On Thresholds, Boundaries, Filters and Privacy: An Anthropological Perspective

This blog post is written by anthropologist Kirsten Marie Raahauge. Kirsten Marie is associate professor and head of the Center for Interior Studies at the Royal Danish Academy. She is a member of the STAY HOME perspective panel[i].

Based on ethnographic fieldwork in Danish homes, this blogpost discusses the spatial zones and thresholds of privacy, focusing on the filtering of privacy in and out of homes and cities. It is suggested that the idea of privacy is under transformation along with changing spatial settings[ii].

I shall discuss the filtering of privacy in and out of homes and cities from the point of view of spatial anthropology. The discussion takes its point of departure in the theoretical perspectives on space of Frederik Stjernfelt, Peter Halley, and Michel de Certeau. Moreover, it is based on two of my fieldworks dealing with Danish homes of the upper middle class in the 2000s. In these projects, I focused on the interrelationship of space, things, and humans among well-off neighbourhoods in Aarhus (2001-2004),  Sønderborg (2006), and Frederikssund (2006).

On Space, Homes, and Cities

In his article Locale, Street, Square, a Naïve Theory of the City from 2007, Frederik Stjernfelt outlines three basic categories of urban phenomenology and semiotics based upon the simple notion of a trajectory through a network of streets. The Locale is the figure that signifies the end goal: it is a blind alley or the place where you have reached your destination. This could be a bodega, where people stay for a long time, or your home. The Street is the figure that signifies space allowing you to move from A to B, passage spaces, such as a city streets or stairs, or a café where people go in and out. The Square is the figure that signifies a space for making decisions: should you go to the left or the right, or take another of the streets that meet here? Crossroads, entrances: It is the space of choice, and the place of pointing to civilization; it is here that a statue is placed, at the square, since it is here you have to stop and think and chose your way. In this scheme, the home acts as a locale, placed in the city-network of streets and squares, thus giving the impetus to get out and into the street or get back to the home. This theory is rather clear and offers an efficient apparatus for dealing with for example the filtering of privacy between cities and homes.

In the article The Crisis in Geometry from 1984, the artist Peter Halley suggests that the city is a system of cells and conduits; you drive from cell to cell in your car, which is another cell. Later, in the article On Line from 1985, Halley argues that devices such as TVs or computers change the ways of being in the city, since it is enough to sit at home and watch TV, making you stay in your physical cell, while at the same time allowing you to get out of it by way of imaginaries produced through the TV images. In recent years, a new aspect has emerged that might be added to these perspectives on the city-home-privacy-interrelations: Since it has become the norm to go out into the city while wearing ear pods and to use mobiles and other devices attached to the body, the city has changed. No matter whether on streets, where you flow along with other people, or in squares, where you are forced to make a decision, you can stay in your own private sphere and avoid blending into the commonness of the city. Without cars, you can move along the conduits without being outside the cell, since the private space of being secluded from strangers is secured by way of technology. In this way, ear pods and mobiles allow for new hybridizations of home and city, and for new ways of performing privacy. It has an enormous impact transforming the city as well as the home.

The Wandersmänner of the City

In 1984, in the famous chapter Walking in the City, Michel de Certeau suggests that the city is inhabited by Wandersmänner. They are using the small tactics of everyday life, turning this corner instead of that, stopping here or there, while the city planner is gazing at the city from an aloof strategic perspective, thereby overviewing the city, but also thereby seeing something entirely different than the city dwellers. Furthermore, Wandersmänner are not only walking in the concrete streets and squares; they are walking in the city of proper names. De Certeau writes:

“By a strange toponymy that is detached from actual places and flies high over the city like a foggy geography of “meanings” held in suspension, directing the physical deambulations below: Place de I’Etoile, Concorde, Poissonnière…these constellations of names provide traffic patterns: they are stars directing itineraries(de Certeau 1984:102).

These proper names evoke memories and imaginaries, and one could add that it is unavoidable to be dreaming of other places. What is absent in the surrounding space is present as proper names of streets and squares; Oxford Street in London points towards Oxford, Place de Paris in Luxembourg points toward Paris in France. Today, nearly 40 years later, the pointing of proper names towards other sites beyond the horizon has been supplemented by billboards and posters. It awakens our desire for what is not present; it is absent, still it is there to dream of.

This tension between presence and absence is amplified by recent technological devices, ear pods, and mobiles that follow us and reshape the relationships between the city, the home, and other sites that are imagined and desired. At the same time, the technological devices restrict the city that you are actually situated in into a scene for being surrounded by your own private sphere. Furthermore, they restrict the home that you are situated in, changing your private sphere from the concrete spaces of the home to the digital spaces of technology.

The Fieldwork of the early 2000s

Looking back from this here-and-now situation, my fieldwork concerning Danish Homes in the 2000s seems far away and long ago. In these fieldworks, privacy filtered in and out of the homes in Aarhus, Frederikssund, and Sønderborg in ways that were rather analogous; privacy was filtered in and out of homes and cities through social relations. The technological devices that wire us up have changed the scene somewhat, turning the filtering of privacy between home and city through social relations in space into a filtering of privacy between home and city through technological devices working in a virtual space, which is also social, but less reliant on actual space. This new setting has made the boundaries between private and not-private less visible, and the private space more private. At the same time, those who are not online are excluded from the social exchange that might take place in the techno-social-privacy of mobiles and ear pods.

