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This article examines how digital inequalities give rise to privacy practices and resource acquisition strategies among disadvantaged youths. Based on in-depth interview data, the article probes the hidden costs of digital inequality among high school students in an agricultural belt of California. The analysis pays special attention to high-achieving students engaging in capital-enhancing activities such as schoolwork and college applications necessitating the use of digital resources. The findings examine the emotional costs paid by disadvantaged strivers whose privacy is compromised in their struggles to obtain the digital resources critical to college admissions, scholarship, and financial aid applications—almost all of which must be completed online. More specifically, the data show how youths facing a dearth of digital resources must manage their lack of physical privacy and digital footprints, as well as adaptively disclose private information to resource gatekeepers. When underresourced youths seek digital resources necessary for capital-enhancing activities, they must weigh the benefits of access to resources against the emotional costs of potentially shaming disclosures. In this way, for these youths lacking resources but with high educational aspirations, privacy and resource acquisition are negotiated processes that require emotional labor.
American Behavioral Scientist
2018, Vol. 62(10) 1413 –1430
© 2018 SAGE Publications
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0002764218787014
No Kid Is an Island: Privacy
Scarcities and Digital
Laura Robinson1 and Brian K. Gran2
This article examines how digital inequalities give rise to privacy practices and resource
acquisition strategies among disadvantaged youths. Based on in-depth interview data,
the article probes the hidden costs of digital inequality among high school students in
an agricultural belt of California. The analysis pays special attention to high-achieving
students engaging in capital-enhancing activities such as schoolwork and college
applications necessitating the use of digital resources. The findings examine the
emotional costs paid by disadvantaged strivers whose privacy is compromised in their
struggles to obtain the digital resources critical to college admissions, scholarship,
and financial aid applications—almost all of which must be completed online. More
specifically, the data show how youths facing a dearth of digital resources must
manage their lack of physical privacy and digital footprints, as well as adaptively
disclose private information to resource gatekeepers. When underresourced youths
seek digital resources necessary for capital-enhancing activities, they must weigh the
benefits of access to resources against the emotional costs of potentially shaming
disclosures. In this way, for these youths lacking resources but with high educational
aspirations, privacy and resource acquisition are negotiated processes that require
emotional labor.
privacy, digital inequality, digital divide, digital devices, public spaces
1Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, CA, USA
2Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, OH, USA
Corresponding Author:
Laura Robinson, Department of Sociology, Santa Clara University, 500 El Camino Real, Santa Clara, CA
94053, USA.
787014ABSXXX10.1177/0002764218787014American Behavioral ScientistRobinson and Gran
1414 American Behavioral Scientist 62(10)
Overview: Privacy and Digital Inequalities
The growing body of work on digital inequalities examines fundamental forms of
inequality such as race, class, and gender, as well as life chances and well-being across
multiple life realms, including but not limited to health, the labor market, and sociality
(Robinson et al., 2015). While the body of literature on digital divides and digital
inequalities continues to expand, there is agreement that first-order digital inequalities
stem from nonexistent or inadequate access to material resources, while second-order
digital inequalities are related to gaps (Chen, 2015) in skills, participation, and produc-
tion. As the literature shows, digital inequalities are deeply connected to larger social
inequalities influenced by age (Cotten, 2017), gender (Ono & Zavodny, 2007), race
and ethnicity (Mesch, 2016), and economic class (Witte & Mannon, 2010). Linkages
also exist between digital inequalities and life chances, including wages (DiMaggio &
Bonikowski, 2008), health care (Hale, Cotten, Drentea, & Goldner, 2010), and social
support (Rainie & Wellman, 2012).
To shed additional light on digital inequalities and privacy, this article takes as its
starting point the research on teens’ use of digital media that assumes a normative
model of continuous and constant access to resources (Ito et al., 2009). In this norma-
tive model, young people use personal mobile digital devices including smartphones,
laptops, and tablets where and when they please. With the exception of parental and
educational supervision, resourced youths have unfettered access to their digital
devices and activities on their own terms. They are thus able to manage their privacy
autonomously on the following levels: unshared or private device use, physical pri-
vacy, and privacy in terms of agentic self-disclosure or agency aimed at selectively
disclosing their own information.
Employing these resourced young people as a foil, this study examines how pri-
vacy must be managed very differently by youths lacking personal digital resources.
Youths with little or no resources must confront a range of challenges, from sharing
digital devices in the home to seeking all digital resources in third places. Those
young people who must share resources in the home experience weakened privacy, as
all of their digital encounters are open to the scrutiny of others. For young people
sharing resources in the home, constant familial monitoring and observation are typi-
cal both in terms of physical privacy and digital footprints left on shared devices. For
these young people, physical device use and digital traces must be managed through
privacy-seeking strategies at home, including selective self-disclosure to family
Using public access points also carries significant privacy costs. Yet youths with
insufficient or nonexistent home resources must use them. To do so, they deploy even
more costly privacy practices than their better-resourced counterparts. Especially for
youths without any personal or familial digital devices, all digital engagements occur
in public in the company of others. They can rarely enjoy digital privacy as their
resource shortages force them to rely on public places, such as schools and libraries,
which make no provision for privacy. Even more damaging, youths dependent on
public access points must often engage in virtue signaling to gain access to resources.
Robinson and Gran 1415
Equally important, lacking any physical privacy in their digital engagements, these
young people are also stripped of their privacy in another way. To gain access to
resources, they must adaptively disclose private information to resource gatekeepers
either to signal their worthiness to use scarce digital resources or to obtain dispensation
from other obligations, duties, or rules. For these youths, privacy becomes a bargaining
chip that they must use with caution. For each time underresourced youths seek to gain
access to digital resources, they must weigh the benefits of access to resources against
the emotional costs of potentially shaming disclosures. In this way, for these youths
lacking resources, privacy and resource acquisition are negotiated processes that require
emotional labor.
Privacy as a Right and Resource
How do digital inequalities give rise to privacy practices and resource acquisition?
