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Public and private as a topic of a multidisciplinary research

zdeněk uherek – the polarity between public and private: an anthropological perspective

Summary of a paper presented at the “Relativeness of public and private” in Prague on 9 October 2015

The aim of the paper is to present a broader intercultural comparison of the conceptualisation of public space. It is based on the knowledge that public space cannot be taken for granted, that it has been achieved by the efforts of an organised society, and that its function changes in relation to changes in society and to the aims of those who establish and administer it. What is or is not regarded as public space in various societies changes, and so there is no point in trying to find a definition of public space that is universally valid for all periods of history and different societies.

The paper first of all presents, in connection with the theme under discussion, an analysis of the territorial units that are conceptualised by the Kapauku ethnic group from the point of view of the right to make use of them. The analysis was carried out by Leopold Pospíšil and published in his Etnologie práva [The Ethnology of Law; Czech version published by Set out, Praha, 1997]. The analysis shows that, at least in the legal consciousness of the Kapauku, so far as it is possible to talk about the conceptualisation of any sort of space as public by this ethnic group, the border between public and private is not sharply defined and a number of transitional types occur. Individual inhabitants of the village that Leopold Pospíšil describes are able to carry out activities that are restricted in various ways in different places. Some activities are permitted and sanctioned during the day and others at night, different activities are permitted at different times of the year. Specific activities are intended for journeys, for the area in front of where people live, the virgin forest, a garden, a cliff, or the seashore.

We can think along similar lines in relation to a contemporary European city such as Prague. Each specific public space is public in a different way. Even its general accessibility is a complicated question. Not only because its use by the public is connected with certain rules for the enjoyment of public space, but also because the public itself is continuously competing for public space and temporarily occupying it, and if a particular segment of public space is occupied, then it can hardly be used by somebody else. In some cases individuals or groups respect each other when using public space, but in others they do not.

In narratives about public space in Prague which the author of the article and his colleagues collected in 2013–2014, it was observed that the inhabitants of Prague expressed a marked dichotomisation between the “I” group (natives of Prague) and the group of tourists and homeless people, who were often criticised for the way they used public space. The question that usually concerned the natives of Prague was not how to accommodate public space so that it would be publicly accessible to all, but rather how to regulate its use.

During the interviews in Prague in 2013–2014 it was notable how frequently people associated public space primarily with positive activities such as relaxation, education, going for walks, communicating with people, and sports, and public space was more often seen as being a park or a habitable public square than, for example, as a road. By contrast, the fact, ascertained through observation, that people in public spaces are most often going from one place to another, walking their dogs, or parking their cars, was suppressed in what the interviewees said. Their aspirations did not correspond very much to reality. So far as public space is concerned, people said something different to what they actually did. In their responses they characterised public space in a very similar way to their home, in other words as a very private place that they would not allow everybody to enter. Many responses also referred to threats to privacy in public space.

The contradictions that were observed between the responses of the interviewees and their behaviour could lead to many tensions, misunderstandings, and conflicting behaviour. The research that the Institute of Ethnology of the Czech Academy of Sciences carried out together with the non-profit NGO Open Society also resulted in several recommendations that might be helpful not only when creating a public space but also in the dialogue with its users.

– Zdeněk Uherek (Institute of Ethnology of the Czech Academy of Sciences)