24 April 2024

PRIVACY at the Renaissance Society of America annual conference in Chicago

From March 21-23, 2024, a delegation from PRIVACY attended the Renaissance Society of America (RSA) annual conference in Chicago. As an associate organization of RSA, PRIVACY organized four sessions with fifteen presentations in all, involving PRIVACY researchers and affiliated scholars and old and new connections invited through a call for presentations. The four sessions centred on each their topic; ‘Spaces, Collections, Exhibitions’,  ‘Health’, ‘Monitoring Believers, Couples, and Mobile Individuals’, and ‘Engaging the Margins’, with the overall headline ‘Privacy in context’. The sessions sparked fruitful and interesting discussions about privacy with an engaged and knowledgeable audience.

The RSA annual conference 2024 took place at the historical Palmer House Hilton in downtown Chicago

One of the presenters of our sessions was Marie Curie postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Culture and Civilisation, University of Verona, Liam Benison. Liam is an affiliated scholar of PRIVACY, but the RSA was the first time for him to meet most of the PRIVACY-colleagues in person. Among other things, Liam has contributed to the 7th volume of the KNOW: A Journal on the Formation of Knowledge (2023) guest edited by PRIVACY-scholars Natacha Klein Käfer and Natália da Silva Perez with the article “Negotiations at the Border of Knowledge: The Paradox of Privacy in Early Modern Utopia”. About his experience at the RSA, Liam says:

It was a wonderful experience to be part of PRIVACY’s panels at the RSA. It was great to have a whole day to focus on the history of privacy and to meet other scholars in the field. It was especially lovely to meet some PRIVACY colleagues in person, whom I feel I know but had only met online before. I now feel much closer to the work of PRIVACY and a part of the scholarly community. I hope to continue gaining inspiration from the research and writing of other PRIVACY scholars. I am very thankful to particular individuals at PRIVACY; Mette Birkedal Bruun, Natacha Klein Käfer, and Johannes Ljungberg, who have been so generously supportive of my work and have helped me grow as an early career researcher. In the future, I hope to continue engaging and collaborating with these and other PRIVACY scholars, whether through writing, research, events or teaching etc.”

Another presenter and participant of the PRIVACY sessions at the RSA, was Solmaz Sadeghi, who is a Marie Curie postdoctoral researcher at the Royal Danish Academy and affiliated with PRIVACY. Solmaz is an architect and in her postdoctoral project, she focuses on Early Modern inhabitable bridges, walled-off paths, and gated communities to reveal the emergence of public privacy beyond the privatisation of paths. For Solmaz, the RSA underscored the importance of historical research. She explains:

Being part of an exclusively historical conference with over 2000 participants was both exhilarating and enriching. The conference served as a vast scientific pool, providing a platform to explore research interests from various perspectives. The diversity of participants and the range of topics created a vibrant environment that underscores the essentiality of historical studies and the enthusiasm of the scientific community for them in our age. It was captivating to witness the introduction of new topics and the formation of new exchange networks.”


Solmaz Sadeghi during the Q&A of the session ‘Engaging the Margins’ with Jelena Bakic, Liam Benison, and Natalie Koerner chaired by Natacha Klein Käfer.

Specifically about the PRIVACY sessions, Solmaz elaborates: ”The sessions covered a wide range of topics on Early Modern privacy in Europe, bringing together scholars from different disciplines with a diversity in time, place, and perspective. The inclusion of papers from outside the PRIVACY community added dynamism and enriched the discussions, including cases from gender and immigrant histories, making it a truly interdisciplinary and engaging experience.”

A new acquaintance of the centre and presenter at our session ‘Monitoring Believers, Couples, and Mobile Individuals’ is PhD Fellow at the School of History, University of Leeds, Juliet Atkinson. She studies how the movements of migrant women in seventeenth-century London were monitored and controlled through the use of identification documents by Early Modern authorities and presented on this topic at the RSA. Juliet describes her experience of the PRIVACY sessions:

Attending and participating in the PRIVACY sessions was definitely the highlight of the conference for me! I found it rewarding to hear about the research of a diverse array of Early Modern scholars working on a variety of topics, which were nevertheless connected by privacy as a unifying theme. For instance, the session on medical privacy, while quite different from my own research, was fascinating and gave me a lot to think about. Furthermore, I was very interested by the idea of overlapping heuristic zones of privacy (e.g. mind/self, body, home/household, community, society/state) that the Centre for Privacy Studies deploys. The notion that these zones are overlapping and that notions of privacy are often shaped at the boundaries of these zones is particularly resonant with my own research. This conception, which I was introduced to at the PRIVACY sessions at RSA, has definitely given me a lot to think about and I have been considering how to introduce these ideas into my own research. In my own project, I am keenly interested in processes of surveillance and how those were shaped by ideas of privacy and the private self - or, in some instances, the distrust of privacy - in Early Modern communities.”

It is fascinating and inspiring to meet other scholars studying privacy and the private in different contexts and experience how we can inspire and learn from each other. Liam explained what role privacy plays in his Marie Curie-project: “I use Mette Birkedal Bruun’s heuristic zones tool as part of my research on privacy in Early Modern utopian literature, “PRIVUTOPIA”. I combine close reading with digital humanities approaches to identify overlaps between the zones in my utopian sources.” We are happy to see our tools and approaches used in new contexts, and we learn a lot from collaborating with scholars like Solmaz, Juliet and Liam.

RSA was in many ways a highpoint for us at the Centre for Privacy Studies. Everything we have worked on for the past years came together in a really fine scholarly and collegial event. We received a lot of interest, curiosity, critical questions, and appreciation, which manifested the importance of what we do and our role in establishing the field of historical privacy studies.