Digital inequalities increasingly influence privacy in terms of access to resources
(DiMaggio, Hargittai, Neuman, & Robinson, 2001), skills (Hargittai, 2002), behavior
(Park, 2013), and policy awareness (Litt, 2013). Despite these rich findings, more
research is needed to answer questions at the intersection between privacy and digital
inequalities. To meet this need, this article sheds light on an underexamined facet of
digital inequality: privacy as a resource. In so doing, this article advances scholarship
through examining links between privacy and digital inequality.
Well before the digital age, philosophers, jurists, social scientists, and others gave
attention to privacy. Even now, privacy is treated as paramount, crucial to an individ-
ual’s identity and essential to healthy societies (Nippert-Eng, 2010). Privacy has a
basis in the public–private dichotomy (Lacey, 1993). The public–private dichotomy is
known as the “the Grand Dichotomy” (Weintraub & Kumar, 1997) because of its com-
mon use in and powerful impacts on many societies (Bobbio, 1989; Béland & Gran,
2008; Mills, 1959). The public-private dichotomy is used to identify sectors, designate
responsibilities, and draw boundaries (Gran, 2008). In contemporary society, public
usually refers to the state and private typically refers to the market or the household or
the individual or nonprofit organization (Sterry, 2017; Rein & Schmähl, 2004). When
it comes to responsibilities, the public component is typically considered government.
The private component consists of multiple aspects, including the market, family, non-
profit organizations, or individuals. Sometimes, the responsibilities assigned to the
public component are owed to all societal members as rights. Private fulfillment of
responsibilities, however, is typically based in social relationships (Dobbin, 1992;
Fraser, 1997, 2007; Klein, 2003; Okin, 1989; Romany, 1993). Families have responsi-
bilities toward their members because of established social norms (Daatland,
Herlofson, & Lima, 2011). Employers have responsibilities toward employees through
contracts. While laws and rights do shape relationships on the private side of the pub-
lic–private dichotomy, it is the public side where rights have power.
The public-private dichotomy is a social tool used to erect boundaries (Thompson,
2011; Benhabib, 1999; Minow, 2003; Thornton, 1991). Access to the public side of the
boundary is not restricted. On the public side of the boundary, space is open and shared
1416 American Behavioral Scientist 62(10)
(Habermas, 1962). Behaviors and social interactions take place “in public.” Because a
person is in public, others can observe her or his behavior (Arendt, 1958). Access to
the private side is restricted. As a result, an individual or a group on the private side
can decide what practices and behaviors are acceptable (Brennan, 2017). The public–
private boundary can act as a shield. Because the private side is hidden from public
view, individuals may engage in behaviors that they do not want other societal mem-
bers to observe. This behavior may include harmful actions and omissions (Joseph,
1997; Paterman, 1989).
Public-private boundaries are part of Aristotle’s notion of the state. In Aristotle’s
conception, the home is shielded from state intervention (Aristotle, 335 BCE). An
important criticism of Aristotle’s notion is its assumption that the state will intervene
in domestic matters if a family member’s interests and welfare are harmed (Gobetti,
1997; Pateman, 1989; Romany, 1993). This assumption has led to state structures
organized around false expectations about power differences in family homes
(Minow, 1990). Public–private boundaries can shield harmful actions in private
from public monitoring.
A shield is a key part of the right to privacy as Warren and Brandeis (1890) pro-
posed in their famous article, “The Right to Privacy.” Warren and Brandeis were con-
cerned with ensuring an individual be let alone, what they considered to be a key
aspect of a right to privacy (McClain, 1995). In Warren and Brandeis’ analysis, privacy
is social. As they note, privacy matters when one person interacts with another person
(Global Internet Liberty Campaign, 2017). Rössler (2005) approaches privacy as the
ability to control access. In addition to Warren and Brandeis’ focus on physical pri-
vacy, Rössler adds three kinds of privacy: spatial, informational, and decisional. To
these types of privacy, we add mobility privacy.
Spatial privacy is control over one’s space, including the ability to protect that
space from unwanted intrusion (Rössler, 2005). A person’s privacy can be compro-
mised when another person “invades their space.” Through exerting control over her
physical environment, a person may control features, such as doors and noise, and
instruments, including computers, found in that space. Because some people enjoy
greater control over the physical environment than other people, inequalities arise in
spatial privacy when it comes to physical environment. If an individual is dissatisfied
with physical or space environment, including inability to control that physical envi-
ronment or space, she may exercise mobility privacy. She may move in an effort to be
let alone. Some individuals enjoy great mobility options than others. Some individuals
are able to exert privacy through movement, and some individuals cannot. Use of a
mobile instrument can permit an individual to exert greater physical privacy and phys-
ical privacy. The use of a laptop, tablet, or cell phone can empower this individual to
move to a physical environment or space with stronger privacy.
Informational privacy is control over information about ourselves and the ability to
protect our information from unwanted access (Rössler, 2005). Most people possess
information that they want to “keep private.” Maintaining privacy of this information
may be critical as the individual takes steps to make a decision on the basis of that
information. A high school student who wants to apply to a college or university may
Robinson and Gran 1417
want to control his or her information from unwanted observation. The student may
not want another person to know of the grade point average, admission test scores, or
what his or her personal essay says. A high school student may not want another per-
son to know to what college or university he or she has applied for admission, and
whether he or she is seeking financial assistance to attend. A student may not want
another to know of the college or university’s decision to offer admission.
Decisional privacy is control over our own decisions and actions, as well as the abil-
ity to prevent unwanted interference with those decisions and actions (Rössler, 2005).
Reaching and making a decision in a private manner may reduce emotional work.
Emotional work around privacy can consist of receiving, managing, and then acting on
“good” and “bad” news. This emotional work can also include protecting one’s hopes
and aspirations from public disclosure. If an individual does not control privacy over
her information, she may face struggles in making decisions. As a result, her “emotion
work” (Hochschild, 1979) may be more extensive and difficult. Faced with the chal-
lenges posed by emotion work, this individual may go to great lengths in developing
strategies to keeping information private, so she can protect her hopes and aspirations.
