Representations of bodies/selves online

Another excerpt from  my forthcoming book Digital Sociology, taken from Chapter 8, ‘The Digitised Body/Self’.

People discuss and visually represent their (and others’) bodies incessantly as part of using social media. The body is represented in ever finer detail on the types of digital networks and platforms that are now available for use. Social media sites such as YouTube, Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram and Flickr focus on the uploading, curating and sharing of images, including many of bodies. Facebook and Twitter also provide opportunities for users to share images of bodies. Bodies receive much digital attention, particularly those of celebrities, but increasingly those of ordinary users. Female celebrities, in particular, are the subject of continual digital visualising by paparazzi and fans and constant commentary in social media and news sites on the appropriateness and attractiveness or otherwise of their bodies (Gorton and Garde-Hansen 2013).

Due to the plethora of online platforms and apps devoted to human anatomy, the internal organs and workings of the human body have moved from being exclusively the preserve of medical students and surgeons to being open to the gaze of all. Online technologies now allow anyone with access to a computer to view highly detailed visual images of the inside of the body. Although these images may have been produced for medical students and medical practitioners and other health care workers, they are readily available to the general public. Tapping in the search term ‘human anatomy’ will call up many apps on the Apple App Store or Google Play which provide such details. Many websites also provide graphic images of the human body. The Visual Human Project used computer technologies to represent in fine detail the anatomical structure of male and female cadavers. Each body was cross-sectioned transversely from head to toe and images of the sections of their bodies using Magnetic Resonance Imaging and Computed Tomography were uploaded to a computer website and can also be viewed at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington (The Visible Human Project  2013).

All shapes and sizes of living human bodies are available for viewing online. Sites as diverse as those supporting people wishing to engage in self-starvation or purging (the so-called ‘pro-ana’ or ‘thinspiration’ sites) and promoting cosmetic surgery, used by fat activists seeking to represent the fat body in positive ways that resist fat-shaming, sites for people engaged in self-harming practices or body-building, for transgender people and tattoo or body piercing devotees, not to mention the huge variety of sites devoted to pornography and sexual fetishes, all display images of a wide variety of body shapes and sizes and of bodies engaged in a multitude of practices that are both normative and go beyond the norm. In addition there are the sites that represent bodies undergoing various forms of medical procedures (there are many videos of surgery on YouTube), providing vivid images or descriptions of the ills and diseases from which bodies may suffer.

Social and other digital media have facilitated the sharing of images and descriptions of many varied forms of human life, from the very earliest stage of human development. A huge range of representations of embryos and foetuses, and indeed even the moment of fertilisation of a human ovum by a sperm cell can be viewed on the internet. Such media as YouTube videos of conception and embryonic development and websites such as the Human Embryo Project featuring detailed images and descriptions of each stage of unborn development allow people to gaze upon and learn about the unborn human. Proud parents now routinely post obstetric ultrasound images of their unborn to social media sites to announce a pregnancy. Some parents who have experience miscarriage, foetal loss or stillbirth use memorialisation websites or make videos to post on YouTube featuring ultrasound images, hand- or footprints of the dead unborn and even images of its dead body. As a result, via digital media the unborn human entity now receives a far greater degree of visibility than at any other time in the past (Lupton 2013).

At the other end of the human lifespan, the dead are achieving a kind of online immortality. Just as with the online memorialisation of the dead unborn, people’s death can be announced and memorialised via a plethora of online media. A digital afterlife may be achieved using these technologies. For example, Facebook pages are now frequently used to memorialise people who have died. The dead person’s own personal Facebook page may be used by others to communicate their feelings with each other about the person’s death, or they may establish a dedicated Facebook Group to exchange thoughts and memories about that individual (Bollmer 2013, Brubaker et al. 2013).

Commercial websites have been established that provide ‘afterlife online services’, as one such website puts it, that help people ‘plan for your digital death and afterlife or memorialize loved ones’ (The Digital Beyond  2013). They encourage the bereaved to submit photos and stories about a dead person or provide an online site for people to store their own memorabilia about their lives or important documents in anticipation of their death, leave or send posthumous messages, plan their funerals and provide details of what should happen to their social media profiles after death. Such terms as ‘digital estate’ or ‘digital assets’ are used to denote important documents, images and other information that have been rendered into digital formats for storage and distribution following a person’s death. Some services provide the facility for people to send email messages, images and audio or video recordings up to 60 years following their death. The LifeNaut platform allows people to create a ‘mindfile’: a personal archive of images, a timeline of their life, documents, places they have visited, and other information about themselves, as well as an avatar that will react and respond with their beliefs, attitudes and mannerisms. The company also provides a storage facility for preserving the individual’s DNA material. All of these data are preserved for the benefit of future generations.

