The Death of the Secret: The Public and Private in Anthropology


Mar 14-20, 2014

Organized by

Chip Colwell, Mark Davis and Lenore Manderson


Tivoli Palacio de Seteais Sintra, Portugal


The Life and Death of the Secret, Current Anthropology, Vol. 56, S12, December 2015.


  • Tanja Ahlin Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research, The Netherlands
  • Leslie Aiello Wenner-Gren Foundation. USA
  • Robin Boast U. Amsterdam, The Netherlands
  • Chip Colwell Denver Museum of Nature & Science, USA
  • Mark Davis Monash U., Australia
  • Susan L. Erikson Simon Fraser U., Canada
  • Sverker Finnström Uppsala U., Sweden
  • Cristiana Giordano U. California-Davis, USA
  • Gwyneira Isaac Smithsonian Inst., USA
  • Junko Kitanaka Keio U., Japan
  • Don Kulick U. Chicago, USA
  • Lenore Manderson U. Witwatersrand, South Africa & Monash U., Australia
  • Sarah Nuttall U. Witwatersrand, South Africa
  • Eglė Rindzevičiūtė CEESP, France
  • Birgitte Refslund Sørensen U. Copenhagen, Demark
  • Ravi Sundaram Centre for Studies of Developing Societies, India
  • Kimberly Theidon Harvard U., USA

ORGANIZER’S STATEMENT: Since their foundation in the post-Enlightenment period, anthropology and cognate disciplines have addressed the often complex and troubled relations between public and private life, supplying insight into such matters as identity, politics and the public administration. Complex and technology-intensive 21st century societies, however, present distinctive challenges for public/private relations and for how we, as anthropologists, address this. One such challenge concerns the social and political value for public administration of personal knowledge of individuals and collectivities. How such knowledge gets into the public realm is dependent on such practices as disclosure, exposure and display. Telling and withholding of information and the related problematization of the secret are implicated in these private/public relations.

The dichotomy of public and private has a long history in anthropology, yet we have paid little attention to this theoretically and substantively in recent decades, even as the boundaries collapse through changing technologies of communication and structures of the state. In this symposium, we pursue a social and cultural anthropology of the public and the private, with reference to the practices and politics of disclosure, exposure and display, and their implications for lived experience and social and cultural organization.

Giving form to this field of inquiry and investigating it is, we argue, both timely and necessary. In particular, there are deep questions for societies that, by necessity or otherwise, seek to make private matters public. For example: through their participation in a commission of enquiry (Truth and Reconciliation Commission), public participants may disclose secrets pertaining to their own lives with the consequence of exposing institutions, practices, and/or other individuals. Such private knowledge is disseminated in private and public arenas to produce new understandings of the subject and to effect political change. Through the politicization of disclosure, the boundaries of the public and private are troubled.

Expectations of disclosure challenge the basis by which individuals ought to sustain a secret or exercise control over telling and withholding of information. One’s disclosure can expose the self while seeking to expose the other; alternatively, one can be exposed without having disclosed. Where public institutions intentionally define and confine what can be told, practices of disclosure, exposure and display render vulnerable the teller and those in his or her social worlds. Such knowledge also attracts value, with private data sold on to commercial interests or creating markets for new forms of information protection and, by implication, reassertion of the secret. These concerns intersect with the possibilities for the institutions which repair, sustain and celebrate public life – state apologies, modern museums, archives and depositories – all of which are subject to these tensions pertaining to the politicization of the secret.

In this symposium, we will consider how disclosure, exposure and display inform personal and interpersonal experience, the regard for secrets and privacy, the care and display of human artefacts, texts, images, and remains, and public discourses around care, rights and responsibility. We will also consider what disclosure and its practices imply for the constitution of human subjectivity and social relations. Some questions we would like to consider are as follows:

What are the new relations of public institutions with individual lives?
Public institutions govern private life through the employment of personal information, imposing order on individual lives in the interests of good government. Examples include biopolitical domains, welfare and citizenship. The growing capacity and imperative to collect information implies that tacit assumptions of truth underpin knowledge-based social administration with such effects as: increased institutionalization of private life; pressures on public institutions to collect personal information to indemnify themselves against retribution, and; troubles for relations of trust and the violation of privacy.

What are the norms and effects of telling and withholding of self-knowledge?
Telling and silence draw attention to how people manage private/public boundaries and maintain personal identity, often in the face of requirements to disclose as the basis for social life. Telling and silence are shaped and interpreted in different communicative contexts: in everyday speech, in formal and rhetorical exchanges, in texts of different kinds, and through performance and display. Biography, narrative and life history, for instance, are telling practices which make some forms of identity and relationality possible and foreclose others.

How are disclosure, exposure and display implicated in intimate and domestic life?
Individuals draw on secrets and ideas of privacy to negotiate intimacy and frame domestic life. Implied in such practices are relations of responsibility pertaining to disclosure, privacy, and secrecy, as can occur, for instance, in relation to medical conditions, states or identities.

What ethical questions arise in the display of personal and collective knowledge for public consumption?
Some public institutions use personal knowledge, biographic narrative and life history to repair, sustain and transform public life. Such institutions and practices are implicated in the curation and display of personal and collective knowledge to make it amenable for public consumption, and in so doing, impose order on culture. But in this process, the private is appropriated. Increasingly, communities of interest have challenged the ethics of the production and exchange of information, and the transformation of personal and private material to public knowledge.

What are the new politics of truth?
Disclosure, exposure and display have implications for the politics of truth. Museums, commissions of inquiry, and online archives, as well as unofficial acts of exposure (whistle-blowing and leaks, including wiki-leaks, for instance) figure in this aspect of the public/private nexus and raise important cultural and political questions. Such display and the implied disclosures and exposures that make them possible can be traced into public apologies, testimonials, memorials, museums and displays, including those that use new media. These knowledge practices are retrospective, but they look to the future, to what can be learned by inviting collective- and self-reflection, and on imagining and building futures. Since knowledge displays assume that freedom is established through truth, raising the question, ‘Will the truth set us free?’

Our symposium resonates strongly with calls on anthropologists to ‘study up,’ that is, to turn their gaze on how subjects are governed. In particular, the examination of the articulations of private life and public institutions provides one basis for anthropological commentary on public life and its institutions. The symposium will inform a more general project of the clarification of anthropological address to the institutions which have control over private life and the relations of power that pertain there, including long-standing anthropological interests in cultural practices of display and rights to ownership of material and symbolic culture. We hope that the symposium will raise constructive questions for the practice of anthropology and its relation to practices of knowledge in contemporary society and, in particular, relations of anthropology, the secret and its politicization.

Current Anthropology supplement on the UCP website

Wenner-Gren Symposium #149

L-R: Don Kulick, Cristiana Giordano, Gwyneira Isaac, Tanja Ahlin, Birgitte Sørensen, Robin Boast, Ravi Sundaram, Junko Kitanaka, Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh, Eglė Rindzevičiūtė, Susan Erikson, Mark Davis, Sverker Finnström, Lenore Manderson, Sarah Nuttall, Kimberly Theidon, Leslie Aiello, Laurie Obbink