Privacy shares characteristics with property. Some people possess a great deal of
privacy. They spend time in private settings beyond public purview and government
intervention. In these settings, they may possess control over the physical environment
and space where they spend time. Some individuals enjoy power to move across cir-
cumstances where they can enhance their privacy. Others may enjoy less mobility
privacy. A person may enjoy neither physical privacy nor spatial privacy nor mobility
privacy. As a result, the person may struggle to control privacy of his or her informa-
tion from unwanted observation. These problems may not only lead to challenges in
exerting decisional privacy; they may also require significantly more emotion work in
achieving privacy.
Case Studies, Populations, and Data Collection
This article draws on an original multidimensional data set collected from 2006 to
2013 in two public high schools in the same Californian agricultural community
(Robinson, 2014a). The data in this article come from one-on-one and small group
interviews with 242 respondents. To ensure that variation is not based on school set-
ting, the data are drawn equally from two high schools that we call “Rancho Benito
High” and “Glen Prep” as all names and places are pseudonyms to protect anonym-
ity. While there are important differences between the two schools, students at both
schools have a range of motivational levels and economic backgrounds. Concerning
academic motivation, the article holds motivation constant by selecting out “striv-
ers” from the larger body of data. “Strivers” are motivated students maintaining
scholastic excellence needed for college admission (Robinson, 2014b). Strivers are
defined as students who (1) proactively find needed informational resources to meet
educational goals; (2) enroll in at least one college preparatory, honors, or AP
(advanced placement) class in high school; and (3) plan to attend college after high
school graduation.
1418 American Behavioral Scientist 62(10)
Regarding economic backgrounds, the larger of the two schools, Rancho Benito
High, is a high-poverty, or “Title 1,” school whose enrollment averages more than
2,000 students. At the time of data collection, more than half of the student population
qualified for free lunch indicating that a significant number of students are members
of low-income families. Latinos comprise more than three quarters of the student pop-
ulation followed by Whites, Asian Americans, and African Americans. While also a
public school, Glen Prep High is an important comparison with Rancho Benito High.
With well under 1,000 students, Glen Prep’s student population is more economically
advantaged and did not qualify for Title 1 status, as far fewer students qualified for free
lunch. At Glen Prep, Whites and Latinos made up more than half and almost one-third
of the student population, respectively, followed by African Americans, Asian
Americans, and Native Americans. While the relative proportion of disadvantaged stu-
dents is different at each school, economically disadvantaged students at both schools
are among the 39% of adolescents in the United States who are members of “low-
income” families, which include 18% of adolescents living in “poor” families subsist-
ing on less than the federal poverty threshold (Jiang, Granja, & Koball, 2017).
Concerning access to digital resources, students with personal devices account for
one third of the students in Rancho Benito and half of students in Glen Prep. Students
sharing household resources represent just over half of interviewees at Rancho Benito
and just under half of Glen Prep. Students without personal or household resources
make up a sixth of interviewees at Rancho Benito and under 5% of Glen Prep. This
being said, the data are drawn from a single region of California and do not provide a
basis for generalizing to other populations.
As for data collection, at both schools, the interviews were conducted during the
normal school day on the school grounds. At Rancho Benito High, because all stu-
dents must take 4 years of English courses, interviews were conducted in the English
Department, with all students enrolled in regular, college-preparatory, honors, and/or
AP courses. There was no selection process including or excluding some students
from taking part in the interviews. At Glen Prep, interviews were conducted with a
cohort of students from regular, college-prep, honors, and AP courses. In both schools,
all students were asked to answer the same questions. While students were not
required to answer every question, each interviewee was given the opportunity to
answer every question. In both schools, informed consent documentation was circu-
lated in advance to students and parents so that they could opt out if they chose not to
participate or allow their children to participate. Only one student chose to opt out.
Methods: Interviews Using Iterated Questioning
Interviews were conducted in conjunction with the first author’s ethnographic field-
work (Robinson & Schulz, 2013). These interviews proved well-tailored to uncovering
emotion management-– related privacy practices and negotiated disclosure (Pugh,
2013). The goal of “discovery-oriented” analysis (Luker, 2008) was privileged over the
testing of hypotheses regarding cause-effect relationships among prespecified factors.
Robinson and Gran 1419
The interview questions providing the data for this article covered the following topics:
(1) access to digital resources at home, school, and third places; (2) use of ICTs (infor-
mation and communication technologies) for education, learning, and schoolwork; (3)
educational trajectories and courses taken; (4) future education goals; (5) experiences
with college admission, scholarship, and financial aid applications; and (6) emotions
and experiences surrounding disclosure of private information.
The interview questions regarding these topics were formulated using the iterated
questioning approach (IQA; Robinson & Schulz, 2016). After asking background
questions, IQA’s four key steps were employed. These four steps allow the inter-
viewer to first elicit public or frontstage narratives in Steps 1 and 2, as well as private
or backstage narratives in Steps 3 and 4. Using the four steps, interviewees were first
asked about frontstage talk calibrated for public consumption about striving activi-
ties, including college, scholarship, and financial aid applications, as well as the noti-
fications and outcomes of these applications. In the first step, questions were asked
about striving activities and negotiating access to digital resources to establish base-
line-iterated questions about the nuts and bolts of using digital resources for college,
scholarship, and financial aid applications. In the second step of IQA, interviewees
shared frontstage narratives regarding both of these activities to produce talk requir-
ing little or no disclosure of private information.
Subsequently, the same students went behind the curtain of privacy thanks to IQA
where they produced backstage talk about emotions associated with striving activities
for private audiences. In Steps 3 and 4 of IQA, interviewees shared backstage narra-
tives about the emotional costs ensuing from privacy practices necessary for striving
activities. Their backstage talk revealed how they managed their private struggles to
adaptively disclose private information to resource gatekeepers. In addition to provid-
ing both frontstage and backstage data about striving activities, the IQA method also
facilitated the coding of the data by delivering readily classifiable forms of talk that
corresponded to frontstage and backstage self-presentations. The sequencing of ques-
tions in the four steps produced comparable data by systematically evoking talk on
privacy and emotional costs.