The increasingly digitised representation of people is highlighted in artist Adam Nash’s collaborative art project Autoscopia (Autoscopia  2013). In this project the available online images for individuals are derived from web searches and configured into new, recombinant portraits of that individual (anyone can try it using their own name or any other person’s name). These digitised portraits then enter into the internet via tweeted links, thus recursively feeding themselves back into the latest versions of the portraits. In this project, data-as-data (the digitised image data that are mined by the Autoscopia computer program from many parts of the internet) are remodulated for the purposes of the art project into a different type of image, one formed from many images.

This art project raises intriguing questions about the ways in which digital data forms can be configured and reconfigured (or in Nash’s terms modulated and remodulated) that have implications more broadly for the power of digital data to configure embodiment. A digitised map, for example, demonstrating outbreaks of infectious diseases in certain geographical locations (as produced by the Health Map platform) is a modulation of various types of data that have been entered into the platform, whether from mining social media or by users themselves reporting their own illnesses. These visualisations are virtual body fragments, representing as they do various bodily sensations and signs reinterpreted as symptoms and mapped in geo-located form. Bodies themselves become represented as forms of disease in this mapping technology, their fleshly reality stripped down to their symptoms. Infectious diseases are also reinterpreted as digital objects via such technologies. They are constantly remodulated by new data inputs just as the digital portraits produced through the Autoscopia project continually reconstitute the ‘reality’ of an individual’s visage.

Digital technology practices produce new and constantly changing forms of digitised cyborg assemblages. When engaging in digital technologies, bodies and selves become fragmented in certain ways as various types of data on our selves and our bodies are transmitted along specific pathways but then joined together in new formations (Enriquez 2012). Via these accumulations of data about individuals’ bodies, the body is extended beyond the flesh into digital data archives. The data assemblages thus configured have separate, although intertwined, lives in relation to the fleshly bodies that they represent (Bollmer 2013).

The data assemblages that are configured from the diverse forms of data that are produced from our digital interactions are constantly shifting and changing as new data are added to them. Data doubles feed back information to the user in ways that are intended to encourage the user’s body to act in certain ways. When individuals receive positive comments or likes from social media friends or followers on the images or information they post about their bodies, thus may encourage them to continue in the enterprise of embodiment that they so publicised (whether this is a certain hairstyle, way of dress, use of cosmetics or fitness or weight-loss regime). If responses are negative or non-committal, users may represent their bodies or engage in different bodily practices in response. The flow of information, therefore, is not one-way or static: it is part of a continual loop of the production of bodily-related data and response to these data. Digital data doubles support a reflexive, self-monitoring awareness of the body, bringing the body to the fore. They are part of the augmented reality of the digital cyborg assemblage.

References

Autoscopia  (2013) Accessed 26 September 2013. Available from http://www.autoscopia.net/about.html

Bollmer, G.D. (2013) Millions now living will never die: cultural anxieties about the afterlife of information. The Information Society, 29 (3), 142-151.

Brubaker, J., Hayes, G. and Dourish, P. (2013) Beyond the grave: Facebook as a site for the expansion of death and mourning. The Information Society, 29 (3), 152-163.

The Digital Beyond  (2013) Accessed 19 December 2013. Available from http://www.thedigitalbeyond.com/online-services-list

Enriquez, J.G. (2012) Bodily aware in cyber-research. In H. Breslow and A. Mousoutzanis (eds) Cybercultures: Mediations of Community, Culture, Politics. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 59-72.

Gorton, K. and Garde-Hansen, J. (2013) From old media whore to new media troll: the online negotiation of Madonna’s ageing body. Feminist Media Studies, 13 (2), 288-302.

Lupton, D. (2013) The Social Worlds of the Unborn. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

The Visible Human Project  (2013) Accessed 28 March 2014. Available from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/research/visible/visible_human.html

 

The emergence of digital sociology

An excerpt from the Introduction chapter of my forthcoming book Digital Sociology (to be published by Routledge later this year).

