Interview: Sarah E. Igo, The Known Citizen

By Sarah Al-Arshani

The Known Citizen: A History of Privacy in Modern America by Sarah E. Igo is the recipient of Phi Beta Kappa’s 2019 Ralph Waldo Emerson Award. The award, which was established in 1960, is given to scholarly work in the fields of history, philosophy, and religion, including appropriate work in related fields such as anthropology and the social sciences, that has significant contributions to interpretations of the intellectual and cultural condition of humanity. 

Igo is the Andrew Jackson Professor of History and Director of the Program in American Studies at Vanderbilt University. She is also the inaugural Faculty Director of E. Bronson Ingram College. Igo’s research interests are mostly in modern American cultural, intellectual, legal, and political history as well as the history of the human sciences, the sociology of knowledge, and the history of the public sphere. She holds a bachelor’s degree in social studies from Harvard University and a Ph.D. in history from Princeton University. Igo is also the author of The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public (Harvard University Press, 2007) and the co-author of The American Promise, a textbook from Bedford/St. Martin’s.

She has held several fellowships including from the Institute for Advanced Study, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Whiting Foundation, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. She also received a New Directions Fellowship from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to train at UC-Berkeley’s Law School and Center for the Study of Law and Society from 2012 to 2015.

In The Known Citizen, Igo takes the reader through the history of privacy in the United States and how its meaning and perception have changed over time from the late 19th century to the present day. One reviewer on the Emerson Award selection panel said, “The Known Citizen has both breadth and depth. It both covers the history of discussion about ‘privacy’ in American culture and law and points to the changing nature of the popular definitions of the idea of privacy and how these ideas have been driven by cultural and social conditions and have helped to shape those conditions.”

The book has won several other awards including the Jacques Barzun Prize in Cultural History from the American Philosophical Society and the Merle Curti Award for Intellectual History from the Organization of American Historians.


As a historian, why were you compelled to evaluate a topic like privacy and its place in American society?

IGO: I began musing on privacy while working on my first book, The Averaged American, about the role of surveys and statistics in shaping Americans’ social imaginations in the twentieth century. One thing I couldn’t quite answer was how and why individuals began feeling comfortable talking to strangers—pollsters, marketers, or social scientists—about items that were once considered highly private, such as one’s political opinions or sexual behaviors. It struck me that we needed a good, textured history of how Americans’ ideas about ‘what’s public’ and ‘what’s private’ have changed over time, and why. But I couldn’t readily find one. So I set out to do it myself. It didn’t take long to grasp how challenging, but also fascinating, privacy is as a historical subject.

Your book The Known Citizen: A History of Privacy in Modern America has been praised by other historians like Dvaid Greenberg. Greenberg says “Privacy is clearly a protean concept, and Igo deftly reviews the definitions that scholars have offered in their efforts to cage its elusive essence. She judges these attempts helpful but less than conclusive.” With that in mind, was there anything about previous works on privacy that compelled you to explore this topic differently?

IGO: Philosophers, sociologists, and literary and legal scholars—not to mention popular writers and journalists—have spilled a lot of ink on privacy. But they generally don’t ask the historical question of how and why ideas about privacy have changed. Yet the histories that do exist tend to focus either on formal legal doctrine (and often just one strand of privacy jurisprudence, whether reproductive rights or media intrusion) or technologies of state surveillance.  

I was interested in something else: how privacy became central to public culture, and to Americans’ understanding of their society, across the twentieth century. I wanted to track how privacy became the language of choice for so many unlike things: people’s intimate relationships, their living spaces, their political rights, their personal data, their psyches, and even their virtual selves. Doing that required taking a wide-angle view, so that I could follow privacy debates about what I call the “known citizen” wherever they occurred.  

It required paying attention not just to headlines and major scandals but to the practices of an increasingly “knowing society,” where the media, state agencies, financial institutions, workplaces, schools, psychologists, insurers, behavioral researchers, politicians, and marketers all sought to make individuals intelligible for their own reasons. So I wound up learning a lot about topics ranging from “instantaneous photography” in the nineteenth century and corporate personality testing in the mid-twentieth century to confessional memoirs at the turn of the twenty-first century—as well as Social Security numbers, research ethics, and public bathroom policing.

