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.



Cost of Living blog post: ‘Health Tomorrow’

costoflivingCatherine from the Tracking Ourselves? project is also involved in the Cost of Living website, which published short pieces that focus broadly on the politics, economics and sociology of health and health care. Below is some of a piece she and Kate Weiner, also in the team, wrote for Cost of Living on technology for self-monitoring. You can read the whole piece here.

Health and fitness tracking is all the rage.  You want to keep track of your weight or count calories? There are apps for that.  The NHS even offers an app ‘to track the whole family’s BMI over time.’  Through using these personal digital devices we can all learn to monitor our behavior. This in turn can motivate us to make and maintain changes to prevent disease, and improving our health by sharing data with friends (see the recent BBC documentary, Monitor Me).

In some ways this narrative is persuasive. Personal computing has changed the way we live and work, and the spread of smart phones has been rapid. People now hold enormous analytic power in their hands many times a day. But we have some doubts about the extent to which people are happy to monitor themselves in this way.

We’ve been researching consumers of the cholesterol lowering drugs, statins, and of so-called functional foods that contain plant sterols, like Benecol and Flora proactiv, for a few years now. Respondents in our research were from a wide range of ages and backgrounds. Their views suggest a strong reluctance to engage in the kinds of activity that are involved in digital health tracking.

— you can read the full blog post on the Cost of Living website

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).