While there certainly have been a number of sociologists who have been interested in researching computer technologies since they attracted popular use, in general sociologists have devoted less significant and sustained attention to this topic compared to their colleagues in communication and media and cultural studies. In the context of the US, Farrell and Petersen (2010), in remarking upon what they term ‘the reluctant sociologist’ in relation to internet-based research, express their surprise at this lack of interest, particularly given that sociologists have traditionally been in the forefront of adopting and testing new research methods and sources of data for social research studies. While the occasional argument has appeared in journals that American sociologists should be researching online media technologies (DiMaggio et al. 2001), it would appear that sociologists in that country tended to abandon communication and media research in general when it moved to journalism schools and an accompanying focus on the social psychology of persuasion in the middle of last century. As a consequence, although the sociology of culture has flourished in the US, for quite some time American sociologists tended to leave research into the mass media alone (Farrell and Petersen 2010, Nichols 2009, Pooley and Katz 2008).

In the UK, the interdisciplinary field of cultural studies (often conjoined with media studies) emerging in the 1970s dominated research and theorising related to the mass media, and subsequently, of computer technologies. Cultural studies scholars were particularly interested in cyberculture rather than the rather more banal term ‘information society’ or ‘sociology of information technologies’ that tended to be employed in sociology (Webster 2005). Indeed the choice of terms is telling. The ‘cyber’ focus of cultural studies emphasises the futuristic, science-fiction dimensions of computerised technologies, while terms referring to ‘information technologies’ direct attention at the grounded, factual and utilitarian use of such devices for accessing information (Webster 2005).

For a long time, when cultural studies scholars were writing about cyberculture and other aspects of media and popular culture, British sociologists remained focused on such topics as work, crime and social class. Researchers in cultural studies were more interested in the uses people made of popular culture, while sociologists of culture tended towards examining the constraints to their freedoms posed by social structures such as social class, gender and ethnicity (Webster 2005). Few connections were made between these bodies of literature. Thus, for example, the influential and wide-ranging volume The Cybercultures Reader (Bell and Kennedy 2000) was edited by Britons David Bell, a critical geographer, and Barbara Kennedy, an academic in film, media and cultural studies. While the work of a few sociologists (including myself) was included in this reader, most other contributions were from academics affiliated with communication, media and cultural studies, literary studies, critical theory or technoscience.

My own country, Australia, like the US has experienced the introduction of schools of journalism and mass media studies and a resultant withdrawal to some extent of sociologists from mass and digital media research. The British cultural studies tradition is also strong in Australia. Cultural studies in Australia as an academic discipline tends to be very separate from both media and communication studies and sociology. Each one – media and communication, sociology and cultural studies – has its own individual association and annual conferences, and there tends to be little communication between researchers associated with each discipline. Media studies and communication studies in Australia have oriented themselves towards the US tradition, while sociology and cultural studies are more influenced by British scholarship. Here again the bulk of Australian research on digital technologies have been published by researchers located within media and communication or cultural studies departments and in journals devoted to these disciplines, rather than by sociologists.

The situation is quickly changing, however. In recent years interest in digital society finally appears to be growing in sociology, and the term ‘digital sociology’ has recently become used more frequently. The first journal article published to use the term ‘digital sociology’ of which I am aware was by an American sociologist in an American journal (Wynn 2009). In this piece Wynn outlined various ways in which digital technologies can be used both for research purposes (using digital devices to conduct ethnographic research, for example) and in teaching.

Digital sociology as a term and an endeavour is most commonly found in the British context. At the end of 2012 the British Sociological Association approved a new study group in digital sociology which held its first event in July 2013. Goldsmiths, University of London, offers the first masters degree in digital sociology. The first book with this title was published in 2013 (Orton-Johnson and Prior 2013), a collection edited by two British sociologists featuring contributions predominantly from other sociologists located in the UK and continental Europe While digital sociology is still not a term that is used to any obvious extent by American sociologists, the American Sociological Association now has a thriving section entitled ‘Communication and Information Technologies’ that incorporates research on all things digital. In Australia as well digital sociology has not been used very commonly until very recently. A breakthrough was achieved when two sessions under the title digital sociology were held for the first time at The Australian Sociological Association’s annual conference in November 2013.

