Project Symposium – report

On the 19th and 20th of June 2019, the ‘Tracking Ourselves’ team hosted a two-day symposium on ‘Health Technologies in Practice: Between the home and the clinic’.  The symposium marked the culmination of the Leverhulme Trust Funded Research Project on “Knowledge, Care and the Practices of Self-Monitoring”. The event brought together an interdisciplinary and international group of speakers, with interests in STS, medical sociology, anthropology, disability studies, media studies and cultural studies. Speakers were all interested in health technologies that bridge the home and the clinic, but focused on different empirical sites and employed different methods. All the papers shared a broad interest in everyday health practices and how these relate to responsibilities for health and care, as well as the people, technologies, spaces and relationships involved, including the role of health professionals and commercial actors.

On the first day, after a brief introduction to the project, Dr Kate Weiner (University of Sheffield) presented the first paper from the ‘Tracking Ourselves’ project, looking at everyday data practices of self-monitoring in relation to body mass index (BMI) and blood pressure.  Considering the relationships between taking a measure, recording, storing and reviewing data, Kate developed the idea of curation in relation to self-monitoring records, and discussed the human work and different materials involved in this practice.

The next presentation was by Dr Dorthe Brogård Kristensen (University of Southern Denmark) on “Optimization and the Imaginary of Metrics”.  Based on an ethnography of self-tracking in a gym, the paper aimed to explore how users respond to and manage the metrics and algorithms that shape social life. Resonating with the previous talk, Dorthe drew attention to the materials involved, considering the ‘affordances’ of both digital and analogue technologies and the way people use these on their own terms.

Professor Janice McLaughlin (Newcastle University) then presented on the self-surveillance practices of young disabled people and their use of home as a site of embodied self-monitoring. Janice explored how young disabled people experience both medical advice to modify their bodies and their felt individual expectations about the capacities of their bodies.

In the final presentations of the first day, Dr Ros Williams (University of Sheffield) and Dr Jacob Andrews (University of Sheffield) provided some methodological reflections on the “Tracking Ourselves?” project. Ros presented on the development and experiences of using long duration auto-photography and photo elicitation interviews to explore everyday self-monitoring practices. Jake discussed the process of creating vignettes from interviews on self-monitoring, and the use of these as prompts for focus groups to explore clinicians’ views and professional experiences. Ros and Jake both reflected on the nuances and possibilities of these methods. 

On the second day, Dr Btihaj Ajana (King’s College London) presented “Sharing and its discontents in the Quantified Self (QS) culture” discussing the differences between the sharing economy and commodity exchanges. By linking data philanthropy with data commercialisation, her presentation raised questions in relation to individual privacy and public interest. Dr Catherine Will (University of Sussex) and Professor Flis Henwood (University of Brighton) continued to address the communal aspects of self-monitoring with their paper from the ‘Tracking Ourselves’ project which explored the role of family and friends in the practices of self-monitoring.  They argued that monitoring is a care practice, and that people tread carefully between care and surveillance. The talk illustrated the way that the work of maintaining or sustaining health is negotiated within families and monitoring has affective or emotional components in everyday life.

The last two papers of the symposium focused on the internet as a health technology, but in different ways.  Dr Fiona Stevenson (University College, London) presented on raising, discussing and using the internet to seek health related information in General Practitioner (GP) consultations. Based on conversation analysis of video-recorded consultations, Fiona demonstrated that, contrary to expectations, the degree to which patients mention the internet is, in fact, relatively limited and that the way that patients invoke the internet in medical consultations is imbued with complexity. 

Finally, Dr Minna Ruckenstein (University of Helsinki) presented her ongoing project about “Tracing Medicinal Agencies: Antidepressants and Life-Effects”, talking about everyday drug experiences and exploring the human-drug relationship. Her project analysed health related posts from large digital open data sets, using the computational tool Medicine Radar. This work contributes to methodological innovation in social research and introduces the idea that side effects of antidepressants are better understood as life effects.

Closing remarks were given by Professor Alex Faulkner (University of Sussex) and Professor Sarah Nettleton (University of York), who reflected on key themes and take away messages from the two days. They reflected on the broader politics of these technologies and their uses, and on the empirical insights gained from the different methods employed. Both commented on the ‘retro’ nature of monitoring in everyday life, in spite of innovations in technology. Sarah commented that by ‘lifting the lid’ on these practices, the presentations had been able to consider the ‘messy granularity’ of agency across cases.  Finally, many of the presentations were grounded in a concern with the lived experience of engaging with these forms of technology and data, bringing to light, in particular, the emotional and relational elements of these engagements.

This event is funded by a Research Grant from the Leverhulme Trust (