Seen from an anthropological point of view, one might argue that the relations which are taking place between city and home are relations of social exchange, as Marcel Mauss argued in 1924 in the seminal work The Gift. These relations have specific spatial settings. Furthermore, you exchange gifts, goods, help, rituals, food etc., and the giver has the upper hand, Mauss argues. It is always attractive to be the giver because the receiver is in debt to the giver. This is an impetus to become the giver and repay, hopefully giving a larger gift to the former giver, who now becomes a receiver. This exchange creates social relations, thereby becoming the engine of society. Exchange works globally, it is also the important factor in the fields where I worked in Denmark. Furthermore, in my fieldwork this exchange arguable functions as a carrier of privacy between homes and cities: much of the filtering that I noticed in my fieldwork happened through exchange of social relations, gifts, help etc.

Filtering Privacy in the 2000s

In Aarhus, the city came into the home by way of dinner invitations to guests from work and networks. The exchanges of dinner parties took place in the representational space inside the home, normally the dining room, which, in many cases, had a flappergasting view over the woods or the sea (Raahauge 2006). In this case, Stjernfelt’s locale became something else; possibly some aspects of the square (choices) and the street (people) were added. Privacy came into the city by way of the Saturday afternoon event of going to the city center: from home to city center and back home again. This weekly repetition of going to the city center in order to enjoy oneself was a structuring of time that was similar to a ritual. Normally, rituals are performed in order to change somebody or something from one phase to another, this ritual intendedly had no effect but stabilizing what was attractive, namely the continuation of everyday life, peace, and order. Using the city as a repetition of a good event, shopping and meeting your friends, exchanging café latte or wine at the same cafés Saturday afternoon, thus created a small space of privacy in the city. The city was invested with the feeling of Stjernfelt’s locale, although it happened in streets and squares, shops, and cafés.

In Frederikssund and Sønderborg, the city came into the home by way of neighbours (Raahauge 2007). They came visiting each other on a daily basis, having an open invitation, just walking in. In that way, the city came into the home, but even more the privacy of the home emanated out into the neighbourhood. Maybe it is wrong to say that the city came into the home, since it was only neighbours. Applying Stjernfelt’s notions may clarify this. The square aspects of choice were absent, while the street aspects of people were present inside the homes of the inhabitants. Furthermore, an abundant gift exchange was going on: “borrowing” sugar or eggs, coming over for a quick cup of coffee or a spontaneous dinner of home-smoked salmon, giving small presents such as plants for the garden or a jar of homemade jam. Privacy did not emanate into city in any large amount; the social exchange mostly stayed within the boundaries of the neighbourhood, maybe turning the neighbourhood into a huge locale, maybe hybridizing the street-with-people aspect and the locale but avoiding the square-and-choice-part.

Privacy or Privacies

In the cases of my fieldworks, two very different approaches to the home-city-privacy-relations were at work. Inviting colleagues to orchestrated dinners in specific representational rooms is different from having neighbours walking in and out of your home following a collective, open invitation. The distribution and character of “privacy” also differed, as did the rules of exchange. In Aarhus, there was a clear boundary between the home and the city, the neighbourhood being present but not very important. The imaginaries and the actions taking place at home and in the city were quite distinct, and homelife was kept discretely distanced from city life. In Sønderborg and Frederikssund, the boundary between home and neighbourhood was blurred. The neighbourhood played a major role while the city was not much present. The neighbourhood was a para-private area, where you felt at home and in your private comfort zone although eating smoked salmon in the neighbour’s garden or having a cup of tea in the kitchen of another neighbour.

Privacy between physical and virtual Space

These examples of filtering privacy in and out of homes and cities in different ways, spatially and socially make one wonder whether the notion “privacy” means the same in the two cases. In Aarhus, privacy could be understood as opposed to representation, which meant that it was intentionally isolated from the busy everyday life of work and representation. In Sønderborg and Frederikssund, privacy could be seen as extended to the neighbours, isolating the rest of the city from the para-privacy of the neighborhood. While the Aarhusian privacy is shielded from representational duties, the privacy performed in Sønderborg and Frederikssund is isolated from the rest of the city. Still, both fieldworks point towards spatial zones as important for establishing the sensation of privacy. Today’s walking in the city with your ear pods and mobile suggests a performance of privacy that is radically different from the two cases discussed: physical space and its organization is not decisive for the privacy of the Wandersmänner with mobiles and ear pods. Today, virtual space is connecting, separating, isolating, and filtering privacy in and out of our senses, in some ways rendering the space of the home, the neighbourhood or the city superfluous.

In Halley’s terms, only conduits and cells are present, superseded by TVs and computers. In the everyday life of contemporary Danish cities and homes, Halley’s postmodern simulacrum interpretation of privacy and its places is superseded by far by the ear pods and mobiles of today’s Wandersmänner.


[i] The perspective panel meet annually with the STAY HOME research team to discuss work-in-progress research outputs. Find all the members of the perspective panel here.

[ii] This text is based on a paper presented at the conference Privacy Matters. How Interiors make and break out Cities, held at The Royal Danish Academy, 20th – 21st of April 2023, organized by postdoc Nuno Grancho, supported by Centre for Privacy Studies, University of Copenhagen.


De Certeau, Michel. 1984. “Walking in the City”, in The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press: 91-111.

Halley, Peter. 1984. “The Deployment of the Geometric”, Effects, New York, No.3, Winter 1986.

Halley, Peter. 1985. “On Line”, New Observations 35.

Mauss, Marcel. 1966 (1924-25). The Gift. Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies. London: Cohen and West.

Raahauge, Kirsten Marie. 2006. En Århusantropologi. Ph.d.-afhandling. Statens Byggeforskningsinstitut.

Raahauge, Kirsten Marie. 2007. “In and out of the house. Housing Hau in Sønderborg and Frederikssund”. Knowledge, Technology, and Policy, 20: 281-289.

Stjernfelt, Frederik. 2008. “Locale, Street, Square. A Naïve Theory of the City”. Knowledge, Technology and Policy, 21(3): 105-113.

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