… What is notable about digital sociology as it has recently emerged as a sub-discipline, particularly in the UK, is not only the focus on the new technologies that have developed since the turn of the 21st century, but also the development of a distinctive theoretical and methodological approach that incorporates this reflexive critique. Digital sociology is not only about sociologists researching and theorising about how other people use digital technologies or focusing on the digital data produced via this use. Digital sociology has much broader implications than simply studying digital technologies, raising questions about the practice of sociology and social research itself. It also includes research on how sociologists themselves are using social and other digital media as part of their work. The same types of concerns and theoretical approaches tend to be shared by sociologists writing on digital media and others commenting on related issues such as the future of sociology as a discipline, which types of research methods should be employed and how they should be conceptualised, the ways in which issues of measure and value have become prominent in contemporary societies, the emergence of a knowledge economy and the new political formations and relations of power that are evident. While not all of these scholars may categorise themselves as specifically digital sociologists, their work has contributed significantly to the distinctive direction of the sub-discipline as it has recently emerged.

References

Bell, D. and Kennedy, B., eds. (2000) The Cybercultures Reader. London: Routledge.

DiMaggio, P., Hargittai, E., Neuman, W.R. and Robinson, J. (2001) Social implications of the internet. Annual Review of Sociology, 27 (1), 307-336.

Farrell, D. and Petersen, J.C. (2010) The growth of internet research methods and the reluctant sociologist. Sociological Inquiry, 80 (1), 114-125.

Nichols, L. (2009) Toward a renewed sociology of mass media and popular culture. The American Sociologist, 40 147-148.

Orton-Johnson, K. and Prior, N., eds. (2013) Digital Sociology: Critical Perspectives. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

Pooley, J. and Katz, E. (2008) Further notes on why American sociology abandoned mass communication research. Journal of Communication, 58 (4), 767-786.

Webster, F. (2005) Making sense of the information age. Information, Communication & Society, 8 (4), 439-458.

Wynn, J. (2009) Digital sociology: emergent technologies in the field and the classroom. Sociological Forum, 24 (2), 448-456.

 

Survey on academics’ use of social media

In January I conducted an online survey to find out how academics are using social media sites and tools. A total of 711 faculty members and postgraduate students completed the survey, mostly from the UK, Australia/New Zealand and North America.

The complete report can be accessed here.

Here is the abstract providing an overview of the findings:

This report outlines findings from an international online survey of 711 academics about their use of social media as part of their work conducted in January 2014. The survey sought to identify the tools that the respondents used, those they found most useful and the benefits and the drawbacks of using social media as a university faculty member or postgraduate student. The results offer insights into the sophisticated and strategic ways in which some academics are using social media and the many benefits they have experienced for their academic work. These benefits included connecting and establishing networks not only with other academics but also people or groups outside universities, promoting openness and sharing of information, publicising and development of research and giving and receiving support. While the majority of the respondents were very positive about using social media, they also expressed a range of concerns. These included issues of privacy and the blurring of boundaries between personal and professional use, the risk of jeopardising their career through injudicious use of social media, lack of credibility, the quality of the content they posted, time pressures, social media use becoming an obligation, becoming a target of attack, too much self-promotion by others, possible plagiarism of their ideas and the commercialisation of content and copyright issues. The report ends by contextualising the findings within the broader social and political environment and outlining areas for future research.

Quantifying the sexual and reproductive self

I have just had an article accepted for publication in the journal Culture, Health & Sexuality, to be published in a special issue on medical and health technologies. The article looks at mobile smartphone apps for self-tracking and quantifying sexual and reproductive functions and activities. A pre-print version is available here.

This is the abstract for the article:

Digital health technologies are playing an increasingly important role in healthcare, health education and voluntary self-surveillance, self-quantification and self-care practices. This article presents a critical analysis of one form of these technologies: mobile apps used to self-track features of users’ sexual and reproductive activities and functions. After a review of the content of such apps available in the Apple App Store and Google Play store, some of their sociocultural, ethical and political implications are discussed. These include the role played by these apps in participatory surveillance, their configuration of sexuality and reproduction, the valorising of the quantification of the body in the context of neoliberalism and self-responsibility and issues concerning privacy, data security and the use of the data collected by these apps. It is contended that the apps represent sexuality and reproduction in certain defined and limited ways that work to perpetuate normative stereotypes and assumptions about women and men as sexual and reproductive subjects. Furthermore there are significant ethical and privacy implications emerging from the use of these apps and the data they produce. The article ends with suggestions concerning ‘queering’ such technologies in response to these issues.

Update : This article has now been published – details here.

