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Islands of Privacy

Everyone worries about privacy these days. As corporations and governments devise increasingly sophisticated data gathering tools and joining Facebook verges on obligatory, concerns over the use and abuse of personal information are undeniable. But the way privacy functions on the virtual frontier of the Internet is only a subset of the fascinating ways we work to achieve it throughout our everyday lives. In Islands of Privacy, Christena Nippert-Eng pries open the blinds, giving us an intimate view into the full range of ordinary people’s sometimes extraordinary efforts to preserve the border between themselves and the rest of the world.

Packed with stories that are funny and sad, familiar and strange, Islands of Privacy tours the myriad arenas where privacy battles are fought, lost, and won. Nippert-Eng explores how we manage our secrets, our phone calls and e-mail, the perimeters of our homes, and our interactions with neighbors. She discovers that everybody practices the art of selectively concealing and disclosing information on a daily basis. This important balancing act governs a wide range of behaviors, from deciding whether to give our bosses our cell phone numbers to choosing what we carry in our wallets or purses. Violations of privacy and anxiety about how we grant it to each other also come under Nippert-Eng’s microscope as she crafts a compelling argument that successfully managing privacy is critical for successfully maintaining our relationships with each other and our selves.

Roaming from the beach to the bank and from the bathroom to the bus, Nippert-Eng’s keenly observed and vividly told book gives us the skinny on how we defend our shrinking islands of privacy in the vast ocean of accessibility that surrounds us.

See a website for the book.

416 pages | 2 halftones, 5 line drawings, 6 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2010

Law and Legal Studies: Law and Society

Political Science: Urban Politics

Sociology: General Sociology, Social Psychology--Small Groups


“Looking for life in all the right places, Nippert-Eng takes us to the beach, the purse, and the email account. Through systematic and empathetic investigation, she shows how privacy and exposure to others are strategic accomplishments that vary over moments of the day, social context, and items at hand. The result is a unique substantive and methodological contribution from one of sociology’s most inventive field workers.”

Harvey Molotch, New York University

Islands of Privacy is a major work of original research, depicting the processes, exchanges, and concerns involved in the ongoing social negotiation of this thing we call ‘privacy.’ The strength of Nippert-Eng’s closely detailed approach is that it allows us to see that privacy is a complicated value subject to constant change, pressure, defense, and negation. The book is also elegantly written—in admirable Studs Terkel fashion, Nippert-Eng is able to get people to tell some great stories about the things that interest us all.”

John Gilliom, Ohio University

Islands of Privacy is a most welcome contribution to the study of social interaction and interpersonal relations. As in her earlier book Home and Work, Christena Nippert-Eng combines a sophisticated theoretical mind and a remarkably astute empirical eye, demonstrating in numerous dazzling observations that, far from being trivial, everyday life provides a key to some of the most fundamental questions sociologists have been asking about the human condition. Islands of Privacy exhibits the kind of scholarship that, following in the intellectual footsteps of Erving Goffman, highlights the mundane, which is usually taken for granted and thereby ignored by most sociologists.”

Eviatar Zerubavel, Rutgers University

"[An] insightful, engaging and sprawling book on the ’work’ (and sometimes the ’play’) of creating privacy in everyday life. . . . This book joins the small pantheon of original and enduring social studies of the topic. It will be necessary reading for specialists desiring to leave no contour unexamined. With a novelist’s eye for the details of the taken-for-granted world and for imagining roads not taken, Nippert-Eng offers a cornucopia of stories about communication offered, withheld and blocked. Yet she goes beyond mere storytelling to provide broader conceptual maps. The book’s many poignant, humorous and resonant stories will appeal to the general reader."

Times Higher Education

"Islands of Privacy is a brisk, invigorating read, and it provides a field guide for a subject that concerns us all."


“This is a timely book, and its focus on the everyday actions of individuals to achieve and avoid privacy violations sets this book apart from others . . . The author should be complimented for undertaking the difficult task of investigating the everyday meanings of privacy.”

Social Forces

Table of Contents


Introduction: Islands, Oceans, and Beaches

Chapter One: Secrets and Secrecy

Chapter Two: Wallets and Purses

Chapter Three: Cell Phones and Email

Chapter Four: Doorbells and Windows

Conclusion: Violations, Fears, and Beaches

Appendix A: Study Questionnaire

Appendix B: Techniques of Secrets Work




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