Privacy in the Family: Its Hierarchical and Asymmetric Nature

By Chan, Ying-Keung | Journal of Comparative Family Studies, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview
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Privacy in the Family: Its Hierarchical and Asymmetric Nature

Chan, Ying-Keung, Journal of Comparative Family Studies



Social and behavioural scientists tend to define privacy in many different ways. Some define it in terms of the individual's ability to withdraw from unwanted interactions; others refer to the subject's ability to avoid public disclosure of personal information. In most cases, discussions of privacy tend to focus on the visible and invisible boundaries between individuals. It has been asserted that the individual's ability to regulate interaction, maintain personal autonomy and control information ultimately depends on the manipulation of these interpersonal boundaries.

The concept of privacy has been examined and theorised in depth by Westin (1970) and Altman (1976). Westin (1970) proposes four states of privacy which include: (1) solitude -- the state of being alone and unobserved; (2) intimacy -- the establishment of intimate relations with others, across various small social units; (3) anonymity - the capability to remain unrecognised in public; and (4) reserve - the ability to protect personal information and to maintain psychological barriers. According to Westin, privacy has four functions: it enables the individual to achieve (1) personal autonomy, (2) emotional release, (3) self-evaluation, and (4) limited and protected communication. Following Westin's discussion of the four states and four functions of privacy, Altman (1976) elaborates on the key elements within the conceptual framework of privacy, and he further suggests that privacy exists in social units composed of combinations of individuals and groups. For Altman, privacy is a question of the permeability of boundaries between oneself and others. It is an input-output process that involves non-monotonic interactions by which individuals accept certain outside stimuli or information while disclosing appropriate information. In other words, in Altman's conception of privacy, individuals contact others selectively, and the individual's perception of privacy develops from his, or her ability to regulate the flow of information efficiently, without interference or intrusion from the outside. Altman's discussion infers that privacy is a dial ectical process that involves the individual's ability to control the permeability of interpersonal boundaries.

Thus we conceive of privacy as a subjective response which varies according to individual preferences and various social settings. However, because of the multiplicity and diversity in the form and function of privacy zones, as well as the artificial or culturally constructed nature of interpersonal boundaries, privacy can be considered, using Fahey's (1995: 700) term, as a "symbolic flag of convenience" which may be attached to various kinds of objects and relationships in different settings and for different purposes. Therefore, the interpretation of privacy is not only culturally specific (Fahey, 1995), but it may also differ significantly within a given juridical structure (Boling, 1994).


In the West, scholarly definitions of privacy tend to involve the management of personal information and space. Even though the particular demands on a given space may not indicate the individual's ability to access privacy, Western scholars tend to consider the freedom to manipulate this space as the primary means by which the individual achieves privacy objectives. Following this lead, some Chinese scholars argue that there is no concept of privacy in traditional Chinese culture. In his discussions of the Chinese concepts of the "public" and the "private", Jin (1994) states that the Chinese do not have a concept of privacy (or privacy rights). He argues that the Chinese define public and private in abstract ethical terms, which are different from the Western socio-spatial conception of privacy. In addition to this, he maintains that the definition and protection of individual privacy through legitimate means of a right to privacy is conceptually unclear and ambiguous in Chinese society.

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Privacy in the Family: Its Hierarchical and Asymmetric Nature


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