Chapter abstracts for my Digital Sociology book

I am pleased to announce that my latest book, Digital Sociology, has now gone into production with Routledge, and is due for publication around October this year. Here are the chapter abstracts to give some idea of the book’s contents.

1 Introduction: life is digital
In this introductory chapter I make an argument for why digital sociology is important and why sociology needs to make the study of digital technologies central to its very remit. It is argued that ubiquitous and mobile digital media have changed the ways in which social life is represented, conducted, monitored, managed and analysed. Digital technologies affect social relationships, concepts of identity and embodiment, the monitoring and organisation of people’s movements in space and the creation of and access to information and knowledge. I provide an overview of how digital sociology has developed and outline its four main aspects: professional digital use, analyses of digital technology use, digital data analysis, and critical digital sociology.

2 Theorising digital society
Chapter 2 provides a foundation for the ensuing chapters by reviewing the major theoretical perspectives that are developed in the book. The literature reviewed in the chapter is mainly drawn from sociology but also includes contributions from scholars in media and cultural studies, science and technology studies, surveillance studies, software studies and cultural geography. The perspectives that are discussed include analyses of the global information economy and new forms of power, the sociomaterial perspective on the relationship between humans and digital technologies, prosumption, neoliberalism and the sharing subject, the importance of the archive, theories of veillance (watching) that are relevant to digital society and theories concerning digitised embodiment.

3 Reconceptualising research in the digital era
Chapter 3 focuses on sociological and other social research in the digital era. The aim of the discussion is not to outline how to do digital research in detail. Rather I present an overview not only of some of the approaches that are available and their possibilities and limitations, but also of the more theoretical and critical stances that sociologists are taking to digital social research. I also devote attention to innovative ways of performing digital social research that are part of attempts to invigorate sociological research practice as a way of demonstrating the new and exciting directions in which sociology can extend in response to digital society.

4 The digitised academic
The higher education workplace has become increasingly digitised, with many teaching and learning resources and academic publications moving online and the performance of academics and universities monitored and measured using digital technologies. Some sociologists and other academics are also beginning to use social media as part of their academic work. In this chapter I examine the benefits and possibilities offered by digital technologies but also identify the limitations, drawbacks and risks that may be associated with becoming a digitised academic and the politics of digital public engagement.

5 A critical sociology of big data
Chapter 5 takes a critical sociological perspective on the big data phenomenon. The discussion emphasises that big data sets are systems of knowledge that are implicated in power relations. Big data are both the product of social and cultural processes and themselves act to configure elements of society and culture. They have their own politics, vitality and social life. Following an overview of the ways in which big data discourses and practices have achieved dominance in many social spheres, I discuss how digital data assemblages and algorithms possess power and authority, the metaphors used to describe big data and what these reveal about our anxieties and concerns about this phenomenon, big data hubris and rotted data and the ethical issues related to big data.

6 The diversity of digital technology use
Chapter 6 reviews research that has studied the use of digital technologies in different areas of the globe and how socioeconomic, cultural and political factors shape, promote or delimit the use of these technologies. I move from a discussion of the findings of large-scale surveys involving large numbers of respondents from specific countries or cross-nationally to in-depth qualitative investigations that are able to provide the detailed context for differences in internet use. The chapter shows that digital social inequalities are expressed and reproduced in a range of ways, including cultures of use as well as lack of access. Social inequalities and marginalisation may also be perpetuated and exacerbated online.

7 Digital politics and citizen digital public engagement
In Chapter 7 I examine the politics of digital veillance, activism, privacy debates, calls for openness of digital data and citizen digital public engagement. It is argued that while digital activism and moves to render digital data more open to citizens can be successful to some extent in achieving their aims, claims that they engender a major new form of political resistance or challenge to institutionalised power are inflated. Indeed digital technologies can provide a means by which activists can come under surveillance and be discredited by governments. Other negative aspects of citizen digital public engagement are outlined, including the ways in which the internet can incite discrimination and vigilantism and promote the dissemination of false information.

8 The digitised body/self
Chapter 8 addresses the ways in which digital software and hardware are becoming part of our identities as they store more data about our experiences, our social relationships and encounters and our bodily functioning. Digital sociologists and other digital media researchers have recognised the ways in which human embodiment and concepts of selfhood are represented and configured via digital technologies, digital data and digital social networks. It is not only the data or images produced via digital technologies that are important to research and theorise, but also how the objects themselves are used in practice. This chapter examines the incorporation of digital technologies into everyday lives across a range of contexts.

