Privacy and orders of worth

Sometimes it is in the most unexpected of places that you find some of the most useful information. In a book entitled “From categories to categorization” (edited by Rodolphe Durand et al) is a chapter on privacy which looks at the topic from another angle.

(Bajpai, Weber 2017) analyse emerging notions of informational privacy in public discourse and policymaking in the United States.

They say that conceptions of privacy were tied to institutional orders of worth. Those orders offered theories, analogies and vocabularies that could be deployed to extrapolate the concept of privacy into new domains, make sense of new technologies and to shape policy.

Drawing on the work of Boltanski & Thevenot ((2006)[1991]) they list the following orders of worth applied to privacy:

  • Inspired
  • Domestic
  • Fame
  • Civic
  • Market
  • Industrial

A question I would ask is whether privacy is now seen through the “market” perspective at the expense of other perspectives. So, the market world values competition, winning and self interest; and devalues loss and scarcity; whereas the inspired world, for example, values spontaneity, independence and authenticity; devalues habit, regulation and routine. So, in the inspired world data must be free for creative use and data controls are deeply personal decisions.

Bajpai and Weber say that according to Habermas (1991 p319) a person’s life-world is divided into a private sphere (traditionally family, private household, and intimate relationships) and a public sphere (traditionally political and civic life, and public spaces). Clearly that distinction has come under strain, and I think that it is misleading to see things in such black and white terms.

A particularly noteworthy observation of Bajpai and Weber is that organisational research on categories has drawn mostly on theories of what cognitive psychologists and anthropologists call “object concepts” at the expense of “abstract concepts” such as truth, rights, self, democracy or privacy.

They say that “informational privacy is an abstract concept that rests on translating ideas of privacy from the predigital to the digital era. The reformulation of privacy as informational privacy entails political struggles over epistemic control that are only weakly bounded by “objective” qualities of the category”.

“The policy actors involved in translating the concept of privacy to digital privacy are arguably less constrained by material properties of privacy practices and conventions understandings, as the technologies, practices, and conventions in the digital domain are less settled and rapidly emerging. Policy actors are then involved in creating subsequent constraints in the form of legal doctrine and public policy rather than responding to them”.


BAJPAI, K. and WEBER, K., 2017. Privacy in public: Translating the category of privacy to the digital age. From Categories to Categorization: Studies in Sociology, Organizations and Strategy at the Crossroads. Emerald Publishing Limited, pp. 223-258.

HABERMAS, J.[.A., BURGER, T. and LAWRENCE, F., 1991. The structural transformation of the public sphere : an inquiry into a category of bourgeois society. Cambridge: MIT Press.