BSA MedSoc Digital Health Special Event, September 2017

From the 13th-15th September, the Tracking Ourselves? research team attended the British Sociological Association’s annual Medical Sociology conference where we presented work from phase 1 of the project, exploring commercial understandings of health self-monitoring. The presentation was part of a special event on digital health that both Flis and Ros participated in.

Flis gave an introductory talk that provided an overview of the sociological literature that is currently being – and that could be – brought to bear on social scientific research into the area of digital health.

This paper proved a useful foundation for presentations from Sue Ziebland (Oxford) and Fiona Stevenson (UCL) whose papers both explored the issue of how people retrieve and use health information online. Following on from them, Ben Marent (Brighton) presented findings from EmERGe, an EU-funded project to develop and evaluate an HIV patient mHealth platform.

Ros presented phase 1 data looking at commercial expectations of health self-monitoring practices; in the paper, she looked at the material design of products to consider how objects are designed with particular kinds of use in mind.

MedSoc digital health panel
Panel Discussion at the digital health special event. From left to right, Sue Ziebland, Flis Henwood, Ros Williams, Fiona Stevenson, and Ben Marent. Photographed by Kate Weiner.

The digital health special event ended with a panel discussion that lead to great discussions around the possible overlaps and disjuncture between commercial expectations and people’s concrete, everyday practices. Questions and conversation also touched upon the interconnection of practices like self-monitoring, and people’s broader efforts to locate health information from sources other than health care professionals.

Catherine and Kate were also at the conference; Catherine presented in the Critical Public Health stream [abstract] on new configurations of public health and welfare with a focus on housing and homes. Kate gave a paper on home blood pressure monitoring [abstract] looking at pilot data from the Tracking Ourselves? project.

Practice Theory and Public Health, September 2017

This week – 7th and 8th September 2017 – Ros went to Lancaster University for a two-day workshop called “Practice Theory and Public Health – a workshop on scale, matter, method and challenges”. The event was attended by people with an interest in the possible intersections of social practice theory and methodology, and the broad scope of work in the area of public health.

The organisers of the event, Cecily Maller and Stanley Blue gave an initial overview. They used the opportunity to raise an interesting point: the labels of “healthy”  and “unhealthy” may be more usefully understood as meanings associated with people’s practices and, though one doesn’t always think of practices as being un/healthy, perhaps most practices can be said to have some kind of ‘health outcome’.

The two days threw up a lot of thought-provoking discussion around language. The notion of an public health ‘intervention’, for example, sparked some debate about whether practice theory can change, as well as trace, what people do. Underlying this was a question of whether users of practice theory ought to be attempting to produce changes in the dynamics of practice. Unsurprisingly, this issue remained unresolved!

Ros presented work from phase 1 of Tracking Ourselves, exploring the ways that commercial actors understand self-monitoring practices. You can read the abstract from the paper below.


Our paper was one in a wide range of topics. To name only a handful, Cecily Maller gave a presentation on designing  a residential estate in Mebourne for residents’ wellbeing. Maller showed survey and interview data revealing how people made (sometimes unexpected) use of the built environment – an outdoor gym was used by children for play, for example. Stanley Blue’s paper on understanding obesogenic environments prompted really exciting discussion about what constitutes a practice. For example, where does it begin and end, and what’s the starting point for studying its dynamics? Does eating including snacking, drinking? Or are we concerned with ‘meal’-ing!

A fantastic presentation on British women’s alcohol drinking practices from Kat Jackson offered insights into alcohol’s enfolding into how interviewees cared for family, partners, and themselves. It brought into relief the complexity of describing drinking alcohol as unhealthy – accounts from some of her informants suggested drinking was an important and enriching part of their lives.

A different empirical site drew out similarly interesting questions around how we can glean information about people’s practices; a two-way radio programme in Cape Verde during the Zika outbreak (presented by Laurie Denyer Willis) allowed people to text in descriptions of their practices, revealing problems in the assumptions of public health advice about putting lids on water containers – water infrastructures in Cape Verde made lidding bottles challenging, a point revealed through considering elements of practice.

Altogether, the event offered a valuable opportunity to think about how the Tracking Ourselves studies could contribute to public health understandings of health self-monitoring. In parsing some of the heterogeneity of self-monitoring practices, as phases and 1 and 2 are revealing, we can contribute to a richer grasp of how self-monitoring practices are currently  being undertaken by individuals.

Below is the title and abstract of our talk at the above event.

