Privacy, Personal Space and the differences between Us and Them (5th Post)   no comments

Posted at 3:55 pm in Psychology,Sociology

Personal Space

(Source: “The Environment and Social Behavior: Privacy, Personal Space, Territory, Crowding by I. Altman)

Personal Space refers to the distance that we maintain from other people, in order to feel secure and not threatened. It ensures that we are reaching a satisfactory level of privacy. A definition given by Goffman describes it as “the space surrounding an individual where within which an entering other causes the individual to feel encroaced upon, leading him to show displeasure and sometimes to withdraw.” Basic attributes of personal space are the following:

a. It is an ‘invisible’ boundary between ourself and other people.

b. It is carried everywhere a person goes.

c. In different situations the boundary of personal space is different, so the process of regulating it is a dynamic one.

d. If someone crosses the boundary of our personal space, we often feel threatened and stressed.

Edward Hall, an anthropologist, proposed the theory of proxemics, a theory that refers to the way people use space, in terms of communicating with others. He proposed 4 different spatial zones:

Intimate distance (0-6 inches – close phase, 6-18 inches – far phase);  “wrestling, comforting and protecting” distance

Personal distance (1.5-4 feet); intimate relationships

Social distance (4-12 feet); business and general social contact occur

Public distance (12-25 feet); formal occasions or public speaches

Furthermore, Hall observed that there are cultural differences in the use of space for communicating. He examined how different cultures treat personal space.

Personal space does exist online, but with a different form; people have their own virtual personal space, where they want to be able to maintain a certain distance from others, but at the same time interact with them. They log on to social networking sites to communicate with their friends, maintain their personal blogs or web sites etc. However Hall’s theory does not exist online, as there is no physical contact among people online.

Us and Them

(Source: “Thinking Sociologically” by Z. Bauman)

This chapter begins with an extremely interesting comparison between the number of people who influence our lives and the way we live and the people we actually know. There are uncountable multitudes that influence directly the way we live and we do not notice them, but there are also multitudes that put constraints to the way we live (e.g. pollution). If we now compare the number of people we know with these multitudes, we will realise that the difference is huge and that the people we know are very few.

The author separates people from his social intercourse into 3 groups:

a. People that we meet quite often and we have an intimate relationship with.

b. People that we meet on occasion (e.g. we meet our professors in the classroom for a lecture). The relationships we maintain with these people are called functional, as meeting these people serves a specific purpose of an activity. We are not interested in learning more things about these people, outside the function that they perform in our lives and we expect from them to do the same (e.g. we do not ask about the hobbies of our doctor). If they did actually ask more about ourselves, we would consider this as an intrusion of our privacy, says the author. It is a case of breaching an unwritten rule about the terms of our relationship, which is only an exchange of a particular service.

c. People that we hardly meet at all. We know their existence, but as they are not a direct part of our every day lives we do not pay particular attention to them.

As far as the second case is concerned (people we meet on occasion), I would add that this is not always how the things are. People do not always consider that being asked more personal questions is an intrusion of their privacy. For instance, if a person goes to the doctor for his annual checkup and the doctor asks him something personal (e.g. How’s your family doing?) it may not be considered by the patient that his privacy was breached. Instead he could go on and answer the question and perhaps make the same question to the doctor. This discussion may start, because people are interested into one another, or simply it may be a way to break the ice. And definitely the way people feel about being asked questions from people the meet on occasion, is affected by their cultural background (as Hall previously pointed out).

Alfred Schutz, sociologist, suggested that people can be plotted along an imaginary line, which is measured by social distance.

Taking an individual as the starting point of the line:

a. the people placed closest to that person are his consociates (direct face-to-face interactions).

b. A larger sector on this line are the person’s contemporaries (people who live at the same time as the person does).

c. The continuum, which is the more distant point from that person.

There are also the predecessors and the successors, with whom communication is one-sided and incomplete.

How do we disttinguish “us” from “them” in sociology? “We” and “They” are not just 2 different groups, they are people with entirely opposite attitudes. In our group we feel secure and trust each other, whereas the “others” cause us suspicion and fear. “They” are acting against our interests and may harm us. These two groups can be distinguished as the “in-group” and the “out-group”; there can be no “in-group” feeling without an “out-group” sentiment and vice versa. If there is a threat from the “out-group” the “in-group” members will join their forces to fight against it.

There are small “in-groups”, that consist of frequent, face-to-face interactions among the members, but there are also larger ones.

These ones are groups based on class, gender , nation etc. and are described as imaginary communities. The traits that they have in common cannot guarantee by themselves that there will be solidary action. In many cases they may be torn apart by conflicting interests. Since there is no face-to-face contact, these groups cannot become “in-groups” by themselves. Preaching of unity is indispensible in such cases. Professional spokesmen/activists are needed to perform this. In order to sustain the boundary of the group, the image of the enemy must be illustrated in every member’s mind. Fear, hostility and aggressiveness against the enemy result in prejudice.

Norbert Elias’s theory of the established and the outsiders shows great interest as well. The outsiders are a challenge to the lifestyle of the established population, no matter how little different they actually are from each other. Outsiders are regarded as aliens, as intruders and are not supposed to be there. This is also the way we feel when someone invades our personal space.

We have this notion of what our personal space consists of and if someone/an outsider goes beyond the boundary that we have set, we feel threatened.

Gregory Bateson suggested the name schismogenesis for the chain of actions and reactions that follow an intrusion from an outsider. Hostile actions are now generated and each actions calls for a still stronger reaction.

In the following weeks I will continue reading the book “Thinking Sociologically”. I will also begin reading the book “The power of Identity”.

Written by az4g09 on March 19th, 2010

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