An interview in which I talk about using social media to promote academic research

Late last year I was asked to do an interview about my experiences of using social media for academic purposes by librarians at the University of Sydney. Here’s the YouTube clip.

Call for papers: Big Data Cultures symposium

I am convening a one-day symposium to be held on Monday 15 September 2014 that addresses the social, cultural, political and ethical issues and implications of the big data phenomenon. It will be held by the News & Media Research Centre, University of Canberra, Australia.

A keynote speaker will open proceedings (details to be confirmed), but paper abstracts from any interested contributors are invited for consideration. Appropriate topics may include, but are not limited to, the following areas:

- privacy, security and legal issues
- how big data are changing forms of governance and commercial operations
- big data ecosystems
- the open data/citizen data movement
- data hactivism and queering big data
- public understandings of big data
- surveillance and big data
- creative forms of data visualisation
- self-tracking and the quantified self
- data doubles and data selves
- the materiality of digital data
- the social lives of digital data-objects
- algorithmic identities and publics
- code acts
- responses to big data from artists and designers

Abstracts of 150-200 words should be submitted to me (deborah.lupton@canberra.edu.au) by 1 July 2014 for consideration for inclusion in the symposium. Please contact me if you require any further information.

Thinking about the ethics and politics of public health campaigns

Over the past few years one of my research foci has been that of fat embodiment and obesity politics. This interest builds on my longstanding research on the sociocultural dimensions of health, medicine and public health, as well as the sociology of food and eating and the sociology of the body.

In July 2012 I wrote a piece for The Conversation critiquing a new Australian anti-obesity campaign, LiveLighter. The campaign included visual material and text that sought to evoke disgust (the ‘yuck factor’) about body fat in audiences. I argued in my piece that such strategies need to be examined for the ethical and moral issues they raise. Should health promotion campaigners be attempting to make people feel hatred and revulsion about their own bodies? To what extent are certain individuals and social groups identified by others as disgusting via such campaigns, and as a result subjected to social discrimination and stigma? How do such campaigns reproduce and exacerbate existing social disadvantage?

These questions have been addressed in several other publications of mine since then. In 2013 my book Fat appeared, in which I investigated the historical, social and cultural underpinnings of the disgust and revulsion that fat bodies tend to evoke in contemporary western culture. And I followed up my interest in public health campaigns and their use of strategies that attempt to arouse negative emotions such as disgust, shame and fear in two journal articles that were published recently.

One of these articles, published last week in Critical Public Health, builds on the piece I wrote for The Conversation by exploring the reasons why disgust is used in public health campaigns directed not only at obesity but also other issues, such as tobacco, excessive drinking and illicit drugs. It is entitled ‘The pedagogy of disgust: the ethical, moral and political implications of using disgust in public health campaigns’. Here is the abstract:

The developers of public health campaigns have often attempted to elicit disgust to persuade members of their target audiences to change their behaviour in the interests of their health. In this critical essay, I seek to problematise this taken-for-granted and unquestioned tactic. I assert that the pedagogy of disgust in public health campaigns has significant ethical, moral and political implications. In outlining my argument, the literature on the social, cultural and political elements of disgust is drawn upon. I also draw more specifically on scholarship demonstrating the ways in which disgust has operated in relation to health and medical issues to reinforce stigmatisation and discrimination against individuals and groups who are positioned as disgusting. It is concluded that advocates of using such tactics should be aware of the challenge they pose to human dignity and their perpetuation of the Self and Other binary opposition that reinforces negative attitudes towards already disadvantaged and marginalised individuals and social groups.

The other article was published last month in Fat Studies and is entitled ‘How do you measure up?’ Assumptions about ‘obesity’ and health-related behaviors and beliefs in two Australian ‘obesity’ prevention campaigns’. This article was based on research I undertook using documents reporting on the formative and evaluation research by market research companies that was undertaken for two other Australian anti-obesity campaigns: the ‘Measure Up’ and the ‘Swap It, Don’t Stop It’ campaigns. Analysing these types of documents provides an interesting insight into the mentalities and rationales that underpin their development on the part of public health authorities and the people they employ to develop the content and strategies of their social marketing efforts. This is the abstract:

This article presents an analysis of two related Australian government-sponsored ‘obesity’ prevention campaigns, including documents produced by commercial social research companies reporting the formative research and evaluation of these campaigns. This material is critically analyzed for its underlying assumptions about weight, ‘obesity’ and the public’s health-related behaviors and beliefs. These include the following: the concept of ‘good health’ has meaning and value that is universally shared; to be ‘overweight’ or ‘obese’ is to be physically unfit and at risk of higher levels of disease and early death; individuals are responsible for their own health status; individuals lack appropriate information about health risks and providing this information leads to behavior change; and information should be provided in a way that arouses concern and a belief that individuals should make a change. These assumptions are challenged from a critical sociological perspective.