Analysis: Private, Personalized, and Password Protected
With the exception of parental supervision, resourced strivers have at will use of per-
sonal mobile digital devices including smartphones, laptops, and tablets in their
homes. Thanks to this abundance of resources, they can choose to be alone and unob-
served during their digital engagements, as well as to exercise mobility privacy. As
Theo explains, “If I want to be alone on my phone I go to my room.” For Clara, “We
have a good signal pretty much anywhere so not a problem if I need some space—just
take my laptop and get some alone time.” Esmerelda explains, “We have a no noise
zone in the study so you can take your iPad in there to get peace and quiet to get work
done.” For these resourced youths, physical privacy while using digital devices is a
normative condition thanks to wireless Internet, personal use digital devices, and
1420 American Behavioral Scientist 62(10)
larger middle-class homes that provide physical space. All of these resources contrib-
ute to agentic control over physical privacy for both mundane and significant digital
While physical privacy may not be necessary for lower-stakes digital tasks, it can
be of utmost importance for more sensitive undertakings. These youths describe emo-
tionally laden tasks that are facilitated by physical privacy such as applying to college
and ultimately reading all-important electronic communications about scholarships
and college admissions. When these resourced strivers need to be alone or unobserved,
they have the autonomy to do so. Cynthia describes privacy as a physical need to man-
age her emotions when applying to her dream school: “I really had my heart set on
UCLA so I was mega stressed doing the app . . . I needed to be alone so that I could
like let myself breathe . . .” Randal describes the emotional rollercoaster of the all-
important college decision notification: “When you get that email telling you to check
the [admissions] portal . . . like your heart starts pounding . . . if it’s bad news you
seriously want to get it alone.” In each of these cases, the relative ease with which
these strivers may use their digital devices unobserved becomes a form of digital privi-
lege for sensitive tasks. Particularly when facilitated and respected by parents, physi-
cal and spatial privacy can reduce stress and enhance emotional well-being when
dealing with high-stakes digital tasks related to college admissions and financing.
Further, in addition to physical privacy, resourced strivers’ privacy is not compro-
mised by device sharing. They enjoy informational privacy, as Enzo explains, “My
phone and laptop are password protected.” For Julie, “My mom or dad might ask me
what I’m doing . . . but no one sees anything I do since it’s my MacBook.” Resourced
strivers benefit from high levels of familial trust to husband their resources such that
they do not need to explain digital engagements that might be observed by others shar-
ing their devices. Knowing that no one else can see what they are doing liberates them
from others’ judgments. Noberto describes the college application process as “totally
nerve-wracking . . . you really want to know ‘am I good enough’ . . . kind of embar-
rassing but I spent endless hours comparing myself to freshman at my reach schools
and safety schools . . . trying to guess if I’d get in . . .” Bethany explains trying to
conceal her “OCD” [obsessive–compulsive disorder] behavior during her agonizing
wait for college admissions decisions:
Everyone else was getting decisions and I hadn’t heard . . . so I kept checking the portal
. . . I didn’t want anyone to know—I mean I knew I was being totally OCD but couldn’t
stop—so I pretended to be checking Facebook.
Knowing that their digital engagements are unmonitored, these resourced strivers ben-
efit from both digital and physical privacy, particularly valuable in these high-stake
Finally, thanks to the privacy afforded by personal space and personal devices,
resourced strivers have the power to autonomously disclose private information. They
enjoy decisional privacy, as Joelle explains how she chose to disclose good news:
“When I got my scholarship I was totally psyched! The first thing I did was text my
Robinson and Gran 1421
boyfriend—then I ran to the kitchen to tell my family!” By that same token, when
potentially bad news arrives, these strivers may choose when and with whom to share
this information. Alex explains how only checking email at home alone with his per-
sonal password protected device kept him from feeling shamed:
Lucky for me I had already gotten accepted at my fallback [school] . . . and posted it . . .
so when I was like rejected I just kept it quiet . . . it was like no shame in my game ‘cause
no one knew.
Sal describes a cautionary tale about opening a scholarship rejection email:
. . . sucked with my dad practically looking over my shoulder and feeling bad for me . . .
much worse than just feeling bad for yourself . . . never open anything important with a
parental hovering within eyeball distance . . . better to go to my room and process it alone.
By managing their digital communications in private and selectively disclosing good
news, these resourced strivers can forestall potential negative emotions including
embarrassment and shame. In sum, resourced strivers enjoy significant spatial, infor-
mational, decisional, and mobility privacy.
Shared Devices in Communal Household Spaces
Strivers who lack personal digital devices must share household digital devices that
are consumed collectively rather than individually. Under these resource-restricted
conditions, privacy must be managed very differently. Marcia shares, “. . . let me count
. . . there are about eight of us who need the computer: my mom, my dad, me, my two
sisters, my three brothers, and sometimes my cousins . . .” Many of the strivers relying
on household resources report sharing a single desktop computer in the living room or
parents’ room, as Josh confides. “The computer is in my mom’s bedroom so I can’t use
it whenever I want.” For Bella, “Having my own laptop and my own room is like a
fantasy! I’m lucky if I get the laptop on the [living room] couch without someone
horning in or the TV on full blast.” Joseph recounts, “I share a bedroom with my broth-
ers so even if I get the [family] laptop I’m not going to be alone to use it.” Unlike
resourced strivers, strivers sharing household resources cannot retreat to the privacy of
an individual bedroom with a personal digital device. They are constantly in someone
else’s space, subjected to noise and prying eyes. They do not enjoy spatial privacy tout
When these strivers undertake sensitive undertakings to chart their futures, smaller
living spaces and shared devices result in emotionally laden challenges. Joaquim
explains how he used the family computer in the living room to type up a scholarship
I told them [family] to be quiet but they acted all exaggerated and made a big deal about
“ok I’m being quiet now” but they didn’t shut up for more than five minutes . . . then they
1422 American Behavioral Scientist 62(10)
started talking again and making noise . . . like dude suck it up—the world doesn’t stop
for you.
