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 (https://www.leverhulme.ac.uk/).

Project symposium

Our project symposium, ‘Health Technologies in Practice’, took place on the 19th and 20th June 2019 and was a great success, with 49 attendees from 24 institutions from across Europe. We’d like to say a big thank you to all our delegates and speakers.

A short summary of the event is available here.

Two early career researchers reflect on their experience of attending the symposium:

Xiufeng Jia (Department of Sociological Studies, University of Sheffield): “I am a first year PhD researcher, studying how ordinary self-trackers feel about their self-tracking data in order to understand datafied agency. For me, this two-day symposium was like an academic holiday that took me away from my current busy work and brought me into an exciting and relaxing research exploration in a very friendly environment. All of projects that the researchers presented from different perspectives were creative and meaningful for academics and the society. Besides, after a walking tour of Sheffield, this symposium provided a great opportunity for me to communicate with the researchers (such as Dr Btihaj Ajana, Dr Minna Ruckenstein and Dr Rachael Kent) from beyond the University of Sheffield who are working on self-tracking studies, when we were having a lovely dinner with other participants together. The whole event actually helped me improve my literature review and interview questions, and deal with some confusions in the methods in my research project. It also really encouraged me to be more enthusiastic to research, after experiencing how those researchers investigated new and interesting projects through their talks.

Lauren White (Department of Sociological Studies, University of Sheffield): “As a third year PhD researcher exploring the daily practices of people living with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), the conference reminded me of important features of managing health present in my own research, alongside important methodological considerations. In particular, I was drawn to the relational practices of monitoring health, and how managing health or symptoms of broader illness can be situated in relational networks both in public and private lives. Moreover, I recognised the careful tightrope of negotiating surveillance and care, as both an individual and collective practice. Methodologically, I found familiarity in the materiality, and again attached my own research experiences of using paper diaries and object elicitations to those of the presenters. Reaching the end of the conference, I left with new connections, alongside insights and striking lines into the possibilities of monitoring health, as an affective, material and important lived experience in a fast and changing social landscape.

Making connections in Denmark

Dr Catherine Will recently visited the University of Copenhagen to teach on their Masters in Public Health. While there, she met with the team behind a new project called Personalised Medicine in the Welfare State (MeInWe). The project includes work exploring the use of data in personalised medicine. Catherine was invited to meet the team by their lead researcher, Professor Mette Svendsen.

Catherine also attended a seminar on the topic of Appropriating Technologies organised by Aalborg University. The seminar took place over two days, and included a series of presentations on how people make creative use of technologies, how developers engage with users, and how people may engage with technologies in ways unintended by their developers. The organising committee included eminent anthropology researchers with an interest in self-tracking, including Professor Ayo WahlbergProfessor Brit Ross Winthereik, and Dr Dorthe Brogård Kristensen.

The seminar is part of a series of seminars on the anthropology of data, technology and communities.