chapter  1
16 Pages

Public and private: A complex relation

The categories of public and private have played, and continue to play, a central role in structuring human activities and delineating the main boundaries of social life. They have been the subject of extensive analysis and debate, at times of heated contestation, by philosophers, legal scholars, political theorists, feminist thinkers, anthropologists, cultural historians and economists operating in the public choice tradition. The categories themselves are highly complex and ambiguous, covering di€erent features of social life depending on the framework adopted, while the distinction between public and private can by no means be conceived as a simple opposition or dichotomy, but must be viewed as multifaceted and protean, comprising a family of distinctions that are constantly shifting under the twin pressures of social change and political contestation. The complex and ambiguous nature of the categories of public and private

has been highlighted by several recent studies. Je€ Weintraub, for instance, has identified four broad frameworks in which di€erent notions of public and private play an important role: (1) the liberal-economistic model, which sees the public/private distinction primarily in terms of the distinction between the state and the economy; (2) the civic republican tradition, which sees the public realm in terms of political community and citizenship, analytically distinct from both the market and the state; (3) the approach of cultural and social historians, which sees the public realm as a sphere of fluid sociability, distinct from both the structures of social organisation and the private domains of intimacy and domesticity; and (4) those trends in feminist scholarship that conceive of the distinction between private and public in terms of the distinction between the family and the larger economic and political order.1