For Tony, asking his family to be quiet only made things worse: “. . . asking them to
please keep it down just made them nosier about what I was doing and asking me why
it was ‘sooo important’ . . .” As Bethany explains, even with families with the best
intentions, using the family computer for college applications can be an exercise in
They [family] tried so hard to leave me alone but there was always noise from someone
cooking or doing the laundry or watching the TV . . . even with the volume on mute I
could still see the screen and there it was flickering . . . it made me want to cry ‘cause I
just wanted to concentrate but my dad was tiptoeing around to not make any noise.
Furthermore, when struggling strivers suffer from lack of physical privacy, tensions
ensue on two levels that make their emotional burdens heavier. In addition to outwardly
directed frustrations over lack of privacy, there are also internal conflicts necessitating
what Hochschild calls “suppressive work” to self-police emotions, suppress emotions
perceived as negative, and render the expression of emotions acceptable to selves and
others. As Hochschild (1979) analyzes, “The individual often works on inducing or
inhibiting feelings so as to render them ‘appropriate’ to a situation” (p. 552) and “the
ways people try to manage feeling . . . capable of assessing when a feeling is ‘inappro-
priate,’ and capable of trying to manage feeling” (p. 557). Raoul describes,
. . . it bites applying for scholarships because everything rides on it . . . and you have to
do them online . . . I was stressin’ and took control of the computer . . . told my brother
“don’t even think about touching it—you’ll do something dumb and erase my files” . . .
later when I got my head out of my behind I felt like such as jerk . . .
Stephanie reported a similar experience filling out the common application: “I
snapped at my little sister to ‘just leave me be’ . . . then I was like I’m being such a
cow because it wasn’t her fault that we have to share.” Here we see that problems
with spatial privacy lead Raoul and Stephanie to suppress emotions they perceive to
be negative and to attempt to manage their emotions in order to avoid being “jerks”
and “cows.”
Other tensions ensue from digital engagements that can leave digital footprints or
that may be observed by others. For Christian, failing to log out of his email revealed
private aspirations he had not chosen to share with to his brother: “So like I had to use
the bathroom and could have sworn that I logged off my email but no . . . gone for 60
seconds and my brother opens it and is like ‘dude I didn’t know you applied to Chico
. . . and I’m like ‘yeah cause I didn’t want you to know.’” Amber describes her snoop-
ing aunt reading the bookmarks on her browser:
So like I applied to a private school kinda hoping for a scholarship . . . my auntie came
over to use the computer and was like going through my bookmarks and was like “your
Robinson and Gran 1423
parents can’t afford this, what are you thinking?” She totally guilted me out . . . made me
feel terrible like I was bad for dreaming too big.
Christian and Amber do not possess strong informational privacy. These strivers
encounter an array of potentially shaming situations when their digital footprints
reveal their private hopes and aspirations they would like to keep away from prying
For all of these reasons, when strivers share household resources, their privacy
strategies are limited in scope and efficacy. Many share Oscar’s strategy of off-peak
use: “It was so hard doing college apps ‘cause the only time I have the computer alone
is late at night when everyone else has gone to bed or at the crack of dawn before
everyone wakes up.” Others keep everything on a USB drive in the attempt of safe-
guarding privacy. Veronica reports,
My thumbdrive has my life on it ever since I caught my sister going through my files [on
the computer] . . . one time I thought I had lost it [drive] and was totally panicked and
couldn’t work on my apps for like a week until it resurfaced . . .
For many of the strivers sharing household resources, there are difficult choices rather
than good solutions. They encounter challenges to maintaining decisional privacy, as
Alicia relates,
One of my besties told me she got in to Fresno and was like “go check to see if you got
in too” so I sat around like I was watching TV and waited and waited and was just like
“leave, please leave” so that I could dash on the computer and check the portal alone . . .
I was almost there when my mom came into the room and said “any news you want to
share?” . . . then it became a family event . . .
In sum, strivers sharing household resources report making tough choices about open-
ing themselves up to familial scrutiny and devising privacy strategies to escape famil-
ial monitoring with varying levels of success.
Public Spaces and the Public Gaze
When strivers use public access points, these venues offer no personal privacy. This
constraint is most serious for those strivers without any kind of home Internet access
or mobile devices who must rely on public digital resources. These young people do
not enjoy spatial or mobility privacy. Many of these strivers without home resources
rely on school computers, which are both heavily monitored and in high demand as
Mario relates,
I try to go to the school lab at lunch but there aren’t always enough spaces so before
school is better . . . Mrs. Delaney is always there to make sure people aren’t goofing off
. . . she can see your screen from the back of room and will shut you down if you are
messing around.
1424 American Behavioral Scientist 62(10)
When using resources at the library, Marcia is also constantly aware that her digital
engagements are observable by others: “. . . in the library everyone can see what you
are doing . . . the screens are close together and people are always walking behind you
. . . and people in line waiting watch what you’re doing.” Marcia and other strivers
without home resources experience compromises of their informational and decisional
Not only are the strivers’ screens viewable by others, but they are also constantly
subject to physical distractions when engaged in capital-enhancing activities. Joey
recounts feeling thwarted,
I was at the library trying to get my essay done . . . all these people were walking behind
me so I kept moving my chair . . . couldn’t keep my thoughts straight ‘cause every time
I’d get into it someone would bump into me or ask to get by me.
Ana explains,
I had a big scholarship due so I went to the lab to get it done . . . every time I got in the
zone this nasty guy next to me would wreck it by wiping his nose on his sleeve or picking
his nose . . . just couldn’t concentrate with that grossness going on next to me. Yuck!
The public visibility of their screens, and thus their digital engagements, in shared
physical space makes privacy impossible. This imposes a heavy emotional burden
especially when they undertake sensitive tasks.
Equally important, these strivers must suppress negative emotions to keep on task
because they have no other viable options. Melinda explains,
The only place I can go is the lab at school . . . one time I was totally working on my stuff
and these guys next to me kept looking at stuff they shouldn’t so Mrs. Delaney kicked
them out . . . but it was a total scene and she made some comment about keeping an eye
on the rest of us . . . I was kind of shaky but I had to try to just to calm down and keep
working to meet my deadline.
For Bill, “I had to fill out my FAFSA [Free Application for Federal Student Aid] . .
