Public and Private in Thought and Practice

Public and Private in Thought and Practice, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1997, pp. 380.
Edited by Jeff Weintraub & Krishan Kumar

This book brings together a set of original essays, both theoretical and empirical, that focus on the public/private distinction in social life and social thought, exploring different dimensions of, and approaches to, this grand dichotomy. The aim of the collection is to bring out the significance of this overarching theme for a wide range of issues and debates and, at the same time, to confront directly the complexity and ambiguity of the public/private distinction itself, both theoretically and sociohistorically.

Drawing the lines between public and private - both practically and theoretically - has been a central preoccupation of Western thought since classical antiquity; and "public" and "private" have long served as key organizaing categories in social and political analysis, in legal practice and jurisprudence, and in moral and political debates. We encounter this distinction in contexts that run from the most abstract theorizing to the most practical and immediate arenas of everyday life. In recent decades, different versions of the public/private distinction have become even more salient in a striking range of disciplines and areas of inquiry, from "public choice" economics to social history and feminist scholarship. While the relationship between the "public sector" and "privatization" has become a prominent issue of economic policy and political debate, there has also been an intensified interest in the history and transformations of "private life" - meaning, in this case, not corporations or entrepreneurship but changing modes of intimacy, sexuality, family, and friendship. An expanding "public choice" literature, rooted in neoclassical economics, coexists with a wave of concern for the "public sphere" of discussion and political action delineated by Jürgen Habemas or Hannah Arendt and for the "public life" of sociabiligy charted by Philippe Ariè, Jan Jacobs, or Richard Sennett. While some wonder whether the social impact of new communications technologies is shifting (and perhaps eroding) the boundaries between "publicity" and "privacy" in fundamental ways, "privacy " has become a central concept in the controversy over abortion rights. In these and many other areas, the public/private distinction is more than ever a lively, even a burning, subject.