You mention that privacy didn’t become a publicly discussed topic until the 19th century. What shifted the conversation? How do you see it progressing as more and more information is collected and personal data continues to be used in a myriad of unauthorized ways?

IGO: Privacy of course was not a novel concern of the late-nineteenth century United States. But it was newly urgent because of the actions of corporate and state actors (from telegraph companies and the scandal press to centralizing bureaucracies), on the one hand, and because of the demands of new political constituencies on the other. After the Civil War, middle-class women as well as freedmen and women sought fuller citizenship, which included a measure of social autonomy and freedom from scrutiny. And so privacy became a collective and public claim, and a broadly desired “right” in this era. What fascinates me is that by the twentieth century, more and more Americans believed that they were entitled to something they called privacy. At the same time, privacy seemed ever-more elusive, given new techniques for capturing, documenting, tracking, and monitoring individual citizens. These practices, which could be found in every corner of American life, were justified on various grounds. And they often gained public assent. But they raised persistent questions about what kind of privacy could and should be preserved in a modern society, and where to draw the line between public matters and private life. This tension catapulted privacy into American politics and public debate. The dilemmas of a knowing society are of course, very much still with us. 

The name of your book is based on a 1939 poem “The Unknown Citizen” by W. H. Auden. How did the poem inspire your work? Which of Auden’s ideas in the poem did you agree with, and which did you find not so compelling?

IGO: I knew of Auden’s poem beforehand, but I rediscovered it midway through writing The Known Citizen and realized that it encapsulated some of my own findings about the push and pull of an ever-more knowing society. It spoke eloquently to the reasons privacy had become so foundational to American ideas about themselves and their society. On the one hand, being known could bring rewards: efficiency, convenience, opportunity, security, recognition, belonging, and other social benefits. On the other, it could impinge in dramatic ways on one’s reputation, employment prospects and life chances, and even one’s sense of oneself as an autonomous being. For Auden in 1940, the bundle of details that were compiled by society’s managers misconstrued what really made people tick—what made them truly human. The poem ends by asking of the “unknown citizen”: “Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd: Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.” I was interested in this problem, too.  In the twentieth century, many Americans came to be known, through a photograph, a psychological profile, a demographic category, a police file, a credit report, or a school record, in ways that would have been utterly unrecognizable to them. Moreover, these ways of knowing could have serious consequences. I think Auden put his finger on something deeply uncomfortable—but also very difficult to resolve—about the workings of a modern democratic commercial culture.

There’s an idea that individuals must constantly balance between personal privacy and the information we reveal.  Is this a personal responsibility or can there be a societal shift in American culture to make this more feasible? 

IGO: I think this responsibility to monitor ‘our’ information is relatively new. It is a product of the increasing value and commoditization of such data and a growing awareness of the risks attendant to a networked society. Americans are urged to protect themselves, schools implement curricula in cyberhygiene, and self-help measures (and products) proliferate. In some ways it is not surprising that the problem is framed as an individual one rather than a structural one.  This has been a common American response to large-scale social problems. But individuals are no match for our current data economy. Innovative legal thinking and substantive political engagement will be critical to developing more humane policies around data privacy in particular. History can play a role here.  Having a deeper understanding of how we arrived at this point—technologically, politically, culturally, and socially—clarifies the challenges we face and the multifaceted nature of the problem. The questions Americans have posed since the late nineteenth century—Who has the right to know? What ought to be publicly known? Who and what should remain unknown?—should be our guides.

Can you please share your response to the award? Is there any special significance to you winning the Society’s Ralph Waldo Emerson Award? 

IGO: I was thrilled to win the Society’s Ralph Waldo Emerson Award and honored that my book was judged to have something to say about the “intellectual and cultural condition of humanity.” As I regularly discover in my own intellectual history classes, Emerson’s essays, although written nearly two centuries ago, still resonate today. He wrestled with the question of society’s press on the individual person—a key theme of US privacy debates and of my book.  So to be awarded the Emerson prize is especially meaningful to me.

ΦΒΚ member Sarah Al-Arshani is a recent graduate of the University of Connecticut where she majored in journalism and political science. The University of Connecticut is home to the Epsilon of Connecticut chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.