. these a-holes came in and starting making comments like ‘oh gonna break the
bank with that one?’ . . . I couldn’t come back because of work so I had to play it
off . . . but I was pissed.” For Marcia, “Yeah this person next to me kept looking at
the schools I was looking at and like it’s not hard enough without someone judging
me and making unhelpful comments like ‘rich kids’ . . . I was like mind your own
beeswax.” Strivers using public access points are subject to multiple burdens invis-
ible to their better-resourced counterparts that use up time and emotional energy
that are already in short supply.
In addition to lacking any physical privacy in their digital engagements, these
strivers must also engage self-disclosure of private information to obtain resources
from gatekeepers. They report having to reveal potentially embarrassing information
to gatekeepers. These disclosures concern resource shortages such as not having the
Robinson and Gran 1425
Internet at home and not having money for printing cartridges, as well as private
information about their family’s financial troubles—all of which can expose poverty
to public view. For Manuel,
. . . they only let you scan your library card to use the machines three times . . . it took way
longer and I wasn’t done . . . in front of everyone in line I had to beg the librarian to give
me special permission . . . she said ok since it was for my [college] apps and I was gonna
miss the deadline.
Anouchka explains disclosing private information to signal her worthiness in order to
obtain dispensation from class to go to the computer lab:
I had to ask Mrs. Fenwick to go to the lab to print my stuff . . . we were in front of the
class so I tried to speak real quiet and she started asking me questions about what I was
going to do . . . when she found out it was for the scholarship and how I don’t have a
printer at home she let me go . . . but I got so upset ‘cause I didn’t want anyone to know
. . . thought I was going to cry in front of everyone . . .
Paula explains how she had to risk potential shaming in order to fill out the online
I had to go to the career center to ask Mrs. Stein for help to fill out these questions on the
Internet . . . I didn’t know how to do it . . . made me feel like crap when I had to ask her
questions with other students there . . . it was so embarrassing . . . seemed like I was
saying my family wasn’t good enough or something because they don’t earn enough
money . . . made me almost not want to try to go to a four-year but Mrs. Stein was real
nice and got me through it.
While gatekeepers can be benevolent, disclosure of personal information must be
weighed against the emotional costs of potentially shaming disclosures. With no other
options, strivers reliant on public access points do the most emotion work and bear the
burden of adaptive disclosure of private information to gain resources.
Synthesis, Conclusions, and Implications
As the analysis has shown, strivers with resources enjoy unfettered private and person-
alized digital device use that fosters mobility, spatial, informational, and decisional
privacies. Such resources are particularly important for capital-enhancing activities
such as applications for college, financial aid, and scholarships. Enjoying the advan-
tages of continuous access to personal digital devices and private physical spaces in
the home, members of this group have the agency to ensure their physical privacy,
evade unwanted monitoring of digital information and engagements, and autono-
mously disclose private information and make other decisions.
Strivers with resources act as an important foil against which to compare two other
groups of youths that must complete the same tasks while facing different privacy
1426 American Behavioral Scientist 62(10)
challenges: (1) strivers who must share household digital resources and (2) strivers
who only have access to public digital resources. Regarding strivers who share house-
hold digital resources, members of this group rely on communal digital devices and
communal home spaces. As a result of resource sharing, they experience far less
autonomy in their privacy management for two reasons. First, given the scarcity of
both personal physical space and portable personal devices, they are easily monitored
by others. Second, their digital footprints can be observed by those with whom they
share devices.
Concerning the third group of strivers, these youths have almost no mobility,
spatial, informational, and decisional privacies as they rely on public digital resources.
Lacking any digital devices in the home, they face far greater challenges with fewer
resources than either of the other two groups of strivers. Because their use of digital
devices takes place in public venues, it often necessitates negotiation with gatekeep-
ers. To gain access in public settings, these strivers must sometimes reveal potentially
shaming private information to persuade gatekeepers to grant them access to resources.
In this way, although all three sets of strivers must do emotion work and manage dis-
closure of private information, this last group must also bear the burden of adaptive
disclosure of private information.
This article’s findings demonstrate that, for these young people, privacy is intimately
linked to resources. Although all young people are legally entitled to the same privacy
rights, these rights are not equally realized. When it comes to the digital domain,
resourced young people enjoy greater ability to exercise their privacy rights than their
disadvantaged counterparts. This article demonstrates that strivers whose families pos-
sess significant resources, including digital resources and private spaces, enjoy multiple
forms of privacy as normative. Their unfettered access to their personal digital devices
allows them to manage their privacy with autonomy in multiple locations within the
household, as well as to achieve mobility privacy. The household’s privacy permits their
exercise of digital privacy, a resource they are not forced to share with other family
members. In sum, young people who enjoy abundant and autonomous resources can
fully realize their rights to privacy. Resources allow them to exercise privacy rights that
confer numerous benefits and privileges as normative conditions without attendant emo-
tional costs.
By contrast, as we have seen, young people lacking physical or spatial privacy strug-
gle to achieve privacy in the digital domain as well. These young people do not possess
digital autonomy to access and control their private information without conceding other
aspects of their privacy. In stark contrast to resourced students, those with fewer
resources cannot fully realize their privacy rights because they must often sacrifice dif-
ferent forms of privacy to access digital resources. They are subject to surveillance both
in the home due to shared devices and space, as well as outside of the home when they
are in the glare of the public gaze. In either case, they must make difficult tradeoffs that
require emotional labor. As the analysis has shown, these dilemmas can carry heavy
emotional costs. While we have discussed strivers in this article who pushed through the
challenges at great personal cost, their story is not the only one. For other students, these
emotional costs are simply too high. Indeed, the data revealed a small number of
Robinson and Gran 1427
revealing cases in which students reported feeling so shamed and daunted by filling out
the FAFSA in public that they gave up completing the form online. Because they did not
apply for financial aid, these students were forced to attend the local community college
despite being accepted to four-year schools. This finding suggests that future research is
needed into the far-reaching consequences of unequal privacy, emotional costs, and digi-
tal inequalities.