Everyday Practices of Health Self-Monitoring: Exploring Commercial Imaginaries of Self-Monitoring

Self-monitoring, using products including apps, blood pressure monitors and weighing scales, is increasingly invoked in policy as a tool for promoting healthy lifestyles. It is anticipated that measurements previously done in clinics will be undertaken at home by individuals using devices they acquire themselves, saving the NHS time/money and reducing obesity and heart disease. We report on a study of these newly emerging or proto practices – framed as a public health salve rather than problem – suggesting that they offer useful insights for practice theory’s application to public health, which has so far focussed more on the ‘usual suspects’ of problematic health behaviour including eating and smoking.

In our paper we start from the work done by commercial actors seeking to reinvent products associated with the clinic as consumer goods that can be integrated into ordinary life. While aware that these commercial imaginaries cannot be assumed to determine the actual use of products, we engage with these arguments in work by Shove and Pantzar (2005) to discuss how commercial actors attempt to shift the meanings of monitoring along with new materials (products) emphasising the playful, relaxing and sociable elements of the practice. Contrasting commercial versions of self-monitoring with those in public health we suggest that our understanding of these practices can be improved if we consider the efforts of commercial actors to reinvent self-monitoring, suggest ways in which this alters our understanding of the category of ‘health practice’ and of the health implications of shared nature of activities in the home.


Science in Public, July 2017

sip2This week, Ros was at the Science in Public conference in Sheffield to present our paper Self-Monitoring Practices: Imagining Users, Shaping Markets as part of a panel on the ‘contemporary politics of disability and enhancement’. The presentation offered reflections from a paper that is concerned with everyday health monitoring using technologies acquired independently of health professionals. We focus on how industry and policy stakeholders envisage self-monitoring practices, and how these expectations are inscribed in products. We consider the cases of blood pressure monitoring and weighing scales in the paper.

The panel we presented in featured work from Gareth Thomas from Cardiff exploring public discourses surrounding Down’s syndrome, and Daniel Navon from UC San Diego discussing his work on the population-level implications of non-invasive prenatal genetic testing. The three linked nicely with Kirsty Liddiard, Dan Goodley and Fiona Kumari Campbell’s papers earlier in the day on enhancement and disability.

sip1The conversations prompted by all of these papers were as to be expected given the overarching conference theme of ‘Science, technology and humanity’; questions lead to great discussions about the roles of the state and the individual, the shifting definitions of illness and disability, and the manner in which new (and older) technologies inflect on these issues. The paper we presented here opens up the question of how users undertake self-monitoring, so colleagues at the conference were also really interested to hear more about the ongoing fieldwork we are undertaking, interviewing users of the kinds of technologies our presentation focused on. In addition, having both American and UK examples in this panel offered a nice opportunity to compare the current situations of British and American healthcare services, the different landscapes that these various technologies work across.

You can read the abstract for our paper here.

Psycho-Social Lives As Method, July 2017

This week, Ros spoke at the University of Sheffield on the project methodology. In this presentation, entitled Tracking ourselves?: Methods for exploring everyday health self-monitoring practices, she ran through the methods for phase two which we began at  the start of June. Exploring the prevalence of normative accounts of health and the use of materials in interviews, Ros presented some data from the pilot interviews (conducted between May 2014 and July 2015, which you can learn more about here) and from initial interviews with people who track body mass index (BMI) which we started in June 2017 and which are well underway.


The event, Psycho-Social Lives As Method was an afternoon workshop, with presentations focusing on a variety of contemporary issues relating to health, including global mental health, young people and health wearables, and valuation practices in health commissioning.

Ros spoke alongside Stefan Ecks (University of Edinburgh), Matthias Benzer (University of Sheffield), Eva Hilberg (University of Sheffield), China Mills (University of Sheffield) and Emma Rich (University of Bath)

The workshop, which China Mills and Eva Hilberg organised, will lead to a shared bibliography for social scientists interested in novel methodologies for health research.

British Sociological Association Conference, April 2017

In the initial months of Tracking Ourselves, we’ve spoken to a number of commercial stakeholders working in the area of self-monitoring, and have attended several key industry events. Alongside this, we’ve also been looking at the market of self-monitoring products in some detail to develop a clearer sense of how commercial stakeholders understand practices of self-monitoring and the users undertaking them. The recent British Sociological Association annual conference at the University of Manchester gave us an opportunity to explore some of the themes from our analysis of texts and objects alongside other social science researchers working broadly in the field of digital health. 


Below is a copy of the paper abstract, presented on day one of the conference.

