19 April 2017

New centre for basic research to shed light on the history of privacy


The Danish National Research Foundation is ready to grant up to DKK 235 million to four new centres of excellence for basic research at the University of Copenhagen. One of the centres that has been invited for contract negotiations with the Foundation is the Centre for Privacy Studies (PRIVACY), which will be established at the Faculty of Theology. The new centre is to shed light on the historical development of the paradoxical concept of privacy, which is more topical than ever in times of surveillance, Big Data and focus on work-life balance.

Everybody talks about it: Politicians, researchers, artists, the general public. It is important. Something to protect. Even defined as a human right. But no one knows exactly what it covers or how far it extends. ‘Privacy’, or the ‘private sphere’, is a paradoxical and much disputed phenomenon.

Headed by Professor Mette Birkedal Bruun, the Centre is to investigate how the concept of privacy has developed from the early modern period toward the importance it has today. This will be done by systematically examining the boundaries of the private sphere within architecture, religious culture, legislation and political thinking based on the period 1500-1800.

“The boundaries of the private sphere are under pressure, and it is extremely important for us as a society to understand the concept of privacy. Where lies the boundary of a person's private sphere? What is its function? The historical distance allows us to see the social structures more clearly than if we were in the midst of it. Just as a map provides a better overview than if you are actually standing in the landscape," says Professor Mette Birkedal Bruun.  

Good and dangerous at the same time

An important starting point for the research project is that the concept of privacy was perceived and discussed with the same ambiguity in the early modern period as it is today.

“Privacy is a paradoxical issue because it’s perceived as a good thing and a human right unless it endangers safety. Privacy is necessary for an individual, but also dangerous for the state. The concept is at the interface between the interests of the individual and those of society. Our hypothesis is that different historical perceptions of privacy are a mirror of what society sees as central values and dreaded threats,” Mette Birkedal Bruun says.

The new research centre has been conceived as an interdisciplinary centre that gathers an ambitious team of Danish and international elite researchers and experts within the four disciplines: Religious culture, political thinking, legislation and architecture.   

Research at the centre will focus on 11 cases from the period in Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, England and France. A cross-disciplinary research team with researchers from all four disciplines will study how privacy has been understood and pursued across architecture, laws, political norms and religious life at a particular place in a specific period.

Wide international research network

The international anchoring has been decisive for the Danish National Research Foundation’s plan to invest in precisely this new research centre.

“Mette Birkedal Bruun is ideal to head up this centre. Her publication record is impressive and testifies to a very high level of both methodology reflections and innovative inter-discliplinarity in her approach to research questions. She also has an impressive international network,” the Danish National Research Foundation says in its decision.

Read the press release from the Danish National Research Foundation.


Alice Petersen
Communications officer
Faculty of Theology
University of Copenhagen
Mobile: 20569834
E-mail: alp@teol.ku.dk