In conclusion, this analysis reveals a vicious cycle in which young people lacking
economic resources also experience constraints on their privacy. At a critical life stage,
these shortages can shape behaviors in ways that narrow options and potentially even
limit future achievement. Finally, in establishing these linkages, this article makes an
important contribution by revealing privacy scarcity as another facet of digital inequal-
ity. The article brings to light the invisible privacy management strategies and emotion
work necessary for individuals lacking digital resources. By revealing these connections,
the research makes clear the unexpected consequences of resource inequalities, as well
as their implications for digital exclusion.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The authors declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship,
and/or publication of this article.
The authors disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship,
and/or publication of this article: Laura Robinson’s collection of the data was funded by the
Santa Clara University Miller Center; Bannan Institute, Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education;
SCU Internal Research Grants Program; and the SCU Faculty-Student Research Assistant
Award Program.
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Author Biographies
Laura Robinson is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at Santa Clara
University. She earned her PhD from UCLA, where she held a Mellon Fellowship in Latin
American Studies and received a Bourse d’Accueil at the École Normale Supérieure. In addi-
tion to holding a postdoctoral fellowship on a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur
Foundation–funded project at the USC Annenberg Center, Robinson has served as visiting
assistant professor at Cornell University and affiliated faculty at the UC Berkeley Institute for
the Study of Societal Issues. She is a series coeditor for Emerald Studies in Media and
Communications and previously served as the Chair of CITAMS (formerly CITASA). Her
research has earned awards from CITASA, AOIR, and NCA IICD. Robinson’s current multi-
year study examines digital and informational inequalities. Her other publications explore
1430 American Behavioral Scientist 62(10)
interaction and identity work, as well as new media in Brazil, France, and the United States.
Her website is
Brian K. Gran is a professor of sociology, law, and applied social sciences of Case Western
Reserve University. His research concentrates on human rights. Under contract with Polity
Press is Sociology of Children’s Rights. He has recently enjoyed invitations to publish with The
Annual Review of Law and Social Science and to lecture to COST Action IS1409 and Seoul
National University. He codirects the International Survey of Human Rights. He serves on the
Steering Committee of the AAAS Science and Human Rights Project and edits Societies Without
Borders. With support of the NSF, Swiss NSF, and Fulbright Commission, he is completing a
study of independent children’s rights institutions. He is a member of the National Conference
of Lawyers and Scientists.
... Only one study is cited (Gelbard et al., 2018) from a company that sought to analyze the relationship between email messages and the levels of performance, commitment, leadership, workplace dynamics, support for organizational development and learning and knowledge creation of workers. Finally, there are the studies in which the DF were collected manually through interviews, surveys or forms (6.52%) (Azcona et al., 2019;Pardo et al., 2015;Robinson & Gran, 2018). Only 6.52% of the studies did not mention the resource they used to collect the DF. ...
... Email (Gelbard et al., 2018) 2,17 Others (surveys, forms, questionnaires, interviews) (Azcona et al., 2019;Pardo et al., 2015;Robinson & Gran, 2018) 6,52 ...
... Some of these resources and technologies are also confirmed in the word count of the keywords that were made from the analyzed studies, as shown in Figure 4. Finally, it is worth clarifying that the answer to this RQ is shown in terms of technologies and resources on which the DF analysis is supported, which implies that several of them appear associated to several studies simultaneously displayed in Table 9. Table 9 Technologies and resources for DF analysis (Laleh & Shahram, 2018;Shafie et al., 2015) Other (Model of collective cybernetic action, survey and interview analysis, focus groups, psychological traits tests BIG5, smart devices) (Buchanan et al., 2017;Grover & Mark, 2017;Kosinski et al., 2016;Laleh & Shahram, 2018;Martin et al., 2018;Parks et al., 2018;Robinson & Gran, 2018;Schoedel et al., 2018) Not mentioned (Azcona et al., 2019;Benson & Filippaios, 2010;Burr & Cristianini, 2019;Chretien et al., 2015;Cladis, 2018;Simon Cleveland et al., 2016;Eberlin, 2018;Galimova et al., 2019;Kay, 2015;Nechaev et al., 2017;Osborne & Connelly, 2016, 2015Paredes et al., 2018;Polignano et al., 2017;Raybourn, 2017;Rossetti et al., 2016Rossetti et al., , 2015Scanlon & Smeaton, 2017;Sjöberg et al., 2017;Surmelioglu & Seferoglu, 2019;Ye et al., 2017;Youyou et al., 2015) Figure 4 ...
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Digital footprints (DF) offer relevant information about educational activities and processes related to strategies of academic assessment, identification of skills and psychological traits of students, and permanence and dropout trends, etc. This study analyzes scientific evidence on the use of DF in education, and shows the results of a systematic mapping of literature carried out based on the analysis of documents published in the last fifteen years (2005–2019) in two databases: Scopus and Web of Science (WoS). Findings reveal that educational research on DF is focused on learning analytics, the study of digital presence and psychometric modeling. Likewise, the article reports on the scarce investigation of DF in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) environments and highlights the multiple meanings of DF as an action and as a service, beyond the generalized conception of data. These findings suggest the importance of preparing educational institutions to implement DF use and management practices in order to favor processes that range from DF curation, to cognitive evaluation, digital equity, prediction of school success and/or failure, etc. Hence, DF meanings (data, action and service) could aid to generate proper administration and policy-making actions, placed at the service of all students and their educational communities.
... Other challenges for ICT adoption for vulnerable populations may also impact the use of assistive technologies. These include but are not limited to stigma (Parette and Scherer, 2004), agency (Robinson, 2020), ethical anxiety (Yusif, et al., 2016) and privacy acquisition strategies (Robinson and Gran, 2018). ...
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Marking the 25th anniversary of the “digital divide,” we continue our metaphor of the digital inequality stack by mapping out the rapidly evolving nature of digital inequality using a broad lens. We tackle complex, and often unseen, inequalities spawned by the platform economy, automation, big data, algorithms, cybercrime, cybersafety, gaming, emotional well-being, assistive technologies, civic engagement, and mobility. These inequalities are woven throughout the digital inequality stack in many ways including differentiated access, use, consumption, literacies, skills, and production. While many users are competent prosumers who nimbly work within different layers of the stack, very few individuals are “full stack engineers” able to create or recreate digital devices, networks, and software platforms as pure producers. This new frontier of digital inequalities further differentiates digitally skilled creators from mere users. Therefore, we document emergent forms of inequality that radically diminish individuals’ agency and augment the power of technology creators, big tech, and other already powerful social actors whose dominance is increasing.