This paper is concerned with everyday health monitoring using technologies acquired independently of health professionals. We focus on how industry and policy stakeholders envisage self-monitoring practices, and how these expectations are inscribed in products. As much of the current interest in this area focuses on digital technologies and fitness/wellness apps, we expand discussions by exploring more mundane technologies that sit squarely between the medical and consumer realms, like home blood pressure monitoring.

Sociological research to date, concerned with wearable devices and smartphone apps, focuses on how such platforms produce individuated selves, displaying the responsible qualities of late modernity’s good self-tracking citizens. Proprietorial tendencies of commercial and state actors are also central in these sociological accounts (Till 2014) where the convergence of bodies and technologies may now be producing forms of ‘digital biocapital’ (Lupton 2016). Though such focus on discourse provides valuable insights into the political economy of self-monitoring, it is equally important to attend to the work of expectation in how these technologies are conceived and promoted.

Accordingly, we look at how self-monitoring technologies are ‘scripted’ (Akrich 1992) with particular users/uses in mind. We analyse a sample of texts from policy and commerce produced since January 2015, to demonstrate how these expectations have, as many envisaged futures tend to (Brown and Michaels 2003), very material implications for both health policy and the consumer self-monitoring market.

Sheffield Faculty of Social Sciences Conference, September 2016

FSS conference On 13th September, Kate and Ros gave a presentation at the University of Sheffield’s Faculty of Social Sciences conference. This was an opportunity to present Tracking Ourselves? to the faculty, which is the base for diverse and exciting research activities that stretch from urban planning to education, and from law to architecture.

We used the presentation to give an overview of the social science literature to date in the field of self-monitoring. It was also an opportunity to showcase the methodological design of the project; we discussed the different phases and stakeholders factored into the research design, after framing some of the project’s key aims.

The presentation also gave us a chance to discuss some of the research questions that will guide Tracking Ourselves? We are, for instance, interested in how is self-monitoring is ‘scripted’ or shaped by professional, policy and commercial proponents – here we concerned with the ‘worlds inscribed in objects’, to borrow from Madeleine Akrich. The second phase of the research will be directly concerned with how people self-monitor, and how such practices might (or might not be!) sustained over time.

FSS conference pres

If you’re interested in learning more about the project, please do get in touch.



Self-tracking panel – EASST 2016, Barcelona

conference websiteMembers of the Tracking Ourselves? research team were were involved in convening a conference track at this year’s EASST/4S conference held in Barcelona. The EASST/4S conference is a the 4-yearly conference jointly hosted by the US and European associations for the study of science and technology. Its theme this year was “Science and Technology by Other Means – Exploring collectives, spaces and futures”.

The track, entitled ‘Everyday Analytics’, was organised to address the increasingly pervasive part that self-monitoring plays in contemporary life, entwined in many spheres of the everyday, for example work, health, fitness, energy consumption, or finance. Scroll to the bottom of the post to download a full list of all the speakers who were involved in the panel, and to read their full abstracts.

In a panel on Data, politics, commodification, Chris Till spoke about his recent research into corporate ‘wellness programmes’ that encourage employee self-tracking, focusing in on some of the psychopolitics literature that might help us to understand the logics behind these schemes.

The different panels within the track were thematically organised around the work of a variety of early career and established researchers working in areas as diverse as glucometers and personal genetics, familial practices of monitoring, the Quantified Self movement, and workplace-encouraged tracking schemes.

Kate Weiner and Catherine Will, who are part of the Tracking Ourselves? team, presented some of the interesting preliminary findings of pilot research into blood pressure monitoring in the home. The paper explored some of the ways in which literature from Sociology of Health and Illness, and from Science and Technologies Studies, on ‘care infrastructures’ might help us to understood some of the more material aspects of self-monitoring – for example, how the physical situation of devices are entangled in our identities, and might encourage (or discourage) the sharing of our ‘self’-monitoring devices with family and friends.

In the Temporal and relational aspects of self-tracking panel, Linda Layne shared some of her data from a project she’s undertaken with a single family, trying to trace all the instances of monitoring and analytics that go on in the domestic environment – from multiple-person day planners, to chore management tools. The paper also gave insite into some of the popular literature that encourages the adoption of particularly militaristic practices of people management into contemporary parenting techniques.

A full list of all the speakers and their abstracts can be downloaded here.

The convenors of this EASST/4S track were:

Kate Weiner (University of Sheffield), Catherine Will (University of Sussex), Minna Ruckenstein (Consumer Society Research Centre), Christopher Till (Leeds Beckett University), and Flis Henwood (University of Brighton).