggle for privacy is a struggle over power (p. 167). Losing such battles can reveal how little concern the violator has for the victim, and the victim’s relative lack of power. Tellingly, nowhere do any of the interviewees mention going to the law to protect their privacy or to seek redress for violations. The only quibble I have with the book is directed at the publisher. Given that the text is essentially divided into questions asked by the interviewer, the interviewees’ responses, and commentary by Nippert-Eng, it is frustrating that the font for the latter two are difficult to distinguish. This presentation can make for a series of confusing moments in trying to discern who is actually doing the talking and makes it difficult to quickly flip through the book in search of Nippert-Eng’s insightful commentaries. Better if the press had used indentation or more distinct fonts to clearly differentiate the types of text. This is obviously a minor quibble, but over the course of 325 pages it did become an unnecessary distraction. Ultimately, Islands of Privacy is a major piece of social scientific research which will be of interest to scholars of privacy and information technology, and any sociologist interested in how people manage the minutia of their lives and relationships. For permission to reuse a book review printed in the American Journal of Sociology, please contact

American Journal of Sociology  

The following two chapters both deal with social accessibility. The chapter “Cell Phones and Email” focuses on how communication technologie...

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