Anyone who would like a copy of these articles can contact me on deborah.lupton@gmail.com.

A review of Punk Sociology

ShowJacketSociology in the Anglophone world has been in the doldrums for some time. Since the heady days of poststructuralism and postmodernism, until very recently few advances had been made in theory or method. British sociology, however, is seeing a renewed impetus and vigour, with several sociologists beginning to talk about a move from ‘zombie sociology’ to ‘live sociology’ (Back, 2012) or ‘inventive methods’ (Lury and Wakeford, 2012), in which creative approaches and different ways of communicating are suggested to move the discipline out of its doldrums.

Punk Sociology, by British sociologist Dave Beer, is a welcome contribution to this new and exciting approach. As its title suggests, Beer attempts in this short book (part of the Palgrave Pivot series, itself an innovative approach to academic publishing) to show how sociology might be shaken up and re-energised. Punk sociology looks outward, is subversive and willing to try new approaches and also ready to engage with alternative forms of knowledge outside sociology. It means investigating forms of research and representations of social life that are beyond the textual, such as audio-visual material, and, as Beer puts it, ‘to coach ourselves to see sociology in sources where we may not be expecting to see it’ (p. 38). It also includes working with, rather than on, participants in sociological research, and experimenting with different approaches to writing about one’s work: blogging, podcasts, YouTube videos and tweets, for example. Beer encourages sociologists to take courage in conveying ideas that may still be raw and engaging with others’ responses to them, a practice that social media avenues encourage.

I am no fan of punk rock, but I very much like the concept of punk sociology. The term itself denotes a fresher approach to the sociological canon and accepted assumptions of what sociology is and should be. I would have loved to have read a book like this as an undergraduate in first-year sociology in the early 1980s, when unfortunately I found myself bored rigid by the dry and dull way in which the discipline was taught. I suspect that undergraduates and even postgraduates in sociology today would also welcome Beer’s thoughts on enlivening sociology.

Exponents of critical sociology have always been a little bit punk in their reflexivity and their efforts to challenge the status quo and identify hidden power relations. Beer talks about the vibrancy and energy of the punk ethos That, for me, is what sociology can contribute at its best, and what has impelled me in my own sociological writing and research (including this blog). I am always interested in new ideas and approaches in my discipline and making new connections (including with other disciplines) and investigating where I can take them.
Sociology is inherently fascinating to many: it is about our own lives and times. Sociologists are able to offer many important insights into social life and selfhood, and it is it downright negligent for us not to be able to convey these insights to others. To render sociology dull is a great disservice to what it can promise.

Beer has chosen to represent the punk ethos in positive terms in this book, largely ignoring its sometimes nihilistic, violent and often overly confronting tendencies. I don’t think he wants to argue that sociology should go down this road. Punk at its most extreme was gritty and hardcore, and my reading of Beer’s argument is that he is espousing a somewhat gentler and optimistic version.

I would have liked to have seen some more concrete examples of punk sociology practice in the book. Beer makes suggestions for how to go about being a punk sociologist, but they tend to be general. Some specific cases of how sociologists might employ new ways of practising the craft in the ways suggested by Beer and how they have gone about it would have been helpful and interesting.

I agree with Beer that there is no point in wallowing in dismay about what some see as an apparent crisis in sociology. The discipline needs to be reactive, energetic and nimble — and yes, even confronting like the original punk musicians were — in response to the social changes that are continually occurring and new forms of social research that are emerging (particularly those related to digital media and digital data).

Beer suggests a punk music playlist to listen to as part of his call to arms for punk sociology. Join him in cranking the music up loud and getting to work on a sociology that is new, imaginative, in the moment and ever-so slightly anarchic!

References
Back, L. (2012) Live sociology: social research and its futures. The Sociological Review, 60: 18-39.
Lury, C. and Wakeford, N. (2012) Inventive Methods: the Happening of the Social. New York: Routledge.