Sarah E. Igo


On her book The Known Citizen: A History of Privacy in Modern America

Cover Interview of April 08, 2018

The wide angle

As an historian of ideas, I’m keenly interested in people’s convictions and how they change. I’ve been especially curious about the way ordinary Americans have revised their understandings of the society they lived in. In my first book, for instance, I explored how citizens’ visions of the national public—majorities and minorities, mainstream and fringe—were altered by the sudden influx of popular polls and surveys in the first half of the twentieth century.

Privacy is a fascinating topic for probing how ideas, even deeply cherished ones, shape shift. This is because Americans usually treat it as an essential and unchanging value, if one also always under threat. But a look into the history of how Americans have debated, litigated, and lived privacy over the past century and a half reveals a concept in constant turmoil. Certainly, citizens viewed and wielded privacy differently depending on their status and circumstances, and some could barely access it at all.

Rather than ask what happened to Americans’ privacy—as if it were a stable or measurable thing—I wanted to know why modern citizens talked and thought so much about it. What was that talk really about? What was it doing in political debates and constitutional jurisprudence but also in social criticism, professional protocols, architectural plans, and popular culture? How had it evolved over time? And what might it reveal about the changing texture of both personal and public life?

I found that some of the ways Americans debated the fate of personal privacy in the late nineteenth century often felt surprisingly familiar in the twenty-first. But there have also been striking transformations, which in my view can only be explained by following in the tracks of the known citizen.

One was Americans’ gradual turn from an emphasis on tangible claims to privacy—in the form of property rights and physical space—to intangible ones centered on psychological freedom, decisional autonomy, and personal identity as a more knowing society took root. Another transformation was in the shifting sense of who was entitled to privacy’s refuge. If privacy was a privilege reserved for the “man of reputation” at the outset of my story, it was claimed (although not always successfully) by a much wider array of Americans by the end, including juveniles, patients, soldiers, union members, pregnant women, research subjects, and welfare recipients. The expansion of formal privacy rights and regulations across the twentieth century testified persuasively to the need for protections from those claiming a right to know.

But perhaps the most unexpected development was the way in which the closely guarded secrets of the Victorian era moved out into the open after the 1960s, whether in political, psychological, or pop-cultural form. Although never completely or finally, an older fear of exposure gave way to a premium on transparency. Already known so well, many citizens today are willing to live more openly by embracing new modes of revelation and disclosure.