... Better precision may help prevent the high incidence of coronavirus or any other diseases in congregate settings where privacy is scarce. Privacy is another fertile ground for future research as students and teleworkers alike have reported increased vulnerability when others can see into their private lives and home environments in ways that put lower socio-economic individuals at risk for stigma (Robinson and Gran, 2018), necessitating work on best practices (Chen and Wellman, 2009). ...
... Better precision may help prevent the high incidence of coronavirus or any other diseases in congregate settings where privacy is scarce. Privacy is another fertile ground for future research as students and teleworkers alike have reported increased vulnerability when others can see into their private lives and home environments in ways that put lower socio-economic individuals at risk for stigma (Robinson and Gran, 2018), necessitating work on best practices (Chen and Wellman, 2009). ...
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In this article, we argue that new kinds of risk are emerging with the COVID-19 virus, and that these risks are unequally distributed. As we expose to view, digital inequalities and social inequalities are rendering certain subgroups significantly more vulnerable to exposure to COVID-19. Vulnerable populations bearing disproportionate risks include the social isolated, older adults, penal system subjects, digitally disadvantaged students, gig workers, and last-mile workers. Therefore, we map out the intersection between COVID-19 risk factors and digital inequalities on each of these populations in order to examine how the digitally resourced have additional tools to mitigate some of the risks associated with the pandemic. We shed light on how the ongoing pandemic is deepening key axes of social differentiation, which were previously occluded from view. These newly manifested forms of social differentiation can be conceived along several related dimensions. At their most general and abstract, these risks have to do with the capacity individuals have to control the risk of pathogen exposure. In order to fully manage exposure risk, individuals must control their physical environment to the greatest extent possible in order to prevent contact with potentially compromised physical spaces. In addition, they must control their social interactional environment to the greatest extent possible in order to minimize their contacts with potentially infected individuals. All else equal, those individuals who exercise more control over their exposure risk - on the basis of their control over their physical and social interactional environments - stand a better chance of staying healthy than those individuals who cannot manage exposure risk. Individuals therefore vary in terms of what we call their COVID-19 exposure risk profile (CERPs). CERPs hinge on preexisting forms of social differentiation such as socioeconomic status, as individuals with more economic resources at their disposal can better insulate themselves from exposure risk. Alongside socioeconomic status, one of the key forms of social differentiation connected with CERPs is digital (dis)advantage. Ceteris paribus, individuals who can more effectively digitize key parts of their lives enjoy better CERPs than individuals who cannot digitize these life realms. Therefore we believe that digital inequalities are directly and increasingly related to both life-or-death exposure to COVID-19, as well as excess deaths attributable to the larger conditions generated by the pandemic.
Should a court order medical treatment for a severely disabled newborn in the face of the parents' refusal to authorize it? How does the law apply to a neighborhood that objects to a group home for developmentally disabled people? Does equality mean treating everyone the same, even if such treatment affects some people adversely? Does a state requirement of employee maternity leave serve or violate the commitment to gender equality? Martha Minow takes a hard look at the way our legal system functions in dealing with people on the basis of race, gender, age, ethnicity, religion, and disability. Minow confronts a variety of dilemmas of difference resulting from contradictory legal strategies-strategies that attempt to correct inequalities by sometimes recognizing and sometimes ignoring differences. Exploring the historical sources of ideas about difference, she offers challenging alternative ways of conceiving of traits that legal and social institutions have come to regard as "different." She argues, in effect, for a constructed jurisprudence based on the ability to recognize and work with perceptible forms of difference. Minow is passionately interested in the people-"different" people-whose lives are regularly (mis)shaped and (mis)directed by the legal system's ways of handling them. Drawing on literary and feminist theories and the insights of anthropology and social history, she identifies the unstated assumptions that tend to regenerate discrimination through the very reforms that are supposed to eliminate it. Education for handicapped children, conflicts between job and family responsibilities, bilingual education, Native American land claims-these are among the concrete problems she discusses from a fresh angle of vision. Minow firmly rejects the prevailing conception of the self that she believes underlies legal doctrine-a self seen as either separate and autonomous, or else disabled and incompetent in some way. In contrast, she regards the self as being realized through connection, capable of shaping an identity only in relationship to other people. She shifts the focus for problem solving from the "different" person to the relationships that construct that difference, and she proposes an analysis that can turn "difference" from a basis of stigma and a rationale for unequal treatment into a point of human connection. "The meanings of many differences can change when people locate and revise their relationships to difference," she asserts. "The student in a wheelchair becomes less different when the building designed without him in mind is altered to permit his access." Her book evaluates contemporary legal theories and reformulates legal rights for women, children, persons with disabilities, and others historically identified as different. Here is a powerful voice for change, speaking to issues that permeate our daily lives and form a central part of the work of law. By illuminating the many ways in which people differ from one another, this book shows how lawyers, political theorist, teachers, parents, students-every one of us-can make all the difference.
This book situates the single woman within the evolving landscape of modernity, examining how she negotiated rural and urban worlds, explored domestic and bohemian roles, and traversed public and private spheres. In the modern era, the single woman was both celebrated and derided for refusing to conform to societal expectations regarding femininity and sexuality. The different versions of single women presented in cultural narratives of this period-including the old maid, odd woman, New Woman, spinster, and flapper-were all sexually suspicious. The single woman, however, was really an amorphous figure who defied straightforward categorization. Emma Sterry explores depictions of such single women in transatlantic women's fiction of the 1920s to 1940s. Including a diverse selection of renowned and forgotten writers, such as Djuna Barnes, Rosamond Lehmann, Ngaio Marsh, and Eliot Bliss, this book argues that the single woman embodies the tensions between tradition and progress in both middlebrow and modernist literary culture. © The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s) 2017. All rights reserved.